November 2006 in brief

The Nation Reviewed

Walk the line

By Mungo MacCallum
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Mark Latham's latest work, A Conga Line of Suckholes, takes its tasteful title from one of the author's own more memorable epithets. Boof was referring to Liberal ministers queuing to service the American president, but the line could equally be applied to any section of the populace who failed to stay brave and true to the putative messiah. According to Latham, just about everyone deserted him in the end, largely because they were sucking up to the wrong people; and no single group of people was more wrong than the proprietors of Australia's media. To Latham, the moguls, led by Rupert Murdoch and Kerry Packer, epitomised the privileged establishment he despised.

Like many other ambitious politicians before him, though, when summoned to dinner by Murdoch in early 2004, Latham went. His diaries record: "I trekked out to Cavan [Murdoch's rural property outside Canberra] to meet with Lachlan Murdoch and John Hartigan [News Ltd's chief executive]. They wanted a ‘get to know you' opportunity so the Evil Empire must think I have a chance. No harm in turning up to see what they are up to. Paul Kelly was right about this duo: lacklustre and overrated. Most of the conversation was about children and footy ... a neutral sort of dinner. When push comes to shove these blokes will back the right-wing candidate. I have nothing to offer them."

Latham got off lightly. In the early days of Cavan, when Rupert was in residence, politicians received invitations to the property with the same sinking feeling that Henry IV must have had when Pope Gregory summoned him to Canossa. But, as with Henry, it was an offer they could not afford to refuse.

Cavan is situated on the edge of the great New South Wales squattocracy, fine grazing country made famous by such illustrious rural families as the Macarthur-Onslows. In the '70s, Cavan became the setting for Rupert Murdoch to play the Country Squire. Visitors were frequently asked to don gumboots before trudging the soggy paddocks to inspect some dangerous and smelly piece of newly acquired livestock. At night the Squire morphed into the Lord of the Manor; guests were required to dress for dinner, after which the ladies retired, leaving the menfolk to their port and cigars.

Presumably the process was designed to intimidate: in the end, most found it more of an excruciating embarrassment than anything else, but they felt compelled to go along with it because, while Murdoch's support was seldom decisive and never reliable, his hostility was invariably ferocious and unforgiving. In what had been a world of media certainty, Murdoch was the wildcard.

Back at the start of the '60s it had all looked so stable and predictable: there were three main media groups, all of them solidly conservative and run by men no more likely to urge their readers to vote Labor than to send their children to the local state school. Most widespread was the Herald and Weekly Times, under the control of the implacable Sir Keith Macpherson, with newspapers in Melbourne, Adelaide, Brisbane and Perth, and radio and television to match. Fairfax ran the Sydney Morning Herald and the Australian Financial Review, and from 1966 was in partnership with the Melbourne Age, giving it effective control of the quality end of the market.

And then there was the Packer group, dominating the magazines and the holder of the most profitable television licences. It only ran one newspaper - the Sydney Daily Telegraph - but, with its unwavering partisanship, it delivered votes so effectively that its proprietor was known to Sir Robert Menzies as "dear old Sir Frank". Rival politicians used other descriptions, but there was nothing they could do about it: the establishment press was the establishment press, or, as the Left might put it, the filthy capitalist press was the running dog of the neo-fascist oppressors. Everyone knew where they stood.

True, there were aberrations: when Sir Warwick Fairfax belatedly discovered that his first wife had conducted an affair with Menzies, the Sydney Morning Herald had a rather less passionate affair with Menzies's opponent, Arthur Calwell. But it didn't last; in the end, class told. And after all, it was Menzies who had given Fairfax those amazingly lucrative television licences. It would have been churlish to allow a little hanky-panky - now, in any case, past - to spoil such a long and successful relationship.

Murdoch's entry into this cosy arrangement changed everything. Not only was he notorious for flirting with the Left - during his time at Oxford he had been known, briefly and ironically, as Red Rupert - but he also had a king-size chip on his shoulder. His father had once run the giant HWT Group, but had been ousted by the Macpherson forces; Rupert's measly inheritance was the struggling Adelaide News. But he was determined, both for his own sake and for that of his forceful mother, Dame Elisabeth, to reclaim and even surpass his father's fortune. And if that meant breaking ranks with the establishment, so much the better.

At first, he concentrated on building a stable of suburban publications, with a couple of afternoon tabloids whose political impact was minimal. Young Rupert, as he was called patronisingly at the Cruising Yacht Club, the kind of venue whose respect he craved, was hardly frightening the horses. Then in 1964 he took his great gamble in opening the Australian, and the media landscape tilted alarmingly. From the start, the newspaper opposed Australia's involvement in Vietnam, which in practice meant opposing the government; when Menzies sent ground troops in 1965, the rift was complete.

Labor could hardly believe its luck - the more so when in 1971 the Liberals made Billy McMahon prime minister. Murdoch had not had much time for any of Menzies's successors; he had respected Harold Holt but, with some misgivings, had allowed the Australian to ridicule John Gorton. However, he genuinely despised McMahon, if only because his rival Sir Frank Packer openly referred to McMahon as "Our man in Canberra". And Labor's cup positively overflowed when Packer agreed to sell the Daily Telegraph to Murdoch. After the two had shaken hands, Packer rang the prime minister to give him the news; the wail of despair that came back down the line was audible across the room. Murdoch took the phone: "I promise, prime minister," he gloated, "that we will be as fair to you as you deserve." Packer interposed: "If you do that, you'll murder him" - which the Murdoch press duly did.

Egotistically, Gough Whitlam mistook Murdoch's trashing of McMahon for an enthusiastic endorsement of himself, but then Murdoch presented the bill for services rendered. Just for starters, he wanted to be appointed High Commissioner to the Court of St James in London, while still maintaining his active role as a media proprietor. Aghast, Whitlam refused and, just to rub it in, went on to legislate against Murdoch's mining interests in Western Australia. Murdoch proceeded to run a vendetta against Whitlam even more brutal than that against McMahon, thus proving that he saws his role as that of kingbreaker rather than kingmaker.

Not that it mattered to the politicians, who still felt the need to grovel one way or the other. And, as time passed, it became still more complicated. Unprecedentedly, both the depleted Packer group under Kerry, the now-public Fairfax group and even the HWT Group (now triumphantly reclaimed by Murdoch) all at one time or another endorsed a federal Labor government under Bob Hawke.

The old certainties were broken forever. So now the conga line of political suckholes from all parties can be seen wending its humiliating way not just to Cavan and the Murdoch group's other fastnesses (now spread as far as Aspen, Colorado), but also to more mundane shrines like Darling Harbour, Park Street and Flinders Street - anywhere they are called, in an endless and frequently futile quest to ensure, if not the support, then at least the neutrality of the media gods.

It was not always thus. Victor Courtney recalls an occasion in 1941 when John Curtin, shortly after becoming prime minister, was confronted by an unnamed media mogul demanding favours. "I'm afraid I had to talk very straight with him," Curtin said. "I said to this man: ‘I want you to understand that I obey nobody else but the people of Australia. You may as well know that you have nothing in the world that I want.'" And indeed, Curtin went on to win the next election - as might any other leader brave enough to leave the conga line. It would be nice if someone were game to try. Of course, the last one who did that was Mark Latham, and look what happened to him.

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.

Cover: November 2006

November 2006 in brief