Instrument of power: How Mitchell’s Australian shaped a ruling class agenda

It’s often said that journalism is the first rough draft of history. But when a book is by a very senior Murdoch journalist, you have to wonder whose history is being written.

Chris Mitchell is not just any Murdoch journalist. He was editor-in-chief of The Australian from 2002 to 2015, having spent the previous seven years as editor-in-chief of Queensland Newspapers, which includes the Courier-Mail.

And The Australian is not just any newspaper. As academic Robert Manne outlined in Quarterly Essay in 2011, The Australian plays a critical role as the only national paper that sets out to shape the political agenda.

Over the five years since, its weekday circulation has declined from 130,000 to 97,000. But, as a review of Manne’s essay in Solidarity put it, the paper continues to find a significant audience among politicians, journalists, senior public servants and business people—“the political class” and the main agenda-setters.

That, Manne argued, made The Australian 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.”

In Making Headlines, Chris Mitchell makes it clear that he is proud to have set The Australian’s political agenda—one that reflects his own.

The refugee issue was red-hot when he arrived in Sydney in 2002. He set out to fight for John Howard’s position on border control.

“The ABC, Fairfax newspapers and even most people at The Australian were deeply at odds with Howard on asylum-seekers,” he writes.

“I thought the Oz was on the wrong side of the debate and that too many of its reporters were in the pockets of refugee activists. I set about changing the paper’s position …

“In practical terms, reversing the paper’s previous position in favour of a relaxed approach to border control was the beginning of my realignment of The Australian towards the centre-right.”

In a matter of months he shifted or hardened the paper’s position on a range of questions.

“There was one last reason to reposition the paper in editing terms,” Mitchell writes. “Not only did I think The Australian was getting the politics of Howard wrong but also I could not understand why it was presenting as a soft Left national alternative to the soft Left Sydney and Melbourne Fairfax titles.”

In 2000, pre-Mitchell, The Australian had run reasonably accurate reporting of the S11 anti-capitalist protests in Melbourne and given the S11 Alliance equal space to put the case against the World Economic Forum.

With him in charge, the paper dropped any pretence of balance, becoming a one-eyed advocate of “economic reform”, by which Mitchell meant privatisation, lower taxes for corporations and the wealthy, and free trade.

As Manne put it: “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.”

Ruling ideas

The paper’s sharp shift to the right certainly didn’t mean, however, that Mitchell and the succession of prime ministers that he dealt with saw eye to eye on every issue.

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels identified 170 years ago the inherent bias that informs the production of ideas under capitalism.

In The German Ideology they wrote: “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.”

So the mass media (not just newspapers and broadcasters, but companies like Google and Facebook), the justice system, advertising, politics and the education system all reflect the “common sense” of the ruling class.

A system based on the extraction of profit creates an ideological superstructure that justifies the exploitation and oppression that such a system entails.

Profits are necessary, industrial action is “mindless”, violence is wrong unless it’s perpetrated by the state, the family is the most important unit of society, the environment is there to be plundered.

But Marx also reminded us that the capitalists are far from united. His “hostile band of warring brothers” are often at odds about how to run the system and how to share the spoils.

So while Mitchell was a great fan of John Howard and defended him over racism, the Culture Wars over Aboriginal history, the Gulf War and turning back the boats, he used The Australian to attack Howard for being too soft economically.

Howard, he argued, was using the revenue from booming mineral prices to buy off sections of the electorate with family tax benefits, the baby bonus and superannuation concessions.

The Australian’s critique was that a prime minister and a government in tune with mainstream Australia lacked the reform vigour of the Hawke and Keating years and was prepared to mortgage Australia’s long-term prosperity for short-term political gain.”

Mitchell is a long-time friend of Kevin Rudd. The book recounts a number of encounters between the two men between 1995 and the recent past.

They throw a fascinating light on the relationship between two members of the ruling class—the elected prime minister and the unelected editor, the politician seeking public media endorsement and the journalist looking to boost circulation, the leader balancing ideology and popularity and the editor prepared to use his paper to prosecute a pure neo-liberal agenda.

In September 2006, Rudd booked out an entire 70-seat Sydney restaurant so he and Mitchell and NSW ALP secretary Mark Arbib could eat in private while Rudd pitched for support against Labor leader Kim Beazley.

Two months later, Rudd rang Mitchell from the Great Wall of China while in the company of Labor heavyweights, Kim Carr and Simon Crean.

Rudd asked Mitchell to commission a Newspoll on whether Rudd and Julia Gillard would do better against Howard and Peter Costello than Beazley and Jenny Macklin.

Mitchell obliged, and the poll findings gave Rudd the trigger to call a spill and take the leadership from Beazley.

In the run-up to the 2007 election, Rudd crawled to Mitchell, desperate to make sure that Labor’s agenda was approved by Murdoch’s neo-liberal flagship.

The union movement was putting up a mighty fight to kill off Howard’s WorkChoices legislation—but behind workers’ backs Rudd asked Mitchell to suggest changes to Labor’s industrial relations policy that The Australian would support.

“It was a bizarre request, and one none of us had ever received from previous political leaders.”

Backing Rudd

Mitchell lobbied Murdoch to allow him to throw The Australian’s weight behind Labor. Rudd, he thought, “understood business and markets. We shared many views about economic reform [and] the rise of China”.

After Labor’s win, relations between Rudd and Mitchell were warm. Mitchell tells of a lunch hosted at a Sydney mansion by Alasdair MacLeod, who was married to one of Rupert Murdoch’s daughters.

Rudd, who had just returned from the Bali climate conference, where he had endorsed the Kyoto Protocol, launched an attack on the environmental concerns among Labor members.

“He said it was a joke that he and his responsible minister, Penny Wong, had received a standing ovation for signing a piece of paper that required no substantive commitment from the new government …

“Rudd could not have been more explicit that he had no intention as a new prime minister of sacrificing even a single job on the altar of green symbolism.”

The relationship between Rudd and Mitchell cooled in 2008 when The Australian ran its “Captain Chaos” coverage, revealing how Rudd’s management style was creating dysfunction within the government.

But the two men continued to meet, each seeking to gain advantage—Rudd looking for media endorsement, Mitchell looking for a strong headline. United by a neo-liberal agenda, divided by their methods of prosecuting it.

Some of their meetings would not have sounded credible in a cheap spy novel.

In 2008, Rudd deliberately let Mitchell overhear him giving US President George W. Bush a hard time on the phone.

Two years later, no longer leader, Rudd invited Mitchell to dine with him—in secret, in the (switched off) sauna room on the top floor of a five-star Sydney hotel. It turned out that Rudd’s agenda was to dish the dirt on his Labor colleague, Wayne Swan.

Mitchell’s relationship with Gillard was nowhere near as close. But Gillard was just as keen as Rudd to curry favour with Australia’s most right-wing newspaper.

Gillard came to Mitchell’s office to underline to him that she was “no socialist ideologue”.

He quotes her as saying: “Look, Chris, despite what you might have read about my background in the Left of the Labor movement, I have no doubt you and I have a very great deal in common. My values are mainstream values, and I can work with your paper.”

Mitchell had a similar relationship with his former employee, Tony Abbott. Drinks and dinners, before and after Abbott became prime minister. Friendly advice from Mitchell on how to prosecute a successful neo-liberal agenda and criticism when a dysfunctional Abbott government failed to do so.

From 2002 to 2015, as the leadership merry-go-round whirled, Mitchell used his clout as head of the nation’s primary neo-liberal media outlet to celebrate, cajole, criticise and berate the prime minister of the day.

Unelected and unaccountable—except to Rupert Murdoch—Mitchell showed how the ruling class can use its control of ideas to rein in elected politicians.

A genuinely progressive government would face such pressure many times over. It will take the building of a mass movement of workers prepared to challenge the system to overcome it.

By David Glanz

Making Headlines
By Chris Mitchell
Melbourne University Press, $32.99


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