Are Albanese and Rowland afraid of Murdoch or are they in his pocket?

May 22, 2024
Newspaper with the headline News and glasses and coffee cup on wooden table, Daily Newspaper mock-up concept

Knowing with any degree of certainty what motivates the behaviour and decision making of political leaders whose skill set is focused on creating public perceptions, is problematic. Accordingly, it’s prudent to look less at what they say and more at what they do or don’t do. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Communications Minister Michelle Rowland are two such people.

During April 2022, Anthony Albanese ran the media gauntlet of an election campaign seeking to win government from a Coalition administration, notable for levels of incompetence and corruption not seen in Australian politics since the Bjelke-Petersen criminal operation during the 1970s and 80s.

Perhaps the only area in which the Morrison Government was competent was in its capacity to get blanket media coverage of its political messages. It already had on its PR team the dominant News Corp tabloids, Australia’s national broadsheet and Sky News Australia, but its singular success was in making sure that the other legacy media outlets – Nine Entertainment, Seven West Media, Network Ten, and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation – took their cues from News Corp on what was deemed newsworthy.

In the early days of the election campaign in April 2022, Albanese showed he wasn’t au fait with Australia’s unemployment rate. At the time, the rate had a 4 in front of it and was Scott Morrison’s favourite number, so the press pack were all over it and feigned horror that it wasn’t top of mind for Albanese. News Corp declared the word ‘gaffe’ as the approved headline attaching to the Opposition leader with the clear message: ‘Albanese is a duffer. Fancy not knowing the Prime Minister’s favourite number!’

Albanese apologised for his ‘mistake’, an apology that validated the question. Greens’ leader Adam Bandt pointed that out when he refused to answer a similar quiz question a few days later with the retort that the journalist who asked it should look it up on Google rather than ask him silly questions.

There were media lessons aplenty by the time Albanese became Prime Minister, and it’s reasonable to think he might have learned from them. But he hasn’t.

In addition to his own experience, Albanese has had forthright advice from Malcolm Turnbull and Kevin Rudd that if Murdoch’s News Corp is left to its own devices it will bring his government undone. He has also been made aware of a petition attracting more than a half a million Australian signatures calling for a Murdoch Royal Commission. And within a year of him assuming power, the Goldstein Teal MP Zoe Daniel had moved a motion in the House calling for a major Inquiry into media diversity. In addition, Sarah Hanson-Young introduced a private Senator’s bill calling for a special media commission.

Despite advice from many quarters warning him of existential dangers, for reasons best known to himself Albanese has made sure that none of the self-preservation initiatives proposed have made any headway. The only notable activity he is known to have taken was to have met with Lachlan Murdoch and some News Corp executives in August 2022, three months after being elected. Crikey reported that none of the Cabinet attendees at that meeting – Richard Marles, Penny Wong or the PM – were prepared to say what was discussed. Suffice to say, nothing good came out of it for Labor because News Corp muggings of his government have been next-level relentless ever since.

It’s difficult to know why the Communications Minister Michelle Rowland neither attended nor made any contribution to that meeting. Rowland’s portfolio responsibilities cover the media in general and the ABC in particular, but it’s fair to say after two years in government she has been coy to exercise her powers in this area.

What it has meant is that achievements of the elected Government are either characterised as failures or are not covered at all. A classic example were the diplomatic successes of Albanese and Wong during 2022-23 in repairing the relations with Pacific neighbours and thawing the relationship with China that had become dysfunctional with constant fanning of Coalition China war talk. Apart from restoring normalcy to the China relationship, the diplomatic interventions by Albanese and Wong led to the restoration of $20 billion of trade avenues that had been lost under Morrison.

Instead of getting credit for the hard diplomatic work involved in those achievements, led by NewsCorp, the Australian media ran with headlines about Albanese being away from home duties on overseas holiday frolics.

By contrast the media gave maximum alarmist coverage to the arrival of two boats off the Western Australia Coast in February 2024, citing Labor weakness on borders, without any reference to the fact that many boats had arrived during the Coalition years unaccompanied by media reports. The Coalition Government demanded media silence “on water matters” for nine years citing dire national security consequences, yet the LNP and the media put Immigration Minister Andrew Giles and Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil under great pressure by publicly discussing the banned subject of boat arrivals.

At the same time, the media all but ignored highly newsworthy reports by former Police Commissioner Christine Nixon and former ASIO chief Dennis Richardson that revealed massive corruption of the visa system under Dutton’s leadership and the awarding of multi-billion dollar contracts to shady operators, such as Canstruct and Paladin, with money laundering and human trafficking connections. The only credentials of the contractors appeared to be their history as Liberal Party donors.

Albanese’s policy credentials on AUKUS and Israel’s disproportionate response to a Hamas atrocity on 7 October 2023 were in accordance with NewsCorp positioning, not that it earned Labor any credit. Dutton hectored the Government employing full-blooded strong-man certainty on both issues, while the wishy-washy nuancing and indecisiveness of Albanese and Wong on Gaza earned them contempt across the political divide and through the media.

A clue as to what seems to be happening was starkly put on show when O’Neil, Giles and Attorney General Mark Dreyfus fronted the media in December 2023 after the High Court decided that holding refugees in indefinite detention was illegal and 149 were released from custody, some with criminal records. When a Sky News reporter asked O’Neil whether she would be apologising for that, Dreyfus responded forcefully by stating that the Government would not be apologising for acting in accordance with the law as decided by the High Court.

Within a day or two of that exchange Albanese effectively reprimanded Dreyfus in answer to an indignant question from Deputy Opposition leader Sussan Ley by conceding that Dreyfus’ behaviour had been out of order and that he had apologised to the journalist. It was not made clear whether Dreyfus apologised on his own accord or was instructed by the PM to do so, and Dreyfus made no comment on the matter.

The effect was to validate Ley’s indignation and legitimise the journalist’s question, while also portraying Labor as indecisive in its support of the High Court. In addition, it placed his own Government on the back foot as it rushed draconian legislation through the Parliament to monitor the released detainees.

The incident also gave some context to Rowland’s inaction in the face of constant assaults the Government has been enduring from News Corp, and to a lesser extent the ABC under the leadership of the chair Ita Buttrose and the managing director David Anderson. Rowland had earlier been compromised as Communications minister by revelations that she has been feted by big gambling interests and had accepted donations from gambling sources connected to Foxtel. There were calls for her resignation citing conflict of interest and speculation that might explain her apparent insouciance with respect to the media activities of Murdoch.

Another explanation is that she is possibly under pressure from Albanese not to take any action that might trigger Murdoch media attacks. That explanation struggles to withstand a sniff test because it would be difficult to imagine how much more damage NewsCorp could unleash on his government than it already does.

If Cabinet has adopted a ‘hands off’ approach to NewsCorp, as a member of Cabinet Rowland is under an obligation to respect Cabinet solidarity. That said, she is also obliged to argue robustly for issues that fall under her portfolio responsibilities. As part of that she should be attuned to community attitudes related to her ministry, such as those advocated by Zoe Daniel, Senator Hanson-Young and 500,000 petitioners led by two former prime ministers calling for a Murdoch Royal Commission.

An open question is whether Rowland is failing to advocate within Cabinet on media related matters because of conflicts of interest or whether her hands are tied for other unexplained reasons. Whatever the rationale, if there is one, Murdoch’s domination of the Australian media unrelentingly performs as a massive PR operation for Peter Dutton and constantly undermines the work of Albanese’s Government.

Labor is no longer in opposition and so can exercise the powers of government, one of which is its duty to inform the electorate about what it’s doing. The unanswered question is why Albanese refuses to exercise those powers in the critical area of communication. The Australian legacy media fill that vacuum by undermining almost everything he does, and he timidly lets them do it.

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