Denialism, nihilism and the Murdoch propaganda machine
The slim, match-fit form of The Daily Telegraph columnist Piers Akerman, resplendent in a blue Tony Abbott T-shirt, and standing next to the former prime minister, was not supposed to be there. Not supposed to be in the photo, that is. It was Abbott who posted the picture to social media, accidentally revealing his mate on the hustings. A “campaigning columnist” didn’t used to mean someone literally handing out flyers, but that devolution, from advocate to participant, was not really surprising anymore. Could you call it a breach of journalistic ethics? “A lot of people are looking at this thinking, this surely crosses a line,” Mark Kenny said on the ABC’s Insiders. But it’s hard to breach journalistic ethics when neither journalism nor ethics are involved, so perhaps the wider media reaction – bemusement – was the right one. As usual, the presence of Akerman was treated as just another regrettable ideological excess of an otherwise normal news organisation.
Except it isn’t a normal news organisation any longer. At News Corp – in an inversion of journalism’s ideal– the old-fashioned, straight-down-the-line reporting is expendable and surplus to requirements. It is the unhinged propaganda outfit that is central to the identity of the company. It is the core that is lunatic, not the fringe.
By the standard of his stablemates, Akerman’s doorknocking was unremarkable. He was not, like the associate editor of The Australian, Chris Kenny, a former Coalition chief of staff campaigning for a Liberal candidate who was his own sister, or, like the national affairs editor of The Australian, Simon Benson, advising Abbott over a private dinner that “the only people who give a shit about the kids on Nauru are in Kooyong and Wentworth”. These kinds of contacts go undeclared, presumably on the principle that if you’re past the paywall, you’ve got the gist already.
In the lead-up to an election, the ridiculousness of News Corp front pages, especially on the tabloids, is so pervasive and routine it has almost become part of the pageantry. The bias, like New Years Eve fireworks, gets bigger every occasion, and this time is ascending into the awesome and spectacular. Former prime minister Kevin Rudd, who has called the Murdoch media a “cancer on democracy”, documented the front-page tumours on Twitter: “Bill’s $5k car-bon tax”, “Labor climate plan hits food costs”, “PM warns of Labor’s $380bn tax grab”, “Scomo ready to go: Morrison into poll position”. The standout was The Courier-Mail all but devoting its splash to a premature how-to-vote card (except real how-to-vote cards aren’t punctuated by bullet holes, and don’t say “RI$K” next to Labor).
The pantomime staged during this festival centres on an important character type, a kind of fall-guy figure called “the good journalist”, whose role is to work at News, and then hand-wring in private about how awful all this is, as though this unpleasantness has come as a huge shock and they have found themselves trapped at an embarrassing masthead by mistake. You might recognise them from the rejoinder phrase “at least they’ve got some good journalists”, so vital for defusing the discomfort of legitimate (and always insufficient) critiques of media peers.
So far, these players have discharged their role to perfection, with “sources” telling Amanda Meade in Guardian Australia’s “Weekly Beast” column that staff at the “Queensland masthead say this week’s effort upset more than a few. Many … were ‘mortified and embarrassed’ by the editor’s none-too-subtle treatment of the budget.” Bravissimo. There is a theoretical particle called a graviton that is supposed to exert the weakest force in the universe, but until its discovery, the “good journalists” of News Corp will have to hold that title.
Other reporters commiserate with them – I have done it myself – treating grown adults as if they are somehow victims of their own chosen employment. It is a folie à deux: you have to pretend that your confidant has become adrift in a rudderless ship of fools (and don’t mention the bad “journalists” towing them in a motorboat), while they have to pretend they are working on the kinks of their troubled conscience, as though they weren’t already smoothed out on payday.
Occasionally, senior News journalists do voice their dissatisfaction in public. On Murdoch’s Sky News Australia, where the battle for the network’s soul plays out daily before the sun sets and the witching hour begins, the anchor Kieran Gilbert finally snapped, live and on air. He was trying to do serious political analysis against the interjections of a time-travelling medieval oaf called Paul Murray, who was fulfilling the terms of his employment by repeatedly calling Bill Shorten “disgusting” (Exhibit A: footage showing Shorten talking to voters). Gilbert had had enough. “You’re not a big fan of Bill Shorten’s,” he said to Murray. “He could have orchestrated the Second Coming and you probably wouldn’t have been too positive about it. So that’s the starting point, isn’t it?” Then David Speers broke them up, and balance – which is to say no balance – was restored.
Under normal circumstances – if all that was at stake was another Scott Morrison term, or a two-year-long hysterical episode about vilification law – we could probably leave these petty humiliations to play themselves out. Rudd might be right (you won’t see me write that very often), but until recently in Australia, the Murdoch media was a kind of stage-one cancer of democracy, something causing pain and fatigue, but not terminal. Apply light critique, appeal to angels of better nature, repeat for 40 years.
Part of this cycle has been a particular kind of article(or essay, or book) that accumulates and presents the sexist, racist, vituperative and weaponised propaganda of News Corp over time. This is not one of those articles. There are enough of those already, outlining thousands of incidents, and together, they describe only what is going on and not what to do about it. Their conclusions are usually quite tepid and reliant on either News Corp journalists to create accountability themselves or other journalists to create accountability for them. This was always a hopeful approach. It now looks like a delusional one. The defensiveness, and self-defensiveness, of journalists, always abundant, is brimming. Spooked by dire working conditions, pressed into an artificial guild solidarity by the long winter of cutbacks, they are not going to turn on their own, especially when that means jeopardising a job with the biggest employer in town.
Matters are too urgent to leave to this ineffectual opposition. Their professional respect is not even reciprocal – in the United States, the heat arraigned against the media has become so intense that when I was planning to attend a political rally, I was advised to buy some body armour. Anyone who thinks Fox News isn’t partly responsible for that is kidding themselves.
Fear is part of what tempers the criticism, but there is another reason we don’t describe things as they are: it sounds unreal.
It sounds unreal to say that News Corp is not a media organisation. It sounds outré to say that it is instead a political propaganda entity of a kind perhaps not seen since the 19th century, one that has climbed to its pedestal through regulatory capture, governmental favours and menace, and is now applying its energies to the promotion of white nationalism, even as white nationalists commit scores of murders.
It defends a child rapist and demeans his victims. It degrades and cows the national broadcaster until it threatens its function, and occasionally its existence. It undermines the rule of law. It does everything it can to impinge on climate change action, just as the ramifications of climate change begin to bite. Who has the better predictive record: climate scientists or boosters of the Iraq War? Now dwell for a moment on News’s relative treatment of each. We are stuck listening to the megaphoned opinions of the wrong people, who have been rewarded rather than penalised for their failure.
News Corp is not merely biased against Labor and in favour of the Liberals. This underestimates the international nature of the franchise. It is a series of multi-platform metastases that endanger minorities – sexual, racial and religious – all over the world. Right now, in the US, it is pouring its hatreds onto individuals– with a special emphasis on women, and women of colour in particular – in a manner unchanged by the upsurge of massacre and vigilantism. Its treatment of the Muslim congresswoman Ilhan Omar is an almost carbon copy of the treatment it meted out locally to Yassmin Abdel-Magied. All this has happened with the “good journalists” barely uttering a peep. Any potential friction this would cause with people of colour in the newsrooms is solved by having almost none. Some of those have left, unable to bear the culpability.
Any one of these factors, by themselves, would make an entity like this dangerous. Together, they represent an existential threat to democratic society. If you think this is hypothetical, or hyperbolic, look to the US post-Trump, or the United Kingdom post-Brexit, and realise that this is what these people fought for – and they want it to happen here. “It’s mind-blowing to look at the wreckage of UK politics, realize that it’s basically all Rupert Murdoch’s fault, and then look back to the US and realize that’s *also* all Rupert Murdoch’s fault”, the American political analyst Matt Yglesias tweeted in March. It’s a simplification – these are complex, multi-factorial events (and it’s also Lachlan Murdoch’s fault) – but it is not a simplification to say that the Murdoch media has ultimately been the decisive factor. The evidence, both quantitative and anecdotal, is very clear.
The MSNBC host Chris Hayes replied to Yglesias: “Australia ain’t doing so hot either.” He was right, yet at the same time Australia’s political turmoil has a different character to it: more of a depression than a psychosis, a decade in which we have lurched from one dysfunctional government to another. News Corp hasn’t been entirely responsible, but it must carry a significant share of the blame. If we could borrow from one Labor PM demonised by News, its influence “doesn’t explain everything. It doesn’t explain nothing. It explains some things. And it is for the nation to think in a sophisticated way about those shades of grey.” Unable to fully implement its own agenda in the political arena, News has instead stymied the reforms of others, in particular making action on climate change impossible.
This election offers an opportunity to repudiate that agenda. News Corp does not have its preferred candidate in the Lodge – that would be Peter Dutton – but it has a close analogue in Scott Morrison. The shared strategy of both is, or was, the demonisation of migrants, something that has always appealed to News. Most recently, the Herald Sun and the Liberal Party made attacks on a Sudanese “crime wave” central to the last Victorian election, very unsuccessfully. But this old favourite became briefly unacceptable in the aftermath of the Christchurch massacre, and without this centrepiece, the government for a moment looked like a sales force in search of a product, before settling on a battle over taxes.
Yet the danger has not passed, and will not pass if Labor wins. If history is a guide, there will be some post-election months of ingratiating best behaviour, the loss will be laid at the feet of Liberal moderates (who are on their way out of the party anyway), and News will lament that the right was too kind. At first glance a Shorten prime ministership will look like a moment of progressive ascendency, and a consequent moment of weakness for the Murdoch agenda (Shorten has already broken with tradition by declining an invitation to meet the mogul in person). But if Dutton or Morrison becomes Opposition leader, and Sky News continues its shape-shifting into Fox News while broadcasting free-to-air on regional network WIN, the components of a reactionary doomsday device are being assembled at the same time.
Progressives must not be fooled by this quiet period. They must not meekly wait their turn. They must not rely on journalists to defend them. They must not simply hope for the best. Instead they must do something very different: apply any legal means necessary to stop the bad actors within News, before it is too late. All the limit cases have already been passed. Self-accountability has failed, and so has accountability created by the media class. It is time for accountability to be created by the direct action of civil society itself.
Any thinking Australian has spent the better part of two decades looking across the Tasman with envy. I spent several months living there in 2017 and, in person, the difference seemed so pronounced it was almost shaming. Since roughly the turn of the millennium, just as Australia has stalled and regressed, New Zealand has matured and progressed. They stayed out of the Iraq War, while we entered it. They came to terms with their colonial history, while we denied ours. They invited refugees, while we made a show of punishing them. Friendlier, less belligerent, more cultured, more innovative and somehow more at ease, New Zealand really was, in the shopworn parlance, “punching above its weight”, while Australia settled into being merely punchy, assuming the international role of a small man with a big mouth. The absence of News Corp media in New Zealand, surely a factor in all this, felt like fresh air.
When I was in Dunedin, a few suburbs away lived another Australian expat who, it turns out, was drawn by a similar sense of sanctuary. He was plotting to puncture it; he was in New Zealand for the express purpose of planning a massacre. He believed an attack would prove that there are no safe places left anywhere in the world. He was an immigrant plotting to kill other immigrants as a protest against immigration. New Zealand’s readily available semiautomatic weapons were a drawcard; so too its relative public safety and absence of terrorism, which meant a plethora of soft targets. You will know that this attack was realised, and that it killed 50 people in Christchurch, all of them unarmed, among them many women and children. It was also livestreamed on Facebook and watched by an audience of nearly 200, mainly drawn from the racist message boards of the website 8Chan, where the killer posted regularly. None of these people reported it to authorities, or even to Facebook, for the duration of those 17 minutes of broadcasted killing.
Several of the more horror-seasoned observers to this, veteran correspondents of war zones or genocides, said the video was the worst thing they had ever seen. It is not the first example of what could be called “massacre as meme” – the Utøya killer described his murder of 77 young people in Norway as “marketing” for his manifesto– but it was the most advanced. The livestreaming was new and so was the soundtrack (the killer blared Serbian pro-genocide songs and British Grenadier marches in his car en route, and then set up a speaker in the mosque). The live and largely appreciative online audience was also a dystopian innovation. I would recommend not watching the video, but a taste of its soul-destroying quality can be found in the live reactions on 8Chan, now archived: “Piling into the corners like rats is not how you survive this sort of shit. Buncha cowards. So much for the protection of Allah.” Fifty dead, with a comment section cheering on a mass shooting as a form of nihilistic slapstick. What do you say after that?
But you have to say something, and New Zealand, which had this travesty thrust upon it, turned the conversation to resilience, love and inclusion. “My belief in the humanity of New Zealanders has strengthened,” said the prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, afterwards. “I just know we have a lot of work to do to make that universal.” Her response was praised internationally for its poise and compassion. Those who had contributed to a climate of prejudice that turned to violence began to apologise: “I look back at my comments ashamed,” the Christchurch-based radio host Chris Lynch wrote, rescinding an old column about Islam. A 95-year-old veteran called John Sato took four buses to attend a rally against racism at Auckland’s Aotea Square. “I think it’s such a tragedy, and yet it has the other side,” he said on Radio New Zealand. “It has brought people together, no matter what their race or anything. People suddenly realised we’re all one. We care for each other.”
If you knew nothing about Australia, you might think that this process of reflection, accountability and protest would begin here as well, since it is this society that produced and exported the killer, incubated his prejudices, and then subjected its national neighbours to them. But that naive hope would fundamentally misunderstand where we are and what we are doing. There was no unity in grief – the trans-Tasman contrast became more pronounced than ever. Where New Zealand chose maturity, Australia chose malign idiocy. Everything was permissible, as long as it was irrelevant.
Before the bodies had cooled, the “national discussion” had explored the optics of censure motions, the question of whether or not egging someone was political violence, the ethics of undercover journalism, the hurt feelings of journalists, the hurt feelings of Pauline Hanson, whether or not David Koch should be fired for hurting her feelings (thousands on social media thought so), and the regulation of unrelated media platforms like Twitter. Wasn’t it really about social media? Weren’t the Greens really as extreme as – wait, more extreme than – One Nation? The Murdoch media said so with an almost unified voice. The Greens politician Mehreen Faruqi was really the same as the neo-Nazi senator Fraser Anning, said the minister for home affairs. Both-siderism, long an incurable disease, became a terminal one.
Australian conservatives seemed most concerned that someone might take their racism away. In The Sydney Morning Herald, the former Howard government minister Amanda Vanstone wrote a piece headlined “It’s not wrong to worry about immigration in the wake of terror”, as though there was some danger that a multimillion-dollar, multi-channel, multi-title media apparatus dedicated to this worry might be switched off overnight. The prime minister’s office threatened to sue our most prominent Muslim broadcaster. Pauline Hanson was invited onto ABC radio’s flagship Breakfast program to discuss One Nation’s preferences and Australian immigration rates.
Andrew Bolt drew an equivalence between Christchurch and “left-wing terrorism”, by which he meant the time someone threw glitter at him. Chris Kenny drew an equivalence between the fostering of bigotry and someone on the ABC joking about conservatives being murdered: it turned out he had mistaken a discussion about a murder mystery featuring art conservators for a Maoist insurgency. In two sad little articles in The Australian, Judith Sloan and someone called “The Mocker” decided to criticise Jacinda Ardern, as though offended by her dignity.
As one, they repudiated the idea that either the mainstream Australian media, the most openly and pervasively Islamophobic in the English-speaking world, or the country’s wider culture of unfettered racism had anything to do with this Islamophobic Australian murderer. He was instead inspired by the “ancient racisms of Europe and the fanaticism of medieval Christians”, according to a hastily written 300-word article by TheAustralian’s defence and national security editor, Paul Maley. “With Australia’s political class poised for a national bout of cultural self-loathing … it is worth noting there is zero evidence the man paid any attention to anything said or done in this country since 2014.” In fact, it was quickly revealed, the killer had posted many times on Australian far-right Facebook groups as late as 2016, and made a cash donation to an Australian anti-Muslim group, but this cheap attempt at exoneration was never amended or corrected. If there was no culpability, then why lie about it?
Maley’s excuse-making wasn’t an outlier. This hand-washing instinct, the reflexive equation of self-examination with self-loathing, was pervasive and astutely diagnosed by the American feminist Roxane Gay who happened to be in town. It was, she said on NITV, a quality of invincible naivety that made a real conversation about Australian race relations so impossible. “I find Australians to be just in deep denial about the problems of race here. I find them to be not even willing to entertain the possibility that racism exists,” she said. “And it’s challenging, but— actually there’s no but, it’s just challenging, and it’s disheartening, and I think it must be incredibly disheartening to be a person of colour here in Australia.”
It is that faux naivety, when expressed as a form of amnesia, that makes the public discourse in Australia reset with the frequency of a sitcom. “Are racist cartoons racist? Why are they racist? Well, the Press Council doesn’t agree!” is the kind of position that is prosecuted again and again from scratch. So too “Why is Islamophobia wrong?” Even argued in bad faith, “One Nation and the Greens are equally bad” is a belief constructed from such intricate self-delusion that it is difficult to counter from first principles. If it is not self-evident, how can you make it evident? If it is not widely accepted that prejudice is racism, and that racism is bad, or that white nationalism is dangerous whether its consequences extend to murder or not (and they do), what happens next?
You could make a coherent, albeit unconvincing, classical liberal free speech argument that the media doesn’t make anyone do anything, that unpleasant views are better ventilated than suppressed, that responsibility for extremism lies with the extremists themselves. But this is not at all like the mainstay of the arguments offered by News-led Australian conservatives, which rely on a bafflingly selective application of principle. If a social media giant publishes material that breaches community standards, it should be brought to heel by a regulator. But if a national newspaper does, regulating it is authoritarianism. Section 18C is a grave impediment to free speech, but the more commonly used and repressive defamation legislation is fine. Racists can express their democratic right at a neo-Nazi rally, but vegan protesters are “domestic terrorists” who need to be shut down. These contradictions are much more intelligible when seen for what they are: not tenets of a political philosophy, but aspects of a commercial strategy, a business model.
Alongside the inability of Facebook and Twitter to corral extremist material, it is this commercial strategy that is responsible for the mainstreaming of white nationalist sentiment not just in Australia but also in the US, and to a lesser extent in the UK. There is still an argument within political science about the degree to which media hate speech directly produces real-life violence (one influential study, by the American science journal PLOS One, chose New Zealand for its experimental conditions, because it had so little native Islamophobia), but it’s irrefutable that it contributes to an atmosphere that fosters violence. The BBC called Christchurch “Australia’s moment of hate speech reckoning”. This was true. But the hate was embraced rather than repudiated: three weeks after the massacre, The Australian was already running the headline: “Whites find their knight in Eric Kaufmann”.
The reference is to a Canadian politics professor, whose 2018 book Whiteshift is a more dilute and studied version of the same “Great Replacement” theory that catalysed the killer. The latter’s manifesto has been described as extreme and incoherent, poorly written, pretentious and verbose, but aside from trolling and extraneous flourishes, it is not really any of those things. At its core it echoes a quite commonplace tenet of Australian conservatism: that Muslims represent an unprecedented threat to the West, particularly in demographic terms. Change the typeface and the byline, and most of it could run in the Australian press any day of the week. It is only the tactics that are deemed unacceptable.
Take this kind of sentiment:
… the second wave of multiculturalism has been an unmitigated disaster for not only Australia and Britain, but also much of Europe. This is the wave of immigrants and refugees who have poured out of the Islamic hell-holes of the Middle East, Africa and Asia over the last few decades, bringing with them a political ideology disguised as a religion that has no interest in integration, but only wishes to leech off the generous welfare and political freedoms of the West.
This comes not from the Christchurch killer’s manifesto, nor from one of Senator Fraser Anning’s Facebook posts, but from an editorial in the Australian edition of The Spectator, edited by Sky’s Outsiders host Rowan Dean. The magazine came complete with a cover praising the archetypal British white nationalist Enoch Powell.
As a case study it has plenty of company: if Sky News’s “after dark” programming is not getting into bed with neo-Nazis and card-carrying Islamophobes, it is at least staying in the same dorm room. Before he was fired as a Sky host, Ross Cameron was a speaker for the anti-Islam Q Society (at the same event, the cartoonist Larry Pickering announced “Let’s be honest, I can’t stand Muslims”, in case there were any doubts about the tenor of the occasion). The “identitarian” Lauren Southern, given extensive and beneficial coverage by both Sky and News platforms while she was in Australia, is a close associate of Martin Sellner, the head of Generation Identity’s Austrian branch. He was raided by police after they discovered the Christchurch killer had made what was described as a “disproportionately high donation” to Sellner’s group. Southern chose former members of the United Patriots Front as her security detail when in town – the Christchurch killer was an enthusiastic poster to their Facebook page. Sky invited neo-Nazi leader Blair Cottrell onto the network – the Christchurch killer had praised him as an “Emperor”. These appearances were not sober cross-examinations: several Sky News presenters took time to pose for selfies with Southern, Cottrell and the now-banned Milo Yiannopoulis backstage.
These are only the most egregious examples. A study by OnePath Network found that, in 2017 alone, News Corp’s Australian newspapers dedicated almost 3000 negative stories to Muslims and Islam, with some prominent columnists writing almost 50 per cent of their pieces about them. Malcolm Roberts, another recipient of the red-carpet treatment on Sky, has a party piece where he compares the contents of the Koran to Mein Kampf. If these sentiments were confined to Sky’s miniscule cable news audience, they might be harmless. Repackaged for social media, repeated in newspapers and broadcast regionally on the free-to-air WIN television network, they are not. The latter arrangement with Sky, in place since 2018, also creates a spaghetti junction of conflicted interests: WIN is owned by Bruce Gordon, also the largest private shareholder of Nine Entertainment Co. Nine has taken over Fairfax, which owns a large share of Macquarie Media, where Sky presenter Alan Jones broadcasts as well. At the end of March, Nine announced a new social media policy that directed its journalists to “not use social media to directly attack rival journalists or publications”. News Corp is extremely unlikely to follow suit, which amounts to a unilateral disarmament. The ABC has been so harried by chronic abuse and threats of funding cuts that its criticism is muted as well.
The reach of News Corp’s newspapers may be diminishing, but their voice is so uniform, and their agenda so clear, that it can still set the tone for other media. Its influence on the agenda of the Liberal Party, and so the government, is clearer still. Sometimes it can be difficult to tell where Liberal Party talking points begin and News coverage ends, or where each originates. On April 12, the three major Murdoch tabloids, the Herald Sun, TheDaily Telegraph and The Courier-Mail, ran near-identical splashes – “PM Warns of Labor’s $380B Tax Grab”, “Tax Time Bomb” and “Tax Bomb” – all in lock step with Scott Morrison’s first major attack on Bill Shorten.
This style of crude obfuscation and propaganda poisons the political atmosphere far beyond the confines of the electoral campaign. In her recent Quarterly Essay, Australia Fair, social researcher Rebecca Huntley discarded the idea that Australian politics is poll-driven. It was “bunkum”, she wrote, pointing out the broad popularity of investments in affordable and social housing, increased funding to the ABC, making childcare cheaper, changes to negative gearing, banning foreign donations and curtailing corporate donations to political parties, investment in renewable energy, and the adoption of elements of the Uluru Statement from the Heart. News stridently opposes every one of these policies.
Instead, News advocates a suite of highly unpopular policies: defunding or privatising the ABC, privatising public assets, “wage reform”, tax minimisation, foreign military adventurism, the building of coal-fired power stations, meaningless action on climate change, the obstruction of a fibre-to-the-home NBN, and the overturning of anti-vilification legislation. This is near-identical to the policy platform of the Coalition. So far, the real-world implementation of these ideas has been mixed, but the conversational bandwidth they have taken up, considering they have almost no natural constituency beyond vested interests, has had a ruinous effect.
This is why News is made so angry and afraid by grassroots activist groups like GetUp and Sleeping Giants. GetUp collected donations from 64,956 individuals in the last financial year, a democratic base that no organisation on the right, not even the Liberal Party, can match. News has placed its great white hope on a series of failed bodies styled as the “conservative GetUp”, without realising that the community support to furnish such a phenomenon is not there. The Australian noted that GetUp was turning its attention to the “hard right” of the Liberal Party, targeting Tony Abbott, Kevin Andrews, Nicolle Flint and their ilk. It was, said the paper, “courtesy of GetUp’s multimillion-dollar war chest … a marked shift to US-style negative campaigning tactics geared towards denigrating particular candidates”. That sounds very much like projection.
Sleeping Giants is implementing something similar, aimed at the hard right of News Corp itself. It has already taken huge gouges out of the advertising spending on Fox News in the US and on Sky News Australia, most recently persuading Pizza Hut to drop its advertising locally, simply by pointing out the kind of content to which its ads ran adjacent. Sky host Rita Panahi, in a stung response, described Sleeping Giants protesters as “sad, pathetic totalitarian bullies who want to essentially shut down any speech they don’t agree with”. But it is not censorship, or anything like it. It is a voluntary coalition of like-minded interests that draws its power from persuasion. It even has the private support of some of the News’s own good journalists who, after all, like all of us, are overdue for liberation.
Alex Turnbull, Malcolm Turnbull’s son, has begun an attempt to “destroy News Corp’s influence in Australian politics”, pushing independent candidates in electorates where News is popular. “Members of LNP can only laze in the hot tub of Murdoch endorsed far right craziness while ignoring their constituents so long as their seats are not at risk,” he tweeted. “Putting their seats in play tends to sober them up.” This kind of criticism, coming from Turnbull’s family as well as Kevin Rudd, is often treated as sour grapes, instead of what it is: the warranted alarm of two former prime ministers, who have seen up close the distortions created by the company. Others say the same in private.
These counter-Murdoch operations are small but growing, with mainly informal links so far. Their enemy is not so irregularly organised. After a decade of lost opportunity over climate change, after Christchurch, after Pell, any benefit of the doubt about News Corp’s intentions and results has disappeared. “Do you really think Australia would be a better country without News?” a senior reporter asked me recently. Once that might have been debatable. But as the entity is constituted now, my answer is yes – Australia would be a better country without News. Of course it would be. Either it changes, or we do.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this essay incorrectly stated that the WIN television network is owned by Nine. It is owned by Bruce Gordon, Nine Entertainment Co.’s largest private shareholder.
The slim, match-fit form of The Daily Telegraph columnist Piers Akerman, resplendent in a blue Tony Abbott T-shirt, and standing next to the former prime minister, was not supposed to be there. Not supposed to be in the photo, that is. It was Abbott who posted the picture to social media, accidentally revealing his mate on the hustings. A “campaigning columnist” didn’t used to mean someone literally handing out flyers, but that devolution, from advocate to participant, was not really surprising anymore. Could you call it a breach of journalistic ethics? “A lot of people are looking at this thinking, this surely crosses a line,” Mark Kenny said on the ABC’s Insiders. But it’s hard to breach journalistic ethics when neither journalism nor ethics are involved, so perhaps the wider media reaction – bemusement – was the right one. As usual, the presence of...