That may explain the increasingly hysterical tone of both their news and opinion sections, though it’s hardly the right strategy if voters are determined to ignore the static and vote Labor anyway. After all, it’s the apparent failure of Murdoch media to influence public opinion – at least against Labor – or even to set the current political agenda, that is why Labor and its leaders see no reason to suck up, just in case.
Shorten has been portrayed by both Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison as eager to associate with and dine with the rich and powerful. But Shorten has made it clear that there’ll be no pilgrimages to see Murdoch. It’s a top table, and an opportunity for forelock-tugging he means to forego, even if it was ritually practised over the years by Kevin Rudd (now a prime Murdoch hater), Julia Gillard (ditto), Paul Keating (ditto), Bob Hawke, and the late Gough Whitlam (ditto with double pike). All courted him; all were burnt.
Shorten obviously thinks that Rupert Murdoch is a paper tiger. That is more than a judgment about his life expectancy, because Murdoch’s news media are still active, as are his heirs, such as Lachlan, who takes an active (and very conservative) interest in Australian politics. Shorten sees no reason to kowtow to any of them, least of all in the hope of some sort of anointing. He may strategically, or tactically, leak to a Murdoch organ, but that will apparently be when it suits his interests, rather than to curry favour with the old man.
What appears to be the Murdoch agenda, as evidenced by the front pages and opinion sections of Murdoch’s flagship, The Australian, is not even the agenda of a majority of Coalition-leaning voters. It certainly does not involve the middle-ground that will determine the election. Like the Liberal Party itself, The Australian seems to devote as much time to scolding, exposing and punishing “weak” – which is to say moderate – forces within the Liberal Party as it does to attacking Labor. The consequent mixed messages are not helping the Coalition one bit.
Shorten may also consider that a dumbed-down and more populist version of this agenda in the Murdoch tabloids is not resonating in the wider electorate – indeed seems badly off the pace.
It is a long time since any Labor leader has had any personal regard for Murdoch or has believed that his occasional support for a Labor idea, a Labor leader, or a Labor government has ever been anything but a passing fancy. Murdoch has been regarded as mercurial, demanding of difficult and often improper favours and, always, ultimately treacherous. That has never prevented the most repellent fawning.
That’s because Labor figures have always respected and feared the power of his newspapers, particularly his popular tabloids – The Daily Telegraph in Sydney, The Courier-Mail in Brisbane, The Herald Sun in Melbourne, The Adelaide Advertiser, and The Mercury in Hobart. These, now partnered with online versions, reach suburban electorates, not least into the primarily D, E and EF demographic electorates in which most elections are resolved.
By contrast, media organisations like the old Fairfax (now Nine, owner of this masthead) newspapers, tended to have wealthier A-B and C penetration, mostly in inner-city areas.
If the editors of Murdoch media were well connected to their own markets, they might be assumed to have great influence over them. In many areas, News Ltd newspapers have no competition at all.
Well, not from other newspapers anyway. But there have always been rivals. Once they came from radio and television – including the ABC. Increasingly they are on the internet and social media. News Ltd has, like other media operators, shifted on to the internet, and is still a formidable force in providing a diet of news and entertainment, and an audience for what its headline writers, columnists and controversialists want to rant about.
People renew their prejudices, or leanings, every day with fresh, current material, including material from the mainstream media.
There’s been a lot more obvious ranting of late. But there is very little evidence that it has been much moving the audiences or affecting their political preferences. Indeed opinion polls, not least those run by The Australian itself, show that voters are not listening to the fine points made by The Australian’s advocates, or from the more conservative wings of the Liberal Party. That may explain the increasing note of desperation and panic. But it may also help explain why the Liberal party has seemed out of touch. Instead of allowing itself to be informed by a friendly but critical voice, it is spending its time trying to fit into the clothes The Australian insists, against the evidence, that voters want them to wear.
This may be because the audiences recognise propaganda and ranting when they see it. Indeed, the increased volume and hysteria of the propaganda may make them more cynical about the reliability and integrity even of conventionally packaged news in the same product. There are those who fear that News Ltd consumers – say of the fodder of The Daily Telegraph – are poorly educated, unsophisticated and are entire lambs once they hear the dulcet tones of Miranda Devine, or Piers Ackerman or Andrew Bolt. But these readers know their political power, have access to many different sources of news and information, and have never had a habit of taking any particular notice of the earnest advice of Telegraph editors.
It used to be remarked in the 1960s that The Daily Telegraph under Frank Packer was the most right-wing, and pro-Liberal, of all of the newspapers in Australia. But even then, its readership was the readership most likely to vote Labor. Readers and listeners are not sheep, to be judged as sharing the politics of the editors of the media they read or listen to. Or the shock jocks.
Actually, I suspect that newspapers or online media organisations with more left-wing or middle-of-the-road leanings are equally unsuccessful in persuading voters to change sides. This does not mean that the audience will not pay attention to views with which they agree, and even those with whom they disagree. People renew their prejudices, or leanings, every day with fresh, current material, including material from the mainstream media. But the power of media proprietors, and media managers, and, probably even editors – at least so far in influencing how people vote – is not high, and if it ever was, is on the decline.
Methinks voters do not like being told what to think. And that they distrust material which does not belong on news pages. These polemicists might well be worth reading, but they find it harder to persuade when their advocacy masquerades as news or analysis.
News Ltd campaigned heavily in the recent Victorian state elections, not least in trying to incite deep fear of African gangs, as a law and order crisis, a crisis of police “political correctness” and as the reason Melbournians, supposedly, were afraid to go to restaurants at night. The campaign was shrill, shameless and often outrightly racist.
But the Murdoch media, which at times seemed to be leading rather than following the Liberal campaign, was to no effect. Indeed it was counterproductive. It caused a swing towards, rather than against Labor. Party professionals said that nightly polling in marginal seats had revealed that a big swing, not detected by public polls, began taking shape in the last few days of the campaign, as Liberals, particularly Peter Dutton, doubled down on the African gang dog-whistle. Voters specifically repudiated the News Ltd campaign as adopted by the Liberals.
Murdoch’s personal and professional interest in politics … usually have him well informed about the likely outcome of political contests.
News Ltd columnists afterward explained this defeat in terms of the poor calibre of Liberal leadership in the state, and the poor calibre of wringing-wet Liberal moderates in Victorian electorates. They suggested the result might have been different in more red-blooded seats such as those in Queensland, where, inter alia, hard-line conservatives such as Peter Dutton will lose their seats if there is a swing of any substance.
But several weeks of panic-stricken reporting in the Australian and other Murdoch sites of the certainty that Labor “weakness” on Medivacs would again “open the floodgates” to fresh invasions of boat people does not seem to have moved voters. If anything, support for Labor actually increased over the period.
This is not to suggest that most Australians have moved from support of broad Coalition policy on repelling boat people. But it suggests that the electorate is not convinced that conscious cruelty to detainees is a vital part of the package. And it suggests that voters have moved on from views of six years ago. The prime minister, Scott Morrison, may continue to think that his best chance of re-election is by keeping the issue to the fore, but it does not mean that he can win with it.
In the middle of last year, a newspaper reported that Rupert Murdoch had told fellow media mogul Kerry Stokes that Malcolm Turnbull had to go. When, according to the report, Stokes had replied that a coup against Turnbull would only make the election of Shorten inevitable, Murdoch was said to have replied “[Labor will] … only be in for three years – it won’t be so bad. I did all right under Labor and the painters and dockers; I can make money under Shorten and the CFMEU.”
Stokes was said to have warned Turnbull that he was now in News Ltd sights – something which had been increasingly obvious to Turnbull in any event. Some had noticed that the vehemence of attacks on Turnbull’s leadership had increased about the time of Murdoch’s arrival in Australia. But Murdoch denied any campaign instigated by him, saying that some of the attacks were “just Boris’’ – the nickname for the then editor in chief of The Australian.
That campaign increased, and, it appeared, News Ltd had put its eggs in the Peter Dutton basket. Alas for them, however, it appeared that the News Ltd plotters, like Peter Dutton and Mathias Cormann, couldn’t count; when the smoke cleared, Turnbull was out, but Dutton was defeated by Scott Morrison. Morrison’s credentials as a “true” conservative are, according to some of the supposedly authentic ones, suspect in that he failed to show complete loyalty to Tony Abbott. Nonetheless, the same columnists in News Ltd were saying much the same thing about the weakness of Labor under Shorten when Malcolm Turnbull’s seat of Wentworth fell to a moderate independent, strongly critical of the government’s policies about medical repatriations from Nauru. Though Wentworth had, hitherto, always been a Coalition seat, it was, apparently, an inner-city seat, and the well-heeled Wentworth was not Australia.
With some of the campaigns, it has at times, seemed difficult to work out which originated within the conservative wings of the Liberal Party, to be eagerly adopted by News Ltd editors and scribes, and which began with bees in News Ltd bonnets to be adopted within the party. Some columnists have feet (and knees) in both camps, and some sources of party discontent – such as Tony Abbott – have close relationships with some News Ltd players, and free access to their columns.
Once News Ltd was a little more fickle. Murdoch’s personal and professional interest in politics – and the enormous intelligence-gathering machine that his operations represent – usually have him well informed about the likely outcome of political contests. Sometimes Murdoch likes to be associated with the winners rather than those who fought hard but lost – a reason why some of his organs have switched sides over the years. If that puts him with the winner, he will claim credit – famously, in Britain with “It was The Sun what done it” – and, almost invariably, little favours like licences, exemptions, and flattery.
It is very satisfying to have prime ministers and presidents queuing up at your door, keeping you in touch with affairs, and reinforcing impressions of your omnipotence and influence. One could imagine how spiteful such a person could be to someone who didn’t come courting, pay tribute or bestow flattery. But when News Ltd doesn’t bother with fairness or decencies, how could it get more spiteful?
Jack Waterford is a former editor of The Canberra Times. firstname.lastname@example.org