Article Originally Published by the Sydney Morning Herald on the 3rd of February 2019
Article Written by Matthew Knott
New York: Labor leader Bill Shorten’s decision to rebuff Rupert Murdoch’s request for a meeting in New York has been applauded by former prime minister Kevin Rudd, who said it was a wise move not to attempt to court favour with the media mogul.
Prime ministers and opposition leaders – including Mr Rudd and his Labor successor Julia Gillard – have traditionally met the News Corp executive chairman while visiting the United States.
But Mr Shorten last week said he would not take up a standing offer to meet Mr Murdoch and would instead deal directly with the company’s Australian representatives.
“I think it is a wise decision by Mr Shorten,” Mr Rudd, who now heads the Asia Society Policy Institute in New York, said.
“My experience, having been to see Mr Murdoch in 2007 at his request, is that whatever temporary peace it may deliver, it never alters Murdoch’s fundamental strategic, political and commercial view.
“He would prefer to have compliant conservative governments in Australia rather than troublesome Labor ones.”
Mr Rudd continued: “The only time Murdoch tries to get into bed with federal Labor leaders is when his editors conclude that, despite News Corp’s efforts, the conservatives will not win anyway.
“Then Murdoch may seek to minimise the damage to his interests by developing a personal relationship with the likely incoming Labor prime minister.”
Mr Rudd’s hour-long meeting with Mr Murdoch in April 2007 attracted significant media attention, particularly when Mr Murdoch responded “Oh, I’m sure” when asked by reporters whether the then-opposition leader would make a good prime minister.
That remark was interpreted as a “near-endorsement”, even though Mr Rudd himself put it down to politeness. In the end, many of News Corp’s biggest titles – The Australian, The Daily Telegraph, and The Courier-Mail – endorsed Labor at the 2007 election.
Although he once cultivated close relationships with News Corp editors, Mr Rudd has since emerged as a strident critic of the media company.
“The most fatuous thing you will hear from Murdoch’s editors is that Murdoch doesn’t get on the phone and tell them what to do,” Mr Rudd said. “He doesn’t need to. They follow what he is saying and doing and toe the party line.”
Sean Kelly, a former adviser to Mr Rudd and Ms Gillard, said Mr Shorten’s decision reflected how much the Australian political and media environment had changed since Labor was last in office.
“We’ve seen a dramatic diversification of the media in recent years,” he said, pointing to the arrival of media outlets such as The Guardian, Buzzfeed, and The Saturday Paper.
“Legacy media outlets remain extremely powerful, but the belief that any one media company is indespensible and can swing an election has faded over the past decade.
“Politicians are more willing to alienate some sections of the media than they once were.
“They are increasingly aware that there are other ways to reach the public – including through their own social media channels.”
He said Mr Shorten’s rebuff also reflects how politics – not just in Australia, but around the world – has become “more partisan and tribal”.
“Politicians have become much more willing to call out media they see as their enemies in an effort to discredit them,” he said.
Then-communications minister Stephen Conroy was extremely critical of News Corp when Labor was last in office and Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton accused outlets including Fairfax Media of running a “jihad” against the Abbott government.
Mr Rudd, however, said the influence of News Corp publications should not be underestimated because they continue to “set the tone of debate in Australia”.
Talkback radio hosts often rely on stories from the News Corp tabloids for program fodder and morning ABC radio programs regularly follow the lead set by The Australian, he said.
A former News Corp executive, who asked not to be named, said Mr Shorten’s move was a “political stunt – but a pretty smart one”.
“For the Labor base it’s a good message to send that we are not getting into bed with this guy that you hate,” the executive said.
He said he doubted Mr Murdoch would be overly offended by the snub.
“Rupert is on the phone to the president of the United States every couple of days.”