(Image: ITV Hub /Harpo Productions/CBS/PA)

Just as the Oprah-Meghan-Harry trinity offers the royal family the gift of seeing yourself as others see you, it offers a gift too for the tabloid-frighted worlds of London and Canberra: the realisation that the fear may be real, but it’s not natural.

When Harry said tabloids’ “control by fear” and Meghan said the palace ignored media racism because the family was scared “of the tabloids turning on them”, Oprah mugged a WTF cut-away to make sure no one missed the emphasis: “Turning on them for what? They’re the royal family.”

Maybe the Windsors have a better sense of their own precariousness — what with the genetic trauma of the first Charles losing his head and the eighth Edward losing his Crown to the outraged mob that’s now mediated through the attention-hungry tabloid media.

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While News Corp (and the other copy-cat London red-tops) are busy tut-tutting about an uppity American bagging the royals, they’ll be quietly pleased at Harry’s off-hand recognition that the palace fear of their tabloid power remains intact in the social media age.

Similarly, when Kevin Rudd spoke out about Canberra’s Murdoch-driven “culture of fear”, the gas-lighting News Corp media underlined the point by releasing hostage video-style factoids of a prime minister Rudd sucking up to the Murdoch machine.

“Fear preserves you by a dread of punishment which never fails,” wrote Niccolo Machiavelli. That principle powers the News Corp business model: fear of what they do, fear of what they may do, fear of how far they are prepared to go.

Hearing Prince Harry discuss it matter-of-factly in a peaceful California garden, almost shrugging at its obviousness, conjures up the shadow that the death of his mother in flight from the paparazzi has long cast over tabloid journalism.

The fear works practically in day-to-day journalism. It delivers access. (“These tabloids have holiday parties at the palace. They’re hosted by the palace,” Markle said.)

In Australia, the fear is rewarded with privileged drops to News Corp’s tabloids by federal and state governments, particularly with tidbits that flavour the culture wars (this week: Anzac Day!) It weaponises the company’s trademark outrage to encourage a populist, racialised authoritarianism. It rewards in turn its political allies who feed appropriate grabs into its maw.

It encourages Morrison to prioritise Sky after dark for interviews, where he’s offered soft-ball questions in recognition of fealty, just as Trump, when president, prioritised Fox and Friends over breakfast.

The fear shapes policy. No state or federal government settles on a course of action without pondering how the local tabloid will front-page it the next day. And then quietly adjusting course to minimise harm.

The fear delivers commercial gain, as Australia has seen this year with the news media bargaining code or last year’s government grants to Foxtel for women’s sport.

It’s why Rupert Murdoch raised eyebrows about five years ago when he asserted (admittedly in the UK context): “I’ve never asked any prime minister for anything.” Of course not. That’s not how the fear works. It’s left to be inferred — just as Harry tells us.

In Australia, there’s early signs that the fear is running out. In both Victoria and Queensland, state Labor governments have prospered despite increasingly hysterical critiques from the Herald Sun and The Courier-Mail.

And the power may not long outlast Rupert.

In Australia, we’ve had a dry run: for almost a century, the fear was shared between the Murdochs (Keith, then Rupert) and the Packers (Frank, then Kerry). Kerry usually did his own dirty work; the more worldly Rupert tends to let the work speak for itself.

Nine lost its power of fear with Kerry’s death as James abandoned media for what seemed (at the time) the safer harbour of gambling. On Lachlan, the power seems to settle uncomfortably, like an ill-fitting suit, as when last week he said the quiet part out loud and confirmed Fox News as the opposition to the Biden administration.

His father would have cautioned him against such a public threat. To exercise fear well: show, don’t tell.

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Crikey is an independent Australian-owned and run outfit. It doesn’t enjoy the vast resources of the country’s main media organisations. We take seriously our responsibility to bear witness.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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