The Murdochs are under fire. In the US, the right has Fox News in its sights for being, suddenly, insufficiently Trumpian. Meanwhile here in Australia, News Corp is being harassed by the former PMs club for becoming too Fox-like.
So just how much trouble are they in?
The Murdochs have found themselves wedged by their own business model which married news and politics to deliver dollars and power.
Put a fork in them, the election is almost done.
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The News Corp shtick joined a playful, entertaining, almost post-modernist approach to news with an openly declared conservative commentary, with a permeable but perceptible wall between the two.
News provided the social licence. Its fun style drew a loyal audience. Its political alignment delivered generous allies with rule-making authority.
The Malcolm Turnbull-Paul Kelly punch-on during last week’s Q+A called out the conceit that held it all together: when the company decides what’s “news”, it’s a difference without meaning. Turnbull was talking about climate change, highlighting last summer’s false arson bushfire narrative to point out that News Corp has made matters of fact into a question of political values.
Fellow panellist Jan Fran revealed a further collapse in the model: the media playfulness has devolved into bullying, which has carried over to their politics. Just look at the giddy hubris on display in the campaigns against the Labor premiers over their handling of COVID-19.
The Rudd petition, with Turnbull’s public interventions, has broken the dam with a practical demonstration that there’s safety from bullies in numbers. Following the Q+A exchange, both those supportive and those fearful of News Corp quietly waived through the proposal for a Senate inquiry.
Publicly, News Corp are dismissive. In The Weekend Australian’s more-in-anger-than-sorrow editorial response to the Rudd-Turnbull attacks (“alternative facts do not belong in serious debate”) the inquiry went unnoticed.
But privately, they’ll be remembering the “most humble day” of Rupert’s life when he fronted the House of Commons inquiry into the UK hacking scandal. Public exposure of company practices — by other media and public inquiries — destroyed the company’s UK social licence. The company closed the News of the World, abandoned the takeover of UK Sky, structurally separated News Corp and Fox, ended the rise of James and paid out over a billion dollars in damages and legal fees.
Meanwhile, in the US, a defeated Trump is coming from the other side demanding that news “facts” yield to his political narrative of a stolen election. His supporters are joining in, tagging Fox with that most Trumpian insult: “enemy of the people”.
The right-wing media sense an opportunity. From Newsmax to Breitbart (with support from right-wing funders) they are wedging Fox, stealing audience share. There’s talk about Trump linking up with a new player, maybe the One America News Network.
It’s a battle over intellectual property rights to the Trump legacy. Far-right groups want to hold the legitimacy Trump’s tweets gave them, using the brand to leverage access to power. Fox wants to keep its audience, without journeying too far into the fringes of the ethno-nationalist right, while hanging onto the lingering value in its “news” status.
Expect money to talk. News Corp rewards political allies with post-career columns, books and commentating gigs (hello, Joe Hockey). They’ll be wanting to tie up the Trump media brand, perhaps with a regular commenting spot on Fox, ghosted newspaper columns and part memoir, part 2024 campaign book.
But whatever the short-term settlement, the Murdoch model is now fractured for good thanks to the internet.
The pretence that news and comment can be understood separately depends on the 20th century model of linear media consumption, of watching or reading one thing after another, with everything in its understood place in printed papers or scheduled broadcasts.
Now, each fragment is discovered through social media or search, driven by an algorithm that rewards opinionated outrage over news and sober analysis. News Corp and Fox have pivoted accordingly.
In the US, the market for right-wing outrage may be large enough for the Murdochs. But in the smaller Australian market, it depends more on ad hoc returns from their political investment, like the multi-million dollar payments to Foxtel or the forced levies on Facebook and Google through the proposed mandatory code.
It’s these returns that the Senate inquiry puts at risk.
What does the future hold for the Murdoch media? Let us know your thoughts by writing to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include your full name to be considered for publication in Crikey‘s Your Say column.