Joe Biden’s victory in the US presidential election raises a perennial question about what Rupert Murdoch does when the candidate he has opposed wins.
Answer: He adapts and he waits. Electoral cycles last three, four or five years. Murdoch has been wielding power for five decades.
Murdoch is a chameleon. It is true that when political and business conditions are favourable he glows brightly in blood-red conservatism. But when, as now, conditions are uncertain, the colour dims and takes on a more complex hue.
The voices and front pages of the empire become more diverse. It gets harder to exactly pin down where the emperor himself stands. He deflects awkward questions by saying he defers to his editors, or he claims to have retired and says he will speak to the heir, his son Lachlan.
These are the first steps in a shadowy repositioning, and we have seen it happen time without number.
Reactionary ideology is important to Murdoch, but not as important as making money.
Money not only keeps the shareholders happy, it provides the means by which he can subsidise his unprofitable or barely profitable newspapers because they are crucial to the way he wields power.
So the priority when a disfavoured candidate or party wins is to do nothing to antagonise the new regime and instead proffer a small olive branch. Last Sunday’s New York Post banner headline – “It’s Joe Time” – was a classic of the genre.
Over on Fox News, he remained quiet when the Fox “decision desk” called the crucial state of Arizona for Biden, absorbing pressure and entreaties from Trump’s people to intervene.
All of a sudden, the chorus of pro-Trump voices on Fox became a discordant racket. Some, like Sean Hannity, amplified Trump’s claims of electoral fraud. Others, like Neil Cavuto, cut off Trump’s press secretary for making the same claims.
The New York Post, which ran a highly questionable story against Hunter Biden in the last week of the campaign, was suddenly dismissing Trump’s claims as baseless and urging him to accept the result.
Conflict, confusion and contradiction are part of the strategy. Murdoch allows it to unfold. It sends a signal to the Biden White House: we can live with you.
The strategy was helped along on November 13 when Trump sent out a tweet saying the daytime ratings on Fox News had collapsed because they had forgotten what made them successful – the “Golden Goose” – an immortal self-description if ever there was one.
There was a similar pattern to the Murdoch strategy in Australia in 2007 when it looked certain that Labor under Kevin Rudd would end the long reign of John Howard.
In his book Rupert Murdoch: A Reassessment, Rodney Tiffen recounted that, while Murdoch did not want to be backing the losing side, it was difficult for his editors to persuade him to back Rudd.
Book review: Rupert Murdoch – A Reassessment
In the end, some of Murdoch’s papers, including The Australian, backed Rudd, while others, including Melbourne’s Herald Sun, were allowed to back the Coalition.
The endorsements were pallid, nothing like the full-throated propaganda characteristic of the Murdoch papers when they are unified behind a conservative cause. The chameleon had turned into a blur of pale reds and blues.
Then in 2018, when it looked as if Labor might beat Malcolm Turnbull’s Coalition in 2019, Murdoch once again showed how the business pragmatist triumphs over the ideologue.
According to Turnbull in his autobiography, A Bigger Picture, Murdoch told the West Australian media mogul Kerry Stokes: “Three years of Labor wouldn’t be too bad.”
He prefers it when the Labor side is led by moderates who are amenable to business: Bob Hawke, Paul Keating, Britain’s Tony Blair. But, even then, his endorsements tend to be muted, nothing like “Kick this mob out” on the front page of Sydney’s Daily Telegraph when he opposed Labor in 2013.
In Britain, Murdoch has employed the same tactics. Although his mass-circulation Sun supported Labour in 1997, 2001 and 2005, he allowed the prestigious Sunday Times to support the Conservatives.
But when it comes to endorsing the conservative side of politics, there is no pussyfooting around.
When he turned on Labour after Gordon Brown had succeeded Blair as prime minister, he unleashed the full Murdoch treatment.
Just as Brown was about to deliver his speech to Labour’s annual conference in September 2009, The Sun declared Murdoch’s abandonment of Labour with the banner headline “Labour’s lost it”.
From then until the 2010 election, Murdoch’s ruthless campaign in support of David Cameron’s Conservative Party was carried by all his papers, The Sun in the vanguard with headlines such as “Brown toast”.
At elections, Murdoch has two priorities.
One is always to try to ensure the new regime, whatever its political colour, does not implement regulatory change that will disadvantage the business.
The second is to be on the winning side. This is important to the maintenance of the belief – at least in the minds of politicians – that he is a kingmaker.
When it is clear the progressive side of politics is in the ascendant, the chameleon can start changing colours early and might even complete a transformation before election day.
When it is not a sure thing, however, the skin-deep transformation has to begin when the results come in.
That is what is on display in the US now.
James Murdoch is not the most obvious candidate for editorial heroism. His route to resigning from the News Corp board because of “disagreements over certain editorial content” has been circuitous and colourful.
James’s first major managerial role in his father’s media empire was to run the Star satellite services and News Corp’s Asian operations in Hong Kong from 2000 to 2003. He had mixed commercial success in this period, which is best remembered for his determination to gain access to the Chinese market by currying favour with the government.
He accused Western media of painting a falsely negative portrayal of China through their focus on controversial issues such as human rights and Taiwan. In 2001, he advised Hong Kong’s democracy movement to “accept the reality of life under a strong-willed absolutist government”. In one of his dealings with China, he agreed that Murdoch’s cable channels around the world would take China’s propaganda channel CCTV9.
In 2003, he was promoted to run BSkyB in London, where he lived for the best part of the next decade, and where he successfully expanded Murdoch’s satellite services.
He gained early notoriety with a confrontational speech at the Edinburgh International Television Festival. Here he celebrated the digital age and the dynamism of the market, and equated people who still believed in regulation with “creationists”. There was no doubt about his primary target:
To let the state enjoy a near monopoly of information is to guarantee manipulation and distortion.
Yet we have a system in which state-sponsored media – the BBC in particular – grow ever more dominant. That process has to be reversed.
It takes a particularly agile propagandist to find the Beijing regime so benign and the BBC so sinister.
James’s main aim at the time was to effect a total takeover of BSkyB, raising News Corp’s current share of 40% to 100%. The importance of BSkyB to the Murdoch empire was demonstrated by James’s boldest and most ruthless action. In 2006, the newly formed Virgin Media group was negotiating a merger with ITV. The new group’s cable operations would have the potential to provide tougher competition for BSkyB’s satellite service.
Overnight, James swooped, buying 17.9% of ITV for a cost of GBP 940 million. This made News Corp ITV’s biggest shareholder and messed up the intended deal.
News’s move was always likely to be deemed illegal, but by the time this was finally decided nearly four years later, the challenge was dead. News lost GBP 340 million pounds on its forced sale of ITV shares, but no doubt Rupert and James thought this had been a good investment to protect BSkyB’s market share.
After the 2010 election of the Cameron government in the UK, BSkyB looked to be within reach, but James was increasingly impatient with any procedural obstacle or criticism of the attempt. His mentality at the time was on show in an incident in the lead up to the election. The Independent newspaper ran a series of advertisements proclaiming its independence and urging its readers to consider their vote. One such ad ran “Rupert Murdoch won’t decide this election, you will”.
James’s response was bizarre. He and Rebekah Brooks arrived unannounced at the paper, and James yelled at the editor, Simon Kelner, in front of bemused journalists that he was a “fucking fuckwit”, among other things.
Phone hacking scandal
James’s hopes for BSkyB were about to be washed away by a scandal, which did him and the company enormous damage. After the outstanding investigative efforts of Nick Davies, the Guardian published that Murdoch’s News of the World had hacked the phone of a kidnap victim Milly Dowler. This not only created immediate outrage but opened the door for many further revelations about the illegal methods and invasions of privacy by the tabloids to follow. Parliamentary hearings, court cases, and eventually the Leveson inquiry all put the company’s illegal and unethical practices into public view.
At first the arrogance of the Murdoch camp was undented. In private, chief editorial executive Rebekah Brooks said the story was going to end with Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger on his knees begging for mercy.
James, as News Corp’s senior executive in Britain when the scandal broke, found his own actions under scrutiny. His denials, prevarications and lack of remorse did not help the company’s cause. His appearances before the parliamentary committees were disastrous. At the end of his testimony, Labour member Tom Watson said
Mr Murdoch, you must be the first mafia boss in history who didn’t know he was running a criminal enterprise.
Climate change denial
James left London for New York and his promised promotion in the company. But his reputation was in tatters, even with other members of the family. His public persona at this time consisted of neo-liberal politics and corporate ruthlessness, with his actions untroubled by ethical considerations.
Yet, now, this corporate and family loyalist has resigned from his last official position with the company. James has long seen the urgency of combating global warming. As early as 2006, largely at his urging, Rupert also embraced the issue. Rupert soon retreated from the cause, but James’s commitment continued.
Rupert’s conversion had surprisingly little impact on the company’s journalism. Its upper editorial echelons contained a large number of climate denialists, and Rupert seems to have never made any effort to change their views.
In addition, James’s wife, Kathryn, is by the rather special standards of the Murdoch family, a liberal and a progressive. She has been involved in several environmental organisations, and James and Kathryn have donated to several Democratic candidates, including most recently the presidential campaign of Joe Biden.
James made a rare public criticism of the company last Australian summer. He accused News Corp of promoting climate denialism during its coverage of the Australian bushfires.
Out of step
However the key events are probably in America. At the same time that James and Kathryn have been edging left, the Murdoch organisation has been moving ever further to the right. The commercial success and political impact of Fox News have doubtless shaped Rupert’s thinking and the whole company’s journalism has become more Foxified.
There has rarely if ever been an alliance of president and media company like that of Trump with Fox News. He is their chief publicist and they an uncritical avenue for his views, especially to his base. So far, it has probably worked out well for both.
However, the dangers are acute, especially as Trump’s popularity wanes. Moreover, an erratic president such as Trump poses problems for the credibility of those who seek to embrace his every twist and turn.
This year’s pandemic, economic and racial problems have given a new urgency to these issues. Over the past six months, there have been more than double the fatalities Americans suffered in over 12 years in the Vietnam War. It is hard to remember any leadership failure approaching Trump’s catastrophe on COVID-19. Some early studies suggested Trump’s denialism, echoed by Fox, meant their viewers had more false beliefs about the pandemic than Americans who consumed mainstream media.
James has taken a principled stance, but it is also pragmatic. Since the sale of the bulk of Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox assets to Disney (of which James was chief executive), there is no future role for him in the corporation.
By also resigning from the News Corp Board, he will be freer to express his own views, and perhaps have the chance to watch from a distance as Trump is defeated and Fox heads into decline together in the coming months.
Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, in significant parts of its coverage of the coronavirus pandemic, has become a clear and present danger to the welfare of Australian society.
Aping the worst of the American media – notably Murdoch’s Fox News – it rails against science, ridicules the measures being taken to suppress the outbreak, and tries to politicise a germ.
It also propagates hate speech, vilifying ethnic and religious minorities in whose suburbs, schools and housing towers clusters have broken out.
In all these ways, it drives divisions in Australian society and sows doubt in the minds of an anxious population about the need for lockdowns and other precautions.
This critique is directed primarily at its opinion articles and television commentaries, rather than at its news coverage.
The news coverage has been extensive, has included many voices, and has kept its audiences up to date with what is going on. It has also been vigorous in holding governments to account for their mistakes, which is exactly what the media should do.
But the racism, ridiculing of science and ideological warfare that has disfigured much of the commentary have nothing to do with holding governments to account or providing the community with essential information.
On Sky, Tony Abbott’s former chief of staff, Peta Credlin, launched an attack on Muslims and South Sudanese people over Melbourne’s second wave of COVID-19 that was a toxic mixture of vitriol and ignorance.
She blamed South Sudanese people living in Coburg for a cluster of 14 new infections, which she said were triggered by a feast to mark the end of Ramadan, the Muslim season of abstinence.
The Society of South Sudanese Professionals pointed out to her that more than 90% of South Sudanese in Victoria are Christian, not Muslim. Moreover, very few of them live in Coburg and the cluster did not consist of South Sudanese people.
For those errors of fact, Credlin apologised. But her fairmindedness did not extend to an apology for a nasty rhetorical question about the character of South Sudanese immigrants in general, linking well-worn tropes about gangs, unemployment and alleged inability to speak “Australia’s national language”.
Andrew Bolt in the Herald Sun and Sydney’s Daily Telegraph was onto the same immigrant-bashing exercise. He noted that three of the worst COVID-19 hot spots in Melbourne were the Flemington towers, the Islamic Al-Taqwa College and the Cedar Meats abattoir.
Here was a trifecta for divisiveness: African immigrants, Muslims and a meatworks that, according to Bolt, employs many immigrants and donates money to the Labor Party.
Most recently, as mask-wearing was made compulsory in Victoria, Bolt and Alan Jones turned their attacks against that too. That represented a significant change and was based on new data.
In June, The Lancet, one of the oldest and most respected medical journals in the world, published an article based on a meta-analysis of 172 observational studies and 44 comparative studies into the efficacy of physical distancing, mask-wearing and eye protection as ways of reducing the risk of COVID-19 infection.
It found face mask use could greatly reduce risk of infection.
The breadth and authoritativeness of the study persuaded health experts in Australia and elsewhere that mask-wearing was now a more important part of the armoury against COVID-19 than had been previously thought.
Bolt likened this to a kind of political backflip. Jones called it “alarmism”.
They might do well to recall the remark of economist John Maynard Keynes:
When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?
Jones proclaimed on Sky (July 20) that he had a pile of medical data stating that mask-wearing was ineffectual. He said he had done some research of his own over the weekend to support this proposition.
He went on to declare that government responses to the pandemic were shafting ordinary hard-working Australians.
Bolt stated he no longer trusted what Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said about coronavirus. Like Jones, Bolt questioned the medical basis for the decision to make mask-wearing compulsory.
There has also been a party-political dimension to the News Corp coverage.
This has been evident in the contrast between The Daily Telegraph’s coverage of the Ruby Princess debacle (Coalition government in New South Wales) and the Herald Sun’s coverage of the hotel quarantine debacle (Labor government in Victoria).
My analysis of 464 articles in the Telegraph on the Ruby Princess showed the coverage was extensive, quoting many voices trenchantly critical of the way the government handled the case. However, the newspaper itself made no direct personal attack on Premier Gladys Berejiklian.
A similar analysis I undertook of 411 articles in the Herald Sun about hotel quarantine and subsequent second wave likewise showed extensive coverage quoting many voices trenchantly critical of the government. But there was an additional dimension: direct personal attacks on Daniel Andrews, which has become a speciality of Credlin’s.
While the Murdoch organisation’s approach stands out as systematic and sustained, Channel Nine has also made episodic contributions to this dark side of Australia’s media performance.
Its Today program has twice disgraced itself. First it gave Senator Pauline Hanson a platform from which to make a racist attack on the people in Melbourne’s public housing towers. Then Today hosted an extreme right-winger, DeAnne Lorraine, from the United States, who says COVID-19 is a conspiracy to change the world.
Her stream of consciousness in support of this proposition included a reference to the Caduceus, symbol of medicine since time immemorial.
Fake science. And look at the snake. The snake is their logo. That should tell you everything you need to know, right there.
Whether the motive is to chase ratings, as with Nine, or to prosecute ideological and cultural warfare, as with Murdoch’s News Corporation, the consequences for Australian society are dire.
The coronavirus pandemic has created well-founded anxiety in people for their health and economic well-being. In times like these, there is always a tendency in human nature to look for scapegoats or to deny reality.
Media coverage of the kind described here exploits that anxiety and feeds those natural human impulses, leading to social division and resistance to medical advice.
Both these consequences work against suppression of the virus. That is why it represents a clear and present danger to society.
This week News Corp Australia announced the end of the print editions of 112 suburban and regional mastheads – about one-fifth of all of Australia’s local newspapers. Of those, 36 will close and 76 become purely online publications.
Getting the chop entirely are small regional newspapers such as the Herbert Valley Express in far north Queensland (with a circulation of less than 3,000). Those going digital include free suburban papers such as Sydney’s Manly Daily, established in 1906. (Until as recently as 2017 it came out five times a week. Since 2018 is has been published twice a week.)
Whether the online-only papers can survive remains to be seen. But our research at the Centre for Media Transition suggests it will be hard for them to match what local print editions offered communities.
Losing readers and advertisers
Like print media in general, local newspapers have been squeezed by readers and advertisers moving online. Most of the revenue, even for those with a cover price, has come from advertising. This has been eroded by the likes of Google and Facebook as well as localised classified sites such as Gumtree.
While this has has happened at slower pace than the loss of the “rivers of gold” for metropolitan newspapers, the “desertification” of local news has progressed steadily. In the decade to 2018, 106 local and regional newspapers closed in Australia, leaving 21 local government areas – 16 in regional areas – without a local newspaper.
Those that have survived have seen their staff slashed, with reporters expected to produce more “content” at the cost of doing the serious reporting that made local newspapers so valuable to their communities.
Local media ‘keystones’
As Danish researcher Rasmus Kleis Nielsen notes in Local Journalism: The decline of newspapers and the rise of digital media (IB Taurus, 2016), local newspapers have been the “keystone” of “local news ecosystems”.
No other local media comes close to the local coverage they provide. “Most of the many stories about local politics produced by the local paper never appear anywhere else,” says Nielsen. Local radio and television have tended to piggyback on their work.
Without this reporting, local democracy suffers. Research in the United States shows local papers are essential to keep local government accountable.
Local news doesn’t scale
Given declining revenue for traditional print, and the cost of printing, moving to digital-only platforms was perhaps inevitable.
But the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the move by killing off advertising from local businesses such as restaurants and pubs. In April News Corp suspended the print runs of 60 local papers. Just three – the Wentworth Courier, Mosman Daily and North Shore Times, serving Sydney’s most affluent suburbs – will resume, thanks to their lucrative property advertising.
Making the rest viable as digital-only local news services is going to be tricky for two reasons.
The first is to do with how online advertising works. The second is how readers in these areas relate to the news, and their willingness to pay for online news.
A key characteristic of the historical readership and advertising markets for local newspaper is their “bounded” nature. But the defining characteristics of online news and advertising is “scaleability”.
Once all newspapers could largely dictate prices to advertisers. This was particularly the case with local papers, often the only game in town. But the game has changed. What they can charge for online advertising is a fraction of what they once could for print.
Most metro newspapers responded with plans to grow their readership by providing their content free online. The idea was that more readers would help maintain them as an attractive advertising platform.
This has generally not proved the winning strategy they had hoped. So papers from The Age to The Daily Telegraph have been moving to paywalls, enticing their print buyers to online subscriptions.
Unwillingness to pay
Our research suggests doing the same with non-metropolitan newspapers is likely to be harder. Readers in rural and regional areas are less willing than those in cities to pay for online news services.
As part of our report Regional News Media: State of Play published in 2019, we surveyed 266 people living in regional and rural areas, demographically representative of the population of country Australia.
Just 14% indicated willingness to pay for news online, with 49% saying they would not (and 37% unsure).
The News and Media Research Centre at the University of Canberra has found similar reluctance to pay. The results of its Digital News Report Australia 2019 show just 12% of regional news consumers had paid for online news, compared with 16% of urban news consumers. More detailed research produced for our report shows the difference is starkest for subscriptions.
Poorest communities hurt the most
That unwillingness to pay for online content may change if it’s the only way to get local news. Attitudes to online subscriptions are shifting, and people do value local news. Research commissioned for the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s Digital Platforms Inquiry found 71% of the population rated it as important as national news for social participation.
But the portents aren’t great for quality local news coverage – particularly in regional areas. The likelihood is further desertification of the local news landscape, with poorer communities most affected.
This is confirmed by US research that shows the people with the least access to local news are often “the poorest, least educated and most isolated”.
As Matthew Hindman of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy has noted: “Even the clearest local digital success stories employ only a few reporters – far less than the number laid off from the papers in their own cities.
“Worrisome, too, is the fact they have found the most traction in the affluent, social-capital rich communities that need them least.”
With swift and savage force, the COVID-19 pandemic has inadvertently attacked Australia’s local news media ecology, which was already battling a weakened immune system.
As a researcher working on Australia’s largest academic study into the future of local newspapers, the phones have been running hot in recent weeks. We’ve had calls from everyday people, journalists made redundant, cadets surviving on JobKeeper, and independent news proprietors, all navigating their way through the crisis.
News Corp has announced plans to close or suspend printing operations of more than 100 suburban and small community titles. Its more successful publications, such as the Geelong Advertiser, Gold Coast Bulletin, Hobart Mercury and the iconic Northern Territory News, will remain with print and digital editions.
Other independently-owned newspapers across rural and regional Australia are still breathing: they are gasping for air, but they are breathing. They’ve either temporarily suspended operations, cut back the number of print editions or shifted to a digital-only model to “see how it goes”.
Since the COVID-19 crisis emerged, there have been two key funding schemes introduced (or re-introduced) to support news providers – the government’s $50 million Public Interest News Gathering Program and a $5 million Regional and Small Publishers Innovation Fund.
The federal government has also announced plans to force Google and Facebook to share advertising revenue with producers of quality journalism in Australia. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission is now seeking views on its new draft mandatory code that will address bargaining power imbalances between Australia’s news media businesses, and Google and Facebook.
This has been met with some initial concern from the Country Press Association of Australia amid fears the modelling may only benefit big companies and not the little players that serve small towns and cities.
The Victorian government has waded in to provide more than $4 million in additional advertising support for local and regional print publications. Our preliminary research indicates Victoria leads the way with this type of support for local news. Other states, such as South Australia and New South Wales, lag behind or have announced changes to legislation that provides government authorities freedom to advertise on their own sites or via social media.
The problem is, social media sites like Facebook don’t put the interests of local communities first, whereas local news outlets do (or at least they should). Facebook has gone to great lengths to distance itself from the types of local content posted on its platform. In the local news ecology, it tends to feed from traditional local news providers or the goodwill of citizens who moderate and upload content of local importance and reap the advertising rewards. One off, $10,000 grants from social media juggernauts to local news entrepreneurs won’t fix this systemic problem.
In some local areas, business owners are offering donations or advertising support to preserve the journal of record during COVID-19. JobKeeper is keeping many cadet journalists on the payroll, and there are some keen reporters doing their bit to report on the news, even if they are not getting paid.
There’s also stories of new start-ups emerging – like Matt Dunn in Victoria’s South Gippsland region. He was made redundant by the local newspaper, which is planning to close its doors permanently. He immediately set to work developing his own digital news platform, “The Paper”.
Dunn is confident elderly residents who have little experience with technology will come on board because they will be hungry for good quality local meaningful news. It’s about the content, not the platform.
However, digital-only publications are problematic in areas of rural and regional Australia that struggle with broadband connectivity. It’s even more worrisome for those areas with ageing populations, where reading the local paper is a daily or weekly ritual to maintain a sense of connection to their community.
I’ve spoken with several elderly residents in recent weeks who are distressed about the decline of Australian Community Media’s local content and the reduction of the print edition. Without the newspaper and technological capabilities, they feel “lost”. And importantly, they can’t read the death notices, so have no idea who has died.
Perhaps that is the key for policymakers, researchers and industry in a post COVID-19 world. Big news conglomerates around the world have been accused of building a plethora of zombie newspapers that are local in name only – full of syndicated content, without really being attuned to the needs and wants of a community or helping people to develop shared social connection and purpose to place.
My hunch is zombie papers will be the first to fall.
Audiences aren’t stupid. It’s the newspapers and community individuals determined to provide news that are the heart of their communities and should survive into the future. Policymakers, researchers and industry need to be acutely aware of the types of news outlets and individuals that best provide – or are willing to provide – real, credible and meaningful local news and information for their communities in areas of Australia big and small.
They are the ones that should be at the front of the queue for any type of media vaccine.
Former prime minister Kevin Rudd has used an address to the Labor national conference to deliver a fresh swingeing attack on the Murdoch media, declaring “it is not a news organisation, it is a political party”.
Rudd said for Labor and for Bill Shorten, “dealing with the Murdoch mafia is kind of like dealing with a daily evisceration”
“It ain’t fair, it never will be and as soon as we acknowledge that fact, the better we will be in our response.”
Rudd and his wife, Therese Rein, were receiving ALP life memberships at the conference. Life memberships were also bestowed on two other former Labor prime ministers, Paul Keating and Julia Gillard, who were not present.
Attacks on the Murdoch media come frequently from Rudd, with a notable one in the 2013 election campaign.
Rudd told the conference the Coalition had “a very robust” partner in the “Murdoch party”, which had an ideology.
“Our movement has the audacity of hope to stand up and say ‘we don’t accept your ideology and your commercial interests. We actually will fight against it’. That’s why they hate us so much.”
“That’s why they hooked into Bill, that’s why they hooked into Julia, that’s why they hooked into me, that’s why they hooked into Paul, that’s why they hooked into Bob – because we represent a threat to their core commercial and ideological interests.”
He contrasted the treatment of Labor meted out by the “Murdoch party” with that accorded to “Saint John” Howard.
Rudd said he had a simple message for Rupert Murdoch: “you don’t own Australia. Murdoch doesn’t have Australia as his own personal belonging. This country belongs to the working men and women who build Australia.”
Shorten, introducing Rudd, paid tribute to his performance in the 2013 election, saying while that election was lost, “your campaigning skills … ensured that we entered opposition as a strong, viable electoral fighting force”.
Party sources said the opposition leader regarded it as important to pay tribute to the former prime ministers at this conference as a gesture of unity. Earlier conferences bestowed life membership on Bob Hawke and Gough Whitlam.
Shorten said in his tributes that Keating was a “hero of the true believers” and Gillard was a “continuing inspiration for women and girls”.
He said there had been a lot of pain but it was “time for healing to make peace with our past in the same way we are united about our future”.
“At our best, we are a movement focused on the future – but as Australia’s oldest continuous political party we have always revered our traditions and we take inspiration from our struggles in the past.
“And we are better, we are stronger, we are more confident and more complete when we extend to our former leaders and legends the respect they deserve, the gratitude they have earned.
“Labor can do more, indeed Australia can do more, to recognise the contribution of our past leaders – and to call upon their wisdom, their talents and their capacities in the continued service of our country.”
In his address, Rudd attacked Home Affairs minister Peter Dutton as a reminder of “that whole generation of Queensland coppers in the days of Bjelke-Petersen” and denounced the government’s recognition of West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital as “a lunatic decision”.
The first German chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, said there were two sights the public should not see: the making of laws and the making of sausages. To this list of enduringly nauseating spectacles we should add one more: the political machinations of media moguls.
ABC political editor Andrew Probyn has skilfully violated this standard of public taste by laying out what look like very plausible entrails of the evident involvement of Rupert Murdoch and Kerry Stokes in the recent Liberal Party leadership spill.
It is impossible to independently verify Probyn’s account because he has been careful to mask his sources. But it is plausible partly because some elements are corroborated by separate reports in the Australian Financial Review and Sydney Morning Herald, partly because Probyn worked for both Murdoch and Stokes for lengthy periods and may be assumed to have good contacts in those places, and partly because there is circumstantial evidence to support some of what he says.
The Australian reports that Stokes has denied having communicated with Murdoch over Turnbull’s leadership. Interestingly, however, the newspaper does not quote its own proprietor on the matter, which is the obvious way to corroborate Stokes’s claim.
Murdoch, of course, is notorious for meddling in politics. In Australia, it can be traced back to his endorsement of Gough Whitlam at the 1972 election, his campaign against Whitlam in 1975, which was so virulent even his own journalists held a strike in protest, his support for John Howard in 1996, his somewhat ambivalent support for Kevin Rudd in 2007 and his full-frontal support for Tony Abbott in 2013.
These campaigns were all in support of the winning side, and much the same has been true of his equivalent campaigns in the UK and the US. After John Major led the British Conservative Party to victory in 1992, Murdoch’s London Sun newspaper proclaimed in a front-page banner headline: “It’s the Sun wot won it”.
All this has created a perception of Murdoch as political kingmaker, a perception that frightens the life out of politicians and thus confers great power on Murdoch.
But as two Australian scholars, Rodney Tiffen and David McKnight, have persuasively argued in their separate studies of Murdoch, while his media outlets routinely shred and humiliate their political targets, the evidence is that Murdoch observes which way the wind is blowing and then finds a rationale for endorsing the likely winner.
The Economist’s Bagehot column was on to this 15 years ago, as Tiffen records. Referring to the London Sun’s boasting of its political power, the column observed:
[T]hat probably says more about Mr Murdoch’s readiness to jump ship at the right time than about the Sun’s ability to influence the votes of its readers.
Even so, perceptions can swiftly harden into political reality.
According to Probyn, when Murdoch was seen to turn against Turnbull over the past couple of months, the alarm went off in the prime minister’s office.
This is where Stokes, chairman of Seven West Media, is said to have entered the picture.
He is a friend of Turnbull’s and they are said to have discussed the apparent campaign by the Murdoch media to oust the prime minister.
Stokes and Murdoch have a chequered history, to put it mildly. They have fought long, bitter and costly legal battles, but as Margaret Simons says in her biography of Stokes:
In the cosy club of media, neither love nor hate lasts forever. The only constants are power, money and self-interest.
So, according to accounts by Probyn and the Financial Review, Stokes rang Murdoch to ask what was going on and Murdoch is said to have told him: “Malcolm has got to go.”
But on the question of who should replace him, the moguls were all over the shop.
Murdoch’s Daily Telegraph was touting Peter Dutton. Three days later, when Turnbull spilled the leadership positions, Dutton nominated, lost, but lit the fuse for the ultimate detonation of the Turnbull prime ministership.
Stokes was opposed to Dutton for complex reasons, but didn’t seem to know who to go for instead. On the day before the leadership spill, his newspaper, The West Australian, was promoting Scott Morrison. The next day it was promoting Julie Bishop, a West Australian.
This shambolic confusion among the moguls is comforting in a perverse kind of way, because in the end neither of them was able to dictate the outcome.
Murdoch achieved one objective – the ousting of Turnbull – but Dutton, his preferred pick to replace him, is now clinging to political life by a single vote in the House of Representatives thanks to the hovering spectre of the Constitution’s section 44 (v), not to mention trouble with au pairs.
Stokes? Well, he is new to this kingmaking caper. He clearly did not want his friend Turnbull out, but when that became inevitable, he didn’t know where to turn. As my old editor at The Age, Creighton Burns, was fond of saying, he was caught between a shit and a shiver.
The net effect of their efforts has been to bring the Liberal-National government to the brink of disintegration within months of a general election.
This time, Murdoch may have indeed created a winner – Labor leader Bill Shorten – not by the traditional means of showering support on him, but by destroying his opponents, even though they happen to be Murdoch’s own ideological allies.
It is the latest chapter in a long and discreditable history of media proprietors using their power to advance their political ends, usually for commercial rather than ideological purposes.
Sir Frank and Kerry Packer did it; so did successive generations of Fairfaxes. In 1961 the Fairfaxes went so far as to virtually run Arthur Calwell’s campaign out of the company’s executive offices on the 14th floor of its newspaper mausoleum in Sydney’s Broadway. The Sydney Morning Herald’s journalists renamed it the Labor ward in honour of the exercise.
In Britain, the mould for the politically meddling modern newspaper proprietor was set by Alfred Harmsworth (Lord Northcliffe) in the early 20th century.
He and the other mighty British press baron of the time, Max Aitken (Lord Beaverbrook), were the inspiration, if that is the word, for Rudyard Kipling’s celebrated condemnation:
[The press exercises] power without responsibility: the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages.
So Probyn has done Australian democracy a service by exposing the entrails of what looks like another abuse of media power, even if it makes for a nauseating public spectacle.
It also raises serious questions about media accountability.
Australia has never had a publicly trusted or effective system of media accountability. All attempts to create one have been howled down, the loudest and crudest voices belonging to Murdoch’s lieutenants.
There is already a crisis in people’s faith in democratic institutions. A new report by the Australian Museum of Democracy and the University of Canberra shows only 41% of Australians are satisfied with the way democracy is working. That is a dramatic plunge from the 86% recorded in 2007.
In this climate of disenchantment, it is not surprising there are now calls for a public inquiry into the way Murdoch and Stokes have evidently played a manipulative role in changing the prime minister.