Why Rupert Murdoch can’t be stopped
The political empire of the News Corp chairman
Rupert Murdoch, 2012 © Jessica Rinaldi / Reuters
In late July, Robert Thomson, the suave chief executive of News Corp – the recently separated and financially challenged publishing branch of the Murdoch media empire – announced that Col Allan, the editor-in-chief of Rupert Murdoch’s favourite tabloid, the New York Post, was coming home to Australia on a two- to three-month assignment. Unless Allan’s visit had some political purpose, the return of the native was difficult to explain. Under his editorship, the New York Post has reportedly lost several hundred million dollars since 2001. In the letter to Australian colleagues, Thomson defined the mission, with studied vagueness, as “providing extra editorial leadership for our papers”. “It will be invaluable for our papers in Australia,” he continued, “to have the benefit of his insight, expertise and talent.” Col Allan’s most famous insight is the fear that an editor might instil in his underlings by conspicuous acts of apparent derangement, like pissing in the office sink. His most famous expertise is bare-knuckled political combat and character assassination. His most famous talent is for the brazen front-page banner headline.
Allan arrived in Australia on 29 July, a week before the announcement of the date of the 2013 federal election. Almost instantly, News Corp’s three most influential Australian tabloids – the Sydney Daily Telegraph, the Melbourne Herald Sun and the Brisbane Courier-Mail – began what looked to the outsider like a front-page headline competition for Allan’s approval in what was by now News Corp’s main game – to get Kevin Rudd.
On 2 August, the Courier-Mail put in an early bid: “KEV’S $733m BANK HEIST”. The reference was to new taxes on beer, cigarettes and “your savings”, with Rudd pictured in a beanie and a mask grasping a sack of money. The next day the Herald Sun responded with “IT’S A RUDDY MESS”. As the paper explained, “Debt soars, unemployment to hit 11-year high, revenue crashes and boats bill blows out”. Two days later, when the election was announced, the Daily Telegraph upped the ante with its instantly notorious “Finally, you now have the chance to … KICK THIS MOB OUT”. It was on a roll. The next day, it followed with a Hogan’s Heroes catchphrase, “I KNOW NUTHINK!”, and caricatures of Kevin Rudd and Anthony Albanese as Nazis. The Courier-Mail was not to be outdone. After the prime minister announced the candidacy of former Queensland premier Peter Beattie, it answered the Tele with “SEND IN THE CLOWN”. And so it went. “DEAD KEV BOUNCE” (Courier-Mail, 10 August). “RUDD’S BULLY BOY” (Herald Sun, 10 August). “KEVIN DEADLY SINS” (Sunday Mail, 11 August). “DOES THIS GUY EVER SHUT UP?” (Courier-Mail, 22 August). By the final week of the campaign, it was clear that Tony Abbott would win the election handsomely. The headlines followed. “THE LONG GOODBYE” (Courier-Mail, 2 September). “RUDD FREE ZONE” (Courier-Mail, 5 September). “TONY’S TIME” (Herald Sun, 6 September). “THE CIRCUS IS OVER” (Courier-Mail, 6 September). Throughout the campaign there were scores of anti-Labor front-page items in the three critical Murdoch tabloids and not one that could be considered pro-Labor.
The most influential of the News Corp columnists – Piers Akerman, Andrew Bolt, Janet Albrechtsen and Miranda Devine – if anything outdid in venom their headline-composing colleagues, no doubt under Col Allan’s approving gaze. According to their collective portrait of the prime minister, Rudd’s government was “chaotic” and “dysfunctional”. He had left the nation with a “Budget shambles” and had “squandered billions”. He now had “no policies to talk of” except “back-of-the-beer-coaster nonsense” and was, as a result, conducting “the dirtiest, the lowest campaign ever run by a major political party”. Rudd’s rhetoric was “pompous” and “verbose”. He tried to win arguments by “bullying not persuasion”. Under him Labor had been “flushed away in a sewer of hate” with his “blatant appeal to … class warfare”. Rudd’s (partly apocryphal) personal history was supposedly all too revealing. He “had been kicked out of a New York ‘gentleman’s club’ for behaving weirdly with topless dancers”. He was the man “whose abuse had made an RAAF stewardess cry”. He had even pulled “a hissy fit in Afghanistan over a missing hairdryer”. He was nothing more than “a foul-mouthed backstabber”.
The News Corp columnists explained Rudd’s character like this. He was “venomous”, “a volatile, nasty man”, “a selfie-addicted, twittering Facebook junkie”, who thought that “rules are for other people”. Not only during the campaign had he “trashed the Bible” and “slimed his faith” but also “trampled on the lowly”. As a typical “class clown”, “the more Rudd tries to be like us, the less he is”, and “the more you know him, the more you detest him”. He was a “fake”, “a narcissist”, “hubris on steroids”, “callous and manipulative” with no capacity for “empathy” and most accurately to be understood as a thoroughgoing “psychopath”. Even his physical demeanour, we learnt, was rather disgusting. He “smirks”. He “pouts”. He “wants to stamp his little feet”. He “flicks” his hair repeatedly. Not only is he “afflicted by a repetitive, involuntary twitch of his lower lip”, but “his rotating hand movements have to be seen to be believed”.
In this collective portrait of Kevin Rudd, the News Corp columnists did not find him to have even one positive human quality.
Rudd was returned as Labor leader because of his apparent popularity with the Australian people. With him therefore the News Corp attack dogs went in for character assassination. With Tony Abbott, by contrast – “the Oxonian Rhodes scholar”, “the volunteer fire-fighter and surf club member”, “the hugely intelligent, hugely decent, down-to-earth bloke”, equally at home downing “beers” and “writing books about political philosophy” – the same journalists practised character beatification.
Australian journalists once did not write like this. How had Australian journalism come to this? Although the explanation is complex, the foundations were laid down a quarter-century ago.
In 1979 Rupert Murdoch made his first takeover bid for the largest newspaper company in Australia, the Herald and Weekly Times, which he believed had mistreated one of its key architects, his father. The bid was resisted. Murdoch had a well-deserved reputation as a manipulator of the political process. He was known to have used his existing papers ruthlessly in 1972 to undermine the Liberal prime minister, Billy McMahon, and then in 1975 to help destroy Gough Whitlam, the Labor prime minister he had once enthusiastically supported. In fighting against the bid, the Melbourne Herald expressed the general understanding: “Mr Murdoch’s newspapers always respond in unison – as though to some divine wind – as they pursue their relentless campaigns in favour of current Murdoch objectives – particularly his political ones. Every journalist in Australia knows that.”
In 1986 Murdoch announced a second Herald and Weekly Times takeover bid. By this time the case for resistance was far stronger than in 1979. In order to pursue his television ambitions, Murdoch had become a citizen of the United States. The rules of the Foreign Investment Review Board made it clear that “foreign investment in mass circulation newspapers is restricted”. In 1981, Murdoch had taken control of the London Times and Sunday Times, we know now with the collusion of the UK prime minister, Margaret Thatcher. His bid had been spared reference to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission on the condition that he respected the newspapers’ editorial independence. Almost immediately, the condition was flagrantly breached and Murdoch threatened with a term in prison. Even more importantly, by this time it was clear that Murdoch was using his papers as standard-bearers for the Thatcher–Reagan radical-conservative revolutions that were undermining social democratic parties and progressive politics throughout the English-speaking world. The Hawke government’s opposition to the News Corp takeover bid for the Herald and Weekly Times ought to have been certain.
Bob Hawke, who had once advised Whitlam that he would rue the day he got into bed with Murdoch, was in fact a strong supporter. Hawke blamed the conservatives who ran the Herald and Weekly Times for keeping Labor out of power in Victoria between 1955 and 1982. Even more, he resented the light that Murdoch’s rival newspapers at Fairfax – both the Sydney Morning Herald and the National Times – had shone on real or supposed corruption in the NSW branch of the ALP. Hawke hoped to seize the opportunity occasioned by the Murdoch takeover bid to kill or weaken two of Labor’s media enemies. He also believed that he could use his best mate, Sir Peter Abeles, a News Corp business partner in Ansett Airlines, as a political bridge to Murdoch. In his Media Mates, Paul Chadwick records a telling exchange between the prime minister and Senator John Button. Button inquired: “Why don’t you tell us precisely how you want to help your mates?” Hawke replied: “Remember they’re the only mates we’ve got.”
As Colleen Ryan has documented recently in her Fairfax: The rise and fall, Hawke’s treasurer, Paul Keating, was even more enthusiastic about the takeover, in part for the same reasons as Hawke; in part because Fairfax had raised awkward questions about Keating’s relations with the property developer Warren Anderson; and in part because, as a radical reformer, Keating wanted to inject into the economy the energy of “new money” represented by Murdoch (and Kerry Packer) and to destroy moribund “old money” interests, represented for him by both the hated Fairfax enemy and the moribund Melbourne gentleman’s club he thought was running the Herald and Weekly Times. Keating was not merely a passive supporter of the Murdoch takeover. By secretly providing Murdoch with inside information about the government’s proposed new media laws – where the ownership of television and newspapers was to be separated – Keating actively sought to bury the Herald and Weekly Times, to thwart Fairfax’s ambitions and to facilitate News Corp’s domination of the Australian press.
There were several people who understood what the Murdoch takeover meant. Within the senior ranks of Labor, opposition came from Bill Hayden, the foreign minister. He was reduced to silence. Inside the Opposition, Ian Macphee advocated resistance. He was removed from John Howard’s shadow cabinet. A citizens’ group formed whose members included Malcolm Fraser, Patrick White, Hal Wootten, David Williamson, Veronica Brady, Dick Smith and David Penman. Their protest actions had no hope. The takeover was supported by both the Labor and the Liberal parties, and was opposed by none of the relevant gatekeepers – the Press Council, the Trade Practices Commission and the Foreign Investment Review Board. “Effective control of the media is the first step on the road to controlling the values and the future direction of our society,” the Age warned on 17 January 1987. “It is the saddest reflection imaginable on this society that virtually no one in public life – a former Prime Minister (Malcolm Fraser); a promptly disciplined Foreign Minister (Hayden) and a gagged Opposition spokesman (Macphee) excepted – has dared to speak out against the growing concentration of ownership of the Australian press.”When the dust settled on the takeover, Rupert Murdoch controlled the sole metropolitan tabloid newspaper in every Australian state except Western Australia and the only general national broadsheet, the Australian. His company controlled approximately two thirds of the circulation of state-wide Australian newspapers. Murdoch’s only press rival, Fairfax, controlled about a quarter. As a consequence of the takeover, Australia now had a concentration of newspaper ownership unknown anywhere in the developed world beyond the party-controlled papers of the communist bloc. In the short term, Labor was rewarded with the support of the three most popular Australian newspapers, Sydney’s Daily Telegraph and Melbourne’s Herald and Sun, in the 1987 election. In the long term it had been midwife at the birth of what was potentially the most anti-democratic force in national life and also the most powerful future enemy of Labor.
All of Rupert Murdoch’s biographers agree that, outside of family, his life is dominated by only two real interests – business and politics. Over the past 40 years he has built two remarkable parallel empires, one expanding his media interests, the other advancing his quest for political power. These empires are closely interconnected. Parts of his media empire are used to strengthen his political influence. On occasions his political influence is used to expand his media business. Murdoch’s media empire now spans the globe, but his shadow political empire hardly extends beyond the United Kingdom, the US and Australia. In each of these, the political empire has grown gradually by trial and error and necessarily assumed a different shape. While Murdoch’s media empire has been analysed and chronicled many times, his political empire, outlined extensively only in David McKnight’s Rupert Murdoch, is less well understood.
Although in the UK Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox (until recently part of News Corporation) has a 39.1% stake in BSkyB, the hugely profitable entertainment satellite television business does not exercise any great political influence. Almost exclusively Murdoch’s influence comes through his ownership of newspapers – the quality broadsheets, the Times and Sunday Times, and his London tabloid, the Sun. Although his broadsheets consistently supported the Thatcher government, and although in turn Thatcher supported Murdoch during his epic Wapping battle with the Fleet Street print unions, there is no reason to believe that the Times and Sunday Times have wielded greater political influence than the other London quality papers. Rather, Murdoch’s political influence in the UK has for more than 30 years been chiefly exercised through the Sun.
During Thatcher’s years as prime minister, she described the support the Sun had given her government as “marvellous”. More crucially, in 1992 the Sun helped destroy Neil Kinnock’s Labour Opposition, which once had a commanding lead in the polls. Two of its headlines – before the election, “Will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights”; after the election, “It’s the Sun Wot Won It” – are justly famous. As several witnesses before the Leveson inquiry made clear, Labour now feared Murdoch. To Kinnock’s disgust, the party’s new leader, Tony Blair, conducted a long flirtation with Murdoch, symbolised by Blair’s round-the-world journey to meet Murdoch and his News Corp staff on Hayman Island, and confirmed by his promise to weaken Britain’s cross-media ownership laws. The reward for Labour was the vicious campaign the Sun waged in 1997 against the Conservative prime minister, John Major, who had held Murdoch at arms’ length and sought to restrict his movement into terrestrial television. Major’s defeat was celebrated with the headline: “It’s the Sun Wot Swung It”. What followed were 12 years of solid Sun and News Corp support for New Labour, the highlight of which was the intimate telephone collaboration between Blair and Murdoch in the month leading up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
In 2009, News Corp decided to switch to David Cameron and the Conservatives. Cameron had already paid homage on Murdoch’s yacht moored by the Greek island Santorini. News proclaimed its turn against Labour on the day Gordon Brown addressed his party conference. In this case the influence of the Sun was used nakedly to advance News Corp’s commercial interests – their controversial proposed $12 billion bid for total control of BSkyB, whose announcement was delayed until the Conservative-led government was elected. In the following months, News Corp’s lobbyist and the responsible minister or his adviser exchanged hundreds of phone calls, emails and text messages, several in the tone of conspirators in a common cause. Only the public revulsion following reports that Murdoch’s Sunday tabloid, News of the World, had hacked into the voicemail of a murdered teenager scuttled the BSkyB bid at the eleventh hour. Temporarily, at least, Murdoch’s vast political power was paralysed.
There is no way that Murdoch could aspire to wield through the newspapers in the US the direct kind of power he had been able to exercise through the Sun in the UK, neither through his beloved New York Post nor the recently acquired Wall Street Journal. In the US – where the top four proprietors control only one fifth of newspaper circulation – press ownership is simply far too dispersed. If he was to achieve real political influence in America he had to find some other way. It is a testament to Murdoch’s ingenuity that he did.
After a failed attempt to purchase CNN, Murdoch turned his mind to creating a cable news channel of his own, which would compete with CNN and counter its supposed “left-wing bias”. The man he chose in 1995 to run the station, Fox News, was Roger Ailes, a brilliant former media adviser to Richard Nixon, a seasoned television executive and, like Murdoch, a rabid right-wing ideologue. Until Ailes, Murdoch had dominated and sometimes terrorised all the editors who worked for him, not only tabloid journeymen like Kelvin MacKenzie of the Sun, the recipient of frequent humiliating “bollockings”, but also highly intelligent and accomplished ones like Harold Evans of the Times. In Ailes, to whom for the first time in his life he is reported to have given full editorial independence and whom he is reputed to have eventually come to fear, Rupert Murdoch had finally met his equal.
The partnership between Murdoch and Ailes has been one of the most consequential in the history of American politics. It was grounded in a common political vision – the superiority of American values of free enterprise and the untrammelled free market, and the dangers to these values represented by the treasonous left-liberal, politically correct elites. It relied on Murdoch’s genius for business. In order to establish a subscriber base, for example, Murdoch inverted the established industry patterns by paying cable companies $500 million for access to their subscribers. But it relied as greatly on Ailes’ feel for television and capacity for political invention.
Fox News was genuinely original – a 24-hour conservative-populist propaganda channel, where right-wing opinion and slanted news, described in Orwellian fashion as “fair and balanced”, were delivered in a highly entertaining fashion. On Fox News, the anxiety of its white and ageing audience at the collapse of the values and prejudices they had grown up with, and their hatred for the supposed condescension of the liberal elites, were inflamed on a daily basis. Gradually, Fox News became the most popular American cable news channel. In turn, it became critical to the fortunes of the Republican Party. Fox News was a vital supporter of George W Bush’s presidency and the most important cheerleader for the invasion of Iraq. It was the arbiter of the fate of the Republican contenders for the presidential nomination in both 2008 and 2012. And it was in attendance at the birth of the Tea Party movement which, in its insane permanent war against the presidency of Barack Obama, is currently tearing Congress and American society apart. David Frum, a former Bush speechwriter, best captured the political influence Fox News has come to wield on the right of American politics: “Republicans originally thought that Fox worked for us. Now we’re discovering that we work for Fox.”
Fox News has been as politically significant in the US as the Sun has been in the UK, with one important difference. As a branch of Murdoch’s shadow political empire, the Sun has, in part at least, served the interests of his business empire. Fox News did not need to serve other Murdoch commercial interests. With a handsome annual profit, it is in its own right one of the empire’s most lucrative businesses. With Fox News, Murdoch’s two great passions – media and right-wing politics – have come together in perfect harmony.
Despite the influence he has gained in London and Washington, Murdoch has never abandoned his early ambition of shaping the political values of the country of his birth. Here the task was quite different from what had been done in the UK or the US. Because Australia is a federation, no single tabloid could possibly play the same role as the London Sun. And because Australia is a country of modest population, even if differences in national temperament could be overcome, economies of scale determine that there could never be a commercially successful cable or satellite channel of a Fox News type, whose daily audience of a million and a half in a US population of more than 300 million is enough to turn an annual profit of more than one billion dollars. If Murdoch’s direct political influence was ever to become as significant in Australia as it was in the UK and the US, a model different from the Sun or Fox News was needed.
By about 2010 the model had emerged. It consisted of separate halves. One was Murdoch’s flagship, the Australian, a curious hybrid newspaper that combines some characteristics of Murdoch’s quality broadsheets, the Times and the Wall Street Journal – detailed political and business coverage, extensive daily analysis, excellent arts pages – and other characteristics of Murdoch’s tabloids, the New York Post and the Sun – ideological simplicity, a pugnacious campaigning style, intimidation and character assassination of political opponents and critics. The readership of the Australian is modest, but it is the only general national daily, with by far the most extensive coverage and analysis of national affairs. Since 2002, under the editorship of Chris Mitchell, it has become a powerful vehicle for the propagation of the fundamental Murdoch world view – free and unregulated markets, small government, American global leadership, anti–political correctness. Although it has, almost certainly, lost hundreds of millions of dollars – handsomely subsidised until recently by News Corp’s entertainment empire – as a servant of Murdoch’s political ambitions it has been worth every dollar. Because of its ideological clarity and aggression, no one within the Australian political class – politicians, business people, public servants – could afford to ignore it.
Employee of the month. Source: murdochhere.tumblr.com
To exert maximum political influence, however, the Australian was not enough. Very gradually, no doubt instinctively rather than consciously, what News Corp has done in Australia is to turn its five state-based tabloids – the Sydney Daily Telegraph, the Melbourne Herald Sun, the Brisbane Courier-Mail, the Adelaide Advertiser and the Hobart Mercury – into a single political instrument. Of course, if they are to remain relevant these tabloids need to maintain some distinctive aspects. They must report state politics, local government, crime, community news and especially state-based sport. They must also be sensitive to differences in state temperaments – the brashness of Sydney, the frontier rawness of Brisbane, the liberalism of Melbourne, the respectability of Adelaide, the parochialism of Hobart. But, as News Corp has come to realise, in their coverage of national politics and policy and in their propagation of the Murdoch ideological agenda, there is no reason for maintaining very great differences between the News Corp metropolitan tabloids.
In part the political unification of the Murdoch tabloids has been achieved by the creation of a stable of national affairs reporters. In larger part it has been achieved by the spread of some of their most influential opinion columnists or ideology-makers from a particular tabloid to almost the entire stable. Perhaps the first example of this process of across-the-tabloid expansion at work was the neoliberal, climate-change denying Terry McCrann. The most important instance is the right-wing provocateur, Andrew Bolt, whose lengthy twice-weekly columns have spread over the past decade from the Herald Sun to the Brisbane Sunday Mail and Courier-Mail, the Advertiser and the Daily Telegraph. Of course, in the age of steady newspaper decline, a major reason for this partial national unification of the Murdoch tabloids is to cut costs. But the impact is political. What has been created, within ostensibly state-based papers, is a single Australian tabloid political voice. This is another, not sufficiently recognised, original Murdoch achievement. Through the combination of the Australian and the hydra-headed “national” tabloid, Murdoch has fashioned in Australia an instrument at least equal in potential political influence to those he fashioned in the UK and the US.
In 2007, Michael Wolff spent several months in Murdoch’s company. His The Man Who Owns the News is the most perceptive account of Murdoch and his empire. In it he argues that while the compulsory, prevailing myth of News Corp employees is that Murdoch is a hands-off owner, the truth is very different. “To work for him is to do his bidding, to follow his line, to execute his desires, to support his needs, to grind his axe, to act on behalf of his empire, to carry out his policies, to be a citizen of his nation-state with all its demanding nationalism.”
How is this accomplished? Andrew Neil worked for Murdoch for 11 years as editor of the Sunday Times and was in general treated respectfully. In his Full Disclosure he describes his relations with Murdoch like this: “Rupert has an uncanny knack of being there even when he is not. When I did not hear from him and knew his attention was elsewhere, he was still uppermost in my mind.” Many former Murdoch editors tell much the same story. If they wished to survive, they needed to internalise Murdoch’s world view. In their newspapers they always needed to seek to please him. When they woke up in the morning, they wondered what Murdoch would make of some new development. They practised a policy of “anticipatory compliance”. Despite the fact that his editors might not see him for months at a time, he was nevertheless, as one put it, “ubiquitous”, although to paraphrase George Orwell’s aphorism – “all animals are equal but some are more equal than others” – it must be the case that Murdoch has been more ubiquitous in New York or London than in Sydney, and more ubiquitous in Sydney than in Hobart.
Around late 2010, evidence suggests, Rupert Murdoch decided to use his Australian newspapers to destroy the government of Julia Gillard. So far as I am aware, it was the first such decision with regard to federal Australian politics he had taken since 1975. One reason might have been the government’s minority status. Another was the Labor government’s relations with the Greens. During a visit in 2010, he had warned Australians darkly, “Whatever you do, don’t let the bloody Greens mess it up.” In striking a formal agreement with the Greens leader, Bob Brown, Gillard had failed to follow his advice. In late April or early May 2011, Murdoch met with his Australian executives, editors and senior journalists at Carmel in California. In interviews I conducted for the Quarterly Essay ‘Bad News’, Chris Mitchell told me that on the second day of the meeting they had discussed Australian politics, while a Gillard government minister told me that he had been informed by someone who had been at Carmel that there was talk of taking the Gillard government down. In July 2011, John Hartigan, the CEO of Murdoch’s Australian operations, was interviewed on ABC television. Inadvertently, he appears to have let the cat out of the bag. “I think, you know, we’re a company of values, like most companies, and we have very implicit values, we have things that we think as a company and individually as editors that need to be done. One of them is a leadership vacuum by minority government.” Hartigan could hardly have been more explicit: the company’s editors would help undo the minority Gillard government.
It would be tedious and should be unnecessary to detail the remorseless hostility the Murdoch press showed towards the Gillard government. Let one piece of solid research suffice. On 24 February 2011, Gillard announced her government’s intention to legislate for a price on carbon emissions. On 10 July 2011, she announced the details of what was called the “Clean Energy Future” package. A team at the University of Technology, Sydney, led by Wendy Bacon, analysed the climate policy coverage of the major Australian newspapers between these dates. Once neutral articles were eliminated, it turned out that 89% of the articles in the Daily Telegraph, 85% in the Herald Sun, 84% in the Courier-Mail, 83% in the Australian, 69% in the Advertiser and 62% in the Mercury were negative. By comparison, 53% of the stories in the Sydney Morning Herald were negative and 33% in the Age. The hostility of the Murdoch press opinion columnists was even more pronounced. Ninety-six percent of the columns in the Herald Sun were negative, 89% in the Courier-Mail, 85% in both the Australian and Daily Telegraph, 79% in the Advertiser but only 58% in the Mercury. Perhaps this was in part because this was the last Murdoch tabloid that remained Andrew Bolt–free. The Bacon team counted the climate policy words of different journalists and opinion columnists during these months. Bolt contributed an astonishing 33,906, though he was surpassed by Terry McCrann, who contributed 36,887. Even though overall coverage of climate policy in the Australian was several times greater than in any of the tabloids, their most prolific climate policy journalist, Dennis Shanahan, contributed only half as many words as his two across-the-tabloid Murdoch colleagues. Nor was the hostility to the Gillard government climate-change policy of the Murdoch tabloids insignificant. During these months, the question of the carbon price became the central issue in Australian politics. And it was during these months that the popularity of the Gillard government collapsed, with first preferences for the government – for the first time in federal politics since opinion polls were conducted – commonly falling below 30%.
Even though there can be no doubt that the ubiquitous Rupert Murdoch both approved and inspired his Australian newspapers’ climate policy coverage, or that a Murdoch editor who supported the Gillard government or its climate policy would very shortly have been looking for another job, there is no direct evidence about the great man’s thoughts during these months on the carbon price in particular or the Gillard government in general. Fortunately, however, in December 2011, Murdoch – who, before Twitter was invented, conversed with friends and issued directions to subordinates in short, sharp, gruff, tweet-length sentences – became an enthusiastic tweeter. His thinking about Australian politics now instantly became transparent.
This is a little of what he thought. 5 February 2012: “Don’t understand Aussie politics. Can Kevin Rudd really come back and knife Gillard? Weird place mucking up great future.” Followed by: “Gillard once good education minister, now prisoner of minority & Greenies. Rudd still delusional who nobody could work with. Nobody else?” 24 February 2012: “Oz Labor tearing themselves to pieces. Ugly sight. Tony Abbott should just lie low and watch.” 17 May 2013: “Australia itself makes no carbon problem. China does, but what can we do other than meaningless gestures costly to every home?” 26 June 2013: “Australian public now totally disgusted with Labor Party wrecking country with it’s [sic] sordid intrigues.” 19 August 2013: “Conviction politicians hard to find anywhere. Australia’s Tony Abbott a rare exception. Opponent Rudd all over the place convincing nobody.” 7 September 2013: “Aust election public sick of public sector workers and phony welfare scroungers sucking life out of economy.” 19 September 2013: “Great first day by PM Abbott firing top bureaucrats, merging departments and killing carbon tax.”These were not merely the dyspeptic tweets of a remote, right-wing, elderly former Australian. They were the tweets of the man who owned two thirds of the metropolitan Australian press. His Australian editors no longer needed to wake up in the morning and wonder what Murdoch might be thinking. All they had to do was read his tweets. And from the date the election was called, they did not even need this prompt. Col Allan had landed to provide them with the benefit of his “insight, expertise and talent”.
When the history of the Gillard–Rudd governments is written, it will, I believe, record both failures and achievements. They will be criticised for the Rudd-based internal instability, for the faulty redesign of the mining tax, for the failure of their asylum seeker policy, for their mishandling of media reform, and above all for the folly of allowing a price on carbon to be called a carbon tax. But they will be praised for managing the most successful economy in the developed world, laying the foundations for disability insurance welfare reform, and for the introduction, albeit far too timidly, of a policy for dealing with climate change.
I am not arguing that criticism of the Gillard–Rudd governments was illegitimate, although I do believe that nothing but criticism from every News Corp paper on a daily basis over almost two and a half years certainly was. Nor am I arguing that the biased Murdoch press coverage of the 2013 federal election campaign was responsible for the Labor loss. That was inevitable more than two years earlier. What I am arguing is different. It is in principle extraordinarily unhealthy for a single corporation to own two thirds of the metropolitan press. This is the situation in no other Western nation. And it is especially unhealthy when the corporation is owned by an ideologue who has a proven track record of political manipulation and who demands that his newspapers across the globe remain committed to his views, as all 173 did, for example, during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Murdoch’s domination of the metropolitan press has two main consequences for our democracy. First, any government, no matter how worthy or unworthy, is now vulnerable should News Corp decide to target it in the way it targeted the Gillard government more than two years ago. Second, while News Corp retains its present dominance, mainstream debate about certain fundamental ideologically sensitive questions – how to respond adequately to the climate-change crisis; what levels and kinds of taxation are needed to develop the welfare state; the trajectory of foreign policy during the rise of China; Australia’s Middle Eastern policy; and, of course, media reform – is effectively ruled out in advance.
Some will argue that this analysis is too pessimistic because it overstates the importance of newspapers. It is true that newspaper readership has declined rapidly, especially in recent years. It is also true that the majority of citizens now rely more on online media, television news or radio for their news and views than on newspapers. However, the significance of all this is easily exaggerated. The majority of the most popular news websites are owned by newspapers. Most radio stations and television news programs still rely very heavily on newspapers for their daily content and for their interpretative frames. Most of the multitude of alternative blogs and websites are seen by only a tiny fraction of the population. In societies like ours, newspapers are still the most important news agenda-setters.
Others will argue that, even if News Corp’s present domination of the press in Australia is unhealthy, as eventually the newspaper industry will collapse, there is good reason not to be greatly fussed. This seems to me unconvincing. In part this prediction remains uncertain. And in part it calls to mind Maynard Keynes’ famous answer to arguments of this kind: “In the long run we are all dead.” For anyone who cares about this country, even the next ten years matter greatly. Others find consolation elsewhere, pointing to the fact that Rupert Murdoch is already in his 80s. These people need to be reminded that Murdoch’s mother lived to the age of 103.
For many years, those of us who warned of the dangers to our democracy represented by the stranglehold of the Murdoch press were routinely dismissed as conspiracy theorists. In the face of the outrageous behaviour of the Murdoch press during the election campaign, this has begun to change. Although it probably did him harm, Kevin Rudd was the first prime minister in recent history to speak honestly about the bias of the Murdoch press. Yet despite the growing awareness among genuinely liberal-minded citizens about the existence of our “Murdoch problem”, no convincing answer has yet been discovered to the basic political question: what is to be done? In theory, a concerned government could amend the Competition and Consumer Act in a way that required News Corp to sell some of its newspapers. In practice, it is hardly worth thinking about the possibilities and difficulties of framing such legislation. Any government that even considered compulsory divestment would be set upon by the News Corp papers and their powerful conservative supporters with a ferocity that would make the savaging of the Gillard government over its minor Finkelstein-inspired proposals for media reform look mild-mannered and civil. The truth is sad and salutary. News Corp’s domination of the press is a threat to Australia’s democracy. There is now no politically realistic way to overcome this problem.
In August, Bob Hawke claimed that in his long experience of Australian politics he had seen nothing to equal the virulent bias the Murdoch press showed during this year’s election campaign. I wondered whether he recalled the role his government had played in laying the foundation for this state of affairs when it facilitated News Corp’s domination of the Australian press. And I wondered whether he dimly recalled the warnings about Murdoch of the kind that the Age had issued in its January 1987 editorial: “The effective control of the media is the first step on the road to controlling the values and future direction of our society.”