News

The commentators who thought Tony Abbott was their champion are desperately looking for relevance after the coup. By Mike Seccombe.

Leadership change sparks civil war at News Corp

Andrew Bolt, Australia’s most active right-wing tabloid columnist, broadcaster and blogger was absolutely right, if a little imprecise.

Malcolm Turnbull’s overthrow of Prime Minister Tony Abbott has indeed “set off a civil war within News Corp” this week. But there are different kinds of civil war, and we need to define more clearly what type this is.

This one is not like the American Civil War, for example. It’s not a conflict over any fundamental principle.

This civil war is being fought over expediency. On one side, we have the resistance, led by Bolt and the Sydney Daily Telegraph and others at the populist end of the right-wing commentariat, maintaining their rage against Turnbull, who they think is a dangerous leftist usurper.

On the other side we have the News Corp hierarchy and The Australian, who also fought on the side of Abbott but who surrendered when they realised they could not prevent the Turnbull occupation of the Prime Minister’s Office, and who now are offering contrite promises of collaboration.

The pointlessness of the fight does not make it any less mutually destructive, however, as each side has angrily pointed out how little influence the other has on Australian political opinion.

The first public salvo was fired last week by Bolt in his blog, where he lamented that The Australian had been too quick to forget its loyalty to Abbott and “insist others fall in dutifully and loyally behind Turnbull”. Bolt said the overwhelming response he had received from his fans was anger towards Turnbull for having ruthlessly cut down “one of the finest people to be prime minister”.

The editor-in-chief at The Australian, Chris Mitchell, shot back on Monday, seeking to differentiate the readers of his broadsheet from those of the Murdoch tabloids.

“Bolt’s audience includes many conservative retirees,” Mitchell said, “whereas The Australian’s readership is younger, rich, better educated and working in legal, political or the business community. These people don’t read the Tele or Bolt.”

Bolt in turn resented the characterisation of his fans as old duffers.

That night on Radio 2GB, he and shock jock Steve Price tag-teamed in beating up on Mitchell. Bolt thought it a bit rich that Mitchell should attack the Murdoch tabloids when they subsidised his loss-making paper to the tune of $20 million a year.

Price called Mitchell an “elitist” and claimed his show had a bigger audience than The Australian.

We need recount no more of it, except for Bolt’s one, unarguably true pronouncement: “We worried that Malcolm Turnbull – by deposing Tony Abbott – would set off a civil war within the Liberal Party. Well what he’s done is set off a civil war within News Corp. Oh, what a joke.”

What Bolt appears not to realise, and what Mitchell and the higher-ups at News Corp clearly do, is that the joke is on the loyalists. The right-wing commentators who dominate the pages of the News Corp tabloids and radio talkback are losers just like Abbott. They thought they were kingmakers, but Turnbull became king without them. Worse, he became king in spite of them.

In Tony Abbott they had a leader who constantly played to his political base, using the shock jocks and authorised leaks to the News Corp tabloids as his vehicle. In Turnbull, we have a prime minister clearly intent on trying to win back the middle of politics and public opinion. And he doesn’t need them to do it.

In fact, Turnbull and those who advise him think the Abbott media strategy was, in the words of one, “self-defeating”. What’s the point of talking to Hadley and his audience, they ask? It doesn’t shift any votes. Turning The Daily Telegraph into the government gazette only served to put other more influential media offside.

In the short period since the leadership change, says one senior member of the Canberra press gallery, the spite and selectivity of the Abbott government’s media management has gone.

“Suddenly everybody’s invited to pic facs [photo opportunities], everybody gets invited to press conferences, media advisers speak to everybody in the press gallery and not just the News Corp few,” the senior press gallery member says. “It couldn’t be more different.”

This will, of course, make life harder for the News Corp mastheads, particularly The Telegraph, which now find themselves on a level playing field, at least as far as the Prime Minister’s Office is concerned. They will have to find a lot more of their own stories.

Statistics compiled by The Australia Institute show the extent to which Abbott played favourites. In his two years as prime minister, he fronted the ABC’s influential and intelligent evening current affairs show 7.30 just three times. He appeared on The Bolt Report four times.

He was interviewed 57 times by shock jocks on Sydney and Melbourne commercial radio, but for ABC Radio just four times on Radio National and
16 times on AM.

Abbott’s clear favourite, though, was 2GB. He did 28 interviews in total, 14 of which were with Alan Jones and nine with Ray Hadley. Both men rank alongside Bolt as Abbott defenders and Turnbull haters.

Any excuse to attack Turnbull would do. On the very morning of the leadership challenge, Hadley lashed out at Turnbull for the “smarmy” act of “walking down the street with his dog and having an organised chat with his wife”, as well as for having his collar upturned, “a bit of a wank ... an indication of someone being a bit up themselves”.

Jones had a famous on-air set-to with Turnbull last June after becoming suspicious, along with Bolt, that he was undermining Abbott by having dinner with Clive Palmer.

He began the interview by demanding that Turnbull repeat after him: “As a senior member of the Abbott government I want to say here I am totally supportive of the Abbott/Hockey strategy for budget repair.” 

Turnbull responded: “Alan, I am not going to take dictation from you.”

It was all downhill from there, as Jones insisted, “You have no hope ever of being the leader. You’ve got to get that into your head. No hope ever.”

Turnbull has not been on the Jones show since.

That same week, Turnbull also got stuck into Bolt for voicing conspiracy theories that were “quite unhinged” and “border[ing] on the demented”.

Given such history, and the fact these pundits are still fulminating against Turnbull for taking the leadership, there appears to be little likelihood of him bobbing up on their shows any time soon. Hadley in particular, by virtue of his crass personal attacks, has a “slim to fuck-all” chance of access to the PM, I am told.

It must have been particularly galling for the right-wing commentariat – who loathe the ABC as much as they loathe Turnbull – that this Monday, when the new PM started doing the rounds of the interviewers, he began with the national broadcaster’s AM, and finished with 7.30.

It’s not just spite, though; it’s sensible strategy, says professor of journalism at the University of Canberra Matthew Ricketson.  

“What’s he got to gain by going on Jones or Hadley or Bolt/Price and trying to persuade them?” he asks. 

“They are not persuadable. They speak to a very conservative constituency, and all the evidence would suggest that whatever Malcolm Turnbull did, that constituency still would loathe him. He just runs the risk of a series of unseemly brawls and beatings up.”

Unlike Abbott, says Ricketson, Turnbull is a “particularly adroit” media performer, and smart enough to realise there’s more to be gained by explaining himself to persuadable audiences than by mouthing slogans to a conservative base.

Polling analyst and marketing consultant Andrew Catsaras agrees. He argues that the tabloids and shock jocks have very little political influence.

A couple of months ago, Essential Research released a survey of the trust readers place in the newspapers they read. As in each of the three previous such surveys, The Tele finished last. Just 46 per cent of its own readers placed some or a lot of trust in it, compared with 48 per cent for The Courier-Mail and Herald Sun, 58 for The Australian, 66 for The Age and 70 for The Sydney Morning Herald.

Catsaras then multiplied the percentage of readers who placed a lot of trust in the various papers by the size of their audience, to calculate what he called an “influence index”. The resulting numbers were: SMH 37, Age 20.5, Australian 12.5, Herald Sun 12, and Courier-Mail and Tele both nine.

The poll, unfortunately, did not measure which content people trusted. Catsaras notes a lot of people buy the Murdoch tabloids for their sports coverage, “which is very good”.

“But when it comes to news or political stories,” he says, “even if they read them, it doesn’t have much influence.” 

Catsaras compares their screaming front pages to Harvey Norman ads on TV – loud but not necessarily persuasive. “If you are not in the market for what they’re selling … it doesn’t make a cracker of difference.” 

The Essential poll also asked people to assess the credibility of 10 media commentators. Laurie Oakes topped the ratings, with 71 per cent trust. Andrew Bolt and Alan Jones came in at the bottom, with 38 and 29 respectively.

“Don’t underestimate the intelligence of the electorate,” says Catsaras. “Most people don’t look very closely at politics, but that doesn’t mean they don’t understand what’s going on.”

Margaret Simons, director of the Centre for Advancing Journalism at the University of Melbourne, also has data suggesting the influence of the right-wing media is overstated and declining.

At the last federal election, in conjunction with the online organisation OurSay, she conducted a project named Citizens’ Agenda, which selected 10 electorates across the nation – city and country, marginal and safe – and ran a series of social media and town hall forums and follow-up interviews.

It found that people were highly critical of the perceived bias of mainstream media. And they were even more critical in those areas where the Murdoch media were most dominant and strident.

It also found that people, particularly younger respondents, got a lot information from social media and “minority outlets”.

What they didn’t find was any evidence that the partisan tabloids affected the election result.

The Daily Telegraph in Sydney and Courier-Mail in Brisbane were by far the most virulent, yet the biggest swings were in Victoria and Tasmania, where the Murdoch press was actually much more moderate,” Simons says.

“It’s very hard to point to any voting patterns that suggest they had any impact whatsoever.”

She also points to the recent state elections in Queensland, Victoria and South Australia, where the News Corp press backed the losers. “That old truism that you can’t win an election if Murdoch comes out against you just has not proved true in the last few electoral contests we’ve watched.” 

As for Rupert Murdoch himself, legendary backer of political winners over the decades? Let us not forget his tweeted advice of just three weeks ago: “Country almost ungovernable...” And “Abbott far the best alternative”. 

The “only hope” for the Abbott government and its policy agenda, Murdoch said, was to “hold snap poll”. Even Tony Abbott wasn’t influenced.

The quest to reclaim relevance is on in earnest among the right of the media. At The Australian they’re trying to reposition themselves a little closer to the new centre of politics, piously editorialising on Wednesday about the need for a less “polarised and bitter” debate. 

The Telegraph’s political team is adjusting to life without the aid of prime ministerial leaks. At least they still have Scott Morrison. Ray Hadley doesn’t even have him to fall back on anymore, since they fought over Hadley’s accusation of treachery against Abbott and his demand that the new treasurer prove his truthfulness by swearing on the Bible.

Miranda Devine was left wanly interviewing Cory Bernardi on 2GB last weekend, in the vain hope that he would announce he was setting up a new right-wing party. 

For his part, Bolt is delusionally indefatigable. In his Thursday Herald Sun column, he claimed he and Alan Jones might have lost the battle to keep Abbott, but they had won the bigger war.

“We’ve actually won. Me and Alan,” he boasted. “We’ve house-trained Turnbull … we knocked him into shape, Alan and I.”

Then at tortuous length, he went on to enumerate all the ways in which Turnbull now was presenting as a convincing analogue of Tony Abbott, all because of the brilliance and courage of himself and Jones.

“Alan and I will bask in our success,” he concluded. “Behold our neo-Turnbull. Let the Left weep.”

It was the stuff of brilliant satire. Sadly, though, he appeared to be serious.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 26, 2015 as "Civil war at News Corp". Subscribe here.

Mike Seccombe
is The Saturday Paper's national correspondent.