Over the past month, Australia has lost a prime minister and the ABC has lost its chair and managing director. You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to know that one media organisation — led by one media mogul — was instrumental in fuelling and encouraging that turmoil. Today we begin a series looking at the shadow of fear that hovers permanently over Australian democracy.

Well call me Ishmael! In August, for the first time this year, we had a sighting of the great white whale of Australian politics: Rupert Murdoch breaking the surface and blowing his spout with, “Malcolm has got to go!”

In Australian political mythology, Murdoch is as much kraken as leviathan, with tentacles that reach through media and politics, so perhaps his presence would give us clarity on the key #Libspill question of what just happened.

But just when we thought we had it worked out, the sacking of former ABC managing director Michelle Guthrie (a favourite News Corp punching bag) just muddied things up again, particularly once it became clear that her departure was in part due to her apparent lack of enthusiasm for the right’s culture war battles.

Undisputed in the media’s reporting has been that Murdoch didn’t like Turnbull; it follows, as night from day, that PMs disliked by Murdoch tend not to be PMs for very long. Sure, lots of the Liberal party room didn’t like him either. But we know why Abbott dislikes Turnbull. Their antagonism — political, cultural, personal — has been played out publicly over 25 years.

Murdoch and Turnbull? No idea.

What had the Turnbull government not done for News Corp? They’ve hamstrung NBN with fibre to the node, helping Foxtel; gone after the ABC, often in tandem with News Corp media; changed media ownership rules to allow a potential Network Ten takeover; tossed a stray $30 million to Foxtel to broadcast women’s sport; and stood aside while the ACCC waived through News Corp’s regional and pay TV consolidation. 

The big thing the Coalition hasn’t given the company is some freedom around anti-siphoning laws to enable Foxtel to become the premier sports streaming service. The company is attempting to bypass these laws through commercial co-bids where a free-to-air partner buys and waives their rights.

Murdoch’s dislike is said to go back to the 1980s when Turnbull was more a Packer person than a Murdoch man. Certainly, Murdoch wouldn’t be the only person who’s found Turnbull’s self-confidence insufficiently deferential to their own importance. Perhaps Turnbull had enough money to believe he could treat Murdoch as an equal.

The media whales usually move quietly below the surface, communicating with echolocation that falls outside the hearing range of all but their own editors. As Anne Davies reported in The Guardian last month, the best of Murdoch’s editors and journalists have highly tuned hearing.

Two weeks before #Libspill, Murdoch dropped into Australia for the first time this year. Shortly after, he reportedly met with his editors at Lachlan Murdoch’s home (coincidentally, in Turnbull’s Wentworth electorate). The Dutton for PM campaign seemed to ramp up after that.

Sometime in that week, Murdoch and Kerry Stokes spoke by phone, leaving Stokes sufficiently agitated to talk to Turnbull who, in turn, attempted, to contact Murdoch.

By the following Sunday, Turnbull was, in the Murdoch papers, “dead man walking”. Fairfax Media’s Mark Kenny noted on Insiders, “it’s pretty clear that News Corp has made its decision on this Prime Minister”.

Meanwhile, Murdoch was off to Melbourne for an IPA-sponsored Chatham House Rules in-conversation with John Howard and Janet Albrechtsen. According to Rita Pahani, the conversation was “absolutely brilliant” and “superb”, covering “Trump, Brexit, Australia, China, identity politics, free speech, political correctness and much more”.

Next morning, Turnbull responded to the News Corp destabilisation and the Stokes’ briefing by bringing on the initial spill. Sometime the next day, he finally spoke with Murdoch who, in apparent gaslighting mode, deflected criticisms to Lachlan and “Boris” — The Australian editor Paul Whittaker. Two days later, Turnbull was gone.

Turnbull has made no secret of his conviction of the role of News Corp. More surprisingly, has been the company kick-back. Normally, they brag (“It’s The Sun wot won it”) or keep schtum, banking the power that comes from perception. This time, they’ve loudly rejected that #Libspill was a media conspiracy without refuting the long-term destabilisation. They pounded the ABC (and Guthrie) for its reporting of the Murdoch sighting.

This pounding carried on through the Guthrie-Milne saga. In The Australian, the ABC News report on the claims of Murdoch involvement ranked in the duos greatest failing.

Maybe they would say that, wouldn’t they? But it suggests that even the whales have recognised that long-term public displays of media power threaten to undermine their public legitimacy.

NEXT: News Corp’s rich history of political meddling

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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