News Corp likes to portray itself as a confident, dominant company — the US-controlled entity that bestrides Australia’s media landscape, that plays such an influential role in our politics, that shapes the national conversation, celebrates national heroes and vilifies national villains, all of its own choosing.
Beneath the facade, though, News Corp and its leaders have been badly rattled by two former prime ministers that it helped bring down.
There was always zero chance of the government — or Labor, if it was in power — calling a royal commission, a judicial inquiry, or even the most banal of bureaucratic reviews into the company, despite Kevin Rudd’s petition garnering more than half a million signatures.
Even when, unexpectedly, Malcolm Turnbull lent his support and his rhetoric to Rudd’s petition, it should have been nothing that a large, proud, confident company that believed in its own product couldn’t take in its stride and dismiss as the whining of two political losers.
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Instead, the result has been fear and misjudgment at the highest levels of the company.
A key moment was when Malcolm Turnbull went after Paul Kelly on Q+A on 9 November. Turnbull monstered Kelly over his role in News Corp’s climate denialism, producing apoplexy from Kelly.
Kelly is the top of the tree at News Corp, the company’ senior Australian political journalist and eminence grise, whose bloviating pronouncements are handed down as akin to the word of God in The Australian.
So much did Turnbull’s attack eat away at Kelly that, a fortnight later, Kelly made a truly spectacular own-goal. In a piece defending the proposed theft of billions from Google and Facebook that strangely segued into a discussion of what Kelly called “an old and familiar story: the abuses of the Murdoch media, as advanced by Kevin Rudd, backed by Malcolm Turnbull”, he said this:
Rudd complains about News Corp supporting Coalition governments. But this is merely the working rule of established media. Centre-right newspapers back centre-right parties and centre-left newspapers papers back centre-left parties.
In saying this, Kelly placed on the record, from the most senior commentator in the company, that the policy was to support the Coalition. Not to promote centre-right policies or ideologies, but to support a party. Moreover, he portrayed that as perfectly normal and acceptable.
According to Kelly, The Australian, News Corp’s tabloids, its remaining regional papers and Sky News are in effect propagandists for the Coalition. That’s the “working rule”.
It was a statement of the obvious, of course, but not one that such an influential News Corp employee has ever before made. It confirms that the company is not a media company, but the media arm of the Coalition (in doing so, Kelly also confirmed that Turnbull was exactly right when he had said a few days before that News Corp and Scott Morrison were working as a team).
Meanwhile News Corp had decided the petition and its authors had to be destroyed, a campaign that amounted to a front-page “exclusive” dredged up from social media that a far-right troll had added 1000 fake signatures to the Rudd petition. The company then tried to link Rudd to Jeffrey Epstein through the late paedophile’s donations. The Oz also ran an editorial attacking Rudd and Turnbull.
An awful lot of journalistic and editorial time that could have been devoted to, say, lying on behalf of Scott Morrison, supporting Donald Trump’s attempted coup or smearing selected progressive targets was wasted on a petition that was doomed to fail.
But the biggest indication of just how rattled News Corp is was yesterday’s bizarre, cult-like all-staff meeting that amounted to a show-trial in absentia of Rudd and Turnbull. It was conducted by, according to Nine newspapers’ report, Australian company head Michael Miller, Australian editor Michelle Gunn, Telegraph editor Ben English and Sky News head Paul Whittaker.
That this line-up of News Corp royalty was brought together to rail at two former politicians while the world is still going through a pandemic and Australia is emerging from its first recession in 30 years suggests how terrified News Corp is. If the company feels the need to indoctrinate its own staff in an extended Two-Minute Hate of its critics, it’s an outfit deeply unnerved by criticism.
What that gathering looks like is nothing so much as the partyroom meetings political parties have when in Canberra — caucus and the joint partyroom, which are then reported on a no-names basis by party spokespeople. In those meetings, leaders gee up the troops, demonise their opponents and declare all is going well.
Which is entirely apt. As Turnbull correctly identified in his book earlier this year, News Corp is a foreign political party, not a media company.