Plots and Prayers
Malcolm Turnbull (Image: AAP/Dean Lewins)

Former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull has accused the Murdoch media empire of assisting terrorists, pushing propaganda and acting as Australia’s most powerful political party through selective coverage. Speaking at the Senate inquiry into media diversity in Australia this morning, Turnbull stressed News Corp must be held accountable for the impact its coverage has had on Australia’s democracy.

A report released today, commissioned by left-leaning advocacy group GetUp, found the Murdoch press owns a 59% share of the metropolitan and national print media markets by readership. Australia has one of the highest levels of media concentration in the world. News Corp apparently plans to expand its reach in the country, applying to register Fox News International with the Australian trademark register to potentially make Fox News shows available on a streaming service.

‘It’s propaganda’

Turnbull said the rise of the internet and social media, and its effect on traditional media’s advertising base, has led people to seek out opinions that fit into their worldview.

“The internet has enabled people to narrowcast and build very substantial commercial businesses on a relatively narrow part of the audience,” he said. “Increasingly we are drowning in lies … There is now a market for crazy.”

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Turnbull said while news organisations had always had biases, they reported news factually and presented a wide range of opinions. News Corp, he said, does not hold itself to traditional journalistic standards due to its business model of appealing to audiences who like extreme political views.

“It’s not news anymore, it’s propaganda and it has a purpose, and that is to pursue their agenda,” he said.

A political party with zero accountability

Turnbull pointed to the January siege at the US Capitol to show how Murdoch’s monopoly was a “threat to our democracy” with limited accountability.

“The most powerful political actor in Australia is not the Liberal Party or the National Party or the Labor Party. It is News Corp. And it is utterly unaccountable. It is controlled by an American family and their interests are no longer, if they ever were, coextensive with our own,” he said.

“News Corp has evolved from being a traditional news organisation or journalistic organisation to one that is essentially like a political party. It’s a party with only one member … nobody is holding them to account.”

Divisiveness and terrorism

News Corp seeks to divide Australia, Turnbull said, through inciting animosity toward minorities. Coverage of Muslims, he said, was “doing the work of the terrorists”.

“What terrorists say to a young Muslim is [Australians] hate you. They don’t want you, you’re not one of them. You could never be in Australia. That’s the message,” he said.

Turnbull said this divisiveness sought to undermine faith in democratic institutions and was exactly what Russian President Vladimir Putin wanted to do with his operations. News Corp, he said, has acted “like a mafia gang” in pursuing vendettas against politicians.

On women, Turnbull said News Corp was replicating the “deep misogyny” seen in the right-wing political ecosystem. “Has there ever been a male politician whose body shape has been commented on the way Gillard was?” he asked.

Does Turnbull have a solution?

Turnbull pointed to a number of ways to bolster media diversity including supporting philanthropic interests, investing in smaller organisations, supporting news sources including the AAP (which received a $5 million government lifeline last year) and supporting the ABC — though he added the editorial standards of the ABC should be improved.

The former PM stressed he doesn’t have a single-line solution but said, “We’re just going to have to stop media proprietors exercising [their] power without responsibility”.

He also said the news media bargaining code with Google and Facebook was a mistake, and Australia would have been better off having a digital services or digital advertising tax.

The broad-ranging inquiry was established by Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young last November following former prime minister Kevin Rudd’s petition for a royal commission into the influence of News Corp that gathered more than half a million signatures. The inquiry previously heard that the shrinking media landscape, online disinformation, government secrecy and overwhelmingly white newsrooms were threatening media diversity.

Crikey editor-in-chief Peter Fray is scheduled to speak at the inquiry later today.