Lachlan Murdoch , Rupert and James Murdoch
Lachlan, Rupert and James Murdoch

As the reception of the federal budget kicks off the 2019 election, we’re getting the chance to see in real time what Lachlan Murdoch’s News Corp is going to look like — and, yes, it already looks like it’s more right-wing than his father’s company.

Last week, in a three-part series The New York Times declared something that’s been clear in Australia for at least a year: the transition has happened. Rupert is sorta, kinda retired and Lachlan and his people are in charge.

Even the most cursory scan of the front pages of the company’s newspapers in the past week tells us how that’s playing out in regards to the election: in The Courier Mail, it’s the “reward” of Morrison versus the “risk” of Shorten; in The Australian, it’s  Shorten’s “magic pudding”; and in The Daily Telegraph, it’s the outrage of Abbott-opponent Zali Steggall driving a (*gasp*) fossil fuel car!

In News Corp tradition, the budget/election season starts with a family visit to the colony. This year it was the new patriarch, Lachlan, apparently to celebrate his wedding anniversary. The party was attended by, among others Liberal backbencher Tony Abbott and Australia’s US Ambassador Joe Hockey.

There have been no reports of the traditional meeting of editors yet, but News Corp papers have this week ramped up their coverage. Much of the political reporting itself has been relatively straight, with not much more than the odd thumb on the Liberal side of the scales. But it’s the front pages that tell us what the company thinks is important and the columnists inside who give the readers their talking points.

This is the key to understanding Lachlan’s News Corp: as the NYT’s report described it, it’s about building “an unabashedly nationalist, far-right and hugely profitable political propaganda machine”.

It’s no longer about building a mass media to persuade the middle ground of Australian politics. That’s the old Rupert model. That’s why, under Rupert, News Corp could support centre-left parties when the political tide of its broad-based urban markets tugged it to the left. Of course, in each case, the support was short-term and impliedly conditional, as the most recent Australian centre-left beneficiary, Kevin Rudd, discusses in his book The PM Years.

Now, under Lachlan, it’s about confirmation bias that empowers conservative politics, pulling it to the right, rewarding friends and punishing enemies. It’s about rhetorical bullets for its constituency to “like” and “share”. (Friday’s hit on Stegall was tweeted out by Abbott’s sister Christine Forster.)

It’s driven in part by economics — the shift from advertising to the engagement required by reader/subscriber supported media — and part by personal beliefs.

Australia is well-placed to be the testing ground for the new approach. It’s the dominant media player both in reach and in influence. Lachlan’s team is in place: the hierarchy here is largely his people who he met in Brisbane during his first corporate gig as head of Queensland Newspapers back in the 1990s.

Like the NYT last week, online news magazine The Intercept published its take on Lachlan’s beliefs, tracking back to his membership to the Conservative Society at his elite US private school and his studies at Princeton. (While we can read too much into the political affectations of privileged young men, remember, by contrast, Rupert had a bust of Lenin while at Oxford.)

For someone who is shaping the politics of the right, there’s not much on the record. There’s his 2002 Andrew Olle lecture which recycles his father’s trope of the danger of elites in a paean otherwise to the power of newspapers to embrace diversity and bring societies together.

Both the NYT and The Intercept quote former Australian editor Chris Mitchell saying “Lachlan’s conservatism is more vigorous than that of any Australian politician” and that his views were usually to the right of his father’s — The Intercept sources this, unkindly, to Mitchell’s “obscure” memoir.

Left to judge News Corp by what it does, the signs from last week are that Lachlan’s News Corp is different to Rupert’s, but not as many hoped.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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