Is Peter Dutton or News Corp leading the Coalition?

Mar 25, 2024
Newspaper or hournal with news printing on a printing machine in a typography. 3d illustration

With the 2024 football season in its infancy, the official Twitter (X) account of ABC News posted a story about Scott Morrison handing back his Number 1 membership ticket to the Cronulla Sharks Rugby League Club. The opening line of the post was “The former PM is a longtime public supporter of the Sharks”.

The fact is Morrison’s support of the Sharks traces back to when he won the seat of Cook in 2007 and began to create the fiction that he was a daggy dad from the suburbs who had supported the Sharks forever. The reality is his background was Rugby Union and he was raised in inner-city Bronte. There is nothing inherently wrong with being a Rugby Union person, and being brought up in Bronte is not a hanging offence.

That said, it is an offence against professional standards when Australia’s national broadcaster repeats a fiction as though it were a fact. Violations of that order have been widely observed as routine practice at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation during the stewardship of ABC board chair Ita Buttrose and managing director David Anderson.

The practice continues in the Australian corporate media generally, and is founded on three premises, two of which are well worn.

The first is the standard media principle that prioritises stories containing the elements of surprise or conflict. The principle is explained in the text books by the ‘dog bites man’ metaphor. That headline is not a news story, whereas ‘man bites dog’ is. A daggy suburban dad becoming Australia’s prime minister aligns roughly with that principle.

The second is that when a senior elected recognisable person makes a public statement, that statement is presumed to consist of newsworthy potential. If it contains elements of conflict or surprise, its claim multiplies greatly and is likely to be promoted to front page or lead-story status.

The third is less understood, but embodies the regrettable proposition that working reporters in mainstream news outlets tend not to be fearless warriors in the pursuit of accuracy and truth, but are instead mostly pedestrian content providers reliant on their editors to get their stories published and keep their jobs. In short, they are relatively powerless and their top priority is to avoid being out of step with their peers. In Australia that means being in step with story angles deemed newsworthy at the dominant News Corp outlets of Murdoch’s capital city tabloids, The Australian and Sky News Australia. That presumption applies largely at Seven West Media, Nine Entertainment and ABC News, for similar reasons.

Given this scenario, the outrage on X (previously known as Twitter) often directed at seemingly spineless corporate journalists is largely misdirected. Journalists who are the subject of those complaints are mostly not free to ask hard questions of elected representatives that risk minimising the conflict that arises from their public statements, which in turn give rise to more conflict, because perpetuating conflict is the life blood of the proprietors who employ them.

It might validly be asked how scoops fit into this scenario. The media awards won by Murdoch editor Sharri Markson offer a few clues on how that works. Markson ‘broke’ the 2018 story about Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce having left his wife to pursue an affair with a staffer. Headline writers titled the story “Bundle of Joyce”. While Markson was the first mainstream journalist to tell the story by naming Vicki Campion as the staffer, Serkan Ozturk of True Crime News Weekly published an outline of the affair six months earlier without naming Campion, and it had been circulating on Twitter for months prior to Markson reporting it.

Given that many journalists knew about the Joyce affair, but believed they were not at liberty to publish the story, it’s reasonable to suppose that somehow Markson was given a green light to proceed with it, and therefore be in contention for the associated Walkley award. A simple explanation for the green light might well have been high-level editors at News Corp, her employer, deciding the story was about to break anyway, so the ‘scoop’ may as well go to one of their own, and assist her credentials to be recognised as a rising star in the process.

Markson’s rise to stardom in the Murdoch firmament was sealed the same year when she ‘broke’ news of moves against Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, supposedly by conservatives within his Liberal Party ranks. She followed that story with the news that Peter Dutton was preparing to challenge Turnbull for Party leader and documented his initial failure to successfully do so. While Turnbull was a fiscal conservative, he was a social progressive who could not be counted on to further the culture wars that were the beating heart of LNP conservatives and their close associates among News Corp editors.

Although Turnbull’s acquiescence to LNP conservatives had damaged the popularity he enjoyed on becoming Prime Minister in 2015, the polls were not predicting a Coalition election loss under his leadership in 2018, but the stories persisted in the News Corp stable about conservative unrest, with Markson leading the charge.

What developed in the unravelling of Turnbull’s prime ministership was a horse or cart issue. Were conservative MPs actually calling for Turnbull’s blood, or were News Corp editors manufacturing a rolling coverage of a story of their own making as suggested by Seven West Media boss Kerry Stokes, and using Markson’s new-found celebrity journalist status to drop story lines that enabled her and associated News Corp journalists to push that narrative? In short, whether Dutton was actually pushing the story or was being pushed into it by newspaper editors, remains an unanswered question. The answer might amount to an evolving story that included a bit of both, a strategy that would enable Dutton to disappear from time to time without the story losing momentum.

By the end of 2018, Markson’s stardom was officially endorsed by the awarding of the Sir Keith Murdoch Award for Excellence in Journalism, a News Corp stable award presented to her in person by Rupert and Lachlan at a Sydney bash. The award came off the back of Markson’s addition to a group of fellow right-wing celebrity journalists at Sky News Australia with her weekly show titled simply “Sharri”, assuming by then that everyone either knew who Markson was, or should have known. The Murdochs had anointed an antipodean version of Laura Ingraham, whose program on Fox News, “The Ingraham Angle”, won conservative audiences to support Sean Hannity and the now departed Tucker Carlson.

The horse or cart problem has presented itself again in recent times with News Corp leading the way with the corporate media on a number of stories seemingly dear to the heart of the Coalition leader, the most recent being the farcical Nigel Farage interview with Trump being fed a line to dump on Australia’s US Ambassador Kevin Rudd.

The stories include the non-arrival of an armada of boats in February 2024 following the somewhat mysterious arrival of 39 well-dressed and groomed asylum seekers on the West Australian coast. The arrival sparked News Corp hysteria that echoed the armada of boats that Scott Morrison said would arrive, but didn’t, after the Medevac Bill passed into law in 2019. The media alarm in both cases echoed the “caravan” of illegal immigrants that Donald Trump claimed via Fox News were “marching” towards the US southern border in 2019, a caravan that comprised a random proportion of murderers, rapists and pedophiles.

According to News Corp and Dutton, those criminal elements were abundantly present among the 141 asylum seekers released after Australia’s High Court declared indefinite detention illegal in November 2023. Albanese may have been at fault in not having an orderly plan for the detainees’ release but News Corp found ways to insist that the High Court decision was singularly the fault of his government.

In a similar vein, calls on the Albanese Government to engage in a “mature debate” on the merits of nuclear power were reported by News Corp as a failing of the Albanese Government rather than to question why after nine years in power, Dutton had never raised the issue. Dutton’s calls to engage became particularly insistent on his return from a whirlwind visit to Gina Rinehardt’s 70th birthday party in early March 2024. His insistence was given widespread media exposure while prominent nuclear sceptics such as the billionaire miner Andrew Forrest and the CSIRO were downplayed or accused of error.

Likewise, the characterisation as a “ute tax” of the Government’s decision to prevent vehicle manufacturers dumping high emission cars into Australia’s marketplace was seized on by News Corp and reported in the mainstream media, with suggestions widely reported that Australian car drivers were not interested in expensive electric vehicles. The actual surge in EV orders was given little or no media coverage within Australia.

The Liberal Party’s default scare ploy on threats to national security was hardly raised when Dutton initiated discussion of the February boat arrival, despite it being a flagrant violation of his own rule about the dire national security implications of discussing “on water matters” publicly. However, national security was given heavy media coverage when the Albanese Government shilly-shallied about whether to restore $6 million of aid to the United Nation’s relief agency UNRWA to assist in providing food to starving Palestinians in Gaza.

National Security was also blown up in the News Corp media when the US was considering banning Tik Tok because of its connections to the Chinese Government. Foreign Affairs Shadow spokesman James Paterson was reported widely claiming ominous national security consequences with respect to election interference if Australia did not follow suit.

It did not occur to anyone in the mainstream media, it seems, that the ever-present threat to Australia’s national security on the matter of election interference has for decades been the dominance in Australia of the foreign owned News Corp by the American Rupert Murdoch.

Given Murdoch having form for misinformation and devious practices in the UK as revealed by the 2012 Leveson Inquiry which led to the finding that he was not a fit person to operate an international company, and his Fox News paying a billion dollar settlement in 2023 for spreading the Trump lie that voting machine irregularities cost Donald Trump election victory in November 2020, it’s a wonder the matter has escaped media notice.

One would hope it’s on the radar of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) and the Australian Federal Police (AFP), but it’s by no means a certainty that it is. Anthony Albanese’s tolerance for retaining partisan senior appointments mean his Government will be persistently undermined by the very institutions charged with preventing malign interference in our political system.

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