As last week marked the continuation of the culture wars by other (political) means, the war’s front-line media fighters became part of the story, along with the companies that employ them.
The lid was lifted on Thursday with Chris Uhlmann’s criticism of particular commenters as “bullies” and “players”. The Uhlmann view was reiterated by Turnbull on both his Thursday and Friday press conferences. Then, on Friday, the New Daily’s Bruce Guthrie broadened the discussion, suggesting it was more than a coincidence that the leadership challenge came while News Corp boss Rupert Murdoch was passing through Australia.
A former Murdoch editor, Guthrie relied on similar fact evidence — changing leaders to suit his interests is just something that Rupert does. News Corp journalists dismissed the criticism as mugging the ref, with some suggesting it was an inter-mural spat between the two remaining major traditional media companies.
There’s no evidence of Murdoch’s personal fingerprints on the attempted coup, although there rarely is until journalistic or political memoirs written long after the fact report Murdoch’s political interventions with a matter of fact-ness that jars with contemporary denials.
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Other than the mutterings around #libspill, Murdoch’s trip through his Australian possessions has laid lightly on public consciousness — an agency photo snapped upon landing at Sydney Airport on August 10, a non-speaking guest role at the company’s journalism awards, and an in-conversation with the 79-year-old former prime minister John Howard at the 75th anniversary dinner of the Institute of Public Affairs last Monday night.
There was scant reporting of the in-conversation, other than a few tweets: “Fascinating discussion … absolutely brilliant” tweeted Rita Panahi; “real leadership” said Janet Albrechtsen; “Two Australian legends” said Miranda Devine. Sorry to have missed it, really.
But, why would the 87-year-old US citizen care about who was Australian prime minister? Or care, that Malcolm Turnbull not be PM?
There’s a long-standing debate among the legion of Murdoch watchers about whether Murdoch’s interventions are motivated by his personal politics or by his commercial interests. These need not be in conflict.
Murdoch has shown no evidence over his life of being an ideological small-government neo-conservative, although he’s employed plenty of journalists who were. Perhaps the core competency of Murdoch as a businessman is his ability to operate in a regulatory environment and to shape regulation to his own ends. His reputation is profoundly transactional. Much like Trump really.
So what does News Corp want from government? And why couldn’t they get it from Turnbull?
The company has benefited from a few decisions from government since 2013 — trashing the NBN, which restricts streaming competition to Foxtel; abolition of cross-media ownership rules, opening the way for a bid for Channel 10 (and potential merger with Seven West Media); and a $30 million amuse-bouche to broadcast women’s sport on Foxtel.
None of it has really addressed the core existential challenges facing News Corp as a legacy media company. For this, the bigger ask is the neutering of the ABC. In this goal, the company will be comforted by the pivoting of the IPA’s Communications Minister Mitch Fifield from Turnbull to Dutton to the ultimately successful candidate, Morrison.
For media, there is a marketing benefit in a leadership challenge — particularly the sort of plot-twisting must-watch drama we saw last week. It brings viewers, even to the low-rating shows that pop up on Sky after dark. That’s particularly true when the challenger’s base and the media’s audience align, when the challenge is the political front of the culture wars, with its continued confirmation bias and resentment generation, around the war’s frontlines of immigration, race, climate and (surprisingly still) marriage equality. Welcome to Sky after dark.
Whatever the deviation over the past 40-odd years, the News Corp-21st Century Fox form line over the past decade has been pretty clear whenever these fissures burst into practical politics: Brexit in the UK; Trump in the US; Abbott and, now, Dutton in Australia.
Does this form line reflect profound beliefs or cynical marketing or a bit of both? Either way, it’s the war — not the win — that brings viewers, so don’t expect much to change after dark.