Politics

The view from Billinudgel

When journalists revolt
New Corp’s influence is being tested this election

AAP Image / Paul Miller

It was in 1975 that the Murdoch bias against the Labor government finally pushed the dictatorial mogul’s journalists over the edge; they jacked up and went on strike.

In the wake of the sacking of Gough Whitlam’s government, the election was bound to be bitter and fraught. But the blatant dishonesty of the coverage in the Murdoch media, and especially of its flagship masthead, The Australian, proved it had abandoned any pretence of objectivity.

Every story had to be anti-Labor – no ifs, no buts, no frills or qualifications. It was unvarnished polemic, denigration and abuse. Remind you of anything?

The strikers knew there would be consequences and costs: some later resigned, others were demoted or sidelined. And although the market for journalists was less constrained than it is today, it was no picnic. Rupert’s loyalists, of course, doubled down: I was assured by one that the strikers were communists to a man.

While it was undoubtedly true that some, but not all, were Labor supporters, this was not the point; the strikers accepted that the proprietor had a right to set the paper’s overall stance, and they had put up with it for years. But in 1975 any idea of news gathering was subordinated to the demands of destroying the hated Whitlam – who had snubbed Murdoch’s demands for personal advantage – as the first and only priority. The strike was not about taking sides, but about journalistic integrity.

Now, 44 years later, any fire left in the bellies of News Corp journalists has been extinguished – those who work for Murdoch know exactly what is expected of them. Objectivity is not an optional extra, although some feign to retain the odd ethic.

Hence, when Sydney’s Daily Telegraph delivered its hit job on Bill Shorten by challenging his account of his dead mother’s life story last week, it was taken up with gusto by Brisbane’s Courier-Mail, but not Melbourne’s Herald Sun. This was claimed by Andrew Bolt, one of Murdoch’s most zealous propagandists, as proof of the organisation’s pluralism – and as soon as he had drawn breath he reverted to his real work of badmouthing Shorten.

And it certainly seemed likely that the Hun’s restraint had little to do with ethics and a lot to do with tactics: in Victoria, the hatchet job may have been seen as counterproductive. Meanwhile, back on the flagship, The Australian put Shorten’s response to the story on page 6, highlighting the Terror’s defence: this was legitimate because Shorten, in his account of his mother’s struggles to obtain employment and a law degree, had not added that she had eventually secured an “illustrious” career in the bar. In fact she hadn’t: she had graduated, but struggled to get worthwhile briefs because of her age and gender.

All of this was on the public record in Shorten’s own words, but the Terror pretended that it was some sort of deceitful dodge. No self-respecting journalist would have written the piece. But then, no self-respecting journalist would have constantly demeaned themselves by following the relentlessly and ruthlessly partisan line demanded of them. Strike be buggered – back to the cesspool. It’s warmer and cosier there.

But it may not be forever; given the now open warfare between Shorten and Murdoch, there are two head-to-head contests to be decided on Saturday. And if ScoMo goes down, whatever remaining credibility and influence News Corp retained will also be shredded.

Which will not be good news for the hired guns. It might have been smarter to strike while the iron was still hot; Murdoch has no time for losers.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

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