Dial M for Murdoch

imageThe book Dial M For Murdoch by British politician Tom Watson and journalist Martin Hickman is a frightening read. It is frightening not only because it described a state of affairs where politicians, media and police colluded to hide criminal activity but because the crimes it describes have been almost completely forgotten and the criminals still act as if nothing has changed and they are still in charge.

As the authors say in the introduction, the book describes how a global news company exerted a poisonous and secretive influence on British public life and when exposed, it used its power to bully, intimidate and cover up with help from its allies at the highest levels of politics and the police. Yet the authors’ hope the scandal would force the perpetrators to clean up their act hasn’t eventuated. While the scandal ended with public inquiries, the humbling of Rupert Murdoch and the death of the News of the World (NotW), it hasn’t fundamentally changed the government or Murdoch’s behaviour nor has it chastened the rest of the tabloid pack in Britain who remain a mostly unaccountable right-wing rabble.

Tom Watson is a Labour Party MP who attracted the ire of Murdoch’s empire. His mistake was to plot against Murdoch favourite Tony Blair, an action that earned him the lasting enmity of Rupert’s powerful attack dog Rebekah Wade, who rose from a secretary to editor of the NotW in a decade. The Sun called him a “treacherous lump of lard” and a “mad dog trained to maul”. The NotW went further and raided his message bank as they did with many others.

It was the fierce level of competition Murdoch inspired that encouraged this behaviour, even pitting their own reporters against each other for the perfect tabloid scoop. The NotW had deep links into the police with Wade even admitting to a 2004 parliamentary inquiry they routinely bribed the force. But it was a successful model with the Murdoch tabloids making money and the NotW having a reputation as a muckraking award winning bastion of investigative journalism.

But its methods were vile. Some like chequebook journalism were well known, others like “blagging” confidential records or paying corrupt officials for private data were less well understood and there was no appetite to expose it by police forces anxious to have cordial relations with Fleet St. It took the involvement of the royal family to start the unravelling.

In 2005 Prince Charles’ staffers were alarmed when they saw very detailed gossip about his sons appear in NotW. They came to the conclusion the tabloid could only have got their information from phone hacking. They contacted Scotland Yard who began Operation Caryatid. The Royal revelations were appearing in NotW column Blackadder written by Royal editor Clive Goodman. Scotland Yard compared Goodman’s columns against the phone numbers they knew were being hacked and built a case against him. At the same time senior police officers were wining and dining with then NotW editor Andy Coulson.

Operation Caryatid made a breakthrough when O2 told them about a blagger wanting to change royal phone codes. He was private investigator Glenn Mulcaire, who Goodman kept on a weekly retainer to hack voicemails on an industrial scale – not just the royals. Yet police made the decision to restrict the case to “less sensitive” witnesses. In 2006 Goodman and Mulcaire were arrested with no effort made to widen the inquiry to other journalists despite circumstantial evidence. Instead police gave Wade a full briefing on what they found because she was mentioned in Mulcaire’s files. Unsurprisingly Wade did not wish to make a complaint against her employers. They didn’t tell the many victims named in Mulcaire’s files and neither did the phone companies (except O2) for many years.

In 2007 Goodman was jailed for four months and Mulcaire got six for illegal invasion of privacy. NotW editor Coulson had to stand down in the scandal but the paper hid behind the “bad apple” defence. Goodman was sacked but was furious as he believed he was just a scapegoat and threatened to appeal publicly. Mulcaire admitted in court hacking football union leader Gordon Taylor and now Taylor was threatening to sue. His lawyers had gained police evidence including a Mulcaire email “for Neville” believed to be for NotW journalist Neville Thurlbeck.

Yet Murdoch had bigger fish to fry setting his sights on Dow Jones Wall St Journal and British pay TV and throwing his support behind the Tories under sympathetic new leader David Cameron – and his new press secretary Andy Coulson, formerly of NotW. Taylor was paid off for almost half a million pounds, a record, on condition of silence.

In 2008. Guardian journalist Nick Davies became aware of the scale of the illegality at News through a police contact. He scoured NotW for stories that might have used intercepts as a source.  In 2009 he broke his story saying Murdoch had paid a million pounds to settle legal cases like Taylor’s that threatened to reveal evidence of criminality. He had found the For Neville email and quoted a police source saying thousands of phones were hacked. Labour was outraged saying Cameron should sack Coulson but police refused to reopen the case. Murdoch himself denied it, saying if they had paid out Taylor he would have known about it. The Times counterattacked rebutting the Guardian allegations and calling Davies dysfunctional. News lawyers admitted to Watson at a parliamentary inquiry James Murdoch had approved the Taylor payout.

But at the end of 2008 the Press Complaints Commission exonerated NotW saying no new evidence had emerged. The Guardian’s stories had not lived up to their “dramatic billing” the PCC decided. Scotland Yard urged the paper to drop its hostile coverage as “over-egged”. But the Guardian persisted and discovered Mulcaire had accessed the inbox of 100 customers of Orange, O2 and Vodaphone. They were supported by Watson’s parliamentary culture committee which accused News of hindering their inquiries. NotW accused Watson of shamefully hijacking the committee.

After the May 2010 election Cameron became PM and Coulson his press secretary despite Coalition partner LibDem reservations. Just as he did in the Blair years, Murdoch had a private audience in Downing St with a plan to take sole ownership of BSkyB. But the storm clouds were gathering. People who appeared in Mulcaire’s files like Sienna Miller and Steve Coogan began legal action though could not prove they were hacked. The Guardian shared their files with the New York Times which quoted a disgruntled News journalist saying Coulson knew of the hacking which spread well beyond one reporter. News claimed the Times was carrying out a vendetta because of its rivalry with their Wall St Journal. Coulson “emphatically” denied wrongdoing.

Watson raised the matter in parliament, especially on the news Scotland Yard had deliberately ended the investigation despite extensive evidence. Watson was warned by News they would target him if he didn’t back off but with media refusing to publish his allegations he put them on the blog Labour Uncut. When LibDem minister Vince Cable threatened to refer the News takeover of BSkyB he was undone by a sting from undercover Telegraph reporters and resigned. New Tory minister Jeremy Hunt was more compliant to Murdoch.

Four years after the arrest of Goodman, Met Police finally interviewed his boss Andy Coulson. They announced there was no new evidence but didnt reveal the key evidence they had all along. Miller took her case to court revealing News editor Ian Edmondson knew of the hacking and he was immediately suspended by his employers. Coulson resigned in January 2011 despite claiming he had been punished twice. The Met launched a new inquiry into hacking. A senior Met officer admitted to Watson they never looked at all the Mulcaire files. With evidence growing, the BBC finally started to take an interest. Yet Hunt continued to back the BSkyB bid despite growing reservations.

News set aside 20m quid for payouts to settle with a growing list of victims as they tried to pick off civil claimants before their day in court. The pressure was building on what Rebekah Brooks knew, despite her closeness to Murdoch. But the tables turned on July 4, 2011 when Davies revealed a new hacking victim: murdered school girl Milly Dowler. Davies overreached by claiming NotW deleted messages from her phone to make room for others, giving false hope to her parents she was alive. But the impact was devastating and News had to admit it was a “great concern”. Social media went berserk and even the PCC admitted it was misled. Advertisers threatened to leave NotW and News’ share price plummeted.

With news emerging of Murdoch papers’ corruption of police, the noose tightened. On July 7 NotW called an all staff meeting which read out a James Murdoch email admitting they had misled parliament. At the end was a bombshell: the paper would close down after that weekend. Coulson was arrested and it was open season on Murdoch in parliament. With BSkyB shares in freefall Murdoch finally got the message and withdrew his offer. A week later Wade resigned and Rupert and James were summoned to give evidence to the Culture Committee.

Murdoch’s memorable phrase was about his most humble day of his life but his evidence was accurately satirised by Private Eye as “we are sorry we have been caught”.  His feeble defence was they had only recently found out the problem and would only admit they had been “lax”. By then Wade had been arrested and the Met Police chief was forced to resign. Wade also fronted parliament but claimed she couldn’t remember authorising payments for hacking. Cameron claimed not to have discussed BSkyB with Murdoch, but Labour couldn’t press too hard. After all, they had been in bed with the Dirty Digger too in the Blair years.

At the end of that summer News announced profits of $982m mainly from television and Murdoch was awarded a $12.5m bonus. As they hived off their troublesome newspaper business, it was back to business as usual, the Murdochs holding on to power against rebellious shareholders thanks to their powerful voting shares. While the PM distanced himself, his education minister Michael Gove still had stars in his eyes. “Murdoch is a force of nature and a phenomenon,” he said. “I think he is a great man.” The Sun on Sunday would soon fill the NotW gap and while the Leveson Inquiry brought many embarrassing revelations, they were soon forgotten in the relentless 24 hour news cycle. It did not take long for Murdoch papers to resume their role as kingmakers. As Watson ruefully concluded, the empire stood shaken and ostensibly apologetic for a while,  but it is still there and Rupert Murdoch is still in charge. British – and Australian – media remain in his thrall.

The killing season must end: Why Labor should not change its leader

shorten gillardThe Killing Season on the ABC is brilliant television and should give producer Deb Masters and writer/presenter Sarah Ferguson a double in TV and journalism awards. The three-part series is deservedly taking plaudits for its riveting dissection of the Rudd-Gillard leadership wars. Though the period has been well examined in books, The Killing Season is rich multi-sensory art, from the wintry Poe-theme opening and the music of Schubert’s Piano Trio No 1, the theme of Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, a flawed hero and adventurer.

The Killing Season offered extended interviews of its own flawed protagonists, Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, two of the sharpest minds in Australian politics in the 21st century. Both had the right stuff to become Prime Minister but got in each other’s way. They were personal and political opposites, but made a smart marriage of convenience at the time, as Simon Crean observed. Rudd got the nod as leader, easier to sell as a male Protestant than a female atheist.

Rudd was a consummate actor and phenomenal media performer. He dominated their first election as a team and the defeat of four-time Prime Minister John Howard was put down to “Kevin 07”. The electorate respected Gillard but loved Rudd and his nerdy dad persona. His rock-star status was still rising after the 2008 Stolen Generations apology and his response to the Global Financial Crisis. But his stratospheric ratings could not last forever and quickly fell to earth after the Liberals appointed a hard-nosed leader to replace the hapless Malcolm Turnbull. Saving Australia from financial collapse was an astonishing achievement but too intangible to measure and Rudd’s leadership slowly collapsed amid a series of self-inflicted blows.

Rudd wasn’t the only one making mistakes. Gillard and Treasurer Wayne Swan made a fatal error to replace him in June 2010, though each step in the process was defensible. Rudd still had a winning lead when he was sacked in 2010, despite his problems. Rudd could not believe what was happening, his horror best expressed in The Killing Season in his shocked, almost whispered comment that trails off, “But the polls….?” His government had 52-48 lead over Abbott at the time, just like Shorten has now. But Labor panicked and he was gone. The people were not consulted and the coup would, as Anthony Albanese predicted, destroy two Labor leaders.

Much of the testimony of that 2010 period is of chaotic moments shared Rashomon-style with differing conclusions depending on the speaker. The Killing Season was, as one deft reviewer called it, classical tragedy “where at each stage all the tragic character can do is tighten the net”. Gillard replaced Rudd but couldn’t remove him. And for the next three years, he white-anted her relentlessly until his revenge was served stone-cold in 2013. Gillard and Rudd’s relationship was not the first poisoned by power and won’t be the last. Neither were “killed”, but they destroyed each other politically and are now both lost to parliament despite still being in their 50s and in their prime.

Worse still, their Labor Party too is now out of power, rudderless as well as ruddless, after looking semi-invincible from 2007 to 2009. Two leaders and two elections later the moral challenges of our generation are in the calamitous hands of Tony Abbott, the great divider. The Killing Season is important history to see how we got to that equation in six short years. The astonishing personal enmity tells us how Labor imploded and is compelling viewing. But a better guide to why it happened comes from the rich first-hand testimony of the large coterie of supporting characters swirming around Gillard and Rudd.

Sarah Ferguson is Australia’s sharpest political interviewer and her forensic approach extracted the drama from every statement and counter-statement. Most Labor ministers were rueful, occasionally bitter, but always honest, whether they supported Beasley, Rudd or Gillard. Minders like Lachlan Harris and Andrew Charlton were eye-opening in their perceptive day-to-day detail. Their admiration for Rudd’s judgement was shared by Gordon Brown, Hank Paulson and Ken Henry. Only three notables from the Labor first rank did not have their say with Sarah and two of them, Lindsay Tanner and John Faulkner, are retired. The third is current leader Bill Shorten.

Shorten’s minders no doubt believed there was nothing to gain from raking over old coals – particularly coals that Shorten himself stoked, with important roles in the 2010 and 2013 coups. This was a mistake, he should have explained what Labor had learned from the process (arguably nothing if today’s factional announcement from Tasmania is a guide). Shorten was implicated anyway despite his silence, caught out lying to Neil Mitchell about the 2013 challenge that brought Rudd back to power.

Shorten has apologised privately to the Melbourne radio host but should return to Mitchell’s show to talk about why he lied in the first place. It has undermined one of Shorten’s main advantages over Prime Minister Tony Abbott, after the latter was caught out lying spectacularly and repeatedly to the public the night before the election.

The Killing Series came out at a bad time for Shorten. Fairfax have gone on the attack over questions he may have to answer in a politically motivated union inquiry. Others on the left such as Jason Wilson decry Shorten as a do-little union apparatchik constantly moving to the right to avoid being wedged by Tony Abbott. Yet he leads in the polls, and a move to sack him would only suit Abbott, who is trying to get Labor to panic again. Abbott has no intention of going to an early election he wouldn’t win, but more Labor leadership turmoil would change that.

Abbott hailed The Killing Season as an unmasking of Labor’s untrustworthiness. “I don’t normally say thank you to the ABC,” Abbott admitted in parliament, “but I have to say Australia is indebted to you on this instance.” Abbott was spouting rubbish as usual, but he was right on one point – he doesn’t normally say thank you to the ABC. He’s normally lying about its future, stacking the board, slashing its budget and attacking its editorial policies.

Barely days after The Killing Season, he launched into open warfare over the Zaky Mallah exchange on Q&A on Monday. Not for the first time, Abbott used the sporting analogy of “whose side are you on?” when attacking the ABC. Abbott’s crude “team Australia” rhetoric is inadequate when trying to distil a complex argument like why people support Islamic State. It was a point Mallah demolished when he spoke about how young Australian Muslims become disenfranchised. The ABC took no “sides” but offered a platform for dissenting views, a platform urgently needed as the Murdoch press (which sets the media agenda and also has a vested interest in attacking the public broadcaster) becomes increasingly one-sided. The ABC is considered duplicitous despite the public judging twice as trustworthy as the government.

This is not just a problem for the ABC. It is a problem for Labor as an alternative government. Rupert Murdoch is a bulwark for Tony Abbott, his papers running constant interference and setting agendas by attacking Abbott’s enemies while giving him an easy ride. Mallah is considered the enemy but hysterical front page photos like the Courier-Mail’s conflation of the ABC and Islamic State are okay because the Courier-Mail is on “our side”. The effect is to move the Overton Window of acceptable political discourse further to the right.

The Killing Season is classic public broadcasting and a terrific first draft of history. Labor should learn from that history and allow Shorten what it didn’t allow Beasley in 2007, Rudd in 2010 and Gillard in 2013: a chance to survive the killing season and be judged by the voters. They might be shocked to find that behind the screeching of Abbott and Murdoch, there is another Australia out there, and one that does not like to be told what to think.

The news of the otherworld: Wrecking the RET

A sure sign the Warburton Review into the Renewable Energy Target was flawed was the lavish praise in yesterday’s editorial in the Weekend Australian. It was the second of two editorials with the main one bemoaning the lack of decision making in the “national interest” which is Weekend Oz’s code for “Murdoch’s interest”. Murdoch’s interest applauds the Abbott Government for its foreign affairs stance, fiscal consolidation and market-based reforms but castigates it for the way it sells its economic messages, as well as taxing high earners, introducing a “gimicky” medical research fund and bringing back knights and dames. Rupert Murdoch remains doggedly republican.

His pride and joy The Australian is now 50 years old – a month younger than me – and we are both showing our age. I’m still in control of my faculties but I’m not so sure about the Oz / Woz. This sorry excuse for a broadsheet is becoming more unhinged, especially on climate science. The page 5 exclusive yesterday from “environment editor” Graham Lloyd talks about “Records detail heat that ‘didn’t happen”, a giveaway it is climate change Oz headline writers think “didn’t happen”. The story is muddled junk which took forever to get to its dubious point the BOM are fudging figures to over-egg increasing temperatures. Lloyd’s sole “proof” is old weather records from Bourke in northern NSW. There is also a dubious graph which show local temperatures heading downwards over 150 years. The graph ignores its own spikes in the last 20 years. The lede is buried in the last sentence from a man who rescued the old records: “At the moment they (BOM) are saying we have a warming climate but if the old figures are used we have a cooling climate”.

Lloyd didn’t interview anyone who might gainsay that remark. His only expert is another sceptic “Queensland researcher” Jennifer Marohasy who agreed temperatures were warmer earlier in the century. Lloyd doesn’t mention Marohasy’s views are not widely shared. Lloyd has form with kooky climate theories and his employers always push them prominently. Dissenters to climate science interpretation like Marohasy and Bjorn Lomborg get a good run in the op eds. Though many organisations reacted negatively to the results of the RET review, they were absent from the Weekend Oz news pages. There was not a single article on RET nor any op eds, leaving only His Master’s Voice in the editorial.

The editorial began by attacking favourite enemy Christine Milne for petulance in throwing the review in the bin before calling it a “balanced, rational assessment”. Most of what followed was a direct copy and paste from the review. As Lenore Taylor said, the RET did exactly what it was designed to do: it pushed investment from fossil fuels into renewables.

The Woz said it was too expensive and heavy subsidies were ultimately lowering productivity and national income. The key statement in the review picked up by Peter Martin was the RET was helping the “transfer of wealth among participants in the electricity market”. This line is pure Dick Warburton, who led the four-person review and a man of commerce who prefers the hands of the market to move invisibly.

Warburton was the perfect choice to lead the review to a particular outcome, a successful businessman who doesn’t think climate change is caused by humans. When appointed review chair in February, Warburton told the Australian’s Sid Maher he was not a climate sceptic. The Australian did not ask Warburton if he believes climate change is real and if so, what is causing it and what we should do about it. As Taylor said, the result of the review only made sense if the intention was to deny the problem it was trying to solve.

The Australian quotes the review’s statement the RET created jobs at the expense of other industries. It claimed removing “inefficient subsidies” would free up investment for research into more efficient renewable energy sources. But with no carbon tax or any other market mechanism to support it, it would just as likely lead to more investment in fossil fuels. The RET exceeded its 20% target, generated a large surplus of electricity and lowered prices.

The scheme would cost $22b to its end point in 2030 (less than $1.5b a year or about 15 super hornet planes) which is a small tax price to pay for a good outcome. But the review didn’t see it that way. It was “distorting investment decisions” (again, doing what it was designed to do), the low prices were “artificial” while the cost of the scheme meant added 4% to those prices, though that figure was trending to negligible. The Warburton Review said it was not generating any new wealth just transferring it to other players in the market. As Martin picked up, the big losers are the mining companies who backed Abbott’s axing of both taxes (carbon and mining).

The RET helps reduce carbon emissions by an additional 300 million tonnes to 2030, the equivalent of 100,000 cars taken off the road. But cars aren’t coming off the road, they are increasing as is the impatience of those who rely on them, paying an increased price in transport and electricity. Warburton said abatement cost was too high but that cannot be proven. The Government’s hollow sounding “direct” action has no modelling or explanation how it might achieve its (low) targets. It is also unlikely to pass an increasingly feisty Senate that Abbott has managed to alienate, despite it containing many philosophical fellow travellers.

Abbott was able to “axe the (carbon) tax” but not do much else other than clear the cupboard. He dismantled the Climate and Science ministries, gutted CSIRO and abandoned the Climate Commission. Removing the hated RET is the next step in the ideological agenda that undersells the problem of climate change and leaves Australia behind in solar, wind and geothermal research. Murdoch’s rags are only too willing to help to put the boot in. The Government continues its brutal search and destroy mission of all legislation enacted between 2008 and 2013. If this is evidence of the “adults in charge” then for god’s sake bring back the children.

On Rupert Murdoch and Col Allan: Why the Australian press needs counselling

With the election a week old, I thought it was time I re-read the Advisory Guideline on Reporting Elections from the Australian Press Council. But as much as I tried to take it seriously, I couldn’t help chuckling after reading the first section headline on “newspaper bias”, I immediately conjured up a vision of Rupert Murdoch or Col Allan snorting and enjoying a good belly-laugh in the unlikely event they ever read this section together. Murdoch brought Allan from New York to report this election in the way the owner wanted, not the way APC wanted.

Both men would agree with the first sentence in the advisory guideline. “The Council,” it began,”upholds the right of a newspaper to have its own political position, to accept certain beliefs and policies and to reject others; and to favour the election of one party and to oppose the election of another.” The sub-clauses were a bit unnecessary but it was a sentiment most owners would agree on however at odds with the codes of conduct for broadcasters.

The second sentence was more likely to attract guffaws from Murdoch and Allan, saying newspapers which claim to inform people on politics had an obligation “to present to the public a reasonably comprehensive and accurate account of public issues”.  The News Ltd bosses would immediately tell you their newspapers are under no such obligation. Their only obligation is to their own survival in tough times. The spate of anti-Government front pages in the Murdoch tabloids since Rudd called the election serve political and commercial purposes. The political aim is to overthrow a government Murdoch does not like. The commercial one is to increase newspaper circulation by having their ideas front and centre in the supposed zeitgeist to bump an unpopular government.

In either purpose, the Australian Press Council is not a consideration. This is despite the fact News Ltd is a constituent body and accept their jurisdiction. They know the APC is a pale ombudsman. The complaints procedure attracts at most a mild censure, that is at the paper’s discretion to publicise widely. If all the APC wants is to keep the paper’s editorial viewpoints and advocacy separate from its news columns, News Ltd could simply claim their openly biased call to action front pages are easily identifiable as advocacy.

It is not just the front page that are calls to actions. The signs outside the newsagent saying Kick this Mob Out are neither an “an editorial viewpoint” nor a “news column” but simply a blatant ad for a political party. The open cynicism was probably too much for a corporate flak like Kim Williams, but when push came to shove, it was Williams that was shoved, not the campaign.

It shows the Press Council as a joke again, in a year when News successful fought against its reform. When it comes to the nitty gritty of what the council demanded when it comes to “unfairness and lack of balance”, News were abysmal failures. The APC calls for equal space for parties, equivalent photography, a selective right of reply and a “balancing response”, none of which the Government is getting in the election campaign. Yet breaches of these demands could all be easily be batted away by an experienced company lawyer who, in the worst of circumstances might simply advise to take the censure of a mild slap on the wrists.

The Murdoch campaign is rich irony for Labor. It was their idol Paul Keating who got them in this mess. His infamous “princes of print or queens of the screen” line which allowed Murdoch a 1987 Herald and Weekly Times takeover left Keating’s party horribly exposed should the princes of print decide to exercise their royal privileges against them. Whatever about his unimaginative failure not to predict media convergence, Keating had no excuse for not predicting likely bias given he saw first hand how Murdoch destroyed Gough Whitlam in 1975.

This supine acquiescence a quarter of a decade ago may be enough in 2013 to haunt his party into opposition in a tight election.

Scratching Rupert Murdoch

murdoch1I picked up the book Murdoch (1993) by William Shawcross in the cheapie bin at Lifeline book sale in January.  The book is an unauthorised biography and does not hold back criticism though Shawcross is recently on the record saying Murdoch saved journalism, at least in the UK. The front cover of my copy of his 1993 book is torn – an eye is scratched out of the subject’s portrait on the front cover. While those protesting against him outside the IPA dinner in Melbourne last week might have deliberately torn it, it looked more like a label had been removed. I didn’t hold much hope I’d find a tattered 600-page, 20-year-old volume on Rupert Murdoch interesting, so it lay unread for several months under a pile of other books.

By coincidence it filtered back to the top of the pile as the media baron made a rare return to Australia last week. As he appeared at the Melbourne gig, he was greeted by a protester wearing a mask of Murdoch as the devil. The image of Murdoch as Satan won’t bother a Catholic/wee free 82-year-old whose gods are money and power but the protester was not the first nor last to imagine him as evil incarnate.

Forbes ranks Murdoch as the 91st wealthiest person in the world but the 26th most powerful person. In this category Forbes tucks him in one spot ahead of Jeff Bezos of Amazon and one behind Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook. Yet it hard to imagine similar hatred against Bezos or Zuckerberg. Despite a silver spoon upbringing, Murdoch has always been an outsider and his modus operandi has always been blatantly ‘my way or the highway’.

Only 200 pages in, Shawcross’s book is a gripping read following Murdoch’s footsteps, from out of the giant shadow of his father Keith and into the world of international communications. Murdoch snr was one of the most important people in Australia in the first half of the 20th century. In 1915 Keith’s reports from Turkey to the Australian Prime Minister precipitated the end of the Gallipoli campaign. He grew as an editor in the 1920s under the tutelage of British press baron Viscount Northcliffe, Alfred Harmsworth.

Harmsworth showed Murdoch snr the importance of keeping a paper lively, a virtue Keith passed to Rupert. Keith Murdoch was a hugely influential managing editor but at his death in 1952 aged 63 he only owned two newspapers: the Adelaide News and the Brisbane Courier-Mail. The titles passed to his only son. Young Rupert was still at Oxford University but already well mentored in the successful ways of newspapers by Harmsworth through his father: explain, simplify, clarify.

His mother Dame Elizabeth was immensely powerful in her own way and it was her recommendation to sell the Courier-Mail when the Herald and Weekly Times came calling. Still overseas, Rupert acquiesced but was furious and was determined to build up what was left of his inheritance quickly. The Adelaide News was the minor paper in town compared to the Advertiser. But Murdoch’s inexhaustible energy pumped it up.

Never with much time for “elites”, Murdoch delighted in stoking up the News’s anti-authoritarian voice. In conservative Adelaide, the News never strayed too far from accepted opinions. Murdoch was left-wing at Oxford and had a strong interest in Communism and a bust of Lenin in his dorm room. But once established as a newspaper owner, instinctive love of capitalism grabbed him by the throat. Even more than his managing editor father, Rupert became obsessed by the bottom line. He learned quickly how to pick winning politicians and then back them all the way.

Murdoch was more than an astute proprietor; he knew every area of his business. Often he and his senior managers would put out the paper when journalists went on strike. He impressed the printers in London when he climbed onto a machine and found the bar to fold the pages to ensure the presses could run in tabloid format. Murdoch had inexhaustible energy and ran his business by telephone, constantly looking for deals to expand his footprint. His specialty was purchasing loss-making operations and turning them around.

He quickly outgrew Adelaide and brought his racy tabloid format to Perth before breaking into the Sydney market. Fairfax’s boss Rupert “Rags” Henderson preferred to sell a down-at-heels Mirror to Murdoch in 1960 than more established rivals (to the chagrin of his own Fairfax board). Murdoch seized the chance to buy in to Australian’s premier market-place. He could not immediately break into Sydney television but his Adelaide station was making money.

In the late 1960s, Murdoch was looking toward the UK and USA. He bought the News of the World after a protracted battle with Robert Maxwell and later The Sun. The News of the Screws was already a gutter product before Murdoch bought it, but the Dirty Digger (as the unforgiving British establishment called him) took it further downmarket. While his papers were successful, he and especially his second wife Anna Torv, hated London. Anna was the intended victim of a kidnapping and the wife of an employee died in her stead. They were more anxious than ever to get a foothold in the US.

Murdoch started with two papers in San Antonio, Texas. The papers performed solidly though Texans were slow to appreciate Murdoch’s formula for success: exaggerated headlines, a lively style and infatuation with sex and crime. But it worked better once he got his foothold into New York through The Post, the third paper in the US’s biggest city behind the News and the Times. But the summer of 1977 and the long-running Son of Sam saga, gave Murdoch the chance to dominate news. The powers-that-be and his rivals detested Murdoch’s hyped story-at-all-costs but he didn’t care. They were just elitists or “pipe smoking journalist academics” and he was giving the people what they wanted. Murdoch’s power in his native land grew as his international interests expanded. He could even afford a loss-leader: The Australian.

Founded in 1964, the Australian was unique as a national paper in a country with deep metropolitan divisions. Its early years established itself as a serious force and part of the national political conversation under editor Adrian Deamer. Deamer was good (and Murdoch grouchily acknowledged him as the paper’s best editor 20 years later), but he was too independent and too removed from Murdoch’s growing conservatism and was sacked. Murdoch wanted editors to implement his formula, not set a path for social revolution.

Though he supported Whitlam in 1972, Murdoch actively plotted against him three years later. Malcolm Fraser was the beneficiary (just as New York Mayor Ed Koch was two years later) of Murdoch political largesse. As a US watcher of that Koch election put it, “When the New York Times gives its support you’ll be lucky to get an editorial but when Murdoch supports you, you get the whole paper”.

Murdoch was becoming a king-maker, something prospective kings would learn to take into account in dealings with him. Australia is now small potatoes in Murdoch’s global reach but he remains the dominant figure in the local landscape. The Greens calls News Ltd hate media, but Prime Minister-in-waiting Tony Abbott was in the IPA audience last week listening to the Sun King. In 2011, former News Ltd editor Bruce Guthrie suggested Murdoch has told his people Australia needed a change of government and his editors were simply doing his bidding. Guthrie had a spectacular falling out with Murdoch but he makes a good point about the extent of his company’s power: “Given News controls about 70 per cent of Australian newspapers, which, in turn, feed talkback radio and evening news bulletins, that’s a fight most politicians want to avoid.”

At the IPA dinner, Abbott called Murdoch “probably the Australian who has most shaped the world”. Abbott was on less firmer ground when he said Murdoch’s opinionated but broad-minded publications had “borne his ideals but never his fingerprints”. “He’s influenced them but he’s never dictated to them”, Abbott claimed. Murdoch hasn’t had to dictate to his editors. A few courageous exceptions like Deamer and Guthrie aside, most of them have known exactly what to do to keep their job.

Murdoch’s adventures in China

When Rupert Murdoch took control of The Wall Street Journal in 2008, he also collected a less prestigious Dow Jones monthly publication called The Far Eastern Economic Review. The New York Times called it an incidental addition to the global stable of Murdoch’s News Corp. Murdoch promised editorial independence to all the Dow Jones products as the price he had to pay for the Journal. However, it was no surprise to find a chilling effect whenever a story appeared that affected Murdoch.
The Review’s editor Hugo Restall hired Australian writer Eric Ellis to write a review of Bruce Dover’s book “Rupert’s Adventures in China: How Murdoch Lost a Fortune and Found a Wife.” The book is an insider’s account of Murdoch’s attempts to woo the Chinese Government in the 1990s and also discusses his relationship with third wife Wendi Deng. The book got a big reception in Asia in 2007 and Restall hired Ellis to review the book in January 2008. But by February, Restall got cold feet and told Ellis the book “looks more like the work of a disgruntled ex-employee rather than an analysis of the business.”
In his spiked review, Ellis said for a businessman who has left such a mark on the world’s media, Murdoch was under-analysed and his personal life off-limits. This why the book is of great service: Dover (now the chief executive of ABC’s Australia Network beaming content into Asia) was the Sun King’s chief courtier in the Forbidden City in a time when China meant everything to Murdoch.
Dover tells the story from the time Murdoch bought STAR TV in 1993 for $1 billion to the time 10 years later when Dover was sacked and Murdoch realised he could not replicate his success in China. The year 1993 after Murdoch had defeated the British print unions in Wapping, and was starting to make big money with BSkyB and the Premier League. He was also expanding his footprint in America and looking at Chinese opportunities. The 23-year-old Richard Li’s STAR TV was a satellite operation with a reach from the Philippines to the Middle East, potentially two-thirds of the world’s population.
Li never made money from STAR TV subscriptions as most users pirated the unencrypted service. He changed the model to advertising and charged big rates though no one was sure how much audience he was aggregating. Li’s father Li Ka-shung was Hong Kong’s wealthiest businessman and a friend of Deng Xiaoping. But Beijing was alarmed over the uncensored service being available in mainland China. Xiaoping told Ka-shung the business had to go and Li reluctantly sold to the highest bidder in 1993. Pearson PLC (owner of the Financial Times and Penguin Books) offered the same money as News Corp but wanted Ka-shung to stay on in some capacity. Murdoch had no such qualms.
Li never sought approval from Beijing on the sale. When the politburo found out who STAR TV’s new owner was, there was deep concern. The Chinese knew Murdoch intervened in the politics of every other country he had interests in and feared the same would happen to them. These fears intensified after a Murdoch speech Murdoch in London’s Whitehall Palace celebrating BSkyB’s new multi-channel offering. With the Internet still in infancy, Murdoch lauded the new forms of communications as a threat to “totalitarian regimes everywhere”. Orwell had got it wrong, Murdoch said, mass communication technologies did not subordinate individuals but liberated them. Telephony and satellite broadcasting, he enthused, made it possible to by-pass state control of information.
Murdoch claimed he was talking about the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe. But infuriated politicians in Beijing knew he was talking about them. Premier Li Peng saw Murdoch’s speech as a threat to Chinese sovereignty. Within a month he banned the distribution, installation and use of satellite dishes in China, dashing STAR TV’s expansion plans.
Murdoch quickly realised the extent of his blunder. He moved to Hong Kong with wife Anna and started a long campaign of wooing the Chinese leadership. All contact with Zhongnanhai was funnelled through the State Council Information Office (SCIO) and Murdoch was allowed to meet no-one above the rank of vice minister. In 1994 he used limited transponder space on the satellite as an excuse to drop the BBC from STAR TV. He later admitted the real reason was because the Chinese leaders hated the BBC. However it changed nothing and Murdoch remained persona non grata with senior leaders.
Murdoch befriended family members of Deng Xiaoping. He got Harper Collins to publish Deng’s daughter Deng Rong’s hagiography of her father. He also feted disabled eldest son Deng Pufang in an artists’ tour of Australia. But when Deng lost power in 1994 his children were out of favour and with them patronage of Murdoch. New leader Jiang Zemin enforced the crackdown on China’s half a million satellite dishes.
Dover was in China to negotiate a joint venture with the People’s Daily. This alliance with the conservative communist organ was a peace plan tacitly approved by the politburo. The paper was under pressure to reduce reliance on state handouts and proposed a business news magazine with News Corp. But again SCIO were not across the deal and once they found out, did their utmost to ensure it would never get off the ground.
Murdoch next’s ploy was with businessman Liu Changle who bought a half share in the Phoenix TV joint venture with STAR TV. Liu cultivated key Beijing decision makers and senior leaders told Murdoch Liu was his only way into China. Phoenix proved popular and shook up the tawdry domestic TV market. But Murdoch hated Phoenix because Liu retained day-to-day control.
Murdoch looked to the new information superhighway for a solution. As Beijing wrestled with control of the internet, Murdoch started a new joint venture with People’s Daily called PDN Xinren. The first product ChinaByte was launched in January 1997 and became the most popular site in China. When the tech bubble burst Murdoch lost faith in the product and by April 2001 sold his toehold in the fastest growing internet market in the world.
Murdoch also got rid of anti-Chinese correspondent Jonathan Mirsky from the Times Hong Kong bureau. Murdoch promised The Times editorial independence but after he took editor Peter Stothard on a charm offensive of China, Southard spiked many stories from Hong Kong. Mirsky resigned citing Murdoch’s heavy hand. Murdoch also spiked the HarperCollins autobiography of former Hong Kong governor Chris Patten on Chinese instructions. Murdoch competed with great rival Time boss Jerry Levin to fawn over Chinese leaders. Finally Murdoch made a speech which was a mea culpa where he conceded cultural and social values of a country trumped open communications.
With relations warming, Dover tells the amusing story of when Murdoch met Vice Premier Zhu Rongii in Australia in 1997. Zhu asked Murdoch to tell him the story of his rise to power and the pair had an animated conversation.  At one point Zhu put his hands on Murdoch’s wrists, looked him in the eye and spoke in Mandarin. “I see when you needed to expand your business interests in the US you became a US citizen,” he said. “Maybe you should think of applying for Chinese citizenship to further your business interests in China”. Murdoch blinked when he heard the translation and spluttered a reply. Zhu burst into laughter and said he was joking.
Murdoch did apply for Chinese citizenship – by marrying his young Yale-educated interpreter Wendi Deng. Deng had the language skills but not the contacts in the politburo and the Chinese kept one step ahead of the Murdochs. As they cultivated Zemin’s Shanghai clique, the leader was replaced by Hu Jintao. Dover was on the outer now, his boss frustrated by his inability to penetrate the Great Wall. Hu closed down STAR TV’s intrusion into the Chinese “grey sector” and insisted China retain control of Chinese television, banning cooperation between local stations and foreign companies.
After 12 years, Murdoch finally admitted defeat in China. In 2006 he sold his remaining interest in Phoenix and repositioned STAR TV to the Indian market. Dover said Murdoch was a major catalyst of change in China both of its media and its attitude to the Internet (which the party wanted to ban entirely). Phoenix transformed Chinese television with its brash, downmarket programming but control remained in Chinese hands. Dover said in seeking to woo China’s leaders, Murdoch overstepped the mark. “He became too impetuous, too imprudent,” he concluded.

Manne bites Australian

Australia’s national daily newspaper The Australian has been wasting scarce journalist resources on a vendetta yet again. The latest victim is media writer Margaret Simons whose 2007 book The Content Makers remains the definitive account of the geography of Australian media (though someone needs to update it for the last five years). In recent weeks, The Aus has unleashed its attack dogs over claims Simons has somehow caused a breach of practice by her actions in the recent Finkelstein Review into media which was inspired by the serious criminal behaviour of one of The Australian’s sister publications in the UK. There are many ways in which this attack on Simons is risible and they are all brilliantly exposed in Robert Manne’s new Monthly essay.

The point Manne is making about the tactics of the newspaper is twofold. Firstly, it doesn’t matter if your allegations are true you just have to make enough of them and some of the mud will stick. Secondly, it is another shot across the bows of anyone who dares be critical of the newspaper with treatment similar to Julie Posetti and Larissa Behrend dragged out whenever a punchbag is needed.
The newspaper fulfils a crucial function in our democracy as one of the few media outlets with a truly national outlook. But it would appear the power conferred by being one of the central squares of Australia’s public sphere has gone to the broadsheet’s head. In its constant efforts to defend itself against critics, it has become warped and has forgotten its purpose: to give Australians a useful national perspective on the important news of the day.
The Australian appears not to want to learn from its mistakes. It never admits it is wrong. Under Chris Mitchell in particular (editor in chief since 2003) it has been front and centre in a culture war. The newspaper and its Saturday companion have an armada of columnists which can recite the party line in their sleep and who regularly trot out the house rules.
There are enough good writers at the paper to provide the news function. They cover politics, business, law and international affairs in some detail (with the help of good Murdoch sister papers such as the Wall St Journal and The Times). But their editorial and opinion pages have become barren wastelands of News groupthink where writers like Greg Sheridan, Chris Kenny, Dennis Shanahan and Christopher Pearson flourish. Even when turning to unorthodox opinion it favour those who unorthodoxy is mostly directed against the left and the greens (Brendan O’Neill, Frank Furedi, Bjorn Lomborg) .
As Manne said (and as I can corroborate from discussions with News journalists) there are many within the organisation appalled by the blatant and biased political tone set by the editor and his inner team. Manne reckons they should speak up which would be a better way of dealing with issues than any outside body Finkelstein could recommend. Indeed there is a precedence when journalists at the Australian went on strike in 1975 in protest as Murdoch’s open support of Malcolm Fraser in the lead up to the election.
But it is unlikely any uprising will come from within. News is one of the last 20th century media empires and most workers there fear for their future. It is not making a graceful transition to the digital age though it remains an extraordinary wealthy company and very powerful in the local market. The Australian, often described as a Murdoch vanity project, is not driving any of this wealth. But it is very influential with its high demographic readership and its access to power. Politicians of both major parties are wary of criticising it though the Greens have dubbed it hate media.
This is unsurprising as much of Mitchell’s vitriol is reserved for the party which his paper has openly called to be destroyed at the ballot box. Why The Australian even feels it has a right to make such a recommendation is a revealing aspect of its DNA. “We know best,” it screams and we will punish anyone who has the temerity to think otherwise. No wonder it cannot deal with the social media sharing tools of 21st century when its views are steeped in 20th century paternalism. It prefers intimidation to trust as a way of maintaining its authority. But The Australian is on borrowed time and not just because Murdoch will sooner or later die. Its thrashed brand is a tragedy as much of Chris Mitchell’s making as Rupert’s and one which must not be repeated by whatever colonises its habitat when it is gone.