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 continue a series looking at the shadow of fear that hovers permanently over Australian democracy.
Whenever we look for the usual suspects in any Australian political killing, the Murdochs are usually top of the list. From father to son, it’s been that way since Sir Keith Murdoch took aim at General John Monash 100 years ago.
There’s a refreshing honesty in the old man who built the Herald & Weekly Times as the newspaper monopoly of its era. His 1936 dummy spit about prime minister Joe Lyons (“I put him there and I’ll put him out”) stands in stark contrast to modern day News Corp’s attack of the vapours every time there’s the slightest hint they were involved in the Turnbull assassination.
Rupert lives in an age that punishes the honesty of his father. Now, power has to come with a gaslighting deniability. It’s an age of suspicion about “the swamp” — that network of relationships between rich men and politicians that News Corp grew up in.
Although Rupert was born in Melbourne and started business in Adelaide, the News Ltd political culture was shaped by NSW politics. Murdoch became Sydney’s dominant newspaper player in 1972, once he’d added The Daily Telegraph to the afternoon Daily Mirror and The Australian.
The company modernised Australian journalism, bringing a sharper, more tabloid edge, and a heightening of newspaper competition. It kick-started the late-20th century shift from reporting for the record to breaking news and opinionated analysis.
The politics of NSW, under both the Liberal Askin and Labor Wran governments, were profoundly transactional and shaped around personal relationships. They moulded the Murdoch approach to politics, reflected in the spectacular rise and fall of the Murdoch-Whitlam relationship.
News Ltd papers could, at one point, comfortably support Labor at the state level and the Liberals nationally with equal vehemence, until the company (and the Australian voters) switched to Hawke in 1983. Although the nature of the company’s journalism leaned to the right, the company’s political engagement was based on its relationships — on individuals, more than ideals.
By today’s standards, that campaigning seems relatively tame, although it could be brutal. The 1980 campaign against Labor’s proposed capital gains tax was credited with the Fraser government hanging on to the NSW seats it needed to keep office.
Political relationships were a means to the corporate end of growth through favourable regulation, acquisition and business development. For example, in 1978 Murdoch became a partner in the state government’s first Lotto licence — essentially a licence to print money. In 1984, the NSW government shifted its lucrative advertising from the SMH to the Telegraph.
Federally, the Fraser government amended the broadcasting law to enable a non-resident citizen (Rupert Murdoch was by then based in London and New York) to control a TV licence after Murdoch bought Ten. And, after Murdoch became a US citizen (losing his Australian citizenship in the process) Labor approved his foreign takeover of his father’s old company, the Herald & Weekly Times, in 1987, transforming the Sydney-based News into the dominant national player.
In the meantime, Murdoch had taken his relationship-building and transactional growth to the United Kingdom, parlaying the quid of his support for the Thatcher conservative government into the pro of being waived past monopoly ownership rules, buying The Times and Sunday Times to add to The Sun and The News of the World.
In the UK, the papers refined a journalism of resentment, teasing out and confirming pre-existing biases. It was a journalism that produced the blood-curdling “GOTCHA” headline to celebrate the killing of 323 Argentinian sailors in the sinking of the General Belgrano in the Falklands War. It’s the journalism that lost its Liverpool readership after an attack on football fans following the Hillsborough disaster.
The corporate support for Thatcher transferred to her successor, John Major, in the 1992 election, before moving on to New Labour’s Tony Blair in 1997. But as the century turned, voters shifted against “the swamp” of quid pro quo politics. For British politicians, at least, a Murdoch relationship turned into a negative.
But in the US, with the launch of Fox News in 1996, News Corp had already shifted. Although for Murdoch, personal relationships remained critical, for the company, being the “fair and balanced” voice of the right became the core of its corporate positioning.
NEXT: How News Corp manipulates public debate today.