The first German chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, said there were two sights the public should not see: the making of laws and the making of sausages. To this list of enduringly nauseating spectacles we should add one more: the political machinations of media moguls.
ABC political editor Andrew Probyn has skilfully violated this standard of public taste by laying out what look like very plausible entrails of the evident involvement of Rupert Murdoch and Kerry Stokes in the recent Liberal Party leadership spill.
It is impossible to independently verify Probyn’s account because he has been careful to mask his sources. But it is plausible partly because some elements are corroborated by separate reports in the Australian Financial Review and Sydney Morning Herald, partly because Probyn worked for both Murdoch and Stokes for lengthy periods and may be assumed to have good contacts in those places, and partly because there is circumstantial evidence to support some of what he says.
The Australian reports that Stokes has denied having communicated with Murdoch over Turnbull’s leadership. Interestingly, however, the newspaper does not quote its own proprietor on the matter, which is the obvious way to corroborate Stokes’s claim.
Murdoch, of course, is notorious for meddling in politics. In Australia, it can be traced back to his endorsement of Gough Whitlam at the 1972 election, his campaign against Whitlam in 1975, which was so virulent even his own journalists held a strike in protest, his support for John Howard in 1996, his somewhat ambivalent support for Kevin Rudd in 2007 and his full-frontal support for Tony Abbott in 2013.
These campaigns were all in support of the winning side, and much the same has been true of his equivalent campaigns in the UK and the US. After John Major led the British Conservative Party to victory in 1992, Murdoch’s London Sun newspaper proclaimed in a front-page banner headline: “It’s the Sun wot won it”.
All this has created a perception of Murdoch as political kingmaker, a perception that frightens the life out of politicians and thus confers great power on Murdoch.
But as two Australian scholars, Rodney Tiffen and David McKnight, have persuasively argued in their separate studies of Murdoch, while his media outlets routinely shred and humiliate their political targets, the evidence is that Murdoch observes which way the wind is blowing and then finds a rationale for endorsing the likely winner.
The Economist’s Bagehot column was on to this 15 years ago, as Tiffen records. Referring to the London Sun’s boasting of its political power, the column observed:
[T]hat probably says more about Mr Murdoch’s readiness to jump ship at the right time than about the Sun’s ability to influence the votes of its readers.
Even so, perceptions can swiftly harden into political reality.
According to Probyn, when Murdoch was seen to turn against Turnbull over the past couple of months, the alarm went off in the prime minister’s office.
This is where Stokes, chairman of Seven West Media, is said to have entered the picture.
He is a friend of Turnbull’s and they are said to have discussed the apparent campaign by the Murdoch media to oust the prime minister.
Stokes and Murdoch have a chequered history, to put it mildly. They have fought long, bitter and costly legal battles, but as Margaret Simons says in her biography of Stokes:
In the cosy club of media, neither love nor hate lasts forever. The only constants are power, money and self-interest.
So, according to accounts by Probyn and the Financial Review, Stokes rang Murdoch to ask what was going on and Murdoch is said to have told him: “Malcolm has got to go.”
But on the question of who should replace him, the moguls were all over the shop.
Murdoch’s Daily Telegraph was touting Peter Dutton. Three days later, when Turnbull spilled the leadership positions, Dutton nominated, lost, but lit the fuse for the ultimate detonation of the Turnbull prime ministership.
Stokes was opposed to Dutton for complex reasons, but didn’t seem to know who to go for instead. On the day before the leadership spill, his newspaper, The West Australian, was promoting Scott Morrison. The next day it was promoting Julie Bishop, a West Australian.
This shambolic confusion among the moguls is comforting in a perverse kind of way, because in the end neither of them was able to dictate the outcome.
Murdoch achieved one objective – the ousting of Turnbull – but Dutton, his preferred pick to replace him, is now clinging to political life by a single vote in the House of Representatives thanks to the hovering spectre of the Constitution’s section 44 (v), not to mention trouble with au pairs.
Stokes? Well, he is new to this kingmaking caper. He clearly did not want his friend Turnbull out, but when that became inevitable, he didn’t know where to turn. As my old editor at The Age, Creighton Burns, was fond of saying, he was caught between a shit and a shiver.
The net effect of their efforts has been to bring the Liberal-National government to the brink of disintegration within months of a general election.
This time, Murdoch may have indeed created a winner – Labor leader Bill Shorten – not by the traditional means of showering support on him, but by destroying his opponents, even though they happen to be Murdoch’s own ideological allies.
It is the latest chapter in a long and discreditable history of media proprietors using their power to advance their political ends, usually for commercial rather than ideological purposes.
Sir Frank and Kerry Packer did it; so did successive generations of Fairfaxes. In 1961 the Fairfaxes went so far as to virtually run Arthur Calwell’s campaign out of the company’s executive offices on the 14th floor of its newspaper mausoleum in Sydney’s Broadway. The Sydney Morning Herald’s journalists renamed it the Labor ward in honour of the exercise.
In Britain, the mould for the politically meddling modern newspaper proprietor was set by Alfred Harmsworth (Lord Northcliffe) in the early 20th century.
He and the other mighty British press baron of the time, Max Aitken (Lord Beaverbrook), were the inspiration, if that is the word, for Rudyard Kipling’s celebrated condemnation:
[The press exercises] power without responsibility: the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages.
So Probyn has done Australian democracy a service by exposing the entrails of what looks like another abuse of media power, even if it makes for a nauseating public spectacle.
It also raises serious questions about media accountability.
Australia has never had a publicly trusted or effective system of media accountability. All attempts to create one have been howled down, the loudest and crudest voices belonging to Murdoch’s lieutenants.
There is already a crisis in people’s faith in democratic institutions. A new report by the Australian Museum of Democracy and the University of Canberra shows only 41% of Australians are satisfied with the way democracy is working. That is a dramatic plunge from the 86% recorded in 2007.
In this climate of disenchantment, it is not surprising there are now calls for a public inquiry into the way Murdoch and Stokes have evidently played a manipulative role in changing the prime minister.
Denis Muller is a Senior Research Fellow in the Centre for Advancing Journalism, University of Melbourne
This article first appeared in The Conversation on 20 September 2018