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.
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.