The Rupertvirus
News Corp’s COVID coverage has been a health risk of its own

The first time that The Australian’s readers saw COVID-19 mentioned in that particular fish-and-chips wrapper was on 22 January this year, which was also the first time The Australian described COVID-19 as a “Chinese virus”. A week later, its tabloid stablemate, Melbourne’s Herald Sun, placed that phrase inside a clever little face-mask graphic on its front page together with the intentionally misspelt “Pandamonium”, with the first five letters highlighted in white to emphasise the virus’s Chineseness, for anyone who’d missed the significance of the graphic’s red-and-gold palette.

It was typical tabloid: viciously poke “fun” at someone’s expense, and then gaslight respondents who get upset. During late January and February, The Australian often referred to the “China virus”. But the Herald Sun’s “Chinese virus” graphic accompanied a report that, by News Corp standards, was fairly straight. Victoria’s education minister had “slammed” schools that had gone out ahead of official health advice and had told asymptomatic students who had returned from China to stay away. As things turned out, the schools’ stance was sensible, though the Herald Sun was sticking to the (then) official advice. As that advice shifted quickly to travel bans and quarantine, News Corp stayed with it, while acknowledging the obvious threat the virus posed to Australia’s – and the world’s – economy.

But News didn’t stick to the official advice for long. Panic buying of toilet paper led Andrew Bolt to conclude by early March that there was a madness at the core of our collective response to the virus, and he began downplaying its threat and dismissing anyone who didn’t as “alarmist”. He briefly conceded the urgency as Australia’s first wave of infections climbed exponentially through mid-March, but by the end of the month he had begun to wonder whether the “cure” (global lockdowns and fiscal stimulus) was more harmful than the virus. Why? Because Cory Bernardi and Donald Trump were saying so. As a self-styled “conservative”, Bolt is deeply suspicious of anything that deviates from the policies and social norms he’s comfortable with. “Don’t Australians realise this spending must all be repaid, with interest?” Bolt asked under the wacky headline “Marxism doesn’t work and this will hurt”.

For the first month, the coronavirus was too new to work out how to talk about it other than factually. But by April, Bolt and the rest of News Corp’s echo chamber of equally self-styled conservatives had settled on a way of politicising the coronavirus – that is, of talking about the virus as a proxy for their usual hang-ups: immigration, “political correctness”, “left-wing” media, global “warmists”, identity politics and “socialism”. Continued lockdowns became “economic suicide”. Those who advocated them, including chief health and medical officers, premiers and (when he wasn’t telling everyone to go to the footy) the prime minister, became “panic junkies” who had been sucked in by the “alarmist media”. In case you don’t know, that’s code for the ABC, Guardian Australia, The Monthly and, basically, everyone who’s subscribed to the “warmist” conspiracy that carbon dioxide emissions caused by the industrial burning of fossil fuels is causing climate change. As long-time observers of this alarmism, News Corp’s coterie of conservatives – all equally qualified in epidemiology and disease control – was easily able to identify similar patterns in these outlets’ overheated coverage of coronavirus. Alarmism had led to voluntary shutdowns (“suicide”) and big government spending, which is the whole Green socialist agenda repackaged, dammit.

Once they realised this, Rupert’s Right charged forth with all the misplaced confidence of a lobotomised dung beetle. The World Health Organization, now that it was “screaming that the death rate is worse than the flu”, was the epidemiological equivalent of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. “But don’t be fooled,” Bolt assured his legion of loyal followers. “Coronavirus is much less deadly than you’ve been told.” IPCC-style bogus modelling had “proved to be so absurdly wrong that it’s been labelled ‘worthless’”, Rita Panahi scoffed, “but it’s been swallowed hook, line and sinker” by the “alarmist” media, academia and political class. New Zealand may have effectively eradicated COVID-19, but it was still led by the socialist warmist Jacinda Ardern. So, as Adam Creighton pointed out in The Australian, “If New Zealand’s the coronavirus role model then we’re in strife.” More than two thirds of people dying of coronavirus in Victoria’s second wave were in aged-care homes, Bolt reasoned, but “40 per cent of aged-care home residents die within nine months” anyway. He told his Sky News audience, “A real pandemic would look more deadly than this one.”

If anything deserves the label “worthless”, it’s this bilious tripe. Last Friday, The Australian’s front page screamed that Victoria’s “COVID Cases Peak” was “Still Weeks Away”. The accompanying story by Dennis Shanahan cited the Victorian government’s own “confidential modelling”, and splashed a terrifying column graph just under the headline that clearly predicted the number of new daily infections would continue to climb even under stage-four restrictions. The graph was perfect. It demonstrated the utter futility of locking down and the phenomenal failure of “Chairman Dan” Andrews’s Socialist Republic of Victoria. Except it just wasn’t true. The modelling wasn’t the Victorian government’s. It wasn’t even modelling. The graph had been generated by some guy on Twitter.

There are flecks of value buried beneath the bilge. We should ask questions about the restrictions. Is the goal curve-flattening containment or Kiwi-style eradication? What’s the theory behind each restriction, and what’s the evidence for its efficacy? How do we weigh public-health restrictions against civil liberties? Are punitive responses to restriction-busters the right ones? It may be going too far to suggest, as Creighton did when Andrews imposed stage four, that an “effective dictatorship” had been declared south of the Murray. But there are still many questions about, for instance, the five-day lockdown of the nine public housing towers in Melbourne’s inner north that demand answers.

Public discourse needs against-the-grain thinkers, including conservative ones. But anyone who’s sat through any of the Sky News love-ins – during which talking heads as diverse as Peta Credlin and Campbell Newman compete to agree more vigorously than the other – knows there’s precious little thinking on display. When tens of thousands of people demonstrated in support of the Black Lives Matter movement on June 6, Rupert’s Right temporarily forgot its newfound respect for civil liberties, its opposition to lockdowns and its denial of COVID’s danger. “Hypocritical savagery on display in moronic march,” frothed the headline on Bolt’s column. “The weekend’s ‘anti-racism’ protest is based on falsehoods, and was dangerous not just in breaking the social-distancing laws that protect us from coronavirus, but in painting the police as racist.” The protests had everything the Murdoch media could dream of. It was as if Greta Thunberg had declared herself the general secretary of a Green world government and was making everyone reverse colonisation and install backyard windmills.

Much of the Murdoch media’s output is risible or stupid. Its nastiest element is an unapologetic, scapegoating racism that unsubtly privileges white readers and viewers based on their status as cultural descendants of the country’s European settlers. To its list of favourite topics (Islamic extremism, Melbourne’s Apex “gang” and Middle Eastern crime waves) the Right was soon able to add Victoria’s second wave of COVID-19 by blaming Africans, Muslims, Indians and Islanders working in aged care and security firms. Never mind that these industries are characterised by extraordinarily insecure work arrangements, itself a consequence of neoliberal theory in practice. Mark Latham – once a major contributor to a structural analysis of Australian society – wants to blame “identity politics” for Victoria’s hotel quarantine disaster because it used an Indigenous-owned company, Unified Security.

Often, Rupert’s Right is best ignored for fear of inflaming an already idiotic debate, but occasionally it does something genuinely dangerous. When three young women returned to Brisbane from Melbourne via Sydney late last month without making the necessary declarations, without self-isolating, and subsequently tested positive for coronavirus, the Right couldn’t believe its luck that the women turned out to be ethnically African. As Brisbanites expressed fury at the prospect that the women may spark the city’s own second wave, editors Chris Dore, Sam Weir and Michelle Gunn made the almost unbelievable decision to publish the women’s names and two of their faces on the front pages of both The Australian and The Courier-Mail, the latter under the headline “Enemies of the State”. Almost but not quite unbelievable, that is, to observers of News Corp’s descent into alt-right absurdity. The women had been criminally foolish, but so had many others. Nobody else among the (then) 17,000 people who’d tested positive in Australia had been outed in this way, despite thousands apparently breaking isolation regulations. Unsurprisingly, the women became the targets of torrents of racist abuse. The point was underscored when, over the next week, The Courier-Mail reported on a handful of deliberate border-breachers, including a private security contractor who had returned from Afghanistan, and appropriately kept their identities anonymous – without once acknowledging the threat to civil order it had created by outing the three women.

Like all freedoms, that of speech and a free press can be abused. For years now, the stable of “news” papers and TV stations owned by Murdoch’s companies have been mobilised in the prosecution of an aggressive, divisive and nasty culture war on behalf of angry white men and their supporters. Editor after editor lines up to deny that there’s any kind of company line that’s explicitly set by the man who inherited the Adelaide News from his father, Keith. Perhaps the company is itself afflicted by a virus.

Russell Marks

Russell Marks is a lawyer and an honorary research associate at La Trobe University. He is the author of Crime and Punishment: Offenders and Victims in a Broken Justice System (Black Inc., 2015). 

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