The most powerful man in Australia does not actually live in Australia. This, for many, is just one more reason to fear and loathe him. Much of Australia has never forgiven Rupert Murdoch for putting wealth and power above patriotism, and deserting his country of birth to become an American citizen.
Political leaders find it particularly irksome. It was painful enough to be called into the media mogul’s Sydney headquarters, worse still to be invited to his rural estate – ‘Cavan’, near Canberra – to don gumboots and compliment him on his livestock. But to be summoned halfway around the world – to New York or, the ultimate humiliation, to one of his executive bonding retreats at Aspen, Colorado – is almost too much to bear.
Almost … but not quite. Those unwilling to undertake the pilgrimage have only to cast their minds back to 1975 to recall the terrible consequences of offending the Sun King. The campaign waged by the News Limited press against Gough Whitlam during that year’s election was so brutal and single-minded that a number of Murdoch’s own journalists went on strike in protest. It was also overkill; in the somewhat hysterical atmosphere of the time Whitlam was going to lose anyway. But the Dirty Digger’s Blitzkrieg undoubtedly made the result more dramatic than it might otherwise have been.
No sane politician, let alone prime minister, is going to invite an encore. For this reason, various Labor strategists are starting to worry about the simmering feud between Kevin Rudd and the Murdoch empire, concerned that there is a risk of eruption into open warfare.
Rudd and his colleagues have never tried to hide their distaste for the News Limited style of journalism, more than once accusing the corporation of deliberately distorting reports to favour Labor’s opponents. They have long since given up on some of News Limited’s columnists; you might as well try to convert Alan Jones. There is a particular contempt for what insiders describe as the Axis of Evil: Andrew Bolt in the Herald Sun, Piers Akerman in the Telegraph and Janet Albrechtsen in the Australian. When Mark Latham called Albrechtsen “a skanky ho who would die in a ditch for the Liberal Party”, he was accused of bad taste, but he was actually just summarising the general sentiment of the Labor Party. And Dennis Shanahan – working within the press gallery itself – became a standing joke at the close of the Howard era, thanks to his heroic attempts to read hope for the coalition into a long series of disastrous opinion polls.
But all this is par for the course, what Rudd himself might call the “normal argy-bargy of politics”. In recent times, though, the to-and-fro has become more particular and more serious. Rudd has been able to brush off many of the attacks against his ministers and the policies of his government, but when the concerted forces of the Murdoch press moved against his integrity it hit him where it hurts, both politically and personally. Rudd is jealously protective of his image as a sincere prime minister. The Opposition, of course – with the help of its cheerleaders in the media – has tried to portray him as a shallow, malleable politician, lacking both principle and conviction: all spin and no substance. But it is clear that the public does not see him that way. Indeed, a recent letter-writer to the Sydney Morning Herald explained Rudd’s longstanding ascendancy in the polls with one word: Integrity.
So when News Limited threw its considerable resources behind what became known as the ‘Utegate affair’, Rudd cracked. The accusation that he had given special favours to the car-dealer John Grant in return for – of all things – a beaten-up truck, was simply unacceptable and, when the email on which the charge was based was proved to be a forgery, he hit back. Asked during a press conference for his reaction by Matthew Franklin, who had helped to drive the story in the Australian, Rudd responded in terms rather more measured than he had been using in private:
I think, what a number of people have said to me, Matthew, around the place is where have we kind of got to, when you have major papers like the Daily Telegraph, the Courier-Mail and the Adelaide Advertiser running on their front page that the prime minister of the country is corrupt, and then secondly the editors it seems not having sighted any original document in terms of this email, and thirdly, it turns out that that email is a forgery, I would have thought a few people would want to know how all that happened, what sort of journalistic checks were put in place for that to be the case, or is it simply being sort of airbrushed from history?
I think the other thing which sort of comes up is, I mean, the usual accusations when political leaders respond to factually inaccurate reporting in the media, in this case in those papers that I referred to, is to accuse the political leaders in question of having some sort of glass jaw. It may simply be that what people want is just some basic answers as to how that might have happened, that’s a pretty basic thing.
The other thing I saw the chief executive of your own news organisation do yesterday was, in responding to this, indicate that somehow the deputy prime minister was raising these matters because she’d felt set upon by your newspaper over the coverage of the Building the Education Revolution stuff. Well, all’s fair in love and war, I mean, you guys will take whatever editorial position you want on the Building the Education Revolution and that’s been the case.
Rudd described this treatment of Gillard as “journalistic retaliation”. In other words, it had gone beyond Utegate: Rudd now saw it as a concerted campaign.
The Australian immediately struck back: one of its less scrupulous hit men, Glenn Milne, devoted an entire column to vilifying Rudd. And the paper’s dedicated sneer column, ‘Cut and Paste’ (which seems to exist purely for the purpose of trivialising or denigrating views to the left of the soup spoon), redoubled its attacks on Rudd and his defenders. One of the constant accusations was that Rudd did indeed have a glass jaw: he could dish it out but he couldn’t take it. It is true that, since becoming leader of the Labor Party, he and his staff have seemed both clumsy and overreactive in their dealings with the media. One explanation may be Rudd’s background in the Queensland arena, where the journalists (“the chooks”, as Joh Bjelke-Petersen once called them) are rather less aggressive than the Canberra press gallery.
The current stoush between the PM’s office and what is arguably the most forceful and influential constituent of the fourth estate is not a good sign. Rudd began, as quoted above, by referring specifically to three of the Murdoch tabloids, but later widened his attack to include “the Murdoch press” generally, perhaps implying that the campaign was being led by the man himself.
This is unlikely: these days Murdoch regards his Australian operations as pretty much on the fringe and allows his editors the kind of independence that their predecessors only dreamed of. An obvious example of this is Murdoch’s support of the use of short-term stimulus packages to combat the global financial crisis, while his Australian economics writers (Michael Stutchbury in the Australian, in particular) have been highly critical. Also, Murdoch declares himself a true believer in climate change, but the Australian has become a haven for sceptics and deniers. The anti-Rudd push, if it is co-ordinated at all, is almost certainly locally driven.
This may not give Rudd much immediate solace, but at least he is unlikely to suffer the kind of vendetta that was the fate of Gough Whitlam. Murdoch may well have disapproved of many aspects of the Labor government of 1972–75, but the ferocity of his onslaught was driven at least partly by a desire for payback. The Murdoch papers had campaigned vigorously for Labor in 1972; indeed, their bashings of the incumbent prime minister, the hapless Billy McMahon, were almost as ruthless as their monstering of Whitlam three years later. And shortly after Whitlam took office, Murdoch appeared on the doorstep, claiming his reward: he wanted to be appointed to the plum diplomatic post of high commissioner to London, with the proviso that he be allowed to continue all his business operations – including running his media empire – from the official residence on the Strand. Whitlam, outraged by the demand, refused point-blank and shortly thereafter cancelled a coalmining project that Murdoch had under way in Western Australia, on the grounds of “national interest”. The rest is history.
Kevin Rudd may find it inconvenient to have to make the trek to the United States to pay his respects, but he has reason to be thankful that Rupert Murdoch now pursues his insatiable ambitions from somewhere a long way away.
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