Australia has a long and sorry history of political deals with media moguls such as Kerry Packer and Rupert Murdoch and there looks like plenty of this has been going on this time around, as Hugo Kelly reports.

Yesterday, Packer surprisingly threw his weight behind Labor at the eleventh hour, using his chief propaganda weapon, the top rating A Current Affair, to ram home the message that Howard is an uncaring ogre who’s a danger to our kids.

And today, the Murdoch tabloids urged their readers to vote for the Howard retirement plan. Sydney’s influential Daily Tele, obviously struggling for a rational argument, described Howard as a man with “energy and calculated daring”.

Seriously!

Murdoch’s backing of Howard must be balanced against Packer’s decision to go with Beazley.

The Packer push is significant: he has traditionally supported the Coalition, and would certainly not chance his arm with an uneducated punt on Labor if he didn’t believe Labor was poised for victory. Almost certainly, he would have sought advice from the Labor lobbyist on his payroll – Graham Richardson.

But Packer would have needed more than Richo’s assurances that it could make up for softness in NSW and Qld seats with wins in WA, Victoria, South Australia, Tasmania and – maybe – some Queensland marginals (that doesn’t include you Cheryl. You are the weakest link – Goodbye).

The rest of the big media – with one honourable exception – has supported Howard’s campaign celebrating ignorance and invoking Fortress Australia. Yesterday’s major newspaper editorials comprised a range of muddy arguments in favour of the Coalition.

The Oz editor-in-chief David Armstrong took a “pox on both your houses” approach in his leader, arguing that both needed badly to lift their game. The effect was spoiled by his coy final suggestion that voters should present an open electoral cheque to Howard and his successor – whoever that may be. It was a conclusion flying in the face of the paper’s otherwise very good coverage of the campaign.

“We entertain some hope that the Coalition, under Mr Howard, then under someone else, will renew itself and its ideas,” Armstrong told his readers.

Really? Someone else. At the moment, that would be Peter Costello. So, facing a choice between two mainstream options, Beazley and Howard, the Oz blithely advocates the Third Man.

In an era where elections tend towards the Presidential, Peter Costello has not been put forward as a prime ministerial candidate in this campaign by anyone apart from the ALP. It is irresponsible for a major newspaper to advocate, in effect, a vote for a man untested for the top job.

At least the Tele was less obscure. The paper’s headline screamed: A Leader To Suit These Tough Times. “Australians don’t want the bloke next door. They want energy and calculated daring,” said its leader, presumably written by editor Campbell Reid. We presume they are talking about Howard here…

The Tele’s coverage today of the babies-in-the-water fracas let Howard off the hook, accusing Reith of misleading the public and the PM.

The other interesting aspect of today’s media endorsements was the split between Robert Whitehead’s SMH and Michael Gawenda’s Age. Gawenda demonstrated strength, courage and clear-headed logic in his scarifying attack on Howard’s disgraceful behaviour during the campaign.

Whitehead dutifully followed the Coalition line, claiming that Howard – the worst Liberal Prime Minister since Billy McMahon in this correspondent’s opinion – had “demonstrated a clear capacity for the job”.

In Brisbane, The Courier Mail presented the best assessment of any of the Murdoch papers. “Mr Beazley would probably be a better Prime Minister than electors in this state believe. The type of leadership Australia needs is that which defines itself not by its response to perceived threat, but by its identification of opportunity. No political leader deserves a ringing endorsement from electors if he refuses to commit to serving a full term.”

In Melbourne, Peter Blunden’s Herald Sun was more sober in its support. Blunden wrote: “The lacklustre showing of both failed to present a clear choice in terms of charismatic and visionary leadership. Given the volatility of the world today, the Herald Sun believes this is not the time to change government.”

Not so, Kerry Packer. Back at ACA, Mike Munro opened up the show with a bizarre attack, accusing Howard of using the GST to kill our kiddies.

The story was a weird spin on the babies-bobbing-in-the-water theme now prevalent in the campaign. The story’s pitch was simple, but devastating: Parents are pulling their kids out of learn-to-swim classes; therefore, come summer the pools and beaches of Oz will be awash with their limp little corpses.

And ACA wheeled out the heavy hitters to bolster the scare-story. Up popped everybody’s favourite little Aussie battler, Laurie Lawrence: “Mate! We’re talking about kid’s lives here! This is what’s important.”

Then came a series of mums, all treading water holding their precious tiny human cargo. Said one mum of the rapacious Howard regime: “Obviously they’d rather raise revenue. They’re not thinking of the children’s safety.”

Munro ended the yarn with a lame fax response from assistant treasurer Kemp claiming families are better off under the GST.

The double-barrelled attack on the government continued when Mike conducted a comfy interview with Kim Beazley, positioning him as most definitely not a kiddie killer.

Q: Mr Beazley, thanks for your time. What do you consider as having been the best moment of the campaign for you?

And away they went, comfortable and relaxed, as Munro lobbed what amounted to a series of Dorothy Dixers. The hardest question? Q: Commentators are saying that if anything’s going to lose you this election, it will be your initial – and I emphasise your initial – indecision over the boat people.” All easily swatted away by Kerry’s PM-to-be.

Q: What was your reaction to today’s release of the Naval video?

Q: You were accused during the campaign of fudging on the financial figures. Have you got it all massively wrong?

Q: How do you relax, Mr Beazley? How much sleep have you been getting during the campaign? Well good luck for Saturday Mr Beazley, appreciate your time!

Munro ended up with a mildly combative question on the GST and a nice line on the preponderance of ex-ACTU leaders on the frontbench. “With Jenny George, Martin Ferguson and Simon Crean on the frontbench, your government will be little more than a big union shop, won’t it?”

After its double-barrelled gift to Beazley, ACA will no doubt claim balance, running an interview with Howard tonight. It will be worth watching, but cannot undo the damage inflicted on the Coalition last night.

Peter Fray

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