Murdoch and the marginals
- Like all his newspapers throughout the world, Murdoch's harnessed
team in Australia follows the path paved with his "interests" and
his world-view (which is crystallised in the pages of his Weekly
Standard in Washington, the voice of America's "neo-conservatives").
"Personally creating outcomes"
by Antony Loewenstein
October 4, 2004
"As a small media pond inhabited by large sharks, Australia today is
a breeding ground for censorship by omission, the most virulent
form. Like all his newspapers throughout the world, Murdoch's
harnessed team in Australia follows the path paved with
his "interests" and his world-view (which is crystallised in the
pages of his Weekly Standard in Washington, the voice of
America's "neo-conservatives"). They echo his description of George
W. Bush and Tony Blair as "heroes" of the Iraq invasion and his
dismissal of the "necessary" blood they spilt, and they consign to
oblivion the truths told by history, such as the support Saddam
Hussein received from the Murdoch press in the 1980s.
"One of his tabloids invented an al-Qaeda training camp near
Melbourne; all of them promote the Australian elite's obsequiousness
to American power, just as they laud Prime Minister John Howard's
vicious campaign against a few thousand asylum-seekers, who are
locked away in camps described by a United Nations inspectors as
among the worst violations of human rights he had seen."
John Pilger (editor), Tell Me Lies: Investigative Journalism and its
Triumphs (Jonathan Cape, 2004).
Warrick Costin is News Limited's Canberra Business Manager. In April
and May of this year he prepared a guide to 30 of the most marginal
seats in the country. To be used by executives and senior staff, the
documents provide invaluable insights into the way Murdoch
publications attempt to subvert the political process in Australia.
A Webdiary investigation reveals that similar marginal seat guides
have been written for at least the previous four or five elections.
Costin acknowledged this when I called him in Canberra. The internal
documents are published at Limited News, and display a deep
knowledge of the major concerns of voters in key electorates,
including religion and education. The aim of the documents is clear -
to select certain stories and angles to influence voters in
marginal seats. Nothing is explicit, however - a more subtle
approach is utilised.
In Bruce Page's The Murdoch Archipelago (Simon & Schuster, 2003), he
explains the way that Murdoch plays the political game:
"He did not suppose he could personally create election outcomes.
His concern was creating obligations."
For example, The Australian thoroughly favoured a Labor win in 1972,
and Page suggests that Murdoch wanted to be the Australian High
Commissioner in London as a reward. He even worked on a victory
speech he thought Whitlam should give to the nation.
In 2004, however, the Murdoch empire supports whatever party will
best serve its business interests. As James Fallows wrote in The
Atlantic's profile in September 2003:
"[Murdoch] is principally a businessman. (What drives him) is not
ideology but a cool concern for the bottom line and the belief
that the media should be treated like any other business, not as a
semi-sacred public trust."
The Australian Gazette is a daily news sheet produced by a senior
News Ltd staff member and read by Rupert Murdoch himself. Take this
example of April 6, 2004. Mark Latham's "ill-considered policy of
cut and run in Iraq" is highlighted (reflected in the latest quoted
Newspoll) as well as the retirement of Communications Minister
Richard Alston. The desired result is made clear: "[a new minister]
will hopefully clear the decks for a minister (or gulp, shadow
minister) with a better grasp of the portfolio after the election".
A "better grasp" refers to the Murdoch aim of further deregulation
of the media sector and a loosening of the cross media laws.
Take a look at The Gazette of May 11, 2001 and it becomes clear that
the document is written specifically for Murdoch himself, even
mentioning the media's coverage of his wedding to Wendi Deng.
The edition of April 7, 2004 explains the supposed thought processes
of 'aspirational voters' in the mortgage belt around Sydney and why
they elect John Howard.
The documents highlight the Murdoch fear of a Labor Federal
government and coverage in The Australian and his tabloids over the
last year have consistently shown contempt for the ALP and new
leader Mark Latham, especially on the issues of Iraq and industrial
relations. A corporate strategy to undermine the Opposition's
message is explained and given context.
When contacted by Webdiary, Murdoch's Corporate Affairs Manager
Janet Fife-Yeomans confirmed the authenticity of the documents but
said there was nothing "sinister" about them:
"Neither the government nor the opposition had anything to do with
it. Nor does News Limited have any electoral preferences for October
9. News Limited's editorial is shaped by the news of the day."
ABC's Media Watch examined some of the documents in September,
specifically the claim that before the 2001 election News Ltd tried
to convince the ALP to advertise its education policy in its media.
Amazingly, no media organisation further investigated the internal
News Ltd documents after the airing of Media Watch.
When Warrick Costin launched this year's marginal seats guide to
News Ltd employees, his speech was a rallying cry to the troops.
Marginal seats issues were outlined and various seats were broken
down into areas to be targeted.
Take the Liberal held seat of Eden Monaro. For what reason, other
than to assist slanted coverage, would journalists need to know the
number of dependent children, household income, number of taxpayers
and single parents?
A representative of the Limited News website explains:
"If it is merely journalism, why has it been left to a senior
Business Manager to prepare the document and present it to
employees? It is smart, because it does not target a political
parties, it targets issues and individual politicians. Bias starts
within the news coverage itself, in the choice of issues and their
Michelle Byrne is the Labor MP for the marginal Tasmanian seat of
Bass. The News Ltd guide in April includes this comment:
"...some of the major concerns of the people of Bass are on the
themes of safety and security."
Michael Organ is the Greens MP for the NSW seat of Cunningham. News
Ltd's hysterical scare campaign against the Greens during the
election campaign is given further context with this material on the
Neither Costin nor Fife-Yeomans would discuss details of the
marginal seats guide.
Examining the dozens of documents - see the summary of the seats -
reveals an easy-access guide to News Ltd journalists as to how
certain issues and coverage could affect voters in marginal seats.
Last Sunday's page one story in Murdoch's biggest paper, The Sunday
Telegraph continues the anti-Latham scare campaign. The paper's
editorial was even more unequivocal:
"Mr. Howard has served this country well as Prime Minister,
delivering eight years of unparalled prosperity, protecting its
borders and taking a firm stand against the extremists who threaten
our very way of life. A vote for the Coalition on October 9 is a
vote for prudence, responsibility and security. Mr. Howard's team
deserves a fourth term."
Murdoch was a major cheerleader of the Iraq war. He said before the
"The greatest thing to come out of this for the world
economy...would be $20 a barrel for oil. That's bigger than any tax
cut in any country."
All of his Australian papers followed their master's voice (see this
Guardian piece for more information).
And true to form, all of Murdoch's Sunday papers editorialised this
week for another Howard term. The News Limited internal documents
give insight as to the reasons behind this uniformity the
Coalition will be more amenable to Murdoch's business and strategic
It is interesting to note, however, that The Australian's anti-
Saddam stance is a relatively new phenomenon. Eddie Davers reveals
in an Overland study that The Australian strongly supported the Iraq
dictator during the 1980s:
"The US defines its allies not by their values but by their
obedience. Saddam Hussein was obedient during the period of his
worst atrocities, and was therefore an ally. His disobedience
attracted the wrath of the US. And disobedience, in the final
analysis, is the standard applied by The Australian."
"(During the 1980s) the reason for the pro-Iraqi coverage is the
same as that for the pro-Israeli (and pro-Indonesian) coverage -
obedience. The US was pro-Iraqi because Iraq performed a function.
Its utility, not its power, earned it the support of the US, and of
corporate media like The Australian."
The Limited News files show that commercial interests supercede
other considerations. The April 9, 2004 edition of the Australian
Gazette provides specific directions on the Murdoch "line" to be
taken on Iraq, and not one Murdoch editor in Australia has shifted
from this required editorial position.
An Australian Gazette of April 12, 2004 further articulates the
editorial directive of playing down the growing insurgency in Iraq:
"It is little wonder that some people are confused about the
situation in Iraq. The SMH features on its world page, under the
headline 'How GI bullies are making enemies of their Iraqi friends',
a piece by Paul McGeough explaining that Iraqis that detested Saddam
are now united against a new perceived oppressor. And Fairfax cannot
believe their flagship is losing credibility..."
The marginal seats guide was completed before the Howard
government's last budget and released in time for a possible early
election. The release of Outfoxed gives us an even clearer picture
of the ways in which Murdoch and his senior staff slant and twist
news to fulfil a right-wing agenda and subvert the democratic
process. The Atlantic's James Fallows:
"The political component in Murdoch's media operation is larger than
people inside the company admit and perhaps larger than they
believe. But it is smaller than most people who dread Murdoch's
influence assume. He is principally a businessman of conventional
business-conservative views, who vents those views when possible but
now when they interfere with any important corporate goal."
The Limited News documents provide invaluable evidence of a media
organization determined to achieve power at any cost. Next time a
Murdoch newspaper echoes its master's voice on the moral rightness
of the Iraq war, remember The Australian's Foreign Editor Greg
Sheridan describing a mass murderer closer to home, Indonesia's
Suharto. He called the dictator "a monster of the Left's
imagination" and "even in human rights there is a case for Suharto".
The Murdoch broadsheet supported his reign because, like subsequent
US administrations, Murdoch "defines [his] allies not by their
values but by their obedience" (Eddie Davers, Overland 2003).
Antony Loewenstein writes Webdiary's Engineering Consent column on
the workings of the media. For an introduction to Murdoch's way, see
Holding the line at news.
WORLD VIEW NEWS SERVICE
To subscribe to this group, send an email to:
NEWS ARCHIVE IS OPEN TO PUBLIC VIEW