Even back when News Corp was a more normal news organisations, its political coverage has always been influenced by two things: the political approach of its owner and the corporate interests of the company.
Over 60 years, the company has evolved its particular campaigning skills so that it now brings the full panoply of its product to the task: integrating the front-page splash, the creation and pursuit of enemies, the dull thud of repetition in news stories (often torn from broader social context), backbench re-writes and headlines, Op-ed commentators, editorial cartoons and a largely interchangeable ideological corpus of columnists.
Within this integrated lattice, flowers of “good” journalism may bloom. Individual papers within the group are empowered to shuffle the component parts to reflect their market needs. So, for example, a Daily Telegraph splash may be page 17 in The Advertiser.
Traditionally, its election papers leaned towards the journalistic zeitgeist of the time — just a fair bit more so. So, it backed Australian Labor in 1972, before flipping to the Liberals in 1975 (provoking a strike by its journalists), before returning to Labor in the 1980s. In the UK, up until the 1992 election, it was “The Sun Wot Won It” for the British conservatives. From 1997, the company’s now Wapping-based papers moved to support Tony Blair’s New Labour.
The specific interests of the company always left room for flexibility. Even in the depths of its support for the Fraser and Howard governments, the Sydney papers backed NSW Labor to advance its local goals.
This political flexibility gave birth to that often false hope of progressives that “Murdoch always backs winners”. But so dominant has News Corp historically been in Australia that it’s hard to tell where the company’s approach ends and the rest of the industry begins.
Reach and the confidence of journalistic certainty mean that News Corp’s papers often set the agenda that the rest of the media follow behind. At a national level, The Australian’s provocative (but not necessarily wrong) front page splashes once lead through the morning ABC news into the day’s political cycle.
Its long term campaigns — such as its fight against the Rudd/Gillard governments’ school hall program — create a craft-wide assumption that may be wholly at odds with the reality. Similarly, at a state level where News’ dailies dominate, the local tabloids actively work to set the city-wide news cycle around a conservative agenda. Think Melbourne and “African gangs”.
Setting the news cycle is a win-win. It advances the agenda, while legitimating the company approach.
The age of social media gives the company a new tool. Its stories become weaponised through likes and shares to promote an agenda. For example, its US sibling Fox News regularly ranks at or near the top of Facebook shares.
Like all good campaigners, News Corp doesn’t leave it to the election to shape attitudes. On key issues — most notoriously, climate change — it sustains inter-election generation of material to support the conservative position. Similarly, as Crikey has regularly reported, it never misses a chance to personalise its politics by creating an enemy for its readers to throw eggs at.
At times, a News Corp paper may seek future deniability by editorialising (safely inside the book) in support of a centre-left party that its long-term campaigns have fatally undermined. For example, the 2007 Telegraph recommended a vote for Rudd Labor. In 2016, The New York Post, caught between its politics and its Democrat-voting readers, declined to recommend either Clinton or Trump.
On rare occasions, finding itself seemingly out of step with its times, News Corp creates a new reality. In the 1979 South Australian election, The Daily News stood almost alone against the reelection of the Corcoran Labor government — and prevailed.
Its coverage was subsequently condemned by the Australian Press Council, leading News Ltd (as it then was) to withdraw from the council, not to return until it took over The Herald and Weekly Times in 1987.
Similarly, in the 1992 UK elections, the 2016 Brexit referendum and the Trump election later that year, the company found that it had backed unlikely winners.
This weekend, they’ll be hoping to find out that they’ve done it again.