When Col Allan became editor of Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post in 2001, the paper was losing perhaps $20 million a year. Now, some estimates put the annual loss at $100 million. Allan might well have notched up greater losses than any other newspaper editor in history.
Yet when the former editor of The Daily Telegraph returned to Australia recently he was greeted with great fanfare. Even rival Fairfax papers described him as Murdoch’s “gifted tabloid editor and trusted lieutenant” and one of Murdoch’s “brilliant, intuitive editors”. According to News Corporation’s announcement, he was in Australia to provide “extra editorial leadership” — and if The Australian‘s media section is to be believed, he has already succeeded. At the end of July, it reported, Allan gave an “empowering” speech to fellow News editors that apparently left editors feeling overwhelimingly positive the job at hand. Curiously, none of these reports mentioned the scale of the losses he had incurred in New York.
Allan’s arrival in Australia was seen as bad news for two people — Kevin Rudd and Kim Williams. According to some reports, Allan was here to lead Murdoch’s assault on the Labor government, and his hand may well have been evident in The Daily Telegraph‘s unusual decision to begin its campaign coverage with a front-page editorial proclaiming “Kick this mob out. The paper followed that up with a front page based around the TV sitcom Hogan’s Heroes, set in a prisoner of war camp during the second world war. Rudd was photoshopped as Colonel Klink and Anthony Albanese as his second-in-command, Sergeant Schultz; rather clumsily, disgraced former Labor MP Craig Thompson appeared as Hogan, the lovable hero of the series. The headline featured Sergeant Schultz’s signature line, “I know nothing”.
It’s not as if The Daily Telegraph needs any help from Col Allan in honing its strident anti-Labor message or producing outrageous front pages. For a long time the paper’s editors have behaved like a group of ageing attention-seekers who have just discovered Photoshop. Peter Slipper was depicted as a rat on one front page, Stephen Conroy as Stalin on another. What’s revealing about the Hogan’s Heroes front page is that the last episode of the show was made 42 years ago, and the image would communicate little to anyone aged less under 45. That puts the Tele‘s editors very much on the wavelength of Generation Last. Their election campaign so far has been an absolute Barry Crocker.
Several commentators have argued that the support of The Daily Telegraph is crucial for Labor because of its circulation in western Sydney. I would think, however, that after three years of the paper’s anti-Labor barrage, any Telegraph reader who was going to defect from Labor would have already done so. Many others — those who read it for its rugby league coverage, for example — are immune to its political slant or take it with a large grain of salt. When Essential Research asked readers how much trust they had in their daily paper in January this year, The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald topped the rankings of the six papers surveyed (with 71% of readers trusting them, and 25% and 29%, respectively, not trusting them). The Telegraph was at the bottom: only 48% of readers trusted it and 50% did not — and this is credibility among its own readers, not the public as a whole.
It is unlikely that Rudd and Allan will be going out for a friendly drink together, as they once did in New York. Several reports about Allan’s arrival recalled that Rudd first met the editor in 2003 when he was visiting the UN as opposition spokesman on foreign affairs. He and Allan went out to dinner, and then on to Allan’s favourite strip club, Scores, where — Rudd later confessed — he had too much to drink. Four years later, when Rudd was opposition leader, the Murdoch Sunday papers in Australia all ran a front page story — “Rudd’s drunken night in strip club — EXCLUSIVE” by Glenn Milne — with the lead: “Kevin Rudd’s hopes of becoming prime minister have been rocked by a visit to a New York strip club where he was warned against inappropriate behavior during a drunken night while representing Australia at the United Nations.”
There were two curious aspects to the story. The first is the obvious: it seems unusual for one Murdoch editor to ply someone with alcohol and take them to a strip club and then for another Murdoch editor across the world to put this on a front page, acknowledging the presence of but downplaying the central role of the first Murdoch editor. A couple of days later, in a statement receiving much less prominence, Allan said Rudd behaved like a “perfect gentleman” at the club. And it’s strange that the Australian tabloids didn’t seek their colleague’s comment before initial publication. If they had it would have punctured the innuendo with which Milne spiced his article, and refuted the unsupported claim in the first sentence that Rudd had been “warned” for his behaviour.