COWLEY, KENNETH EDWARD (1936– )
Ken Cowley rose from humble origins to become Rupert Murdoch’s most powerful chief executive officer in Australia, presiding over News Limited’s operations for 17 years (1980–97) and serving as a board member for a further 14 years.
A printer by vocation, Cowley first joined News Limited in 1964 on the Australian, where he grappled with the logistics of publishing it as a national daily in Canberra, before organising its relocation to Sydney in 1967. Unlike his immediate predecessor, Sir Kenneth May, he did not belong to the closely-knit executive group from the Adelaide News who transferred to Sydney to run Murdoch’s media acquisitions in eastern Australia.
Cowley entered the ranks of Murdoch’s senior management in 1982, replacing May as Australian CEO. By this time, he had stamped his authority on the ailing Australian newspaper, convincing Murdoch not to close it and successfully issuing a 24-hour ultimatum to its striking journalists to return to work in late 1982.
Murdoch was looking for reliability and loyalty when promoting Cowley, who imposed his own conditions on the appointment, insisting that he be consulted on all matters pertaining to News Limited’s local operations. He became a powerful company executive and political lobbyist.
Cowley was closely associated with Murdoch’s major acquisitions of the 1980s and 1990s, including the co-purchase with Sir Peter Abeles of Ansett Airlines, and the dramatic acquisition during 1986–87 of the Herald and Weekly Times (HWT). Although Cowley’s authority came briefly under challenge from HWT executive John D’Arcy, he continued to enjoy Murdoch’s support as CEO until the Super League confrontation of 1995–96, when he was given the unenviable task of trying to establish a rival football league to undermine Kerry Packer’s Nine Network and the Australian Rugby League. When News Limited lost its court challenge in 1996, Cowley was replaced as Australian CEO by Lachlan Murdoch, but remained an influential board member.
His business fortunes continue to flourish. As a champion of outback causes, he used his political and commercial operations to promote the Stockman’s Hall of Fame at Longreach in 1988, and he purchased R.M. Williams’ ailing company in the early 1990s, expanding its land holdings with generous federal government and News International’s support.
Cowley was appointed AO in 1988, and awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of New South Wales in 2008. He retired from the News Limited board in 2011.
REF: D. Cryle, interview with K. Cowley, 5 December 2005.