Winner 2017 (Australian) National Biography Award

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The 2017 winner is Before Rupert: Keith Murdoch and the birth of a dynasty by Tom D. C. Roberts (UQP).*

The annual National Biography Award of $25,000 for a published work of biographical or autobiographical writing aims to promote public interest in these genres. The award is administered and presented by the State Library of NSW on behalf of the award’s benefactor Mr Michael Crouch AO.

The total prize value is $31,000 – $25,000 for the winner and $1,000 each for shortlisted authors – making it the richest national prize dedicated to Australian biographical writing and memoir.

The shortlisted works for 2017 were:

  • The Unknown Judith Wright (Georgina Arnott, UWA Publishing)
  • Mick: A Life of Randolph Stow (Suzanne Falkiner, UWA Publishing)
  • Position Doubtful: Mapping Landscapes and Memories (Kim Mahood, Scribe)
  • Evatt: A Life (John Murphy, NewSouth Publishing)
  • The Long Goodbye (P J Parker, Hardie Grant Books)

I wrote about the shortlist here. I confess that I haven’t read the winner and I was barracking for Mahood (Position Doubtful is excellent).

The information below is sourced entirely from the State Library of New South Wales.

Judges’ Comments

Tom D. C. Roberts’ biography of Keith Murdoch reveals how a critical engagement with a life that has been much written about, and richly mythologised, can yield new perspectives and insights, thus liberating the reader from the realm of myth. Before Rupert is deeply scholarly yet utterly accessible and enticing. The author draws on a remarkable range of sources, many for the first time, to show how the founding father succeeded in his boundless ambition. Before Rupert gives readers a new understanding of Keith Murdoch and the genesis of the family dynasty. The subject is thoroughly yet fairly interrogated, or perhaps we should say unmasked. The life is richly contextualised, particularly with reference to war, high politics, modernism and modernity, and notably the advances that Murdoch was quick to add to his newsprint business — radio, newsreels and air travel. With the title as a clue, the full meaning of this legacy builds slowly as the masterly narrative reveals the template for corporate ambition that was handed to Rupert. Roberts has successfully isolated what may well be called the ‘Murdoch gene’.

Roberts has crafted a masterful biography, full of remarkable insights into a celebrated figure in Australian business and political history. This is a full biography in the best sense – from Keith Murdoch’s uncertain beginnings to his spectacular ascendancy in the First World War and on to his corporate and political crusades in the decades thereafter. The coverage of Murdoch’s race fanaticism, his genius for tabloid sensation, his innovations in newspaper enterprise and his interventions in national politics are stand-out features. Before Rupert is distinguished by deep research, an eye for vivid quotation and the wonderful narrative skills of the author.

About the author

Tom Roberts is passionate about uncovering and reanimating tales lying hidden in the archives. His doctoral research at Macquarie University, and membership of its Centre for Media History, laid the groundwork for his writing of Before Rupert. Following its publication, Tom acted as the historical consultant and featured in the BBC’s landmark documentary investigating Keith Murdoch’s actions at Gallipoli. Tom’s work as a researcher has seen him collaborate with some of Britain’s foremost journalists, contributing to the success of numerous nonfiction titles. His latest book, co-authored with Peter Oborne, is How Trump Thinks: His Tweets and the Birth of a New Political Language.

*Apologies for the delay in posting this – the winner was announced weeks ago!

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10 responses »

  1. Well, I’m glad you did post it, because the news had passed me by…
    I’m sure it’s a very good bio, but it doesn’t interest me one bit because my taste leans more to *surprise!* literary bios.
    I have The Unknown Judith Wright on my TBR and will get to that in due course, but I wanted to ask: given that some bios these days, and TUJK is one, I think, where some of what is written is imaginative reconstruction where there are gaps in the historical record (as is so often the case with bios about women) – do you think there is any bias towards more straightforward biography in this prize?

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    • It passed me by too! Was there any publicity for this at all, I wonder?
      Like you, I’m not tempted to read the winner but I’ll be interested to hear what you think of The Unknown Judith Wright. You are responsible for many a book in my TBR pile!
      Hard to know about the possible biases of the prize judges. Recent past winners have all been pretty straightforward: Mannix (Brenda Niall), An Unsentimental Bloke: The Life and Work of CJ Dennis (Philip Butterss) and The Ambitions of Jane Franklin: Victorian Lady Adventurer.
      But the fact Mahood was shortlisted bodes well – I wouldn’t call her book a straightforward biography or autobiography (although there’s really no imaginative reconstruction in that one either).

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    • The gender split seems about even (ish), in terms of authors if not subject, and without reading them all I wouldn’t be game to provide any other sort of analysis. And just because the subject is a known conservative doesn’t necessarily mean the biography is (she says, having written a biography of a conservative…) but I’m afraid I’m making that assumption too.

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      • I meant conservative as in risk-averse: this is a rich man, this is what he did. You are interrogating/offering an alternative view of the John Macarthur legend, so not conservative at all. Hopefully the prime minister will accuse you of a pink armband view of history and sales will go through the roof. Personally, I liked what I read about ‘Mick’. No need to answer, I’m sure you can tell I’m home with time on my hands.

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