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The Macdonald Age – MICHELLE PINI meets a living legend

Published in The Weekly Review

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“WE WERE NEVER FRIENDS – NO, WE HAD OPPOSITE PHILOSOPHIES” – on distant cousin Rupert Murdoch

As Ranald Macdonald enters the bustling café, several diners look up. The former Age executive, now in his seventies, is an imposing figure with a confident carriage and a deep, resonating voice.

Macdonald had originally declined an interview, relenting only after I suggested he would not have accepted such quick surrender from one of his own journalists. I must have hit a nerve, as Macdonald usually shuns the spotlight.

Over a distinguished career, Macdonald uncovered political scandals, aided the rise and fall of governments, raised the standard of journalism, campaigned for journalistic integrity and editorial independence and vehemently defended freedom of speech – and that was just at The Age.

He has also worked as a university lecturer at RMIT and Boston University and as a broadcaster on ABC radio; presided over his beloved Collingwood Football Club; headed the International Press Institute; instigated the Australian Press Council; chaired several media boards and started various entrepreneurial ventures.

His son Hamish says: “I think I have a pretty good work ethic, but dad sets a high bar. In six years doing early morning talkback radio on the ABC with 4am starts, he took one sick day.”

While at the helm of David Syme and Co, Macdonald was the first Australian to chair the prestigious International Press Institute and spent the better part of two years travelling the globe, campaigning for freedom of the press and supporting journalists who were under house arrest, in jail, or under threat for speaking out. He admits a level of pride in this, and also in getting the Australian Press Council up and running – although he is otherwise unassuming about his achievements, to the degree that many remain unaware of his impact on Australian journalism.

If there is a defining accomplishment it would be his transformation of The Age, in his 19 years in the driving seat, from a conservative, parochial paper with a declining readership to a thriving, world-renowned publication. During his time, it reached its highest circulation and was twice voted in the top 20 newspapers in the world by Columbia University.

Born Chesborough Ranald Macdonald in 1938, the future newspaperman spent his early years on the family property near Wagga Wagga in New South Wales. His father Hamish Macdonald, a grazier, died in the fall of Singapore before Ranald’s fourth birthday, leaving his mother Nancy (nee Syme) to run the farm with three small children. The middle child and only boy, Macdonald felt close to his siblings and describes his mother as “a strong woman who had a difficult life”. Still Macdonald describes his childhood as “happy” and says he “loved” his boarding school education at Geelong Grammar.

Media boss Rupert Murdoch is a distant cousin and was a childhood neighbour, but Macdonald says: “I only saw him at family picnics – that sort of thing. We were never friends – no, we had opposite philosophies.”

Macdonald studied at Cambridge before returning in 1960 to do a cadetship at The Age. Postgraduate study at Columbia University followed, where his masters thesis examined the “ideal newspaper’’ – a topic that was to become an enduring occupation.

He explains that on his return, he intended to create a marketing role for himself at The Age and wrote a report for the David Syme and Co board identifying a lack of management structure and marketing expertise at the paper. His grandfather (and then board chairman) Oswald Syme misread the report and assumed his grandson wished to be appointed managing director.

“For once I held my tongue and didn’t correct him – to my astonishment, the board agreed,” Macdonald says.

In 1964, at 26, Ranald Macdonald became managing director of the publication through which his great-grandfather had championed independent journalism. Macdonald refers to the early days at the paper as “tough”.

“The first time I went to a meeting with [media bosses] Frank Packer, Rupert Murdoch and Warwick Fairfax, we were negotiating salaries with the print unions,’’ he says. “Packer deliberately handed me his hat as if I was the office boy – he knew who I was.” Macdonald dropped the hat and took his place at the table without comment.

But Macdonald’s youth and knowledge of international publishing gave him the unencumbered freshness required to revitalise the paper. “I knew what we were doing was going to be good: we got seven of the top eight cartoonists in the country, we ran campaigns on social and environmental issues, we started investigative reporting and developed columnists,” he says.

Much is written about editor Graham Perkin’s role in transforming The Age, but it was Macdonald who appointed him, dismissing the previous editor (despite prime ministerial pressure), and created an environment where Perkin, and his successors, were insulated from the editorial intrusion of the board and advertisers and were encouraged to be innovative.

As Macdonald explains the complex partnership with the Fairfax group, and the circumstances that led to the paper’s takeover by Fairfax in 1983, his enthusiasm for repartee waivers. When the sale of family shares ended 127 years of Syme family independence for the paper, Macdonald says he was “furious”.

“I had to borrow a lot to keep the shares in the family and my stepfather (then board chairman) got conned, or persuaded is a better word, by Warwick Fairfax to sell half his shares. If he had stuck to a third, it would have gone on for another 50 years, but he went ahead and took the money. It did mean for a number of years our relationship was – difficult,” he explains.

Hamish says it was a tough time. “Dad lived and breathed The Age – he is still so proud of his team and what they achieved. Leaving the newspaper was very tough for him,’’ he says.

Macdonald is married to Patricia, an art curator, and they also have a daughter, Laura, who is working overseas. Although he sometimes looks back and wonders if he could have done things better, Macdonald says this is not true for his personal life. He would change nothing. “I liked school and uni, like the wife, like the kids, like the dog,” he says, smiling broadly.

In retirement, Macdonald continues to champion community issues, including the vehement support of Melbourne’s Green Wedge conservation zone, and campaigns against inequality and intolerance.

It’s only after meeting Macdonald that I learn he will be following in the footsteps of his great-grandfather – when he is inducted into the Melbourne Press Club’s Hall of Fame next month. Characteristically, he made no mention of this accolade.

THE HALL OF FAME

The Victorian Media Hall of Fame is a Melbourne Press Club initiative to honour journalists who have made a great contribution to the history of the media in Victoria. On October 10, the Press Club will host a special dinner at Melbourne’s Grand Hyatt Hotel to induct 21 living legends into the Media Hall of Fame, joining 60 other foundation members inducted over the past two years. A limited edition book, Media Legends: Journalists who Helped Shape Australia, which tells the stories of all 81 Hall of Fame foundation members, will also be launched on the night. To join our finest reporters, cartoonists, photographers and commentators, along with special guest News Corp chief executive Robert Thomson, in celebration of great Australian journalism, book tickets at kate@melbournepressclub.com

Michelle Pini is a Melbourne freelance writer. She interviewed Ranald Macdonald for her Master of Communication degree.

 

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