Does ‘Red Rupe” have any remaining ‘red’ beliefs? Murdoch was called ‘Red Rupe’ by his fellow Oxford students in the early 1950s. He had a bust of Lenin on his mantle, was a member of the Labour Club and generally espoused the need for radical change. Many thought that his stance was more posturing than any deep seated set of intellectual commitments. Later, and especially from the time he went to live in New York in 1974, his beliefs have tended towards the far right – neo-liberal economics and hawkish foreign policies – and there is a solid, indeed simplistic, consistency to them.
Perhaps the one trace of his youthful radicalism that survives is his republicanism. Murdoch has always been against the British monarchy.
This posed problems for one of his closest confidantes in Britain, Woodrow Wyatt, originally a Labour MP, who was knighted and then made a life peer by Thatcher. Wyatt was a snobbish and bigoted influence peddler, but his three volumes of diaries make fascinating reading. In a 1988 entry, the Queen’s new press secretary asked Wyatt how can we deal with Rupert Murdoch? Wyatt said there was little to worry about even though Rupert was against the whole idea of monarchy. Wyatt dissuaded the official from meeting with Murdoch on the grounds that ‘Rupert likes causing a bit of a commotion’ and to give him the impression you were worried would only make him go stronger.
The next year at dinner with the Queen Mother, she said to him Rupert’s ‘against us, isn’t he?’ Wyatt said Murdoch liked the queen and queen mother, but it is ‘the others he doesn’t like’, and that is why he runs so many scandals. Again in 1992, Wyatt was at a dinner with the Royal family, and again he had to assure the Queen Mother that Rupert’s mother was a ‘terrific monarchist’, that Rupert was afraid of her, and so he would ‘never launch direct attacks on the monarchy’.
So given his anti-monarchical beliefs (and that his mother was no longer alive to inhibit their expression), it is not surprising that he was among the many to express criticism of Abbott conferring an Australian knighthood on Prince Philip. Murdoch called it ‘a joke and embarrassment’, and added that it was ‘time to scrap all honours everywhere, including UK’.
This was, I think, Murdoch’s first public criticism of Abbott as Prime Minister, but given that he was repeating what nearly everyone else was saying – an IPSOS poll for Fairfax Media found 74 per cent opposed and only 15 per cent supported the Duke’s knighthood – it failed to create what Wyatt would consider a ‘commotion’.
Soon after, Murdoch created a very large commotion, however, by sending three tweets, all saying that Abbott had to replace his chief of staff Peta Credlin. Abbott had to ‘forget fairness’; ‘leadership is about making cruel choices’; firing Credlin was ‘the only way to recover team work’. If Abbott wouldn’t fire her, Credlin should ‘do her patriotic duty and resign’. He opined that Credlin was a ‘good person’, and he was appealing to her ‘proven patriotism’.
Let’s put aside Murdoch’s equating the good of the Abbott Government with patriotism, and instead ponder the curious situation of a media proprietor publicly commenting on the composition of a prime minister’s office. According to a report by the Australian Financial Review’s Phillip Coorey, Abbott had already replaced his press office director Jane McMillan last December on Murdoch’s recommendation. Credlin and McMillan had both worked for Howard Government Communications minister, Helen Coonan, in 2006, when she introduced legislation which did not give News Limited what it wanted, according to Crikey’s Bernard Keane.
Laura Tingle reported that, within the government, ‘there has long been a deep unease about Peta Credlin’s role because she was seen as the centre of an obsessive and inappropriate insistence on control over everything.’
It is ironic then the public pressure for her to resign followed Abbott’s act of unparalled prime ministerial idiocy in giving the gong to Prince Phillip. While the main line of criticism has been Credlin’s degree of control, now she was being hounded for lack of control, for failing to protect her boss from himself.
News Corp columnists, especially Miranda Devine, joined in the hunt, at first arguing that Abbott should show his colleagues he’s changed by sacrificing something very important to him, Credlin. She also thought Credlin should be replaced by another News Corp columnist, former Coalition staffer, Chris Kenny, who ‘various high-level media and political figures’ had urged should be appointed. Then in the Sunday Telegraph, Devine gave a long catalogue of Credlin’s ‘Stalinist’ behavior, and how the ‘Credlin Choke’ is strangling the business of government.
In the short term, such public pressure from Murdoch and others makes it much harder politically for Abbott to dispense with Credlin, whom he and several of his closest colleagues credit with playing a pivotal role in their election victory. Whatever the immediate consequences, this intermingling of personnel, of private and public comments, is unprecedented. Where does the Liberal Party end, and News Corp begin? We have come a long way from the Fourth Estate.
Rod Tiffen is Emeritus Professor of Political Science in the Department of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney.