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What Murdoch asks from new prime ministers

Former prime minister Kevin Rudd on the way News Corp brings new governments to heel.
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When you become prime minister, a lot changes – but there’s only a few people who know exactly what that's like.

One of them is Kevin Rudd, and according to the former prime minister, one of the most drastic changes is the way you’re treated by News Corp.

So what kind of conversations does a prime minister have with the Murdoch press? And what’s at stake if you don’t play the game required of you?

Today, former prime minister Kevin Rudd on the way News Corp brings new governments to heel.


Guest: Former prime minister of Australia, Kevin Rudd.

Read Transcript

[Theme Music Starts]

RUBY:
From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am

When you become Prime Minister, a lot changes. But there’s only a few people who know exactly what that's like. 

One of them is Kevin Rudd, and according to the former prime minister, one of the most drastic changes is the way you’re treated by News Corp. 

So what kind of conversations does a prime minister have with the murdoch press? And what’s at stake if you don’t play the game required of you?

Today, former prime minister Kevin Rudd on the way news corp brings new governments to heel.

It’s Tuesday June 28. 

[Theme Music Ends]

RUBY:
Kevin. Hi, welcome back to 7am.

KEVIN:
Good to be with you. 

RUBY:
How have you been?

KEVIN:
Oh, I've been pretty well, thank you. I've been doing a little bit of travel in the United States where I run an American think tank currently in the United Kingdom. I'm talking to the British government about a subject near and dear to us all, which is the future of US-China, but never too far from what's going on in Australian politics. 

RUBY:
Yeah, and there is a lot going on in Australian politics at the moment. Obviously Labor has taken government for the first time in a decade and I want to ask you about what that transition is like - what happens when a party goes from being in opposition to having power, and how that changes their relationship in particular with the media. So what was it like for you? 

KEVIN:
And my recollection what was probably the most problematic relationship in that first six months period was The Australian and the expectation which had been created during the previous Howard government, that the government of the day would spoon feed Murdoch's Australia in order to set the agenda each week. In fact, what the then editor of The Australian said to me as Prime Minister was along these lines: The way it works is of a Sunday night before Cabinet on a monday, the Prime Minister's office would brief out to the Australian senior correspondent what was major on the Cabinet agenda for the forthcoming week. We, the Australian would then set the agenda for the week. That suits us fine and dandy and by implication then if you continue to play the game, then you won't have a huge problem from us. Both myself and my own staff found this a pretty obnoxious presentation and we declined and we did not go in the business of leaking to the US in terms of the Cabinet agenda, we simply conducted our normal post-cabinet press conference, so that became a very rocky start to the relationship in government with the Australian. 

RUBY:
Hmm. That term ‘playing the game’, can you tell me more about what that means in this context? Is it just about access? 

KEVIN:
Well, the bottom line out there in media land and in particular in Murdoch land, is that if you can demonstrate to Rupert that you are scooping the rest of the field with the mainstream news lead of the day of the week, then it enhances your status within News Corp. Secondly, however, its pernicious effect is that it sets up an umbilical relationship. If you scratch my back, I scratch your back. In other words, if you feed us, then we will by implication go light on you in the coverage. And if you don't feed us well, let me tell you, this is how hard we can bite. And these were the conversations which evolved over those first critical few months of my government and its dealings with the Murdoch media.

RUBY:
And Kevin, it's been a month or so now since Anthony Albanese was elected Prime Minister. We obviously don't know what is going on behind closed doors in terms of the relationship between the incoming Labor government and the Murdoch press. But what can we tell by looking at what we're seeing in The Australian, in the Daily Telegraph, in the Herald Sun? What are you observing?

KEVIN:
Well, what I see from the part of the Murdoch media, and this is a position which has become more intense over the last decade or so, is an overriding Murdoch political philosophy, which is this one do everything you can to prevent a Labor government from being elected and to once they are elected. If you can't prevent that, do everything you can to get them unelected as quickly as possible. 

So what then tends to unfold is you see the predisposition on the part of the Murdoch media to reopen debates where they think they can score really points against the government, but more importantly, begin the process of delegitimizing the government's policy credentials.

Archival Tape -- Chris Kenny (Sky News):
“Oh, dear. Here we go. Hey. There is no doubt, as I said before the election, that we are in for a difficult economic period ahead…”

KEVIN:
Take, for example, the great debt and deficit debate.

Archival Tape -- Chris Kenny (Sky News):
“…but with Labor committed to another budget later this year, we can expect all sorts of broken promises…”

KEVIN:
For God's sake, debt and deficit effectively increased by a factor of five under the Morrison Frydenberg government.

Archival Tape -- Chris Smith (Sky News):
“We were told during the election campaign Labor had the clear plans, a clear plan for productivity, a clear plan for wage rises…”

KEVIN:
When I left office, Australia's net debt was 184 billion. Now it's approaching $1 trillion.

Archival Tape -- Chris Smith (Sky News):
“These are the people that want to continue JobKeeper for all of Australia! These are the people that wanted to pay for your RATs! These are the people that wanted to give you bonuses if you got a vaccination! Come on.”

KEVIN:
However, during that period of time, you'll notice that effectively the Murdoch media rolled over and died and did not run the debt and deficit agenda other than election time and other than against the Labor Party with spooky music in the background, saying something to the effect that if you elect a Labor government, debt and deficit will rocket right out of control.

Archival Tape -- Andrew Bolt (Sky News):
“If the economy goes down from this point, Jim Chalmers will say ‘see! look at the mess that we inherited from the Liberals. It's not our fault.’ But if the economy picks up, well, Labor's then going to say ‘Boy, did we rescue you.’”

KEVIN:
This is to cater for deep fears and anxieties in the electorate about the state of the overall national economy.

Archival Tape -- Shadow Assistant Treasurer (speaking on Sky News):
“Now, Labor didn't have an economic plan and we're seeing that now. We said that funding or money needs to be pulled out of the system. Labour had $8 billion more in direct spending and $45 billion more in off balance sheet spending…”

KEVIN:
And so what I have noticed, even in the last month is suddenly debt and deficit has come back into the coverage, the mainstream coverage by Murdoch having happily let it slide.

Archival Tape -- Paul Murray (Sky News):
“Let's look at the first month of Labor: prices are up on everything, everywhere. Energy is so unreliable, people are being told not to use their dishwashers. Interest rates are rising at the biggest numbers they have in decades…”

KEVIN:
So those sorts of, shall we say, resuscitations of old agendas left in abeyance under the Conservatives but brought back with a vengeance under this Labor government is the way in which Murdoch does business. 

RUBY:
Hmm. And Kevin, this idea that news organisations are not being fair to politicians, that's a complaint that you hear from everyone in politics at some point in time. We hear the Coalition say it about places like the Guardian, We hear Labor say it about News Corp, and I think we hear everyone say it about the ABC. So why is this any different to that? Is it that the Murdoch press play this game differently, or is it that you think that they have more influence? What is it that makes this so serious, in your view? 

KEVIN:
Well, there are two factors. One is the sheer intensity of the Murdoch monopoly. Murdoch owns 70% of seven 0% of the print media in Australia. That is an enormous power in the marketplace and it absolutely skews and secures the framework of our national political conversation. And so it defines what is on the national conversation and what is not on the national conversation through the abuse of monopoly power. 

And the second is this Most politicians I know, Conservative and Labor, live in daily fear of being personally attacked, victimised and destroyed by the concentrated firepower of the Murdoch media when this mob decided to go after you, they really do behave like your average, you know, Sicilian mafia operation. They just go for you and you can speak to people on both sides of politics who have fallen foul of of the Murdoch beast. And at a very personal level, what they seek to do is to cause you to wake up in fear and trembling of a morning to see how they've eviscerated your character, your family, your loved ones and those around you because they disapprove of you and what you stand for in policy and political terms.

RUBY:
We'll be back in a moment.

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RUBY:
Kevin, early on in your leadership of the Labor Party, you appeared on a lot of commercial TV networks and you met with News Corp journalists. Did you believe that there was a chance that you could build a friendly relationship with the Murdoch press at that point?

KEVIN:
Look, my job as leader of the Labor Party, as has been Albo's responsibility, the leader of the Labor Party in the lead up to the 2022 election is to maximise the amount of coverage you can get as the alternative government of Australia. And so therefore, as I've said in many interviews before, I've made no apology whatsoever about seeing Murdoch, about saying Lachlan Murdoch, about seeing his editors, but also doing the same with the then Fairfax MP and now nine and also the producers at the various television and radio networks right across the country as well. And that's because your responsibility is to get the Labor Party's policy message out to the country as fairly as possible. In reality, it may have some effect as you seek to explain what you stand for, why you're doing what you're doing, and how you are, how you are arguing the case. But what I certainly experienced in government is that once we secured office, once we quote, and to go back to the term I used before, failed to play the game, unquote, then suddenly they turn against you. 

And certainly I remember the occasion barely six months into office for us when literally the editor of The Australian rang up and said, Unless you play the game and begin saying the sorts of things that we expect of you, then we're going to turn on you. And I don't expect the listeners of this podcast to remember, but they then ran because we refused and declined to play the game. They then ran a front page screaming headline along the lines of Chaos, Captain Chaos and Dysfunctionality. 

In other words, they were seeking to establish a a message and a meme about the government and its earliest stages, and certainly about my prime ministership and leadership of the government, which was designed not just to damage, but which was designed to become a organising principle about their subsequent coverage and to bleed that out into the national media conversation.

RUBY:
And Kevin, you were very recently actively campaigning for change in this space for a royal commission into the influence of the Murdoch press. But before the election, Anthony Albanese explicitly ruled that out. So is that idea now dead?

KEVIN:
I think in the rank and file of the Australian Labor Party you're going to see this matter pushed forward to the various state conferences and national conferences of the party over time. And that's because the rank and file of the Australian Labor Party have seen this and absorbed this and to their great frustration, experienced it day in, day out, in multiple campaigns across the country for a decade now. So this as I said at the time, when Michelle Rowland, the then spokesman and now the Minister for Communications, indicated that she would not be supporting a royal commission, that this was simply the beginning of a longer debate within the Australian Labor Party and across the broader Australian community. 

RUBY:
And just finally, we've spoken a lot about the way that Murdoch has shaped Australia, has influenced politics. But I wonder, but I wonder what your thoughts are on a post-Murdoch world might look like? If the influence you’re talking about didn’t exist, what would that be like? What is the alternative? 

KEVIN:
Well, one of the things that I have recommended beyond the Murdoch based in the book that I wrote about a year or so ago, The Case for Courage is to ensure that we have changes to the legislation to make watertight the independence of the ABC and to much more fundamentally to entrench the ABC's long term budget in legislation so that it cannot be raided by future Conservative governments as they seek to quash the national broadcaster. I think that's one very practical thing which can be done in the overall mix. The consistent pattern of Murdoch in the United States, the United Kingdom and in Australia has been derailed against the existence of any public broadcaster. And you've seen the craven response by Morrison and Frydenberg as year by year. They bled away the ABC budget in order to undermine the ABC's editorial Self-confidence Independence, but also its ability to fund news and current affairs programmes.

I think the other thing to recognise is that it's not just the Australian Labor Party as people from the Green Party, what their view of the Murdoch media is. Ask the Teal independents what they think the view of the Murdoch media has been during the course of this election campaign. So I think you will see a growing national momentum towards change to Australia's media laws over time. But these things do take time. And having said that, I'd better zip, if that's okay. 

RUBY:
Kevin, thank you so much for your time today.

KEVIN:
Thank you.

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RUBY:
Also in the news today,

A number of crossbench parliamentarians have spoken out against the Albanese government’s decision to cut down their staffing allocation.

Cross bench MPs and senators will now receive only one additional advisor, down from four under the Morrison government. 

** 

And in Sydney’s CBD, a car has rammed into a group of climate activist protesters.

The NSW Police said they were investigating the incident after a number of activists were hit. 

At least 11 of the protesters have also been arrested including a woman who locked herself to the steering wheel of her car and blocked the sydney harbour tunnel.

I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am, see you tomorrow.

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