News Corp chairman Lachlan Murdoch has categorically denied reports that his father, Rupert, ever said “Malcolm Turnbull has got to go” at the height of the 2017 Liberal leadership challenge.
In a new essay on the downfall of the former prime minister, the media mogul’s son has revealed for the first time that he was the only witness to his father’s alleged conversation with Channel Seven boss Kerry Stokes.
Investigative journalist Pamela Williams writes in a soon-to-be-published essay in The Monthly of Mr Turnbull’s desperate attempts to seek a meeting with Mr Murdoch Sr at the height of his leadership crisis in August 2017 because he feared News Corp had turned on him.
The essay details a confrontation between Mr Turnbull and Mr Murdoch, during which Williams claims the then-prime minister said: “You and your company are trying to bring down the government”.
— The Monthly (@THEMONTHLY) January 23, 2019
The essay details the close relationship between the Murdochs and Tony Abbott, which would have fuelled Mr Turnbull’s paranoia.
But Lachlan Murdoch has denied his father called for change at the top of the Turnbull government.
“I was the only other person in the meeting and KRM [Rupert] definitely never said ‘Malcolm’s got to go’ or mused on how business would be better under a Labor government,” he told The Monthly.
“His mind doesn’t work like that and I have never heard him say anything like it.”
Williams writes that: “There were just the three men in the room from 11.30am until midday. They spent much of this short meeting commiserating about the media business, but the talk turned to politics, to the febrile atmosphere in Canberra, the leadership headlines and Turnbull’s wrestling with angry rebels.
“What was said or not said in the meeting would later become highly contested when media reports a month later purported to quote verbatim some of the conversation between Mr Stokes and Rupert Murdoch.”
The essay states that the day after that August 16 meeting, Mr Turnbull’s office called Lachlan’s assistant, requesting a meeting with Rupert. Mr Turnbull’s chief of staff, Clive Mathieson, also phoned News Corp executive Campbell Reid for help setting up the meeting.
“It would prove impossible to find a date for a face-to-face meeting, and eventually a phone call was scheduled. It would not take place for another five days,” Williams writes.
The conversation occurred on Wednesday, August 22.
“The prime minister and the media mogul Rupert Murdoch spoke at 9.30am on speakerphone,” the essay says.
With Mr Mathieson in the room, Mr Turnbull launched straight in, telling Mr Murdoch, “You and your company are trying to bring down the government”, the essay claims.
Ms Williams writes that Mr Murdoch batted away Mr Turnbull’s allegations about biased coverage in The Australian and offered to speak to Lachlan about the concerns.
After that, Mr Turnbull heard nothing more. But he would maintain his view that the Murdochs were implicated in his downfall.
The sensational claim that Rupert Murdoch had told the SevenWest chairman he supported regime change was first reported by The Australian Financial Review and then by ABC TV’s Andrew Probyn.
It sparked controversy amid claims the purported conversation was reported in a manner that implied there had been text messages between the media titans.
Mr Stokes and Mr Murdoch categorically denied that. However, Mr Stokes conceded he had met Mr Murdoch around that time. It has never previously been revealed that Lachlan Murdoch was also at the talks.
On November 8, Mr Turnbull fuelled reports of Rupert Murdoch’s intervention on ABC’s Q&A. Mr Turnbull revealed he had confronted Mr Stokes after hearing Mr Stokes had shared the story of the conversation with mutual friends.
“He [Mr Stokes] said to Rupert: ‘That’s crazy. You know, Malcolm’s doing well in the polls. He’s way ahead of Bill Shorten. Why would you want Bill Shorten to be prime minister?’,” Mr Turnbull said.
“To which, according to Kerry, Rupert said, ‘Oh, well, three years of Labor wouldn’t be so bad’. So, I can’t work that out. I can’t explain that.”
When the conversation was first reported, there were verbatim quotes, including claims that Rupert Murdoch also said: “I did all right under Labor and the Painters and Dockers, I can make money under Shorten and the CFMEU.”
Mr Stokes has previously rejected the reports. In a letter to Probyn, obtained by The Australian, he said: “The characterisation and supposed details of the private conversations you have assigned to me are wrong.”
Mr Stokes also categorically denied receiving texts from Rupert Murdoch, insisting he doesn’t even have Mr Murdoch’s mobile phone number.
However The Monthly also details the ongoing relationship between the Murdochs and Mr Abbott, which Williams writes would have fuelled Mr Turnbull’s paranoia.
“On January 31, 2017 – a warm sunny afternoon in Sydney – Tony Abbott had arrived at the gates of Le Manoir on Victoria Road, the Bellevue Hill mansion of Lachlan and Sarah Murdoch,” she writes.
“Abbott and Lachlan were friendly, catching up a couple of times a year. This would be a relaxed evening barbecue, and Lachlan’s other guests included his father, Rupert Murdoch, with his wife, Jerry Hall.”