Malcolm Turnbull might have destroyed Kevin Rudd’s ambition to become the United Nations Secretary General, but the two former prime ministers are as one in their staunch criticism of the Murdoch-led media in Australia and globally.
Rudd has spent years banging his drum for an Australian royal commission into Murdoch’s power and influence, while Turnbull says supine serving and former News Corporation journalists have covered up what really goes on inside the nation’s biggest media company.
In his political memoir, A Bigger Picture, Turnbull says the public would be appalled at what happens inside the News Corporation media conglomerate if journalists spoke out.
“If more journalists who’ve worked at News Corporation were prepared publicly to tell the truth about the extent of their control and influence, even the most cynical Australians would be appalled,” writes Turnbull.
“They leave their investigative courage at the office door and even after they’ve left, very few will talk.”
Turnbull doesn’t hold back in outlining what he sees as the pernicious influence News publishing and broadcast media has on Australian politics, accusing chairman Rupert Murdoch, son Lachlan and editorial executives of waging a campaign to bring down his government.
The sharpest observations of how Turnbull saw the media’s treatment of his government are contained in diary entries he references in his book.
“The media is very negative at the moment about me – lots of talk about the government being terminal, gleeful talk,” he wrote in a March 2017 diary note.
“Had a long chat with (The Australian’s editor-at-large) Paul Kelly about it and we agreed that what has happened is that the mainstream media has become disaggregated and marginalised by social media and an infinite range of additional channels on the internet.
“These new channels are invariably hysterical, extreme, often fact free and in order to maintain attention the mainstream media has gone the same way, so that now even a broadsheet like The Australian is full of prejudiced, extreme opinion because that is what drives traffic – clickbait – Fairfax and even the ABC have been equally infected.
“So the media ‘discourse’ is now extreme and destructive – everywhere and we see the consequence – Trump, Le Pen, Brexit etc.
“Kelly observed that at News and especially on Sky the view is that I have to be destroyed because I am too left wing – no better than Shorten – despite all the evidence to the contrary.
“Indeed (Kelly) says that on Sky they have lost all interest in Australian politics as a struggle between Labor and the Coalition, rather their fascination is between Turnbull the soft centrist and Tony Abbott the muscular conservative (who let them down again and again). Crazy times.”
Turnbull backs up his discussion with Kelly through another diary entry recording a conversation he had with David Crowe, currently the chief Nine/Fairfax political correspondent. Crowe left The Australian in 2017 because he couldn’t “take (the culture of the paper) anymore”, according to this diary note.
“(Crowe says) Boris [the editor, Paul Whittaker] is fixated on destroying the government and me in particular, doesn’t understand why, thinks it’s because they believe they have a following who click a lot and comment a lot on anything which attacks me and praises Abbott. He sounded very depressed and despairing,” writes Turnbull.
It’s clear Turnbull regards any antipathy towards him by the Murdochs as personal, driven by the fact that as a wealthy man he couldn’t be bought. Tony Abbott’s chief of staff Peta Credlin attacked Turnbull without mercy in News Corp outlets.
“I wasn’t going to run my government in partnership with Rupert or Lachlan Murdoch or their editors, and I knew they’d resent that,” writes Turnbull.
“The privileged access they’d had under Abbott wasn’t going to continue under my leadership. Of course, their right-wing columnists needed little encouragement to attack me and my government, but employing (Abbott’s former chief of staff) Peta Credlin at Sky News and as a News Corp columnist was consciously giving a powerful platform to a vindictive, vengeful enemy of my government.”
Turnbull is savage in his assessment of Rupert Murdoch’s record as media mogul throughout the Anglosphere, questioning what he’d achieved apart from acquiring great wealth.
“His media have championed climate change denial relentlessly, and played a very influential role in the lack of climate action in our country and in the United States especially,” he writes.
“So, over this last summer of 2019–20, his newspapers were filled with pages on the worst bushfires in our history facing pages mocking Greta Thunberg or anyone else concerned about climate change.
“Murdoch’s media are the fiercest defenders of Trump. And across the Atlantic, the keenest promoters of Brexit. They routinely exploit and encourage intolerance and racial and religious animosities.
”If America is a more divided, inward-turning nation today, Murdoch can claim plenty of the credit for making it so. What a legacy.”
Dennis Atkins is a columnist with InQueensland who has worked for a number of prominent titles including The Courier Mail and the Sun-News Pictorial. He worked in the Canberra press gallery in the 1980s and early 2000s.