In a fair contest, Kevin Rudd and the Labor team would have been more than a match for Tony Abbott and the Coalition team. But it was not a fair contest. From the very beginning of the election campaign Rupert Murdoch marshalled his formidable forces in support of Abbott while he waged a barefaced propaganda war against Rudd and Labor. When before have we witnessed such an onslaught?
Conscripted by Murdoch from his position of editor-in-chief of The New York Post
, ‘Field Marshall’ Col Allan, known inside News Corporation as ‘Col Pot’, a reference to Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge genocidal dictator, was instructed by Murdoch to "go hard on Rudd, start from Sunday, and don't back off".
Allan soon got to work. His message to Murdoch’s editors was straightforward but brutal: “You have been going hard on Labor but now, with Rudd's revival in the opinion polls, you have to go harder.”
Indeed, they had been ‘going hard’ with vicious front pages since July: Captain Chaos
, Wreck it Rudd
, Hellhole Solution
and Rudd’s Boat Show
(referring to the PNG arrangement), Kev’s $733 million Bank Heist
, Price of Labor
, It’s a Ruddy Mess
and Rudd’s Carr Wreck
, when the Budget revision was released, and Island Hell
referring to Manus Island.
The attack heightened with The Daily Telegraph’s: Finally, you now have the chance to…KICK THIS MOB OUT
on Monday 5 August.
As Bruce Guthrie, who had a successful legal run in with Murdoch, so well recorded in his book Man Bites Murdoch
, writes in his Brisbane Times
article It's on: Rudd gets the Col shoulder as Murdoch telegraphs his punches
: “By Thursday he and the Telegraph editor, Paul 'Boris' Whittaker, had taken another shot at Rudd, casting him, Anthony Albanese and Craig Thomson as ''Thommo's Heroes'', playing on the late 1960s sitcom Hogan's Heroes. By Friday, it was the turn of The Courier-Mail, the Brisbane tabloid turning Rudd and star candidate Peter Beattie into circus clowns.”
Guthrie questioned Rudd’s wisdom in ‘taking on’ Murdoch: “What can he expect? First off, News does not play fair. And it's not always troubled by the truth. The PM will be misquoted and misrepresented, photographed - or Photoshopped - any notion of balance abandoned.
[his Supreme Court case against Murdoch for wrongful dismissal] taught me there are two kinds of truth in this world: what happened and what News Ltd says happened. And in Murdoch's world his version trumps everything - given his clout and reach in this country, that can be a scary realisation. Rudd should also know he is not only taking on the Telegraph - he's taking on the entire Murdoch empire.”
Referring to Rudd’s strong reaction to Murdoch’s mauling of him, Guthrie concluded: “I hope for his sake he has thought it through. Because he's about to get a working-over he'll long remember. I managed to hold on to my house; I'm not sure he'll hang on to The Lodge.”
Not satisfied that his readers had got his message, Murdoch’s Sunday Telegraph
shouted Australia needs Tony
, with the Abbott face filling the front page. Yesterday, it was YOUR TURN
under a smirking Abbott with a wistful Rudd looking on.
Murdoch’s power is profound. A Get Up ad
that criticized the anti-Labor coverage of Murdoch's newspapers was banned on commercial TV for fear of upsetting him. Channels Seven and Ten refused to air the ad, while Nine screened it over four days in Brisbane – then cancelled it after blaming a "coding error".
The Murdoch threat to Labor is not new. Over a year ago I wrote: Julia Gillard can defeat Tony Abbott in 2013. But how does she neutralize Rupert Murdoch?
When in April 2012 Murdoch tweeted: @rupertmurdoch
Dramatic, slimy events in Australian politics. Country desperately needs election to get fresh start,
28 Apr 12
, no room for doubt remained – Murdoch wanted an election and expected that it would be the end of Julia Gillard and her Government.
The piece argued that while PM Gillard needed to defeat Tony Abbott and the Coalition at the next election, that was not her most forbidding task. Her most powerful enemy was Rupert Murdoch. It was he who needed to be countered for electoral success: “Our PM has two virulent enemies, and an unequal battle with them.”
The piece went on to document how Julia Gillard was superior to Tony Abbott on every parameter, but that might count for naught against Murdoch’s forces. It concluded: “We have all known about the influence he exerts via his 70% ownership of metropolitan newspapers, and through his TV outlets here in Australia, and in recent months we have seen his pernicious influence on politics in the UK and the depths to which he will stoop for a salacious story. I expect we might see something similar in the US.
“Rupert Murdoch has always sought to influence politics in every country where his vast empire has its tentacles. He has now stated overtly what we all knew, that he wants PM Gillard and her Government out and Tony Abbott and the Coalition in, and will use all his massive media power to achieve that end. He will not ease back, he will not take the pressure off, he will, through his media, one overseen by sycophantic hirelings, wage relentless war on our PM and her Government. It is to the mainstream media’s eternal shame that so many of the others have followed the Murdoch lead.
“Julia Gillard would trounce Tony Abbott were the election to be based on competence, performance and behaviour, and an accurately informed electorate. But we know that the Murdoch factor will ensure that not only is the electorate not informed about the Government’s achievements and its plans, but that it will be deliberately misinformed through distortions, omissions, and at times downright lies.
“Julia Gillard can defeat Tony Abbott, but can she counter the Murdoch menace?” This piece, written over a year ago, was prescient. What was predicted then has unfolded before our very eyes over the last six months. Murdoch has won the election for Abbott. The Sun's
contribution to the unexpected Conservative victory in the 1992 general election in the UK evoked a Murdochesque front page headline: "It's The Sun Wot Won It"
, reflecting the influence of the Murdoch press over politicians and election results, something Murdoch relishes. We may see similar sentiments expressed here, although Murdoch conceded to the Leveson Inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the British press following the News International phone hacking scandal, that the headline was "tasteless and wrong"
. No matter how tasteless, Rudd and Labor will be exhibited as a scalp on Murdoch’s well-endowed belt.
Of course, it would be unreasonable to suggest that Murdoch alone was responsible for Labor’s defeat. Abbott himself would want to take much of the credit, and his minders and supporters inside the Coalition and in the sycophantic media would want to take their share. They insist that Abbott has succeeded brilliantly by mesmerizing the electorate for so long with his simplistic, monotonously repeated three word slogans, by continually demonizing Labor and the PM, by being consistently ‘on message’, and by being supremely ‘disciplined’ (how the media loves that term), which is code for not disastrously putting his foot in his mouth. To the Murdoch media, all Abbott had to do was not stuff up and stay on message, and it would act as his megaphone. It mattered little that Abbott never acknowledged the global fiscal situation, nor detailed how the economy would need to adjust to the new reality of a slowing resource sector, nor how he planned to manage the transition to a different economy. His success was measured only by how well he avoided missteps.
Moreover, it would be foolish for Labor supporters to ignore the contribution Labor and its leaders have made to their defeat. Mistakes have been made, errors of judgement have occurred, some policies and plans have been faulty, some strategic moves inadvisable. Like all political parties managing a vast nation through turbulent global times, Labor has found judgement difficult. Hippocrates’ famous aphorism about the practice of medicine applies equally to politics: Life is short, the art is long, the occasion fleeting, experience fallacious, and judgment difficult.
Some Labor ideas quickly evaporated: the community forum for achieving consensus about global warming, and the East Timor ‘solution’ for offshore processing. Some well thought through moves such as the ETS were frustrated by Coalition and Greens’ opposition, but eventually it was Rudd’s timidity about calling a double dissolution election on an ETS that resulted in its suspension. The Malaysian arrangement never got to be tried because of a High Court ruling, and several sound measures were blocked by the Greens and the Coalition.
But for every unsuccessful move there were many more that were spectacularly successful: the stimulus response to the GFC that saved the nation from recession, contained unemployment and kept small businesses afloat; the Building the Education Revolution that had a 97% success rate, which provided much needed school infrastructure; and the Home Insulation Program that insulated a million roofs, reduced power costs to households, and lessened power usage and pollution, are three significant examples. Yet there was trenchant criticism of all three, from Abbott and the Coalition of course, but promulgated widely by the mainstream media, particularly the Murdoch media. Tame economists such as Henry Ergas and Michael Stutchbury demeaned the stimulus package up hill and down dale. Murdoch columnists, especially in The Australian
, ran a weekly column attacking the BER, headlining every small problem in what was a highly successful program, as demonstrated in three reports by businessman Brad Orgill. The same happened with the HIP. Although there were administrative problems that allowed some shonky operators to enter the industry, what the Murdoch media highlighted was the ceiling fires, actually fewer than before the HIP began, and the sad deaths of four young workers, all shown to be the result of OH&S shortcomings occasioned by careless contractors.
The result was that by design, through Murdoch’s media, these successful programs were demonized and deprecated to such an extent that even now the mere mention of the BER immediately evokes the words ‘waste and mismanagement’, and mention of the HIP brings forth talk of ‘pink batts’, which is code for bungling inefficiency, carelessness, ceiling fires and deaths. Thus two highly successful programs that brought great benefit to our nation have been given a big black mark that has so negated all their benefits that virtually no credit has accrued to the Government. And all this has been the direct result of deliberately disingenuous and deceitful Coalition propaganda, amplified by the Murdoch media. Murdoch’s campaign to unseat the Labor Government started long ago. He has been at it for years. His latest foray, spectacularly vicious though it is, is but the finale to a long-standing and persistent strategy of demonization and denigration.
Moreover, the spectacular achievements of the Gillard Government, such as the NDIS, the Better Schools Plan (Gonski), and the rollout of the largest infrastructure project in our history, the NBN, quite deliberately have received paltry recognition and credit from the Murdoch press. When it was not criticizing, it simply ignored and effectively hid these accomplishments.
Murdoch has supported the Abbott notion that we need to return to the halcyon days of the Howard era. Abbott gazes longingly in the rear-view mirror at a golden age of rivers of gold flowing into the Treasury, tax cuts and middle class welfare, and Murdoch stands beside him.
Of course, there is no gainsaying the damaging effects that the change of leader from Kevin Rudd to Julia Gillard in 2010, the prolonged sabotage of her prime ministership by Rudd and what Kerry-Anne Walsh
terms ‘Team Rudd’, and the change back to him in 2013. Labor ministers readily conceded this last night and again this morning. Had there not been this destructive behaviour, Labor would have been miles ahead, and not struggling to maintain momentum and electoral support, as has been the case for the last three years. It has had to function with the brakes on, looking continually in the rear view mirror to watch for threats to its continued existence as a coherent political party. The damage that Team Rudd has done is inestimable, and in the light of the election results, spectacularly unjustifiable. Whether Julia Gillard and her ministers would have done any better than has Kevin Rudd we shall never know, but many will express learned opinions one way or the other, even if inauthentic, even if worthless.
We now enter into a dark and uncertain place. Murdoch will be certain to get what he wants from Abbott, who will be keen to repay him for his powerful and unremitting support. 'Murdochracy' will blossom. Obsequious Abbott will pay homage to him, and to Gina Rinehart and George Pell, who will continue to be his sponsors, but only so long as he does their bidding, as weaklings do.
Even before the election, Abbott was threatening his opponents, threatening a double dissolution election if they obstructed his carbon tax repeal. He insisted he would not tolerate opposition, although he had offered nothing but opposition and obstruction for the last three years. He reacted angrily to the Greens and Labor ministers insisting they would stick to their policy positions. He insisted that he would have a mandate to do as he pleased and that Labor would be acting suicidally to resist him. His bullyboy nature protruded through the thin veneer of reasonableness with which he has covered himself throughout the election campaign. This is a foretaste of what is to come. Be very afraid, the ugliness of the Abbott persona will soon be exposed for all to see.
And as this ugliness and the nastiness emerges like an erupting volcano, Abbott will take comfort in Murdoch’s protection, which he knows will always be there so long as he complies with Murdoch’s wishes. Abbott’s moves will be given sympathetic publicity in Murdoch’s outlets. He will be given a long, long honeymoon. Now that he has chosen a winner, Murdoch will make sure he protects his own reputation as a kingmaker. Moreover, he will always do what his commercial interests dictate – they always take precedent over his ideological position. In the case of Abbott and Murdoch, ideologies coincide. Murdoch will want Abbott, whose conservative pose he applauds, to look after his commercial wellbeing by protecting his Foxtel empire from any adverse effects of the NBN. In Murdoch's vicious attacks on Rudd: it's business
, Paul Sheehan assesses this hazard as follows: “Foxtel has responded to this threat by launching its own content-on-demand product, FoxtelGo, and is launching an online-only version, FoxtelPlay. Foxtel's co-parent, News Corp, is engaging in a more structural response. It wants to kill the NBN threat at its ultimate source - Kevin Rudd.”
In his piece in Public Opinion
, David Rowe quotes Barry Jones, who insists that the quality of political debate has become increasingly unsophisticated, appealing to the lowest common denominator of understanding. On the role of the media, Jones says: The Murdoch papers are no longer reporting the news, but shaping it. They no longer claim objectivity but have become players, powerful advocates on policy issues: hostile to the science of climate change, harsh on refugees, indifferent to the environment, protective of the mining industry, trashing the record of the 43rd parliament, and promoting a dichotomy of uncritical praise and contemptuous loathing. Does it affect outcomes? I am sure that it does, and obviously advertisers think so. The Coalition is still playing to fear and anxiety with its rhetoric about the Australian economy being a smoking ruin due to Labor’s ‘irresponsible’ fiscal policies.”
Writing in similar vein in Are You Scared Yet? The Mugging Of The Australian Electorate
in The Global Mail
, Mike Seccombe gives a fascinating account of the difference between progressive and conservative brains and thinking, that will repay the reader’s attention. He uses ‘mugged’ in the sense of being ‘robbed’. He writes: “Conservatives, for example, tend to have a stronger ‘startle reflex’ in response to sudden loud noise, than [progressives] do. They exhibit stronger sympathetic-nervous-system reactions to what they perceive as threatening images. They are more inclined to feel disgust and are generally more fearful.”
Referring to the 2013 federal election, Seccombe asserts: “Tony Abbott, his political allies and media claque have managed to convince a significant portion of the electorate that it has been mugged. They have done this not over a few weeks in an election campaign, but over a period of years, and in defiance of the objective evidence. What’s more they have done it, in many ways, with the complicity of the Labor government, which has shown itself to be rather worse at running the debate than at running the country.” Barrie Cassidy
plays down the Murdoch effect: “The Daily Telegraph is trying to influence people who are already savvy and interested enough to buy a newspaper in a declining market. They don't fit the lemming mentality, by and large. So newspaper campaigns are limited in impact. The six o'clock news is still more influential, and the social media gets bigger by the day.”
Some would wish Cassidy’s view to be correct, but most would see it as a future prediction rather that a contemporary reality. Murdoch has already done his damage for the 2013 election, damage that is now all too clear.
Victoria Rollison though has no doubts. In An Open Letter to Journalists at News Ltd
she concludes: “It’s also important for you to know that we won’t forget what you’ve done. If your boss gets his way, and you do manage to deliver Australia the most conservative, austerity obsessed, downright mean and selfish government we’ve ever had, it’s very likely most of your readers, especially those in areas like western Sydney who’ve you’ve conned most successfully, will not be very impressed with you.”
Let’s give the last word on the Murdoch effect to Mike Carlton. In his article: Lies, damned lies and Australia's future
in yesterday’s SMH
, Carlton refers to the appearance of Fairfax chairman Roger Corbett on the ABC's Lateline
on Tuesday. Carlton writes: "Here was a media mogul and Reserve Bank board member wickedly interfering in the election"
, and goes on to quote him: “…to be as strongly biased as News have been in the last few months, I do think does a great damage to the credibility of press, at just the time when the press needs to be highly respected as we go through this digital transition".
Carlton comments: “You betcha. It matters not that the opinion pages of The Australian, The Daily Telegraph and Brisbane's Courier-Mail are a bottomless swamp of right-wing idiocy. So be it. Rupert Murdoch and his myrmidons are entitled to their own opinions. But they are not entitled to their own facts. When you prostitute your news columns with cant, slant and bias, as News has done so relentlessly, it is a betrayal of your readers and a trampling of every ethical principle of journalism.
“This is not surprising from the global octopus that so disgraced itself in Britain, but it is a tragedy for Australia.” While some will dispute the Murdoch effect on this election outcome, insisting that Abbott did it, or the Coalition did it, or Labor did it to itself, in my opinion the most credible explanation of the Coalition victory is that Murdoch did it. Abbott could not have succeeded on his own merits. He needed Murdoch to do it for him.
Although he might not want to say so in public, in private Murdoch will be saying to himself: ‘It's The Telegraph Wot Won It’. I believe that’s right.
So the winner is: Rupert Murdoch.
What do you think?