IF RUPERT Murdoch rules his vast media empire with a firm hand, it is perhaps because he learnt from the best.
Paying tribute to his late mother, Dame Elisabeth Murdoch, at a state memorial service at St Paul's Cathedral on Tuesday, the chairman and chief executive of News Corp said she had taken on the role of disciplinarian in the family because her husband was "of uncertain health", much older and given to indulging his children.
"Just let me say that Mum pursued that role with none of the angst or self-doubt that consumes so many modern parents," he said to warm laughter. "I still remember vividly a good smack I got for pulling my big sister Helen's pigtails."
Lachlan Murdoch and his wife, Sarah, with their children, outside the cathedral. Photo: Joe Armao
He reminded the congregation that his mother had once described the rose named in her honour as being ''tough as old boots, just like me''.
"For Mum, love wasn't soft or mushy," he said. "It was strong and reliable."
Dame Elisabeth died at her home, Cruden Farm, on the Mornington Peninsula on December 5, surrounded by members of her extensive family. She was 103.
Rupert Murdoch and his wife, Wendi Deng, outside the cathedral. Photo: Joe Armao
The much-awarded matriarch of the Murdoch clan was a noted philanthropist who supported more than 100 charities, medical foundations and arts and educational organisations, many of which were represented among the 1200 guests invited to the service.
Also in attendance were former prime ministers Malcolm Fraser and John Howard, former treasurer Peter Costello, former premiers Joan Kirner, John Brumby and Jeff Kennett and current Premier Ted Baillieu.
There were state governors and governors-general past and present. And there were figures from the worlds of entertainment and the media including singer Kamahl, comedian Barry Humphries, Nine Network managing director Jeffrey Browne, casino and media boss James Packer and, of course, grandson Lachlan Murdoch, the chairman of Ten, with his wife, Sarah.
Dame Elisabeth Murdoch. Photo: Angela Wylie
Despite Dame Elisabeth's well-publicised vow never to meet the woman she blamed for the break-up of her son's second marriage, Rupert Murdoch's third wife, Wendi Deng, accompanied him to the service.
Across the road in Federation Square, hundreds of ordinary Melburnians watched the event on the big screen. The service was also televised by Ten and the ABC.
As the gathering highlighted the place the Murdoch family holds within Australian society, so the accounts of Dame Elisabeth's life offered a reflection of the noblesse oblige she felt that place conferred.
"From a very young age we knew Mum's sense of obligation would mean we were not the only ones who made demands on her," her 81-year-old only son said.
Besides her public work, there were many instances of quiet giving, he said. "That was Mum's way: doing good by stealth."
Mr Murdoch said that every night his mother would retire to bed with a pile of papers and letters from people seeking her assistance. "Come morning, she would sit with her fountain pen at the kitchen table and write personal letters to all those who had written to her."
The Right Reverend Andrew St John, rector of the Church of the Transfiguration in New York, said Dame Elisabeth's philanthropy had been ''intelligent, informed and wholehearted".
"St Paul wrote that God loves a cheerful giver," he added, "and she was certainly that."
Jeff Kennett spoke of the woman he first met when he was just "four or five" and who had become a close friend.
He spoke of their shared love of gardening, saying she enjoyed "actually putting your hands in the soil, staying connected to Mother Earth".
Her approach to giving was much the same, he said - hands-on and deeply connected. "She had,'' Mr Kennett told the congregation, ''a generosity of spirit rarely seen … her example for living will be something that we can only aspire to achieve, and I suspect none of us will do so".