10 May 2019

Shadows on the wall

One of the most important pieces on media criticism in recent times is Richard Cooke's NewsCorp: Democracy's greatest threat. Read it if you haven't, see you when you get back.

Pearls before swine

As someone who has been critical of journalists myself, I applaud the line about the gravitron (rather than the gravitas) of The Good Murdoch Journalist. However, such an image is worse than unfair: it's inaccurate.

The better parallel would be those committed Christians who follow the teachings of their faith in service to the poor, the sick, the wretched of the earth. Church organisations refer to these people, frequently overlooked and underresourced, with the clear threat that a dollar spent on defending abuse cases or making reparation is a dollar not spent on good and holy works.

In his attacks on Facebook and Google, Murdoch invokes his Good Hard-Working Journalists as though they were all like that. He did the same during the Leveson inquiry in the UK. They are the cuttlefish's ink, the scent of the skunk.

All media organisations complain about being Under Attack, blending their own acts of omission or commission with unfair criticism or personal attacks into a kind of miasma through which all of their staff trudge doggedly each day. The reality of NewsCorp is that if you doubled the resources available to its newsrooms, or if you halved them, the ratio of good:bad:ugly journalism would remain about the same.

Mind you, this is much the same for the ABC or for any other media organisation.

Go back to those times when newsrooms were better resourced than they are, to see both the hack work and the insightful stuff. The bylines are interesting: some of today's hacks were once capable journalists, while some who have since rehabilitated themselves were clearly Just Following Orders back in the day.

NewsCorp as propaganda

This is not to say that Cooke's central thesis - that NewsCorp is a propaganda outlet more than a news organisation - isn't correct. The fact that Australia has no language even to hold a public debate on the Christchurch shooting shows how comprehensively Murdoch has shifted the Australian media since he came to dominate it in the 1980s.

It is also a symptom of having conservative governments for 17 of the past 23 years. Go back to periods in the past where long-term conservative governments came to their end: first people had to develop a language for talking about issues, and only then could they develop and advocate for policies that addressed such issues as military failure or structural disadvantage.

NewsCorp learned this in its DNA. Keith Murdoch wrote the narrative on Gallipoli and not only imposed it on the Hughes Government, but treats each Anzac Day as a franchised product that it owns. It even mints coins for the occasion, the only organisation outside the federal government that does so. The Twitter debate "who was Australia's worst PM, Turnbull or Abbott?" properly belongs with Hughes: he cut a Faustian bargain with Murdoch and conducted not one, but two, deeply divisive sectarian referendums during a world war with Murdoch's enthusiastic support.

Say what you will about any Prime Minister in my lifetime, none of them plumbed Hughes' depths. He was a maggot, and NewsCorp own him. He shows how deep their roots go. Had Bill Shorten gone to New York in response to Rupert Murdoch's summons, it would not have surprised me if the old bastard brought out a glass jar with Hughes' wrinkly old scrotum floating in glycerine.

The Queen has met every Australian Prime Minister since Menzies, and has more direct experience of Australian administrative government than anyone in this country. Rupert Murdoch has met every PM since Hughes, because his father Keith had them to dine with him at their family home in Melbourne. Murdoch follows Australian politics more closely because his business model depends on Australian politics more than hers does.

There are two examples that prove the propaganda-over-news thesis which are not scientific, but could have been, so well do they make the case.

Jessica Irvine was an economics writer who started at Fairfax. She drew together statistics with pronouncements by politicians and other analysts, drawing conclusions carefully and building trust. Her articles were always worth reading and she was a breath of fresh air promising a future that Ross Gittins - once a fearless advocate for economic reform, now a stale and fearful both-sides theatre-reviewer - could never deliver.

When Irvine went to NewsCorp, Fairfax's fate as a journomuseum seem sealed. When News started running her pieces, the first third of them were culture-war garbage that didn't relate to the topic of her piece. The rest of those pieces seemed compressed, as though the point derived from her analysis were somehow secondary.

Irvine returned to Fairfax and her pieces are still among the best produced by its former mastheads. Economics pieces contain a lot of political content and are important in evaluating whether or not a government is doing its job, far more so than breathless press gallery inanities.

By contrast, Greg Sheridan was education writer for The Bulletin before he joined NewsCorp. He was obsessed by leftwing control of the National Union of Students (NUS), and missed entirely the shift taking place in higher education to becoming one of Australia's major export industries and soft-power exports, as well as the changing role of technical and further education in a de-industrialising economy.

In the time Sheridan has been Foreign Editor of The Australian, the foreign policy of this country has changed profoundly. He has not covered the decline of the US and the rise of China (particularly its interference in Australian technology systems) at all well. He does not understand the EU except through the most tawdry of British reporting (though, to be fair, no journalist does). He has not addressed to any significant extent the decline in our relationships with Papua New Guinea and countries in Melanesia and Polynesia - and no, his equation of support for the current government of Israel with support for that country's existence really does not make up for it.

Sheridan is at his best covering shenanigans at Young Liberal branches. Given his failure at his titular job there are very real questions whether he ought to have any job at all in the media, but if he does he should be his paper's Shenanigans Editor. Cooke's gravitrons have no hope of making up for Sheridan's professional shortcomings with earnest but hastily constructed pieces on, say, recent elections in Indonesia or India (and why they may be more significant for Australia than, say, republishing US pieces on polling non-college educated white female voters in Tennessee).

Murdoch press set up their own commentators as experts over those outside the organisation. This has happened in climate change, as Cooke points out, and also in electoral politics. Recently we have seen SkyNews organise a joint press conference (outrageously designated The People's Forum), where most of the hand-picked attendees agreed Shorten had made the more compelling case to become Prime Minister over Morrison. This was immediately followed by NewsCorp's "experts" making the contrary case. Andrew Bolt followed this by blaming voters, rather than misinformation from traditional media, for both the reality of and potential for bad government.

The idea that the people are sovereign in a democracy is against NewsCorp's business model. It is an inconvenience that the company truckles to when it cannot manipulate it with blatant misinformation.

Shocked, shocked I tell you

Part of the decline of any organisation is when bits fall off it and once-loyal retainers make telling criticisms:
No editor I worked for would have put up with the biased anti-Labor rubbish that, shamefully, the papers now produce on a daily basis.
Really? Paul Kelly seems happy to go along with The Australian on its downward slide, having been editor at its peak in the early 1990s.
The journalists are not to blame. Many have been friends of mine for decades and they share my disgust. Probably the most blatant example of bias and low-grade coverage is the employment of most of the columnists who appear weekly. Their observations are, in the main, predictable, weak, unresearched and juvenile.
Yes they are, as Cooke points out. They take the paycheque and carry all those columnists, dead weight who will drag down the organisation once it reaches its tipping point.

Being friends with those journos gives you less of a perspective on their culpability, notwithstanding umpty-ump years as a journo and all the trinkets (bucket o'Walkleys, Mrs Joyful Prize for Raffia Work, etc). You'd have to be thick not to notice the rightwing drift of NewsCorp or to think this is a recent invention... and yet, on page 20 of The Australian today, there is a profile on the leftwing US folk musician Pete Seeger that is more sympathetic than you might expect (did you know Seeger attended Harvard with John F. Kennedy?). If you were a journo, you'd fall on that as proof that #balance is not completely dead. Me, I'd use it as further proof that you only understand Australian journalism when you separate coverage of politics and government from coverage of anything else (because this is clearly what NewsCorp editors do, and it's key to understanding everything else about them and the Australian media more broadly).

The Israel Folau of Australian journalism

This piece proves yet again that journalists who lapse into the passive voice are up to no good:
"Am I lending credibility to a horrible machine? I don’t know?"
Oh, please.

The sceptre and the isle

Cooke rightly points out that there have been several in-depth studies of Murdoch from people helpless in the face of the juggernaut. He also points out in passing that circulation of media is in decline. And again, he notes recent pictures of Rupert Murdoch looking frail, and his son Lachlan taking on ever greater responsibilities within the company.

In the preceding paragraph, the latter two notions make the first unsustainable.

Any empire becomes vulnerable at the point of succession. When Sir Keith Murdoch died in 1952, his son Rupert was 21 and did not have the reputation for turning big companies into little ones that Lachlan has (you'll tell your friends about One.Tel). Part of the reason why Rupert set up News Limited in the first place was because his father's estate was a shambles: Sir Keith was more a propagandist than a businessman. Lachlan Murdoch may well be as right-wing as his father, or less so; he may be equally determined to fight Google and Facebook, or his laid-back nature and financial vulnerability may incline him to avoid fights he cannot win.

Lachlan Murdoch is unlikely to have the same influence over politicians than his father and grandfather had. The last great editor in the Murdoch stable was Paul Kelly (editor of The Australian 1991-95), well before the advent of social media and the odd conflation of the NewsCorp editorial line with libertarianism and ultramontane Catholicism. Part of the drawback of an organisation that is firmly under your control is that it is inevitably top-heavy with supine idiots. While Cooke is all over this, and notes that it has persisted and gotten worse for decades, it is simply not sustainable. Loyal idiots who lose the focus of and reciprocity for their loyalty rarely fare well. Such people cannot be part of its future, nor that of Australia's other traditional media outlets going forward.

The entire Australian media will melt down when Rupert Murdoch dies. Even those who have never worked for NewsCorp will be unable to function when he is not merely o'er the seas, but permanently an ex-person. Some will do things they dared not do when he was alive, as The Herald Sun made a racehorse Sportswoman of the Year soon after Dame Elisabeth was no longer alive to complain. This is a far more significant risk (both in impact and likelihood) for Australia's traditional media than broadband internet. Lachlan Murdoch will not be able to impose himself to quell uprisings and maintain order to the same extent. He might avoid the Icarus-like plunge of James Packer, but may not avoid becoming Australia's Richard Cromwell.

NewsCorp is an odious organisation, and as it declines it will likely become more nasty than less. This will particularly be the case if Tony Abbott and other rightwing bonnet ornaments are ejected from federal parliament on the 18th and foist themselves upon NewsCorp demanding payment and profile, because the imagined political-class progression has eluded them too. While such an organisation might poison the national discourse, it cannot also be said to control it.

Unpopular populism

Bill Shorten took a calculated risk in not flying to New York to meet with Murdoch, and they have treated his campaign for the Prime Ministership with disregard bordering on contempt. NewsCorp has generally preferred to support popular groundswells, providing at least tepid support to Labor in their victorious campaigns of 1972, 1983, and 2007.

It is taking a risk in not supporting Shorten and Labor this time. The risk is compounded by the backfired hatchet job on Shorten's mother (no I won't link to it) which underestimated the power both of her dreams and their deferrals, their impact on her son, and the extent to which her story resonated with people - including loyal Daily Telegraph readers. Shorten's risk is paying off; Murdoch has no experience of an Australia where he is not at least respected, preferably feared.

It has taken a risk in backing a long-term government whose internal contradictions have snookered it. Scott Morrison was the answer to a question nobody outside the Liberal Party or NewsCorp was asking. Having a bland, do-nothing record will assist the Murdoch press in its attempts to whitewash the Coalition and present it as superior to an incoming government that will inevitably stumble in its early days. However, as with the 1980s Liberals, those who survive the next fortnight might not be capable of presenting themselves as a strong alternative independent of Murdoch coverage, and thus both further embarrass NewsCorp for being unworthy of its support and be unable to deliver as a realistic prospective government.

The Herald Sun both protests feebly against the Andrews state government, and keens at being ignored. Anastacia Palaszczuk owes nothing to The Courier-Mail. In Sydney, Adelaide, and even Hobart the support by the Murdoch press of the incumbent state governments is nice-to-have but those governments would survive an old-school concerted campaign from the Murdoch tabloids. In WA the most potent Murdoch outlet is The Australian; it echoes the voice of the discredited Liberal opposition and neither does the other any favours.

Murdoch and his team might prepare for a battle with the imminent Labor government, inflicting minor damage (expect Shorten to lose a minister or two in his first year). Nothing in its corporate experience, particularly that of Rupert Murdoch personally, prepares it for a future where its populist campaigns leave people cold.

Murdoch and his team gearing up for battle need not inspire the fear they once might: look at him tilting at the windmills of Facebook and Google. Say what you will about those organisations, at least Facebook and Google know that they are in the information business. Rather than rise to their challenge NewsCorp wallows in the bullshit business, and its decreasing returns for doing so are nobody else's fault.

As a politician, Gough Whitlam said that he had to "crash through or crash". Shorten acknowledged that this election is his last chance to become Prime Minister. All politicians win some, lose some. Big businesses in Australia get kickbacks or just get kicked by various governments, but they survive on commercial merits; NewsCorp is now up against the prospect that its non-political pretences are withering, and that like the politicians it favours and/or attacks, it too lives and dies at the ballot box.

Politicians go where the people are. Traditional media had power because of the assumption that it had a reach and a connectedness with the public that politicians, and their parties as community organisations, lacked. The absence of reach and connectedness has been laid bare for years now, and now we have a major party testing its luck in that breach.

There is not a constituency in this country for banning media organisations, particularly well-established ones that often resist narrow definitions. There is, however, a recognition of the relationship between media and politicians, and a recognition that the media are actors rather than passive transmitters of information: someone like Alan Reid could operate in the shadows in his time but Laurie Oakes or Simon Benson cannot and do not.

There is a contempt for politicians who are hamstrung by fear of media disapproval. The popular wish for action on climate change includes the recognition that NewsCorp oppose such action, and that some politicians toe the NewsCorp line while others do not. NewsCorp denizens must know that, for the first time, shirking responsibility for their work by claiming they were just doing their jobs simply will not do.

NewsCorp has lived by its political nous. It is dying both for lack of it, and through exhaustion in offering a service to politicians (community reach and engagement) which it cannot deliver. You don't have to storm the citadel and kill the king, still less slap his face or put fetters on him, because Murdoch is a corporate rather than a political leader. What's best is also what's most likely: watch him fade.

It would be dumb to have a royal commission or a Senate inquiry into media ownership. In the early 1990s Kerry Packer appeared before a parliamentary inquiry similar to that being proposed for Murdoch: he sailed through the feeble questioning. Watch the delight on then newly-elected Liberal MP Peter Costello, who thinks he has supplanted Packer in today's media landscape. Murdoch has been playing politics since before Morrison and Shorten were born. It simply would not work, the stupidest idea since a debates commission. Ownership is not the problem with lack of media diversity: it is rendered impossible by cross-promotion and other mental fetters (e.g. There Can Be Only One story about politics each day, which doesn't apply to sport or road crashes) by timid, dim-witted editors.

Call to mind that pathetic picture of Rupert Murdoch in the surf with Jerry Hall. We live in an age of precarious employment, so what sort of fool would hitch their wagon to this family, or to the clowns who encrust the upper reaches of their organisation? Those who have done so for decades must, for all their bluster, feel time's winged chariot drawing near. You can watch individual journos' careers go the way of Murray cod in Menindee Lakes, and either laugh or cry (check if they have written any articles about the need to upskill and be flexible in our modern economy). You can look at the political candidates before us, and see which are scarred or warped by having to deal with Murdoch.

The choice starts with voters, and will inevitably flow through to politicians and media executives. The power of Murdoch and NewsCorp is the shadows on the cave wall in our national life. The future, as always, does not belong to the fearful. It does not belong to the sick-and-tired. Whether it belongs to those who make us fearful, sick, and tired, remains an open question.