Sunday, January 05, 2014

Just how influential is the Murdoch Press?

A fixation during the 43rd Parliament, the lead up to the 2013 election and the campaign itself was the perceived influence of the Murdoch press in Australia. This generally means the collection of News titles – The Daily Telegraph, The Courier Mail, The Herald and Weekly Times, The Advertiser and The Hobart Mercury – as well as The Australian.

As the campaign started Sydney University academic David Knight wrote a piece titled “Murdoch and his influence on Australian political life” for The Conversation. He opened with a quote attributed to Murdoch that what gives him the most pleasure in running his empire is “trying to influence people.”

McKnight claimed Murdoch has had influence on elections previously, but his primary source was the Murdoch press’s own claim about the 1992 UK election that “It Was The Sun Wot Won It." He then simply assumed the influence and sought reasons for Murdoch wanting the end of the Labor Government.

He dismissed the claim made by PM Rudd that Murdoch’s focus was on the threat to News from the NBN, and that really his interest was entirely ideological.

This focus in the campaign followed a few years where the role of the Murdoch press had been part of public debate.

The key trigger point was a press conference by Christine Milne on 21 July 2011.

As reported by the Herald Sun Milne called for a federal inquiry into the media saying "The important thing here is that out of the scandal in the UK there is an opportunity now for Australia to look at a number of issues. One is concentration of the media ownership for the print media in Australia. Another is the privacy issues. Others relate to licensing and fit-and-proper person tests. All of those things should come out in an inquiry."

The next day Prime Minister Gillard got herself into bother over comments that given the serious nature of the international allegations in the UK, the Australian arm of News Corp arm to answer 'hard questions'. In the same article Tony Abbott was reported to have given qualified endorsement to the idea of improving Australia's privacy rights and his communications spokesman Malcolm Turnbull says the privacy reform discussion is 'a debate worth having'.

News Corp didn’t immediately dismiss the idea of improved privacy laws, with a spokesman in the same article saying “Without statutory protection of freedom of speech in Australia, there is a danger that a law to protect privacy will curtail the media's ability to hold governments, corporations and individuals to account. Any increased protection of privacy must be balanced against the need to ensure information that is clearly in the public interest is available to the public.”

The SMH on the same day reported “The government has given mixed messages about its enthusiasm for a review and about exactly what it would be inquiring into. Some ministers have attacked News Ltd publications for running what they say is biased coverage, and senior sources said yesterday some investigation of media regulation and 'ethics' remained a real possibility.”

On QandA three days later Milne said

Look, the Murdoch press has been running a very strong campaign against action on climate change. The bias is extreme in The Australian in particular.

You’ll see column inch after column inch after column inch of every climate sceptic in the country run with exactly the same authority as the intergovernmental panel on climate change as if they are the same. You’ll find, day after day, a real attempt at regime change.

Now, a newspaper is supposed to be running with fairness and with balance and that paper is not doing it and one of the useful things about the hacking scandal in the UK is that it will lead to an inquiry into the media in Australia and that is well and truly overdue and we are, at last, going to see some real discussion about issues around rights to privacy, around issues like the level of ownership and dominance of the Murdoch press in several capital cities around Australia.

We’ll also have a look at a range of other issues, including who are fit and proper people into whether we need that test of people to be running media outlets. So I think this is a really useful opportunity, especially at the media is changing so rapidly. Everything is going online. Newspapers online, you wonder if you can call them newspapers anymore in that sense, so it’s time we had a good inquiry.

next day The Australian reported

Julia Gillard has said she is open to an inquiry, declaring News Ltd, publisher of The Australian, had “hard questions” to answer following the UK phone hacking scandal.

In a separate move, the government will act on a three-year-old report by the Australian Law Reform Commission calling for a legally-enforced right to privacy.

The Prime Minister's office said Ms Gillard was yet to talk to Greens Leader Bob Brown about the inquiry.

The Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy announced the Independent Media Inquiry on 14 September 2011. Its report was incorporated into the overall Convergence Review, which was released by the Government with little fanfare and no comments about the Government’s intentions.

The void was filled by a virulent attack, led by News CEO Kim Williams, on any proposal to regulate print media. After months of rumours but no action the Government suddenly introduced a package of reforms in March. The two most controversial related to a diversity test and a strengthening of the mechanism for enforcing standards for privacy protection and accuracy.

The response from News was immediate and strong. But the Bills implementing these reforms failed not because of the News campaign but because the proposals could not overcome reservations held by Parliamentarians that were different to the complaints of News.

That News publications continued to be biased in their reporting on a number of issues was very apparent. The screeching headline in April proclaiming the cost of the NBN would be $94 billion based purely on a Coalition thought bubble was simply one of many cases.

The position of News translated into a fixation by the Rudd campaign on the issue, though there seems to have been some initial surprise at the extent of the bias. It may be that there was a presumption in the Ridd camp that the News Corp campagn was anti-Gillard rather than anti-Labor.

Bruce Hawker in his book The Rudd Rebellion states that going into the first week of the campaign there were major challenges to sort out. He notes “What we didn’t know, however, was that News Corp was planning its own campaign – one that would make its previous forays into partisan reporting look like the picture of even-handedness.”

He records a conversation at Kirribilli House on 1 August to respond to the arrival of Col Allen in Australia and the all-out News Corp campaign. Hawker notes “I had a long talk to [UMR research CEO John] Utting about the research required to see if News Corp actually does change people’s minds and if there are ways of successfully countering an attack or even pre-empting one by reference to Murdoch’s financial or political ambitions.” He also talked about research to monitor the extent of actual bias.

On 3 August he records that Utting argued against the proposed 7 September election date “to take more time to prosecute our economic credentials.” Hawker argued that “going late just gives News Corp an extra two weeks to attack us – as we know they will.”

Later as the campaign has kicked off Hawker recites all the stuff about editors and journalists saying they had never seen anything like the concerted News Corp campaign. He claimed the impact was felt in 5 ways;

1. They sought to undermine Rudd’s “legitimacy and credibility;

2. They fed shock-jocks and thus were repeated throughout the day;

3. They diverted attention from the issues Labor wanted to discuss – for example the stories about Rudd’s use of notes in the first debate diluted all the messages in the content of the debate;

4. They allowed News Corp reporters to suggest Rudd was off message and chaotic – news conferences became dominated by talking about the News Corp reports;

5. They allowed Abbott to stay positive all the time.;

When one analyses these impacts one realises they really were cases of “don’t think of a square.” The key person being distracted by this was Rudd – he and Hawker were obsessed.

In his epilogue Hawker claims “The other remarkable aspect of this election was the highly partisan role played by the News Corp press…News Corp is easily the most powerful political force in Australia – bigger than the major parties or the combined weight of the unions. The fact that the swings were lowest in the States where News Corp’s anti-Rudd invective was at its most virulent is a welcome reflection on the maturity of the Australian people. We shouldn’t use this as an argument to downplay the News Corp influence in this election”,

But really – we should do exactly that. Murdoch’s influence comes from the perception by politicians that he has a great deal more influence than he really does. NSW Labor learnt the similar lesson some time ago about Alan Jones.

A little research reveals that the power of the print media to influence is over-stated. University of Sydney academic Rod Tiffen wrote the chapter on Australia in The Handbook of Election News Coverage Around the World. He notes that “As in other democracies the most publicly debated media impacts concern allegations of partisan bias.”

Tiffen goes on to note the limited competition in Australia’s print media, but also notes that for most of Australia’s history all of the print media’s support has gone to the Liberals.

Tiffen notes that the most valuable set of polling data on Australian elections comes from the Australian Electoral Survey and that none of the surveys has found a strong correlation between party vote and any patterns of media consumption.

Prior to the 2013 election, the most debated cases in Australia were the 1972 and 1975 elections. As Tiffen says in both cases “the electoral tide was running so strongly that press partisanship would likely not have had any impact on the result.

Tiffen also notes “In recent years, there have been some claims by Labor that the Murdoch press is still biased against it, although the nature of media politics now is that a company like Murdoch’s also has an interest in being perceived as supportive of whoever wins the election.”

As the Guardian reported UK politician Rory Stewart said this week;

"But in our situation we're all powerless. I mean, we pretend we're run by people. We're not run by anybody. The secret of modern Britain is there is no power anywhere." Some commentators, he says, think we're run by an oligarchy. "But we're not. I mean, nobody can see power in Britain. The politicians think journalists have power. The journalists know they don't have any. Then they think the bankers have power. The bankers know they don't have any. None of them have any power."


1. Tiffen also has useful observations on agenda setting and the building of political momentum. He also argues that journalists frame election campaigns as horse races to distance themselves from the politicians and parties. To comment on actual policy may force them to express a view about it, whereas talking about how a policy has been crafted to appeal to the electorate removes the need to actually comment on the policy itself.

Hence the objective of “unbiased” reporting possibly has the consequence of hollowing out politically coverage in the media.

2. The tendency for the splash in the morning tabloids to create the news story of the day that runs on talkback radio and then becomes the headline of the nightly news is real. However, tightly scripted events providing good visual images combined with strong messages can disrupt the momentum

In the case of the Labor 2013 campaign it was Rudd and his personal advisers who were doing more than anyone to distract the campaign and destroy plans for getting the story to be Labor’s message of the day. The case of campaigning on the NBN is one – of which hopefully I will share more in a later post.

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