Pub Test: Bad News for Turnbull
Media moguls did not knife the PM, his party did
Newsflash: Rupert Murdoch is extremely powerful, and quite conservative. A series of hotly contested stories this week have done Australians a service by revealing private conversations between media moguls that may go some way to explaining the downfall of former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull. In doing so, these reports have confirmed what is in plain view. The Murdoch media is overwhelmingly sceptical about reducing greenhouse gas emissions, for example, the issue that, more than any other, brought Turnbull down. Even if a big-noting Murdoch did tell Kerry Stokes that “Malcolm’s got to go”, that does not make him the prime mover behind the coup. Nor does it justify a royal commission into Murdoch’s influence, as former prime minister Kevin Rudd is belatedly calling for – the idea is antithetical to a free press. Earwigging at the Aurora Hotel in Surry Hills, across the road from News’s headquarters at 2 Holt Street, it is probably fair to say that the evil empire is much the same as it ever was.
In his final days, a besieged Turnbull faced an array of enemies. Murdoch’s minions – at the News Corp papers, on Sky News after dark – undoubtedly were a threat, alongside the shock jocks at Sydney’s 2GB. The mortal danger for Turnbull, however, lay within his own party. As he dug in, playing for time to allow the loyal Scott Morrison to defeat the insurgent Peter Dutton, any advantage was worth fighting for. The facts are contentious, but one thing checks out: after a few days trying, it seems that Turnbull did speak to Murdoch while he was in town, after a mutually convenient time was finally found. Could Murdoch have reined in his editors-in-chief and executive producers? Undoubtedly. Would he, to save a failing PM? Highly unlikely. Was it worth Turnbull trying to persuade him? The point is moot.
Turnbull and Murdoch go a long way back. An early highlight of Turnbull’s short journalism career, as a stringer for Channel Nine in 1977, was to cold-call Rupert Murdoch in the Manhattan office of the New York Post and wangle an interview out of the brash young newspaper proprietor, who was about to buy New York Magazine and Village Voice, and put a bomb under them. Turnbull said something like: “Jeez, Rupert Murdoch, you’ve got to help me out, I’m completely screwed.” On that occasion, Murdoch did. But over the years Murdoch has made clear that he is no fan of Turnbull, and in 2015 just before Turnbull toppled Tony Abbott as leader, Murdoch endorsed Abbott as “the best alternative”. Whatever was discussed between them in the dying days of Turnbull’s prime ministership in 2018, Murdoch did not help out this time.
What have we learnt this week? Both the AFR’s Rear Window columnist Joe Aston [$], and then the ABC’s political editor, Andrew Probyn, reported that Murdoch told Stokes that Turnbull had to go. In a carefully worded statement, Stokes has denied [$] this, but other sources say it happened, and a string of reports bear it out. The Murdoch and Stokes front pages, of course, are there for all to see.
Rupert himself has handballed the whole thing to his son Lachlan, The Australian has gone on the counterattack, picking out the ABC, and is today reporting [$] that Probyn’s coverage is likely to be raised at Senate estimates. Although News Corp leans to the right, and always will, it is not all one-way traffic. Labor sources were thrilled when Turnbull took over, figuring they would finally get a better run in The Australian, as editor-in-chief Paul Whittaker remained loyal to Tony Abbott. As The Guardian’s Anne Davies points out this week in a two-part examination of News Corp’s influence, it was TheDaily Telegraph’s reporting that undid Barnaby Joyce (albeit after he’d won a by-election). Ditto The Courier-Mail’s impact in Longman, revealing the fake medal claim of dud candidate Trevor Ruthenberg.
As Richard Cooke wrote in The Monthly, Rupert Murdoch has been pushing governments around for more than half a century. Murdoch has always taken a line, and his editors don’t need to be told – they adopt it by osmosis. In my opinion, the more worrying development was the one identified by Chris Uhlmann (and backed up by the likes of backbencher Warren Entsch): certain commentators have turned so deeply partisan that they are now active political players, texting and pressuring MPs on how they should vote.
As Crikey’s Bernard Keane wrote [$] this week, it is only after the fact that prime ministers complain about News Corp. They should look in the mirror: perhaps we need a royal commission into political leaders who stand for nothing and can’t prosecute a case to save themselves. After clearing his desk at Channel 9 last year, veteran press gallery journalist Laurie Oakes gave a parting speech at the Melbourne Press Club that captured the essence of the problem faced by today’s political leaders. Going back over old notes, Oakes recalled how former PM Paul Keating would talk about the need to get policy and rhetoric lined up. “What was required, he said, were ‘long straight lines of rhetoric that stay straight for years at a time’. Isn’t that a great way to put it? I don’t think Turnbull and co would recognise a straight line of rhetoric if they tripped over it.”
since this morning
Energy Security Board chair Kerry Schott has warned a business conference to be wary of ideological arguments in favour of uneconomic new coal-fired power stations, The Australian reports [$].
Wentworth candidate Kerryn Phelps hijacked a press conference being held by Scott Morrison today to declare she was a true independent and would preference the Liberals over Labor.
IN CASE YOU MISSED IT
Fairfax Media reports that Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s $1.2 billion bonus for private schools has been slammed as a “slush fund”, and that NSW education minister Rob Stokes has signalled the state will refuse to sign on to any new school funding deal that is not needs based or sector blind.
Also in Fairfax Media, Catherine McGregor writes that Morrison’s push for religious freedom laws looks like it will lead to “legislated homophobia”.
The Australian reports [$] that Labor will use next month’s Senate estimates hearings to grill the government about a bid, led by Liberal Party powerbroker Scott Briggs, a close political ally of Scott Morrison for the contract to oversee Australia’s visa processing arrangements.
The Herald Sun analyses [$] the annual reports of almost 200 Victorian government departments, and finds that Victoria’s public service wages ballooned by $1.8 billion last year – $282 million over budget.
According to the AFR, the Australian Securities and Investments Commission has told [$] ASX-listed companies, directors and officers to shape up on carbon-risk disclosure, and has found that compliance has gone backwards since the abolition of the carbon tax.
The AFR’s Phillip Coorey writes [$] on the possibility of an independent Liberal candidate challenging Tony Abbott in Warringah. A Liberal Party veteran is quoted as saying, “If anyone wants to knock off Tony, it will be a battle they will never forget.”
Paddy Manning is contributing editor (politics) at The Monthly and has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is also the author of three books, including a recently updated unauthorised biography of Malcolm Turnbull, Born To Rule?
Newsflash: Rupert Murdoch is extremely powerful, and quite conservative. A series of hotly contested stories this week have done Australians a service by revealing private conversations between media moguls that may go some way to explaining the downfall of former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull. In doing so, these reports have confirmed what is in plain view. The Murdoch media is overwhelmingly sceptical about reducing greenhouse gas emissions, for example, the issue that, more than any other, brought Turnbull down. Even if a big-noting Murdoch did tell Kerry Stokes that “Malcolm’s got to go”, that does not make him the prime mover behind the coup. Nor does it justify a royal commission into Murdoch’s influence, as former prime minister Kevin Rudd is belatedly calling for – the idea is antithetical...