For many years, the Nortons were one of the most powerful media families in Australia. Their influence was first established in 1890 with the notorious John Norton’s takeover of the weekly tabloid Truth. Norton quickly turned the paper into a success with a mixture of crime, sex, politics and his particular brand of polemical journalism.
Born in England in 1858, he travelled extensively in Europe and became involved in radical politics in London before his arrival in Sydney in 1884. He quickly plunged into the city’s lively political scene, eventually gravitating towards Truth, which had just been set up by a group of political controversialists. As well as investing money in the paper, he joined its staff, but the disputes among its management—exacerbated by Norton’s drinking—quickly became so acrimonious that the battles ended up in court. In 1896, a deal was finally struck, allowing Norton to take over the paper’s ownership. His editorial style frequently saw him in court again, charged with defamation and invariably representing himself. He went on to establish another weekly, the Sydney Sportsman, in 1900. Norton’s marriage to 25-year-old Ada McGrath was stormy from the very beginning. Son Ezra was already three weeks old when Norton decided they should marry. When Norton drank, he and Ada fought and when he was sober, they made up again. At the centre of it all was Ezra, adored by his father one moment, terrorised the next. But the most bizarre thing about their matrimonial rows was Norton’s practice of reporting on them in Truth.
In 1907, their union produced a daughter, Joan. But it finally ended in 1915 with a lengthy divorce hearing featuring lurid allegations of adultery on both sides. As usual, Norton initially represented himself. And, true to form, he had the case comprehensively covered in Truth.
With her own and her children’s inheritance in mind, Ada changed her plea from divorce to judicial separation, which was granted. Six months later, in 1916, Norton died from kidney failure, leaving Ada and Ezra out of his will. The bulk of his considerable fortune was to go to nine-year-old Joan until the NSW Legislative Council conveniently decided to speed up the introduction of its Testator’s Family Maintenance and Education of Infants Bill, expressly designed to help families in Ada and Ezra’s position.
After John’s death, 23-year-old Ezra took over the management of Truth, retaining the paper’s enthusiastic coverage of crime, sex and the divorce courts and introducing some causes of his own. His preoccupation with health and hygiene led to the paper’s exposés of medical malpractice. An animal-lover, he crusaded against animal cruelty. On an uglier note, he endorsed the paper’s racism, initiating its fulminations on ‘the white Australian ideal’. Ezra expanded the family company, Truth & Sportsman Ltd, increasing the paper’s circulation and starting a new tabloid afternoon newspaper, the Daily Mirror.
He was a hard drinker with a gruff manner and a volatile temper, which was often directed at his editors. His feuds were notorious, including with rival Sydney newspaper proprietor (Sir) Frank Packer, with whom he had a legendary fist fight at Royal Randwick on Derby Day in 1939. Even so, Norton deftly cultivated political influence. As a result, he was able to obtain enough newsprint to launch the Daily Mirror in 1941 despite wartime rationing and the protests of competing press barons.
While he didn’t baulk at his papers’ invasions of other people’s privacy, he was obsessed with his own. In 1958, Cyril Pearl, one of Packer’s most brilliant editors, wrote Wild Men of Sydney, a scathing attack on the character and conduct of John Norton and his confederates. The book outraged both Ada and Ezra, and they attempted to have it banned. The row reached the NSW parliament, prompting a heated debate over proposed changes to the state’s Defamation Act 1912. In the end, Norton took a more direct approach: he had several of his employees buy as many copies of the book as possible so they could be burnt.
Norton’s retirement in 1958 indirectly paved the way for Rupert Murdoch’s entry into the Sydney newspaper market. Although Norton’s interests initially were bought by a shelf company set up by his rivals, John Fairfax & Sons, they were sold on to Murdoch in 1960.
Ezra Norton had two happy marriages. His first, in 1924—to Mollie Willoughby, a young English war widow—lasted until her sudden death from a heart attack 30 years later. In 1953, he wed Emma (Peggy) Morrison, who had worked as his secretary; in 1955, they had a daughter, Mary.
Joan Norton was not so lucky. At 22, she married a man in London; six months later, he was convicted of being a swindler. She returned with Ada to Sydney, where her drinking accelerated into alcoholism, and she died aged just 32.
Ada lived until the grand old age of 89, dying in 1960. Six years later, Ezra was diagnosed with cancer. He died in 1967 at 69 after converting to Catholicism. But the shrill, muck-raking brand of tabloid journalism he and his father had pioneered would survive in the media empire forged by Rupert Murdoch.
REF: S. Hall, Tabloid Man (2008).