Dissecting Murdoch’s hold on the news

Review: Quarterly Essay 43 “Bad News”, by Robert Manne, Black Inc, $19.95

Academic Robert Manne believes that Rupert Murdoch’s Australian media empire should be broken up, with the mogul’s control of newspapers reduced from 70 to 25 per cent.

He made the case as one of the first witnesses to front the federal government’s inquiry into the media, which was prompted by the hacking scandal that has enveloped Murdoch’s British newspapers.
Manne’s evidence drew heavily on his arguments in “Bad News: Murdoch’s Australian and the shaping of the nation”, published as issue 43 of the Quarterly Essay.

Manne’s proposition is simple: despite The Australian’s low circulation, it plays a critical role as the only national paper that sets out to shape the political agenda.

Relatively few people read it—its daily national circulation Monday to Friday is 130,000, compared to
674,000 for the Herald Sun and The Age in Victoria alone. But among those who do are politicians, journalists, senior public servants and business people—“the political class” and the main agenda-setters. As a result, Manne argues that The Australian is the country’s most important newspaper.

“It is an unusually ideological paper, committed to advancing the causes of neo-liberalism in economics and neo-conservatism in the sphere of foreign policy…

“The Australian is ruthless in pursuit of those who oppose its worldview—market fundamentalism, minimal action on climate change, the federal Intervention in indigenous affairs, uncritical support for the American alliance and for Israel.”

Manne assigns responsibility for this direction to the editorship of Chris Mitchell. Mitchell, former editor of the Courier Mail in Brisbane, has been in the role since 2002.

Dishonesty and bias
“Bad News” is a forensic piece of research. In it, Manne assembles an impressive dossier on The Australian’s bias, ideological agenda and devious bending of truths. It will provide a handy reference for some time to come.

Manne focuses on the paper’s record on seven questions: the History Wars; the Iraq war; ABC’s Media Watch; climate change; Kevin Rudd; its treatment of individuals, including Aboriginal academic Larissa Behrendt; and The Greens.

He reminds us, for instance, that the paper created a national figure out of Keith Windschuttle, an otherwise little-known historian who, in his book The Fabrication of Aboriginal History, argued that Aborigines were victims of their own dysfunction rather than of British colonisation.

And he goes, fact by fact, through the way that The Australian slavishly promoted every argument, and every falsehood, that was put forward by the USA and its allies in making the case for the invasion of Iraq.

Foreign editor, Greg Sheridan, for example, wrote after the release by British prime minister Tony Blair of a dossier supposedly detailing the existence of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction: “Either Tony Blair is a monstrous liar or Saddam Hussein is. Take your pick.” As Manne points out, the paper has never acknowledged its errors.

On global warming there is, on the face of it, a curious disjuncture between Murdoch’s public statements that human-induced climate change is real and The Australian’s passionate scepticism.

The paper has argued repeatedly that “climate change may be a mirage”, that “it remains to be proved that the rise … [in] the levels of carbon dioxide … [is] the major driver of global warming” and that “the scientific evidence is being questioned around the world”.

Manne writes: “The Australian has conducted a prolonged and intellectually incoherent campaign against action on climate change, which has undermined the hold in public life of the central values of the Enlightenment, Science and Reason.”

For Manne, the gap between Murdoch’s position and Mitchell’s flows from the secondary nature of the climate question, unlike matters like neo-liberal economics or the Iraq war, where Murdoch cannot tolerate dissent.

But a more likely explanation is that while Murdoch is expressing on a global stage the genuine concerns over climate of the world’s capitalist rulers, The Australian is arguing the sectional interests of Australia’s miners.

Perhaps the scariest section is the one detailing the witch hunt launched against Larissa Behrendt, who made a throwaway comment about another (but pro-Intervention) Aboriginal activist on twitter, for which she promptly apologised.

The Australian launched a massive assault, including front page articles and editorials that argued (in shades of Andrew Bolt) that Behrendt was a “sepia-toned” big-city activist, unfit to lead the Gillard government’s enquiry into indigenous higher education and raising doubts about her role at the University of Technology Sydney.

And perhaps the most interesting section is the one discussing the relationship between Mitchell and Rudd. Manne argues that Mitchell believed Rudd was “his man”. The Australian backed Labor in 2007, but warned progressives that the, “Daydreaming Left is in for a big surprise”.

But when Rudd responded to the Global Financial Crisis in February 2009 with an essay in The Monthly that argued, in milk and water terms, the case for social democratic regulation of the market, The Australian turned on him like a jilted lover.

It launched wave after wave of attacks, principally over the emissions trading scheme and the mining tax that, arguably, helped lay the basis for Rudd’s toppling and Labor’s shift even further to the right.

Agenda setting
How can this be, given the paper’s modest circulation? Why should a rather bookish, self-important broadsheet that few read carry such weight? There are two key reasons, the first flowing from the substantial resources Murdoch has poured into the paper.

As Manne writes: “The Australian now dominates the Canberra press gallery not only in the number of journalists employed—at some press conferences half of those attending are from The Australian—but also in the aggression its reporters display and their capacity for teamwork in pursuit of their prey.”

A quick scan of the paper shows that this isn’t paid for by advertising revenue. Murdoch is making a political investment. But money and staff numbers alone cannot guarantee influence. What takes The Australian to the next level is its political clarity and single-mindedness.

Among the mass of the population, there continues to be a strong social democratic opposition to the neo-liberal model of market primacy, reflected in sympathy for union action (Qantas, the Victorian nurses, the NSW teachers, etc), the Occupy movement, refugees, and so on. This mood is also expressed politically in the vote for The Greens.

Among the ruling class, there is effective unanimity for the neo-liberal project. Expressing this, however, is a challenge. Most politicians feel the need to pay at least lip service to popular support for the welfare state and the “fair go”. Similarly, most sections of the mass media have a commercial imperative to balance between the neo-liberal views of their owners and the doubts of many of their readers and listeners.

The Australian Financial Review is, like The Australian, a national neo-liberal paper, but one that focuses tightly on serving its business audience. So The Australian is alone in prosecuting the pure neo-liberal argument, unhampered by commercial imperative, national in reach and highly polemical in style.

The result is that it sets the agenda for other media, including those (like the Fairfax press and the ABC) whose staff have little sympathy with the paper’s project.

As Manne writes: “The Australian is a remorseless campaigning paper … (influencing) the way the much more widely read News Limited tabloids, like the Daily Telegraph and the Herald Sun, report national politics and frequently (setting) the agenda of commercial radio and television and the ABC, even the upmarket breakfast program on Radio National.”

How can the monster be tamed? This is where Manne is disappointing. He is dismissive of union solutions, suggesting instead that senior journalists within The Australian should tap Mitchell on the shoulder. But Mitchell could not have prospered for so long without Murdoch’s approval.

Murdoch can be taken on, but it takes collective dissent and collective action—something that journalists on The Australian pioneered in 1975, when Murdoch decided to destroy Gough Whitlam’s Labor leadership. As ABC’s 7.30 program recalled earlier this year about that era:

BOB DUFFIELD, FMR SENIOR JOURNALIST, THE AUSTRALIAN: The instructions relayed by the editor were: “Rupert Murdoch wants us to go balls and all for Whitlam.”

CHRIS UHLMANN: On 9 December, 1975, journalists on The Australian went on strike and issued a statement, saying: “We cannot be loyal to a propaganda sheet.” It was the first time in Australian history that journalists had gone on strike for such a reason.

Other journalists have used their collective weight to influence editorial decisions since then. Journalists on The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald went on strike over editorial standards in 1998 and did so again (in defiance of anti-union laws) in 2008, when Fairfax announced massive job cuts that also threatened quality journalism.

Indeed, it is no coincidence that the most active defenders of press standards have been Fairfax journalists, who have a very high rate of unionisation, rather than News Limited staff, among whom union membership has dropped to about 30 per cent.

Rebuilding union membership within News Limited—and a genuine spirit of journalistic integrity and independence—is part of the much bigger project of challenging neo-liberalism in all its forms. When the unions and movements mobilise, Murdoch’s broadsheet attack dog will lose its bite.

Read an edited highlight of “Bad News” at http://bit.ly/poXmz7

By David Glanz


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