Murdoch, Turnbull and the power of News Corp

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Rupert Murdoch arrived in Sydney on 4 August, a couple of weeks before the Liberal leadership spill. Photograph: Jason Reed/Reuters

20 September 2018 | | The Guardian

In his farewell speech as prime minister last month, Malcolm Turnbull pointed to “an insurgency” in his own party and “outside forces in the media” as the architects of his demise.

If there was any doubt at all who the media forces Turnbull was referring to during those final minutes in the prime mister’s courtyard in Canberra, there is, after the events of the past 24 hours, none now.

Rupert Murdoch is the name firmly in the frame along with his ubiquitous News Corp empire – an organisation which is accused of playing a major role in orchestrating the removal from office of not just Turnbull but also Labor’s Kevin Rudd.

In the case of Turnbull he believed his Liberal colleagues had been gripped by “a form of madness” so the only way they could see to end the unrelenting internal turmoil and negative coverage in the media was to cave into it and replace him as leader.

Rudd, equally, believes the cacophony of negativity from News Corp undermined his first prime ministership, then that of successor Julia Gillard. He has called for a “full-throated inquiry” into News Corp and branded the company “a cancer on democracy”.

But the details that have emerged over the past 48 hours of the role the US-based Murdoch played during last month’s visit to his Australian assets raise serious questions about how Australian politics can be swayed by a concentrated media industry where News Corp dominates.

Turnbull certainly believes he was the target of a News Corp campaign. When he narrowly fended off Peter Dutton in a party room spill on Tuesday 21 August, Turnbull phoned Murdoch to ask him why he was trying to replace him with the home affairs minister.

Turnbull had watched horrified as shortly after Murdoch’s arrival in Australia, News Corp, the most powerful media organisation in the land, turned on him. The Daily Telegraph warned of “a toxic brawl” over energy policy and that Dutton was preparing to challenge him. On Sky the night-time commentators Peta Credlin and Andrew Bolt ramped up their negative coverage of the national energy guarantee and Turnbull’s performance.

“There was no doubt there was a marked shift in the tone and content of the News Corp publications once Rupert arrived,” one of Turnbull’s former staff told Guardian Australia. “And there was no doubt in our minds that News was backing Dutton.”

The prime minister had another reason to believe the octogenarian media mogul was driving the negative coverage – Turnbull had been warned by another media mogul that Rupert wanted him replaced.

According to both the Australian Financial Review and the ABC, Murdoch had told fellow media billionaire Kerry Stokes, owner of the Seven Network, a few days before that Turnbull should be replaced. Guardian Australia also reported that Turnbull was warned in a phone call from Stokes that Murdoch and his media company News Corp were intent on removing him from power.

Stokes is said to have replied that the likely result of such a campaign would be to deliver government to Labor and Bill Shorten. But Murdoch is reported to have brushed aside such concerns, saying it would only be for three years and he made money under Labor in the past.

By that week’s end the deed was done. Turnbull was out as prime minister, replaced by Scott Morrison after Dutton’s much hyped candidacy failed to get the numbers.

‘A form of madness’

As the dust settled over the carnage in the Liberal party many began to question the role of News Corp in destabilising Turnbull’s leadership and the “form of madness” that had overtaken his party.

“This is familiar territory, and it’s gone on many times before,” says Associate Professor David McKnight from the University of New South Wales, who has written extensively on Murdoch and how he wields political power.

“In my view, Rupert Murdoch intends to transform Australia into a conservative nation and he wants to put it on the Trump road,” he says.

“A cancer on democracy,” is the verdict of Rudd, who also fell out of favour with News Corp during his time in office.

He found the media giant lined up against him in 2010, midway through his first term as prime minister, and again in 2013 at that year’s general election. Who could forget the Daily Telegraph’s contribution to political debate on the day the election was announced? “KICK THIS MOB OUT” was its front-page headline.

A big fish in a small pond

Australia has the world’s third-most concentrated media market after Egypt and China, according to a major international study by the US researcher Eli Noam.

News Corp Australia dominates the country’s media sector, with 58% of daily newspaper circulation; a swathe of regional newspapers, the only national broadsheet, the Australian; the only pay TV network, Foxtel, which broadcasts the Murdoch-owned Sky News; and the most-viewed website, news.com.au.

After the media ownership law changes in 2017, the industry is set to become more concentrated. Nine and Fairfax Media are merging their television and newspaper businesses, and more deals are likely. These could see News extending its influence in regional publishing and further into TV and radio. It was Turnbull who pushed for the changes.

The argument is that Australians can now get their news from websites around the world and from Facebook and Google. The problem is though that as the world opens up, the gathering of local news – whether it be national or for a capital city or a local community – is becoming more concentrated.

The campaign against Turnbull

The Sydney Morning Herald recently published 260 online headlines from News Corp websites and 2GB (majority-owned by Fairfax Media, also the publisher of the SMH) about politics, inviting readers to “judge for themselves” whether there had been a conservative media conspiracy against Turnbull. A few were neutral but many were laden with the message of incompetence or impending disaster under Turnbull.

After Murdoch arrived in Sydney on 4 August to attend the annual in-house News Corp awards (the top award went to Sharri Markson of Sydney’s Daily Telegraph for exposing the impending birth of the Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce’s love child), the tempo of negative coverage increased.

News Corp commentators lined up to warn Liberals to “stand against Turnbull’s global warming idiocy” – as the columnist Andrew Bolt termed it. They gave large amounts of coverage to the small group of Coalition MPs, including the former prime minister Tony Abbott, who were opposing the national energy guarantee – Turnbull’s attempt to find a way to placate his divided party.

Then News Corp began promoting the views of a minority in the Coalition who saw Dutton as the antidote.

Bolt warned that the Liberal party should look for new leaders who had the guts to stand up to Turnbull’s plan. Dutton went on the Sydney radio station 2GB to talk to Ray Hadley, also part of the anti-Turnbull cabal, warning that the Liberals’ plummeting primary vote in July’s Longman byelection would spell disaster if repeated at a general election.

READ MORE: Original Link:  A very Australian coup: Murdoch, Turnbull and the power of News Corp

Part Two: Inside the News Corp tribe: how powerful editors shape the news

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