News

In among the collapse of the Turnbull government was a final gasp of influence from the right-wing press. By Mike Seccombe.

How the Murdoch press ran Turnbull from his office

Of all the commentaries on the role of the media in fomenting last week’s right-wing coup within the Liberal Party, perhaps the most succinct came from Malcolm Turnbull’s son, Alex.

Here is his reply to an invitation to appear on the Sky News program Outsiders:

“Pass. I’d rather hang out with my kids. Surely angry white men can go off their meds without me.”

In an interview with Fairfax Media, he was even more terse: “My father fought the stupid and the stupid won.”

Alex Turnbull, who had kept his opinions largely to himself during his father’s tenure as prime minister, has been devastatingly blunt in his commentary since his father’s demise. The coup, Alex said, was the consequence of the determination of the government’s right wing to stop action on climate change. That, in turn, was a consequence of the “undue influence” of a small cabal of people with vested interests in the fossil fuel industry. And it was all aided and abetted by elements of the media. He particularly noted the Murdoch media.

He was not alone in his assessment. His father, in defeat, blamed a “determined insurgency” against him involving not only elements within his party but also “voices in the media”. Former prime minister Kevin Rudd this week repeated his characterisation of News Corp – first made to The Saturday Paper’s Karen Middleton in November last year – as a “cancer on Australian democracy”.

“An incoming Labor government should consider a full royal commission into the future of Australian media ownership, with particular reference to News Corp,” he wrote, in an opinion piece for Fairfax.

Sour grapes, you might say. Defeated politicians often blame the media. But this time, the media itself – at least those parts of it not controlled by Murdoch – echoed the criticism.

The Nine Network’s political editor, Chris Uhlmann, set the ball rolling with an on-air spray – actually a series of sprays – at those he considered to have “crossed the line” separating punditry from politics.

He implicated the News Corp papers, including The Australian, as well as all the Murdoch tabloids and the media mogul’s Sky News, along with the talkback jocks Alan Jones and Ray Hadley – of 2GB, which is owned by Fairfax’s     Macquarie Media, not News Corp – of going beyond their roles as recorders or even commentators on politics, and becoming players. And particularly vicious ones at that.

“They’re among the biggest bullies in the land and it’s about time that people called them out for what they are,” Uhlmann said.

They had been actively lobbying against Turnbull, he said.

“If they are making phone calls to people trying to push people over the line, then they’re part of the story,” he said.

The accused parties responded with attacks on Uhlmann, even as they admitted the essential truth of his claim.

Alan Jones conceded he had lobbied MPs before the coup. On Monday this week, he offered his reassurance to the new prime minister, Scott Morrison, that “I’ve spoken to Tony Abbott and he will be supporting the whole show, completely.”

The same day, Hadley also boasted on air of his role as an intermediary between Morrison and Abbott, using his influence to persuade Abbott to accept a new role as an “Indigenous envoy”.

“Can I sincerely say to you I think he’s fair dinkum,” Hadley told Abbott as they spoke of Morrison’s offer on air.

The situation was all the more remarkable for the fact that Jones, Hadley and the third of the big three reactionary-right commentators, Murdoch columnist and Sky News host Andrew Bolt, had been barracking for Peter Dutton. Relations between Hadley and Morrison were particularly poisonous, and had been for more than a year.

Most laughably Bolt, showing the accuracy and sound judgement for which he has become famous, prematurely called the leadership contest for Dutton, several hours before the Liberal party room meeting.

“Peter Dutton will be prime minister today. The Turnbull era is over,” he declared in his Herald Sun blog, only to later update with the word: “Oops.”

When their preferred extreme right-wing candidate didn’t get up, they all scrambled to reassert influence with the slightly less right-wing candidate who won. They were not entirely happy but, as another of their number, Chris Kenny, put it in The Australian, they got “four-fifths” of what they wanted.

They had helped remove the most electorally saleable asset of an unpopular government, Malcolm Turnbull, as well as the next most-saleable, Julie Bishop, and had helped kill off any meaningful action on climate change, even though Australians overwhelmingly want more done. They also claimed to have restored control of the party to the so-called Liberal “base”.

Both before and after the challenge, we heard innumerable references to this “base”, from conservative Liberals. But as Judith Brett, emeritus professor of politics, La Trobe University, pointed out in a piece last week for The Conversation website, this base is an amorphous entity.

Were they referring to the party membership? If so, Brett said, that meant some 50,000 people “at a generous estimate”, nationwide.

In reality, she argued, all the claims made by party right-wingers about the alleged concerns of “the base” – issues such as the “undermining” of Western civilisation and religious freedom, or climate change denial and opposition to same-sex marriage – actually signalled their own alienation from mainstream opinion and put their “minority ideological convictions ahead of winning elections”.

The Liberal Party’s infighting was never about the base. It was about the bubble, inside which the right-wing politicians and the right-wing pundits constantly reinforce one another’s views, becoming ever more distanced from objective reality.

“Vocal opinion is out of step with public opinion,” says Rodney Tiffen, emeritus professor of government and international relations at the University of Sydney.

Australia’s high degree of media concentration – Murdoch controls some three quarters of all print circulation – amplifies the views of the “feral” columnists, Tiffen says.

Then many of the same people reappear on Sky News at night and on radio. Add in the non-Murdoch 2GB shouters, says Tiffen, and “it creates this impression of a chorus of outrage, when in fact it’s a relatively small number of people speaking to each other”.

This small number became ever more strident. Just one example from last week shows how deluded things are inside that bubble.

Maurice Newman is taken very seriously in conservative Liberal circles. He is a close friend of John Howard and was the Howard government’s choice to be chairman of the ABC. Later, when Tony Abbott became prime minister, he made Newman his chief business adviser.

Newman is also a big-time conspiracy theorist. He does not believe the science of climate change. Indeed, he has expressed the conviction that the world actually is cooling, and that the real agenda of all those urging action on global warming is the destruction of the capitalist system and the establishment of one world government controlled by the United Nations.

Last Friday, at the height of the controversy over News Corp’s bias and bullying, he flew into print in The Australian, offering a defence not just of Murdoch media in this country, but internationally.

He proceeded by way of attack on other media, beginning with the The Washington Post, which he asserted “regularly slants news and current affairs through misleading commentary, factual distortions and omissions”. Likewise, The New York Times deliberately distorted the news as part of its leftist agenda.

Having thus dismissed the two most-respected media organisations in the United States, he went on to attack Time magazine, “the left-leaning CNN-MSNBC-CBS-ABC oligopoly” in US broadcast media, as well as Fairfax, the ABC, SBS and Guardian Australia, “to name a few” in this country. All biased, he said, and all staffed by the products of the “neo-Marxist” media schools.

He lauded Rupert Murdoch for having set up Fox News in the US as a counter to the prevailing left-wing view.

“Indeed,” Newman continued, “of the major global networks, Murdoch’s expanding interests stand alone in consistently testing the ‘liberal’ mindset, a policy appreciated by its questioning audiences and applauded by its shareholders.”

Truly, it is hard to know how one might respond to such a through-the-looking-glass view. Perhaps you could start by pointing to the Edward R. Murrow Awards – the electronic media equivalent of America’s Pulitzer Prizes. Of the of 267 awarded since 2001, NBC TV has won 48 and MSNBC 4, CBS TV 22, CNN 9 and ABC TV 9. Fox has won none.

Or you could point to the statistics compiled by the nonpartisan fact-checking organisations in America, which consistently find Fox the least accurate news network. The “PunditFact” site, for example, which assesses the truthfulness of claims made by presenters and guests – not including politicians or paid spokespeople – found that over the past several years, 21 per cent of the “facts” asserted on Fox were mostly false, while 29 per cent were entirely false and 9 per cent such egregious lies as to merit a “pants on fire” rating.

Or you might, at this time when the world is remembering the late Republican senator John McCain, recall his polite but firm correction of those party faithful who had swallowed the “birther” conspiracy theory about Barack Obama, promulgated by Donald Trump and Fox.

Let us instead check one of the few “facts” asserted by Newman in his Friday rant: that with Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership under threat, “the ABC and fellow leftists” had increased their negative commentary on Tony Abbott. He claimed this retaliation had caused a precipitous decline in public trust in the media.

“No wonder,” wrote Newman, “the Edelman Trust Barometer finds the Australian population’s trust in media stands at 31 per cent, 12 points below the global and US average and an 11-point drop in two years.”

It was a pants on fire claim. First, Edelman did not suggest any particular media outlet was responsible for a shift in the level of public trust. Second and more importantly, the report actually showed trust in traditional and online journalism increasing over the two years, from 47 to 52 per cent. The measure that had sharply declined was trust in social media and online platforms, down from 44 per cent in 2016 to 43 in 2017 to 35 in 2018, a result attributed to growing concern about fake news online.

Curiously, Newman omitted the standout finding of the Edelman report. When respondents were asked which institution in Australia was “most broken”, 56 per cent nominated “government”, compared with a global average of 42. That would be the government on whose behalf he was propagandising.

Newman’s errors and omissions invited further investigation of the relationship between media, government and levels of trust in the community.

Rather then relying on Edelman, though, we went to work done by the nonpartisan, non-profit Pew Research Center, and a global survey released in January on public trust in media in a large number of countries around the world.

It found some interesting things. For one, there was a strong correlation between trust in the media and trust in government.

For another, there were surprisingly large proportions of people in some countries – up to 43 per cent in Israel – who thought it sometimes acceptable for a news organisation to favour one political party over others.

Australians were more fair-minded than most: 87 per cent said such bias was never acceptable. But they felt let down on this score by the country’s news organisations. There was an even split between those who thought they reported politics fairly and those who didn’t.

This was roughly on par with the two other big Anglosphere countries in which the Murdoch media has a significant presence, the United States and Britain. In the US, 52 per cent of people claimed to see bias in the coverage of politics, and in Britain the figure was 43 per cent.

Canada, the other big English-speaking nation, returned very different results. There, most people – 73 per cent – thought their media did a good job of reporting politics fairly. News Corp is not a player in Canada.

Caveats must attach, of course. Canada has a popular and progressive government, whereas the other three countries have unpopular right-wing governments. On the other hand, News Corp played a big role in fostering that unpopularity, by its ceaseless propagandising for Trump in America and by its advocacy of Brexit.

Unfortunately the Pew survey did not include New Zealand, which also has no Murdoch media.

But Dr Gavin Ellis, former editor of The New Zealand Herald turned academic turned media consultant, attests to a more balanced and far less aggressive media environment across the Tasman.

“Quite clearly, the Murdoch press and other conservative elements, like 2GB, were determined to see the back of Malcolm Turnbull,” he says.

“I think the media here is balanced in a way it isn’t over there.”

Ellis suggests two reasons. First, no media organisation in New Zealand enjoys the kind of market dominance News Corp does in Australia. The two main publishers, he says, are equally powerful, while in TV the dominant player is the publicly owned Television New Zealand.

And the second reason: “We’ve been remarkably free of proprietor influence,” he says. “In all my years, in all my discussions with fellow editors over the years, none of them were ever subject to the diktats that appear to be the case with Australian, British and American Murdoch editors.”

While there are talkback hosts with identifiable ideological positions, Ellis says, none projects the kind of hyper-partisanship or outrage of their Australian counterparts.

“We’ve certainly got no one of the ilk of a Hadley or a Jones,” he says.

“Basically, media here are straight down the middle. Of course they will take positions on how well or badly individual politicians and parties are doing.”

But never, he says, would they get involved in “an orchestrated campaign of the type that has been alleged in Australia.”

The question now is, what has that orchestrated campaign really achieved?

For the current government, nothing good, in the view of many.

As Tiffen observes, dryly, “The logic that says ‘Labor’s ahead, we must move to the right’ is not a compelling one. It’s a recipe for losing the election.”

Others foresee worse consequences.

Former Liberal adviser Terry Barnes predicted – even before the party room vote – not just the loss of the next election but “a cataclysmic and existential fight” within conservative ranks. “And I’m not sure the Liberal Party as we know it will survive,” he said.

But what about the hard-right pundits who worked so tirelessly to engineer the coup?

The available evidence is that they will throw their propagandist weight behind the new Liberal leadership, now the loathed Turnbull is gone. Already we see News Corp ramping up its campaign around climate change, backing the government’s efforts to foster a false dichotomy between cheap power and clean power.

Matthew Ricketson, professor of communication at Deakin University, has no doubt they will be doing their best to win it for Scott Morrison and co.

“Look at how Jones, Hadley et al reacted immediately after Morrison was announced winner. They immediately fell in behind him, and began telling the new prime minister how he should be doing his job.”

However, says Ricketson, “I would separate out their intention from their effect.”

He points to some recent examples that suggest the Murdoch media are not as influential as they used to be – a couple of state elections in Victoria and Queensland where they backed the losing horse and, most notably, the last federal election, in which The Daily Telegraph, self-portrayed as the voice of Western Sydney, went in boots and all against Labor, only to see the Labor vote jump in the west.

So the next election shapes as a test of both right-wing politics and also of the influence of the right-wing media.

Of course, the consequences of defeat are much greater for the politicians. The worst that can happen for the media demagogues is that they get new material for their endless fulmination.

Unless, that is, the unthinkable happens, and people just stop paying them the attention they crave.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 1, 2018 as "How the Murdoch press ran Turnbull from his office". Subscribe here.

Mike Seccombe
is The Saturday Paper's national correspondent.

Continue reading your one free article for the week