Wayne Swan
The political influence of Murdoch’s News Carp

A few weeks out from the 2013 budget, and almost five months shy of the 2013 election, my wife and I attended a surprise 70th birthday celebration for a friend, a former staffer of Labor leader Bill Hayden. It was in an old Labor suburb, Hayden’s old stamping ground. Bill and I chatted about the political outlook. The start of the year had been very difficult, with an aborted leadership challenge. By this stage, politics was dominated by budget speculation.

All year I’d been working to put in place savings over 10 years to fully fund two of Labor’s most significant structural reforms: the Gonski school improvement program and the National Disability Insurance Scheme. In the previous week we had announced structural savings in the superannuation system to reduce the very generous concessions for those with more than $2 million of savings, which had affected 20,000 of Australia’s very wealthiest people. This structural saving had run into internal criticism – more due to fear about what might happen, rather than what would – and an even greater pounding by vested interests. The offending characters centred around the Business Council of Australia, which had distinguished itself over the past few years by opposing any structural change to our revenue base that affected higher-income earners.

Like other major structural reforms of our second term, such as carbon pricing and the National Broadband Network, we copped a pounding from News Corp from the get-go – day in and day out.

As long as I can remember, senior journalist Paul Kelly has been News Corp’s most credible public face. He is a journalist I have respected and largely admired over 30 years. While I’ve agreed with much of his analysis in his previous works, this ends with his recent publication, Triumph and Demise.

As I respect Kelly, I spoke at length with him for his new book. At the time, I was unaware of its subtitle, which sums up the bent from which his critique stems: “The broken promise of a Labor generation”. It is also where it fails to distinguish between the obvious disunity in the Rudd/Gillard governments and the policy achievements, especially in the second half of our time in office. Kelly’s principal argument is that our value-driven and long-term economic and social reforms were irresponsible and politically reckless. It is a theme he builds on in a subsequent critique of Julia Gillard’s book, describing “the delusional nature of Labor’s self-created policy and leadership narrative”.

Kelly seems particularly aggrieved by the Tea Party comparison I prosecuted in response to the Liberal opposition’s relentlessly irresponsible approach to literally any reform we had a crack at. This was not so much a created narrative, as Kelly asserts, but the persistent position we were put in, no matter the merit of the reform.

It is ironic Kelly suggests we were responsible for our own demise on both carbon pricing and the mining tax, completely failing to acknowledge the impossible political climate his proprietor’s newspapers fuelled on a daily basis. Similar venom was served up against very sensible budget measures, including means-testing the private health insurance rebate, modest cuts to family tax benefits and pausing before ultimately dismantling the baby bonus. News Corp papers were as predictable as the Coalition in their reflexive opposition to any and every reform.

In his concluding chapter, Kelly finally laments the encroaching power of special and vested interest groups, and of an increasingly fragmented and overly critical media, which has undermined consensus on many core tenets of public policy. I wholeheartedly agree. But he fails to acknowledge in any explicit way the destructive hand played in this diminishing national dialogue by his own masthead, or those in the Murdoch stable. He diagnoses the symptoms rather than the cause of the illness.

I am the first to acknowledge that the leadership soap opera undermined our ability to sell a clutter-free message. I know full well how it affected our standing in the community and ultimately at the ballot box. But to discount a proper assessment of his own proprietor’s work in actively campaigning for political change at a public and personal level detracts from his analysis.

Let’s not forget that Rupert Murdoch’s editors were directed onto war-footing by their owner as far back as April 2011. This is a matter of record. In Carmel, California, Murdoch advised that they should do everything in their power to remove the then-minority Labor government. He wanted Gillard and the Greens gone, and Tony Abbott and the Liberals installed in their place. Simple as that. In a presentation replete with the “lifters and leaners” language subsequently adopted by Joe Hockey in government, he attacked “bludgers” and heavy-handed Labor governments for bringing the country down.

Of course, this Tea Party rhetoric is as shallow and empty as the organisation’s subsequent attack on carbon pricing – a market-based solution that Murdoch supposedly subscribed to once upon a time. It was also reminiscent of a younger Murdoch, in 1975, using every weapon in his arsenal to turn his journals of record into political campaign machines to plot the eventual sacking of Gough Whitlam.

Standing talking to Hayden, Whitlam’s final treasurer, these 1975 memories came flooding back. After we’d sung “Happy Birthday” to our friend, I asked Bill how he compared Murdoch’s current behaviour with what happened before the Dismissal. Bill was unequivocal in reply: “Three to four times worse.”

While I accept Murdoch’s public position – that he doesn’t provide direction to individual journalists – he and his senior journalists sing from the same song sheet of the virtues of deregulated free markets. As British journalist Nick Davies, who broke the phone hacking story, wrote in his book Hack Attack: “… theirs is the world’s loudest voice calling for the state to be cut back to make way for private enterprise.” Davies provides a detailed account of how Murdoch wields the influence of his publications and the political networks formed around them.

As former British prime minister Gordon Brown found out, he is not afraid to monster politicians who stand in his way, and the fear of a potential monstering generates enormous power. Far safer to be an ally. Even better if you can be a paid columnist in his conservative stable.

Truth told, it is an affliction every Labor hopeful suffers. We weren’t shy about trying to persuade Murdoch we were ready for office in 2007, and my interactions with him continued into our third year in office. It is your classic Sophie’s Choice – engage with the News Corp monster and mortgage part of your soul, or go to Total War. There’s no winning in the long run.

Just days after Murdoch’s Carmel gathering, my May 2011 budget was met with screeching headlines, accusing me of believing that families earning $150,000 a year were rich. His flagship newspaper, The Australian, emblazoned across the front page cartoons depicting the PM and me in Mao suits marching forward under a hammer and sickle. This barrage was a foretaste of what Labor would receive through this period until the federal election.

As an activist Labor government our agenda increasingly clashed with that of Murdoch, who moved rapidly to an extreme Tea Party stance in US politics. Federal Labor’s sins were many, stimulating the economy, building an NBN, putting a price on carbon with the Greens, and now daring to fund education and disability reforms.

For my part, during this period my office engaged professionally with all News Corp journalists. But I gave up any expectation of persuading News Corp at an editorial level to cover our governments activities in a fair and balanced way. In what was to be my last meeting with Lachlan Murdoch at the end of 2012, to express my objection to News Corp’s political coverage, I asked him to at least consider the damage his economic coverage was doing to business confidence and our economy. He listened politely but there was no acknowledgement of the problem.

What is so disappointing about Kelly’s analysis is that at no stage does it mention the headwinds promulgated by mouthpieces such as The Australian and Sydney’s Daily Telegraph. He does not endorse them, but his omission is perhaps the saddest evidence that this book is in part a polemic rather than an objective analysis of the clash within Labor and the policy and political battle between Labor and the Coalition. When Kelly correctly identifies a political system plagued by a number of roadblocks, he completely fails to acknowledge the one for which he works.

On the dreaded leadership question, it is difficult to understand the new analysis added to the second edition of the book, which curiously attacks Gillard for believing that Rudd should have done the decent thing by quitting politics at the 2010 election. How outrageous of Julia, me and others for believing that Rudd should have shown her the decency shown to him by Kim Beazley or by Hawke to Keating.

For daring to put in place fundamental microeconomic reform such as the NBN, we are castigated as socialists. For having the audacity to twice put a market price on carbon, we’re farcically accused of turning our backs on market values. Further, we’re critiqued as political “mugs” for calling on people to make a “sacrifice” for future generations. There are only two policy levers to pull in the News Corp arsenal: lower wages and lower taxes. It is so desperately lazy. Sadly, while there is a lot of worthwhile material in the Kelly book, it is infected by this Tea Party virus.

Fortunately as we sat through the generous and thoughtful eulogies delivered for Gough Whitlam two weeks ago, some of us can remember 1975, the people who tore him down and for 40 years trashed his character and his record. The tactics used against free tertiary education in 1975, the creation of Medibank and the strengthening of our social security safety net are little different from those being used today. The Rudd and Gillard governments were targeted by the same powerful vested interests who don’t believe that as you create prosperity you must spread opportunity. And that voice, belonging as it does to Rupert Murdoch, is still the loudest in the country.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 15, 2014 as "Swimming in the News Carp pond".

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Wayne Swan was Labor’s federal treasurer from 2007-13.

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