Has Dominion spelt the end of Murdoch influence in Australia?

Apr 22, 2023
Australian news, press and journalism concept. Microphone and newspaper on the map.

The alternative universe occupied by the Murdoch media and its consumers is facing a very expensive and damaging confrontation with reality. But how and whether this affect the Australian operations are another question.

The latest confrontation with reality came with the Dominion Voting Systems $US787 million payout – a very expensive way of avoiding Rupert and Lachlan being cross-examined.

Of course, Dominion follows a series of other expensive collisions with the real world including: the UK phone hacking scandal which had cost more than $1 billion by 2020; the payout over the phone hacking of Milly Dowler in 2002 cost more than $1.2 million (with an additional $1.2 million Rupert himself paid to charities of the Dowler family’s choice) and more since.

The News of The World closed, The Sun was damaged goods and the coverage of the hacking, according to the UK Press Gazette, precipitated the end of the Murdoch proposed BSkyB takeover and a break fee of more than $373 million. As late as last year News had set aside another $58 million for costs associated with The Sun for “allegations of voice mail interception and inappropriate payments to public officials.”

Incidentally, perhaps in keeping with Rupert’s republican sentiments, The News of the World phone hacking also targeted the Royal family.

In the US Fox News had confronted another expensive scandal when in 2016 it had to pay out $32 million to settle the sexual harassment claims of Gretchen Carlson and Megyn Kelly against Fox News CEO, Roger Ailes.

But what will all this mean for Australia in the immediate and near future? In the short term the immediate impact on Australia will probably be negligible. Those who hate the Murdoch media will rejoice in schadenfreude. Those who enjoy its support will continue to cling to it.

Tony Abbott, Peter Dutton and their ilk will continue to heed the Murdoch mania for anchoring policy and outlook on the so-called ‘base’ – the ageing, reactionary, racist rump – out of touch with modern mainstream Australia and increasingly isolated from mainstream opinion and, in particular, the opinions and lifestyles of Australian women. This ’base’ market – old and dying as it is – will at least be secure until it drops off the twig.

But, in contrast, we probably won’t see repetitions of a Kevin Rudd carousing with Murdoch executives in New York nor will we see the obligatory genuflection from politicians if Rupert visits. There may be meetings, but they will be discreet.

The most immediate impacts will probably be on Murdoch staff as the Australian operations continue the downsizing programs already announced.

The inevitable speculation about Murdoch’s longevity and what happens when he dies will also play a role in how this plays out. Murdoch was apparently not much of an asset in the inquiries in the UK cases. Cross-examinations are also not comfortable particular for those used to genuflections rather than clinical probing.

The parts of Murdoch’s depositions disclosed in the Dominion case are also interesting. There was a hint of a man not caring that much. It was obviously truthful – a wise course under oath – but curiously laidback although perhaps this was just an example of a hard, successful man facing reality and dealing with it calmly.

The Murdoch media outlook medium to longer term is a different matter. Fox is still facing another voting case threat from Smartmatic which is suing for $US2.7 billion and some similar cases to those that caused the UK problems are threatening for the organisation.

However, the longer-term implication is how it impacts on Lachlan and what happens when Rupert goes. When? What will the rest of the family want? Who knows?

…. and of course, the answers to those questions, might be hinted at in the remarkable coincidence of Lachlan Murdoch dropping his defamation action against Crikey soon after the Dominion settlement.

The ABC reported (21/4): “In a statement today, Mr Murdoch’s lawyer John Churchill said his client remained confident the court would ‘ultimately find in his favour’ but no longer wished to allow Crikey to use the case to ‘facilitate a marketing campaign’ to boost subscribers.”

The statement said Crikey had tried to introduce “thousands of pages of documents” unearthed during the Dominion case.

“In that case, in the US state of Delaware, the trial judge ruled the events of January 6, 2021, in the US Capitol, were not relevant,” Mr Churchill said.

“Further, the plaintiff Dominion Voting Systems made clear it would not argue that Fox News caused the events of January 6, and at no point did it ever argue that Mr Murdoch was personally responsible for the events of January 6.”

Deconstructing all that is a bit of challenge. It could be bravado – we would have won but decided not to. It could be faux generosity – we’re not going to stoop to take action against a tiny outlet just trying to boost their circulation at our expense. It could be Daddy told him to stop the damaging public controversy and avoid yet more dirty washing displays. It could also be a recognition that Lachlan is not the smartest member of the next generation and might fare badly in a witness box.

Most probably it’s a bit of all the above.

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