The atmosphere in 1964 surrounding the launch of our first national newspaper was like the arrival of messiah among the daily hacks of the time. They flocked to Rupert’s door. Everyone wanted it to succeed. But The Australian was a giant cock-up from the beginning.

“A clean and handsome thing,” wrote Keith Inglis in Nation in June, 1964, as repeated in Crikey last week. It was the only really good thing one could find to say about a paper that led its front page with an hysterical beat up threatening the collapse of the Federal coalition. It didn’t happen then and it hasn’t happened since. Alongside was a long column headed “Good Day” with eleven paragraphs of promises which sounded hollow then and even more so after nearly half a century.

However, the elegance of the layout had a very special and original quality.

That was the sole contribution of Solomon Chandler, who had retired from Fleet Street after a long stint as deputy to the legendary Arthur Christiansen, editor of Max Aitken’s Daily Express for 24 years, and the man who revolutionised newspaper layout and set new standards that the rest of Fleet Street simply copied.

Solly Chandler was an all-round newspaperman, an editor and writer as well as a creative technician (such talents are rarely found in a single individual). He had a puckish sense of humour and a gift for attracting bucket-loads of readership, whether he was running a racy tabloid or a sober politicised broadsheet. Rupert found him in London and attracted him to Australia to help with an idea that had been buzzing around in Rupert’s brain since a Saturday in 1958 at the races in Adelaide, the first time he and I discussed the concept of a national newspaper.

Solly believed he would run the paper as its editor. Alas, in the frenzy of personal ambition that surrounded Rupert at that time, he was run over by the pack. Solly was a quiet, modest man of few words, but a mercilessly ruthless editor — he never sacked people, he “strangled” them — and he demanded the best.

Hank Bateson of the Sydney Mirror was Rupert’s editorial manager in 1964. A level-headed veteran of the Norton group, Hank was enthusiastically for Solly. Others argued that the editor of the new national daily had to be someone born in Australia. In the end Rupert chose an economics graduate over a seasoned newspaperman with well-proven qualities. It was the first mistake of the many that followed.

I persuaded Rupert to let us have Solly in Melbourne where Truth was dying a slow death in the hands of “Melbourne’s Most Exciting Man”. Solly took on Truth almost single handed at first, firing everybody except the racing editor, Ron Taylor, and the librarian Helen O’Connell. He gradually built a small staff of brilliant journalists, some of whom are still working all over the world. He quadrupled the circulation in the first 12 months, working 24-hour days.

A Jew himself, Solly found gold among the secret lives of the merchants of Little Collins and Bourke Streets and ran a serious of salacious stories. After all, they never advertised in Truth. Melbourne had the third largest jewish population in the world. Of course, nobody warned Solly where he was heading (I had left Melbourne by then) but he did not come there to build his social network.

The merchants had their way. Some of them had been contributors to Dame Elizabeth’s charities for many years. In a rare exercise of her power at the time, she persuaded Rupert to sack Solly. Truth went to new owners and from there to perdition. Solly also died suddenly, not long after, with the inevitable glass of brandy in his hand. He was a slow, measured sipper. One glass would last an hour but he always shouted when it was his turn. He loved conversation around the bar. It was part of the job. He also loved the races on Saturdays, another source of inside stories. He wrote me a sad letter in which he said he had never enjoyed anything in his career so much as his days on Truth and begged me to tell him why it had all come to en end.

Solly had all the attributes that could have made The Australian a great newspaper. He was not just a tabloid man, or a Truth man. He was a newspaper giant who understood that elegant design, good concise writing, a sense of humour and intelligent and substantial content all need to work together to make a newspaper successful.

The Australian today shows no sign of ever being able to reach a peak of excellence comparable with Brian Penton’s wartime Telegraph or The Age in E G Perkin’s short seven years as editor or Ted Bray’s Courier-Mail. It falls well short of Melbourne’s Herald and The Sun in the days when Rupert’s father worked for Theodor Fink (the true founder of the Herald and Weekly Times and its chairman for 40 years, but now the invisible man in the company history).

After all, Keith Murdoch learned his craft as a reporter in the streets of Melbourne and later as an eager disciple of another giant of the industry, Alfred Harmsworth, the Viscount Northcliffe, whose letters of wisdom and sound advice rest now among the Murdoch papers in the National Library of Australia.

Rod Lever was one of Rupert Murdoch’s original lieutenants in the 1950s and no 2 at Southdown Press in 1964