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Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Murdoch punks Australian election

I wrote the other day about how the collapse of Julian Assange's electoral project in Australia seems to have attracted little attention, even among Assange's detractors. Australian stories don't get attention unless they involve crocodiles or missing backpackers. The BBC's former Australian correspondent Nick Bryant has bewailed on that very subject.

Here's another being missed story, the blatant attempt to swing the Australian election by Rupert Murdoch.

According to Neil Chenoweth, a senior writer with The Australian Financial Review, and who is described by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists as "the world’s most substantive writer on the public and hidden worlds of the Murdoch business empire", Murdoch's campaign against the Australian Labor Party (ALP) is in large part because the ALP dared to try to regulate, or rather reign in the excesses of, Murdoch's Australian newspapers.

Following the revelations in the UK of systematic law-breaking by Murdoch's papers, which culminated in the Leveson Inquiry and the closure of the News of The World, Australia's government grabbed the opportunity and instituted their own inquiry and devised new media laws. They failed (and the proposed laws didn't even tackle media centralisation in Australia, the worst by far in the Western world).

Murdoch then dispatched his most vicious attack dog, Col Allen, and, says Chenoweth, "what politicians in Britain and the US can draw from this is that leaving Rupert Murdoch with a flesh wound is like writing a suicide note. He is taking names. He will come after you."
Under Col Allan, News Corp Australia has unleashed an extraordinary campaign to denigrate the Labor Prime Minister at every opportunity, while endlessly praising [opposition leader] Tony Abbott.
In the face of unrelenting negative coverage from the News Ltd papers the Gillard government came to believe News had crossed the line. It sought to pass media reform which would disadvantage News but failed to get it up. The election campaign was always going to be bloody.
Another Murdoch foe, Tom Watson MP, has flown into the election to support the ALP and specifically to highlight Murdoch's relentless campaign. Murdoch's newspapers' response has been to report Watson as "fat" and ignore his actual criticism and reason for being in the country.

Watson's thesis is that the ALP's National Broadband Network (NBN) is a threat to Murdoch's business interests. Murdoch has cable TV interests and the government plan for super fast national Internet is a threat to NewsCorp in a world where Netflix is now reportedly a third of internet traffic in the US.

Watson said he decided to travel after he saw what the BBC has reported (as a one-off), one Murdoch paper's front page rubbishing Prime Minister Kevin Rudd (pictured above, second from top right). Chenoweth points out that this front page is an example of a tactic that Col Allen honed in the bearpit that is politics in the state of New South Wales:
His photographers dogged state and local politicians until they caught them drinking in the wrong place, jaywalking or breaking road rules. As a merry jape he would superimpose politicians’ faces on film characters with outrageous headlines.
Watson's numerous media appearances since he arrived seems to have at least tweaked Murdoch's mates. So there's that.

Watson has pointed out that the Murdoch paper's coverage need only swing a few voters to deliver a right-wing victory in a very tight election. The sustained anti-Labor campaign has been going on since early 2011. Although the ability of Murdoch to swing elections has been questioned many times before, most famously his own newspaper The Sun's claim that they were 'what won it' for the Tories in Britain in 1992, even skeptical media academic Peter Chen points out that media spin/bias does empirically have an effect, though maybe in ways you mightn't think it would and maybe just at the margins.

Chen, like Chenoweth, also sees Murdoch's actions as less, or not just, about NBN and more, or equally, about payback and "the greater ideological alignment between the aging patriarch and Tony Abbott." Murdoch's praise for Abbott on Twitter has been almost cringe-worthy.

Warns Watson:
Politicians should know that they are commodities to Murdoch. He moves them around. They should think again if they think they will enjoy his loyalty forever.
Underlines Chenoweth:
There is a cost to this. First, Murdoch will demand his price . . . every year. It’s what he does.

Second, it looks like Col Allan isn’t going back to New York. He’s hanging around. He has six big papers to play with but only one style of journalism: it’s about brute force. It doesn’t really matter which government is in power. He has no other model. So he’ll be coming for you too.

News Corp Australia, whether overtly or not, will claim that it got Abbott into government. This puts Abbott into an impossible situation.

It undermines the legitimacy of his incoming government. This is not a partisan thing. You may or may not feel Abbott deserves to be PM. But whether you are a Liberal or Labor supporter. it’s absolutely unacceptable for a foreign company to be able to claim that it determined the Australian government.
Or, for that matter, any government.
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