Insiders host David Speers (Image: ABC)

Look, bragged first-time Insiders panelist (and The Australian’s national affairs editor) Simon Benson last weekend, here’s something to see: all four panel members are past or present News Corp journalists.

And with that, he briefly opened a window into News Corp culture and its attempts to shape Australia’s media landscape — and the ABC, in particular.

Twitter was quick to take Benson at his word: there have, after all, been a few new faces from the heart of the News Corp beast pop up on the ABC’s flagship political commentary program since David Speers was poached as presenter from Sky.

Was all this a sign of the ABC’s notorious pre-emptive buckle to right-wing pressure?

Probably not. In fact, it tells us a lot more about News Corps than it does the ABC.

The ABC has long had to manage News Corp, Goldilocks style, so it’s “just right”: not too cold and distant that it provokes News Corp to turn up to boiling its long-simmering war on the public broadcaster; not too hot and passionate that the ABC risks becoming a public face of News Corp values.

It requires equal part push-back and accommodation. Under a conservative government, it’s among the broadcaster’s unwritten KPIs. It’s easy to bend over backwards a touch too far, as the ABC did in the late Howard years when The Australian front page splashes set the broadcaster’s morning news agenda.

This makes the Murdochs’ company an annoyance for the ABC.  But News Corp actually needs the ABC.

Most obviously, it needs an enemy. It needs to be able to point to the public broadcaster, while looking over its shoulder at its right wing base, to say: “See! See! This is why you need us.” Take Chris Kenny, assuring Sky listeners the day after  that, notwithstanding Benson’s appearance,  Insiders is “relentlessly anti-conservative” and “the panel is usually filled by green left journalists” and “small ‘L’ liberals”.

But now, as the COVID-19 shock has shattered the commercial business model, the ABC has become a commercial imperative. News Corp needs free media — the ABC — to promote its content to a broader audience as it sheds relevance and influence behind its hard paywalls.  

At the same time, deep within itself, News Corp understands the ABC owns “trust”. It needs to grasp some reflection of that trust by having their voices on the ABC’s talk programs, in both radio and television.

In this context, Benson’s Insiders intervention can be understood more as an opportunistic News Corp promo, than a claimed culture wars win.

Look at the data. Insiders is 10 programs into the Speers era. It’s had 23 guest panellists: seven from various News Corp outlets plus two former News employees — The Sydney Morning Herald’s David Crowe and the ABC’s Patricia Karvelas both making their second appearance last Sunday. It’s had half a dozen new faces, three from News.

There’s a natural suspicion: the new iteration is still recent, still trying to find its feet.  Speers is more directional than his long-term predecessor Barrie Cassidy. He’s still more interviewer than moderator with his co-panellists. He’s finding that politicians bring a more rigorous caution to the ABC than they may have to Sky where they would (often mistakenly) assume they were chatting with friends. 

Cassidy also brought an often under-appreciated nuance of how government actually works from having been a governmental insider as a prime ministerial adviser. That depth now relies on panellists like former Costello adviser Nikki Savva.

But there’s an important insight in Benson’s intervention: it demonstrated News’ contradictory approach to former employees. Inside the corporate walls, they are freely denounced as traitors. Publicly, they’re claimed with pride as evidence that News Corp still shapes news.

While journalists are shaped by the culture of their employer, they rarely take much of that with them when they leave. It’s a continuing surprise how quickly a “News” person becomes, say, an “ABC” person.  

With Speers, it was clear that Sky News left him behind in its lurch to the right long before he left Sky for the ABC. Worse for News Corp, his move suggests that, for all their bragging, it’s the ABC that’s the employer of choice for Australia’s journalists.