‘Culture of fear’: Murdoch, the ABC and how to fix a media in crisis

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age 2 October 2018
So what should be done about the rolling crises washing over what remains of the Australian media? Rupert Murdoch has been up to his neck in the elevation and removal of Australian prime ministers for the better part of a decade. The ABC has seen the conservatives politicise its board, demolish its funding and pressure its management to get rid of troublesome journalists. And now we face the prospect of the disappearance of Australia’s longest, independent print masthead (Fairfax) as it is consumed by a television company (Nine) which is chaired by Peter Costello.If ever there was a case for a full royal commission into the abuse of media power in Australia, it is now. A free media is the lifeblood of a democracy. But media freedom in Australia is now under structural threat from a combination of extreme ideological conservatism, fuelled by rampant commercial interests.

Rupert Murdoch has been up to his neck in the elevation and removal of prime ministers, says Kevin Rudd.
Rupert Murdoch has been up to his neck in the elevation and removal of prime ministers, says Kevin Rudd.Photo: Bloomberg

Let’s start with the ABC. Murdoch despises the ABC for ideological and commercial reasons. The fact the Liberal Party Federal Council recently adopted a formal resolution for total privatisation of the ABC underlines Murdoch’s and the Liberals’ common approach. But rather than a full frontal assault, what the Liberals have done is stack the board, slash the budget (resulting in the loss of 1,200 staff) and pressure management to get rid of difficult journalists.

Our government adopted a radically different approach. In 2009 we appointed an independent panel for ABC board appointments to ensure three names went forward, based on the merits, for discussion with the Opposition before appointment. Second, the budget was increased to ensure real growth and to fund new services such as ABC for Kids. Third, despite ABC journalists like Barrie Cassidy, Chris Uhlmann and Fran Kelly routinely attacking me personally, almost as a form of political sport, never once as PM did I pressure the ABC on personnel questions.

The ABC Act should be amended to entrench these arrangements and these appointment protocols beyond partisan political reach. The core funding base for the ABC, expressed in current dollar terms, should also be legislated for the same reason. New ABC services should then be funded by additional budgetary allocation. This would make it harder for future conservative governments to destroy the ABC by stealth.

Then there’s Murdoch. Owning nearly 70 per cent of Australian print, in addition to Sky, it is now clear Murdoch used this power ruthlessly to run a campaign to depose Malcolm Turnbull in favour of Peter Dutton – only to end up with Morrison as the consolation prize. Murdoch’s editorial henchmen, like Paul Whittaker, David Penberthy and Chris Dore, are always willing to respond to His Master’s Voice, while also maintaining “plausible deniability” that they had never been so “instructed”.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Rupert Murdoch's consolation prize.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Rupert Murdoch’s consolation prize.Photo: AAP

I remember Penberthy boasting one day when I asked him why he had relentlessly gone after a particular politician in the Tele when he was its editor. His reply was chillingly straightforward: “Because we can.” Something an aspiring politician never quite forgets.

Murdoch did the same in the 2013 election when he dispatched his leading henchman from New York, Col Allen, editor of the New York Post, to run the campaign against my government. That August, Allen assembled News Limited editors from around the country with a simple instruction: “Go hard, go Rudd and don’t let up.” News Corp coverage of the campaign was 90 per cent to 10 per cent against the government, including front pages of Anthony Albanese and me variously dressed as Nazis, criminals or serial killers. Why? Murdoch had done a deal with Abbott and Turnbull to kill my government’s fibre-to-the-household National Broadband Network because it threatened Foxtel’s cable entertainment monopoly by allowing competition from Netflix.

Penberthy and others have argued that I shouldn’t complain about 2013 because News supported my government’s election in 2007. And pigs might fly. What newspapers might editorialise on election eve – when the die is already cast – is one thing. What they do in their news coverage for the previous year is another.

People forget News Corp launched a vicious campaign against my wife’s company in April 2007 alleging Therese had underpaid her employees. When three months later an inquiry found Therese was in fact paying her employees above award, News buried it. And then on election eve, Allen leaked my infamous visit to Scores nightclub (for which I accept complete responsibility) to the Murdoch Sunday papers, while neglecting to mention the fact that it was Allen himself who took me there as his guest. Does anyone seriously think that Howard was ever subjected to that sort of “journalism” when he was in office? Give us a break.

The Murdoch media, through systematic bullying and intimidation, have successfully created a culture of fear in Australian public life. People know that if you attack them, they then set out to destroy you. And it’s worked. That’s why most politicians, corporates, academics and journalists decide to keep their heads down.

All this must be brought into the light of day with a fully empowered royal commission. The Finkelstein Inquiry in 2013 had a narrow brief focusing primarily on the adequacy of the media’s public complaints machinery. Even the UK’s Leveson Inquiry into Murdoch media phone tapping had a particular focus on privacy.

What Australia needs is a far-reaching royal commission covering not just the abuse of media power in pursuit of personal gain, but also examining future models for public and private media ownership – to preserve the press and democratic freedoms on which our nation has been built.

Kevin Rudd is a former prime minister of Australia.