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.
The debate over the role News Corp played in the Turnbull (and perhaps Guthrie) removal too often looks at News Corp through 20th century eyes. But today’s News Corp is not the original company of a younger Rupert Murdoch, with its laser focus on using political relationships to build the organisation.
It’s now the company of the elder Rupert, and of Lachlan Murdoch: a company deliberately positioned as the voice of the right. It’s a conjunction that suits the apparent views of the family, while providing a survival strategy in digital disruption. Populist politics that appeal to the older white demographic is now how News makes its money.
This change has shifted the journalistic Overton window, making possible the extremism of Trump, the immigration-tinged pursuit of Brexit and the coal-embrace of Abbott and Morrison. The corporate retuning can be traced to the 1996 launch of the “fair and balanced” Fox News in the US, which weaponised the journalism of resentment around that country’s old fault lines of race and gender, using that resentment as a tool of political mobilisation. This style bled back into the company’s journalism in the UK and, particularly after the 2001 Tampa affair, into Australia, slowly reshaping the journalism of News Corp’s papers.
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A sense of who their friends and who their enemies are remains embedded in this newer News Corp. In this Foxified world, the right politics are more important for friendship than it once was. But, as Malcolm Turnbull found, the right politics don’t automatically make you a corporate friend.
And while News Corp can be good to its friends — through, for example, generous book contracts and Fox (or Sky) commentator roles — it can pursue its enemies with the persistence of Wile E. Coyote chasing the Road Runner.
This new approach was partly driven by the shift of the company’s centre of gravity to the United States, particularly after its last major buy of The Wall Street Journal. The sort of hands-on relationship building that shaped News in Australia and the UK just didn’t scale in the US. At the same time, in the UK, the News of The World phone hacking scandal made politicians reluctant to be seen with the Murdochs. Rupert himself has snarked about having to be smuggled into Downing Street through the back door.
The more ideological News Corp did not emerge overnight. Over the past two decades, the company’s political engagement has shifted, at first slowly, and then quickly, in the US and the UK. It’s been slower in Australia (other than on climate change), although the conflation of race and crime in last summer’s “African gangs” scare campaign marked a further step.
On Australian Sky, there’s still a clear line between the daytime news and the after-dark zoo. Fox News started the same way. Over time the divide has steadily blurred, so that last week, a Fox News interview became the appropriate stage for laundering Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh.
News Corp defenders will reach back to moments when one paper or another editorialised in support of Labor, Labour or the Democrats. But there’s not much that’s significant since the endorsement of Rudd in the 2007 Australian election — and gee, didn’t he have to work hard for that, both before and after the election.
The closest recent example was the reluctance of the News Corp-owned New York Post to recommend a candidate in the 2016 presidential election; reluctant to be caught between the candidate of their boss and the candidate of their heavily Democrat market.
The company has made a heavy bet on the right. But the likely emerging political shift to the left — in the upcoming US mid-terms, and with the possible election of Labor in Australia — will tell us whether this is a permanent shift or whether Murdoch will reposition News Corp to a new political reality
Perhaps Murdoch’s off-hand remark to Kerry Stokes that he can make plenty of money under a Labor government reflects a deeper understanding: the Fox brand of right-wing populism might sell better if it’s got a government to oppose rather than support.
And, as Australia saw in the recent leadership upheaval, when your sales boom on turmoil, sometimes it’s worthwhile creating the chaos yourself.