A day before the election, Australia’s newspapers came down from their ivory towers and delivered their pronouncements on who should win the election. Quite why anyone should pay any notice was not explained, other than it being a prestige remnant of power that looks increasingly quaint as newspaper circulation dissipates into oblivion. The new online Guardian Australia attempted to crowdsource the answer but the 20th century papers mostly took their cue from their owners and urged people to vote Liberal. No different from most of the times past, but this one was poignant, as it may be their last hurrah.
Rupert Murdoch might see himself as immortal, but his powers are waning. His papers’ campaign against Rudd overcooked the egg and probably had no effect on the election other than stoking the outrage of Twitter critics. Its biggest long-term impact will be to itself: hastening the demise of the trust bond between his papers and their readers. By the next election they will no longer have print competition to spur them on. By 2016 it is likely like the Age and the Sydney Morning Herald will be digital only with little or no prestige. Any online editorial on the election would be indistinguishable from a humble blog.
This time the Age bucked the trend and plumped for the increasingly hapless and bizarre Rudd. Despite its supposed “Guardian-on-the-Yarra” leftness (according to the lamentable Gerard Henderson) the Age usually bats for the Coalition when it came to election as its best ever editor Graham Perkin found out. Perkin believed it was the role of the newspaper to represent the people. “If we don’t do it, who will?” he would ask. Perkin set up an Insight team dedicated to investigations modelled on the UK Sunday Times. Because his targets were often wealthy people or wealthy companies or wealthy institutions, he was accused of being left wing.
He supported Whitlam in 1972 and argued hard Whitlam deserved more time than two years as a government. But Perkin had to fold to the company line and support the Opposition in 1974 when Whitlam just scraped over the line. That Perkin was more newspaperman than a leftist was shown in 1975 when he called Time on Whitlam’s brave experiments because they were funded by too many dodgy deals. Perkin editorialised for their removal but a heavy drinker and smoker, he died of a heart attack, aged 45, a month before the Dismissal.
With the Age still in shock, Murdoch’s the Australian led the charge to push Whitlam out. Murdoch wouldn’t just give a candidate the opinion page; he’d give them the entire book. Murdoch was ruthless in plugging every editorial how bad Whitlam’s rabble were. Any story angle that even vaguely praised Whitlam’s initiatives was censored or spiked as not “strong” enough. The paper published misleading unemployment figures and manipulated headlines. One changed from “Gough’s promise – cheap rents” to “Gough’s panic – cheap rents” between editions. Overall they screamed one message: “sack the government”.
Murdoch’s journalists at the Australian were infuriated with his blatant meddling. Seventy-five wrote to him saying the paper had become a “propaganda sheet” and a “laughing stock.” Then 109 journalists in Sydney went on strike. This was embarrassing to Murdoch’s fellow media barons who were uncomfortable the media’s actions were front and centre in the debate. Murdoch himself was just angry. According to biographer William Shawcross, Murdoch told his journalist Barry Porter “if you insist on providing ammunition for our competitors and enemies intent on destroying our livelihoods, then go ahead.”
A court ordered a return to work and management and staff discuss the complaints. But Murdoch gave no ground. He refused to accept his papers were biased and accused the journalists of incompetence and inaccuracy. He felt he could write the paper himself and often did. In February 1976 he reported in the Australian (with the help of new PM Malcolm Fraser) Whitlam had met two Iraqi officials just before the election soliciting for funds. The now opposition leader refused to answer the allegation and many of his own party members were convinced it was true. It ultimately led to his resignation in 1977.
As David McKnight meticulously investigated in Rupert Murdoch: An Investigation of Political Power, Whitlam’s rise and fall was one of many he orchestrated. Murdoch’s growing power in three continents was exercised “by phone and by clone” according to Eric Beecher (one of his editors that ran off the reservation). Murdoch didn’t always back winners. He used the Sun in 1970 to say “why it must be Labour” only for Ted Heath to snatch victory. By the middle of that decade Murdoch became smitten with Richard Nixon and was shocked by his downfall.
He threw his full support behind Reagan and then Thatcher. He secretly funded anti-communist conspiracy theories by activists such as David Hart and Brian Crozier. His ultimate success was Fox News, a 24-hour propaganda vehicle thinly disguised as news journalism. In Britain he moved easily through the corridors of power with politicians of all stripe scared by the power of headlines such as “It was the Sun Wot Won it”. Across the US, Britain and Australia, Murdoch aimed his arsenal of titles at pet projects such as the Iraq War, stymieing action on climate change, and promoting small government (except for fighting wars).
News Ltd hubris led to the phone hacking scandals because they thought they get away with anything. Murdoch called his Leveson Inquiry experience the most humiliating day of his life but it didn’t make him any more humble. He turned the Sun into a seven-day-a-week paper and within a year was as feisty as ever, bombarding the world with contrarian views via Twitter. On August 20, Rupert tweeted conviction politicians were hard to find. “Australia’s Tony Abbott rare exception. Opponent Rudd all over the place convincing nobody.”
His Australian editors quickly got the message. New York honcho Col Allan choreographed a series of strident front pages against Rudd. Tony Abbott had a dream run as News Corp Australia glossed over policy absurdities. The Australian wanted the things Murdoch wanted: small government and less regulation. Abbott was just the man for the job. “Tony Abbott,” the Oz said, “presents as an authentic leader possessed of personal and political integrity,” it enthused, glossing over all the fudges, backflips and lies Abbott did since becoming opposition leader on December 1, 2009. This shameless praise and failure to parse the Coalition agenda undermines the accurate criticism of the Labor years such as their live export mess, Rudd’s thought bubbles and calamitous leadership dilemmas.
This thrashing of the reputation of the fourth estate in the name of profit and power is the ultimate tragedy of Murdoch’s interventions. Under his watch, the watchdog has gone feral and cannot be trusted to do its job. Sooner or later, the dog will be put down. A fifth estate is there, picking up bits and pieces but relies on the media for most of its fodder, having few resources to do the heavy lifting of covering courts, parliaments and other places where “news” happens. It’s anyone’s guess how much furniture the fifth can protect after the fourth has gone.