It must be handy having a media empire at your disposal to mop up the
mess when you stick your foot in it publicly. I can well remember as Herald Sun business editor back
in October 1995 when Rupert Murdoch made some injudicious comments about the
Australian economy and was worried about a backlash from the Keating
Government, which was massively subsidising News Corp’s Foxtel adventures
through Telstra.

Terry McCrann was quickly summoned for an audience with his boss and
produced a page two story the next day which began as follows:

The great challenge for all western countries was to
rediscover the formula which had produced the huge and continuous rises
in living standards of the post-war era, Rupert Murdoch said yesterday.
He said it was unacceptable for such countries to accept as normal the
joblessness and loss of hope in the future that had seemed to become
endemic in the 1980s. Mr Murdoch, chairman and chief executive of The
News Corporation, which publishes the Herald
Sun
, was speaking after the company’s annual meeting in Adelaide.

McCrann confided over coffee the next day that Rupert and his offsider,
Ken Cowley, had thanked him for getting them out of a perceived spot of bother,
although Rupert’s preferred mouthpiece wasn’t convinced about whether running such a puff piece in
the News Ltd papers across the country had actually achieved anything. Indeed.

Fast forward to May 2006 and we’ve seen another classic example of journalists being summoned to clean up a Rupert mess. The Australian’s Dennis Shanahan was given the job of “interviewing” Rupert in New York and his piece in The Weekend Australian included the following lines:

Rupert Murdoch has scotched suggestions he was advising John Howard to quit
soon, while he was “on top”, and repeated his call for “a terrific prime
minister” to stay on as long as he wants.

“Mr Howard has a great record. He’s a terrific prime minister
and he has strong talent behind him, but how long he stays on as leader is
entirely up to him, as far as I can see,” the News Corporation chief executive
told The Weekend Australian from New York yesterday.

Mr Murdoch said he was surprised at the fuss made about his comments about
the Liberal leadership in Washington earlier in the week and believed his
comments had been “twisted in some sections of the media”.

It was a combination of Barrie Cassidy and Andrew Bolt on the Insiders
couch who first generated all the excitement about Piers Akerman’s
column, demonstrating how initial media reactions can set the tone for
everyone else.

It was The World Today and Crikey last Wednesday which did the
same with Rupert’s White House commentary to Michael Rowland and then
we had the lovely spectacle yesterday of Piers Akerman playing down his
own column while on the Insiders couch and then another Murdoch employee, The Australian’s George Megalogenis, agreeing that the Sun King’s comments could have been interpreted any way you liked.

Completing the circle was The Daily Telegraph’s Malcolm Farr, who
was tipped off about Shanahan’s pending story and asked the PM for a
comment in Canada before Rupert’s recant had appeared anywhere.
The PM kept his dignity and stayed above the fray by once again
refusing to comment, while a sycophantic Peter Costello and
injudicious Rupert Murdoch suffered from the fallout of it all.

Does anyone else sense that Rupert has been annoyed by John Howard’s
continuing policy favours for Kerry Packer and would like to try his
luck with Peter Costello. The PM declaring KP to be Australia’s
greatest businessman at his taxpayer-funded memorial service also
would have rankled Rupert. Costello is more his sort of guy,
having declared Rupert to be the greatest of all time.

It really is quite sad what all of this says about power, journalism and democracy in Australia.

Peter Fray

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