The outrage media in Australia (Image: Disney)

Australia’s comfortable suburban middle-class used last week’s Victorian election to echo the sentiment of the Wentworth byelection — announcing that they’ve become decidedly uncomfortable with the product being delivered by the country’s media outrage factories.

Ever since, Australia’s pundits have been chattering about the existential crisis of the Liberal Party. But it’s worse for media that have structured their business model on an audience built on outrage-driven clicks and hits.

News Corp’s Melbourne franchise, the Herald Sun, has found that its “African gang” focus has not only placed the company’s tabloids on the wrong side of history, it’s placed it on the wrong side of the market. Its 12 month campaign hasn’t survived social media’s ridicule of Dutton’s restaurant fear over-reach, or the actual lived experience of the city’s residents.

Meanwhile, in Sydney, the Macquarie radio network has discovered that it’s not just the content, it’s the packaging as well. Alan Jones found this out with the very eastern suburbs issue of advertising on the Opera House.

If it’s a Muppet government, then the outrage media are Statler and Waldorf shouting out from the balcony to the grumpy old man demographic.

It’s worked well for Fox News, playing to a more rural, regional and religious US market. This spring’s elections show that, in Australia, it’s not a big enough market to offset the loss of the suburbs — either politically or financially. The issues often used to mobilise this demographic — race-tinged reporting on crime, terrorism, climate change denial and homophobia hidden under “religious freedom” — have turned out to be precisely the wrong issues to attract just about any other demographic.

The Australian indicates that there’s an audience prepared to pay for a more intellectualised outrage mixed in with some decent journalism. And the success of the more journalistically traditional news.com.au shows that less outrage and more mass-audience news can work as an advertising driven online offering.

But News Corp has built political influence with its tabloids dominating the outrage economy. The Liberals — and, in NSW, Labor too — have found it worthwhile to feed the tabloids with “exclusive” drops and “tough on crime” rhetoric to keep them on-side.

The rejection of the Victorian Liberals by suburban voters is equally a rejection of the tabloid influence and its business model. Without influence, the tabloids lose value. While Victoria may be brushed off as “the Massachusetts of Australia” (that is, it almost always goes left), the model has similarly failed to influence in successive elections in Australia’s Texas — Queensland. 

Political commentators are watching to see how the federal government pivots in reaction to the losses. But for media watchers, equally interesting will be to see whether News Corp pivots. It’s a company that likes to boast that it backs winners, most famously bragging after the 1992 British election, “It’s The Sun what won it”.

The rare recent examples of support for labour parties in Australia and the UK has depended on those parties engaging with the company’s tabloid agenda and, often, supporting the company’s business interests. The fate of the Rudd government suggests that it brings only short-term gain for far greater long-term pain.

Since “Kevin 07”, News Corp has become increasingly enmeshed in the political infrastructure of the right, through The Australian’s op-ed pages and the nether reaches of Sky after dark. As a result, in Australia, the Liberals have found they don’t so much have a party-run media, as they have a media-run party.

News has got a few benefits out of that relationship with the Liberals — a reliable ally in its fight to constrain the ABC, or a nice little $30 million for Foxtel.

This need to pivot is the context required to understand News’ recent management reshuffle — to bring more journalism and less outrage. It explains that journalism still lies deep in News Corp DNA. To broaden market reach, it will need to work harder. It will need to appeal to that emerging progressive suburban demographic.

This time, repackaging the outrage with a one-off pre-election editorial endorsement of Labor is unlikely to help.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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