Besieged media octogenarian Rupert Murdoch has commenced his three-week tour of his Australian backwater and Holt Street Kremlinologists have been busy piecing together his likely agenda.
The annual appearance of the UK’s 11th-most powerful media executive and local chairman comes just 11 months after his last visit, when the Sun King skipped in to remove John Hartigan as CEO, finger Gough Whitlam’s son-in-law Kim Williams and kick off a 20% cost-cutting drive.
This time around his expanded three week schedule is just as gruelling. An email sent by News Corp secretary Laura Cleveland to Australian Shareholders Association News monitor Stephen Mayne last week reveals Rupert “has a completely full schedule of commitments for his trip to Australia this month and we are very sorry but he does not have any availability for a meeting”.
While the US TV, broadcast and film assets are sitting pretty over at “Good News”, the local News arm — to which Rupert appointed himself non-executive chair last year — is housed within the “Bad News” half that includes the tanking UK newspaper business, books, publishing and Fox Sports. Williams has been touted as a likely CEO of the de-merged edifice or, if not, a senior LA-based executive at Twentieth Century Fox.
The first order of business during the sojourn, according to News insiders, will be to negotiate a suitable detente with Kerry Stokes on the $1.9 billion ConsMedia deal, which Stokes (and the ACCC) could still block.
On Friday, the company’s prestigious annual internal News Awards — the venue for which is often hidden from the public, presumably to avoid rival outlets from crashing in to report drunken gossip — will take place in Sydney’s CBD at the State Theatre. Hedley Thomas is favourite to take out the Sir Keith Murdoch Award for his Wivenhoe Dam scoops. The star-studded gala will kick off just hours after a convergence of editors at Holt Street to get a personal gee-up from the man himself.
Murdoch, 81, is also likely to do a whip-around of editors in their respective HQs, including the Herald Sun’s Damon Johnston, and sort out the demarcation dispute between Williams and Australian editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell. The Oz continues to bleed cash as federal government job ads evaporate — a situation set to get incalculably worse when an incoming Abbott government moves to implement its promised public service hiring freeze. But Mitchell is still considered a protected species.
He’ll get a briefing on the smashing of former state-based silos at the Cumberland, Leader and Messenger community newspaper arms and assess how favourite son Peter Blunden is progressing in his new role as Victoria’s editorial overlord. One issue will no doubt be the failure of the Herald Sun’s paywall, given Blunden and Phil Gardner’s overestimation of the willingness of working class readers to whip out the credit card to pay for crime analysis and SuperCoach.
Last year, Rupert met in Melbourne with advertising kingpins including ANZ CEO Mike Smith, media buyer Harold Mitchell, Myer CEO Bernie Brooks and Coles chief Ian McLeod at HWT’s Southbank dining room, with the tete-a-tete almost certain to be repeated.
He is also expected to attend the AFL Grand Final next Saturday, catch up with Dame Elisabeth at Cruden Farm and graze over dinner with sister Janet Calvert-Jones (still a HWT director, despite the recent restructure) in leafy Toorak.
Pollie briefings will also be on the agenda, with News’ global CEO said to be keen to anoint his former editorial writer Tony Abbott. An Abbott victory will be the first time one of his former employees has ascended to the Lodge in his home country. Rupert was relaxing at his grazing property at Cavan, south of Yass at the weekend — conveniently located just 55km from the House of Representatives.
Julia Gillard recently had Mitchell and Australian editor Clive Mathieson round for tea in the aftermath of the Bruce Wilson/AWU blow-up prosecuted by Hedley Thomas so it will be interesting to see whether the PM’s ear is bent over a proposed privacy tort and the Convergence and Finkelstein reviews.
Meanwhile, the annual tour is renowned for the slavishness of News’ tabloid editors to churn “bespoke editions” which usually involve placing animals prominently in the papers’ opening pages. As Bruce Guthrie documented in Man Bites Murdoch, Rupert reckons that fish and giraffes sell more papers, an edict that dovetails nicely with News’ recent decision to embrace a “good news policy” in the hope of making readers “feel proud of their state”.
A Crikey analysis of News Limited tabloid titles this morning reveals that, true to form, animals are everywhere. The Courier-Mail features an above-the-fold deer, The Advertiser has a tiger, The Daily Telegraph has a dead chicken above faces of apparently radical Muslims (The Tele also has an athletic possum on page 3; as does the NT News on page 5).