Transcript

06 Feb 2013

Bad news: Rupert Murdoch's Australian

Robert Manne
r.manne@latrobe.edu.au

Audio

You can also listen to the interview [MP3 18.3MB].

Transcript

Matt Smith:

This year has seen unprecedented scrutiny of Rupert Murdoch's empire in Britain, but what about in Australia, where he owns 70% of the press. Today I'm joined by Professor Robert Manne of the Politics Program at La Trobe University and author of the new Quarterly Essay, Bad News, in which he investigates The Australian newspaper, Murdoch's lead political voice here, and how it shapes debate. Professor Manne, thanks for your time today.

Robert Manne:

Thank you.

Matt Smith:

So, set the scene for us and tell us about The Australian.

Robert Manne:

Well, The Australian is probably the most influential newspaper in the country. It's a combination of a broadsheet, not a tabloid, but it's also part of the Murdoch empire and the paper that Rupert Murdoch has used since he established the paper in 1964 to influence the direction of Australian politics, Australian values, the Australian economy, and so it seems to me to be a highly influential paper, particularly because it's the only general national newspaper and one that television and radio relies upon in a way on a daily basis for the way they interpret the world.

Matt Smith:

A newspaper is meant to report and in recent years editorialise as well on news events. Does The Australian do that well?

Robert Manne:

The Australian has some of the best journalists in the country, there's no doubt, and they pay their journalists very well, but the trouble with the paper is that it has a particular world view, which I would regard as a right-wing conservative world view, essentially based around what I call market fundamentalism, the belief that every problem can be solved by looking to market forces, and is a very pro-American paper, a paper that believes in the benevolence of American global hegemony. And it also believes that the world is full of left-wingers with politically correct views who are destroying educational institutions with moral relativism and post-modernism and so on. So it tends, in most of the areas that it deals with, to filter what it reports through a very powerfully held, and I think very ideological world view, so that if you know areas well and you look at how The Australian reports them, you get a very distorted picture of the world because of the way ideology determines news.

Matt Smith:

It's not unusual though for a newspaper to have a point of view or a leaning though. In the case of The Australian is it a bit extreme?

Robert Manne:

Well, I think you can say that all newspapers to some extent have a point of view, but a good newspaper allows news to be reported and allows a variety of analysis, so that its point of view doesn't distort the fundamental job it does. I think you find with The Australian both an unusually narrow ideology and one that's unusually pervasive in the way the paper reports and editorialises, so that everything is a matter of degree, but the degree of distortion in The Australian seems to me to be unusually and extreme.

Matt Smith:

How much of a power player does the The Australian see itself as, and is it a warranted view?

Robert Manne:

I think that during the period of the Chris Mitchell editorship which began in 2002 and has continued to the present day, the paper more and more has seen itself not merely as a reporter and analyst of national affairs but as a shaper of national affairs. It's hard to say when that happened – it's been a gradual process, but I think in particular during the period of the Rudd Government, it began to see itself as having the capacity to make and un-make governments, and I think it sees itself as doing that, even though it wouldn't admit it, and it certainly sees itself as needing to make a lot of noise – it's the noisiest paper. Its editor said to me it was "elbows out paper – it wants to help its friends and harm its enemies". It thinks of itself as undoubtedly the only paper doing the job of criticising government and holding government to account, so it has a very grandiose view of its role and a very noisy way of asserting that role, even though it wouldn't agree with my proposition that it sees itself as one of the makers and un-makers of government in the country.

Matt Smith:

Now, how personal does The Australian get with its vendettas?

Robert Manne:

I think one of the most striking features of the paper is exactly that. If you read the paper carefully, and if you know who it regards as its enemies, you will see this all the time. I mean an obvious example was the former Victorian police commissioner, Simon Overland, who had the temerity to criticise the way The Australian had reported a coming raid on suspected Muslim terrorists and he criticised the paper overtly and openly, and they never forgave him, and the paper went at him until he left office. They weren't decisive in that but they weren't unimportant. They also have ideological enemies. Tim Flannery is a recent example, where they will be continually looking to mock, diminish, attack, charge as a hypocrite. Then they also have particular campaigns and two I analyse in the Quarterly Essay – one was a young Canberra journalism lecturer, Julie Posetti, who was critical of something that one of their journalists did and tweeted about at a conference, when one of the former journalists of The Australian was critical of the editor and she was sued for defamation and is still under suit. To me, the most astonishing case was an academic at the University of Technology, Sydney, Larissa Behrendt, an indigenous academic, who made a very bad joke on a tweet and who then had two weeks of quite astonishing character assassination. And so it goes on. One of the most interesting ways of demonstrating this is that everyone who has heard that I was writing a Quarterly Essay on The Australian and who knows a bit about The Australian's culture, looked at me with sorrow, as if I'd, as it were, undergone a sort of self-harm process, or as if I'd contracted a fatal disease. They looked as me, saying, "Do you know what you're in for?" So there's a general understanding that it's a bullying paper which tries to bring down people who are its critics, and I think everyone who follows that part of the culture closely knows that's the case.

Matt Smith:

How would you evaluate The Australian's role in reporting the war in Iraq?

Robert Manne:

Well, when the war in Iraq took place, a British journalist, Roy Greenslade, studied every significant newspaper that Murdoch owned in the world, and all had supported the Iraq War. So The Australian was no exception. That was a fingerprint of being part of the Murdoch empire. But its support was in its editorials, and in its foreign editor, and in its front page reporting, in my view astonishingly strident and arrogant, and absolutely unwilling to look at the objections that critics of the war were putting up. And then, the most remarkable thing really, and the thing that I write about, is that when the cause of the war was proven to be false, that is the intelligence on which it's based was fraudulent and had been laid down by Iraqi exiles, who were leading the neo-conservatives in America towards the outcome they wanted – when all that was discovered, The Australian was completely without apology or remorse. In other words, a war entered into on the basis of false and fraudulent intelligence, which they'd absolutely supported, led to the deaths of perhaps up to four hundred thousand people, and astonishing chaos and grief, and for that, the paper never expressed, as far as I have been able to see, one word of remorse. So I'm very critical of the tone of their reporting and the tone of their editorials, but also the lack of reflection when what they had backed went horribly wrong.

Matt Smith:

What has been the paper's coverage of climate change?

Robert Manne:

The paper claims that it supports climate science conclusions. That's a nonsensical claim, as I try and show in the Quarterly Essay. It takes a lot of work to do it. The editorials have been all over the place, but they sometimes are covertly denialist about the fundamental climate science view, and sometimes overtly denialist. When they choose commentary, the opinion columns have been weighted extremely heavily in favour of those who deny climate science and certainly deny the need for strong action on climate change. And when I analysed the articles in the paper on climate change over a period of something like seven years, between 2004 and the present, my estimate was four to one of those unfavourable to action on climate change, four to one, and in terms of the scientists that they put in their opinion pages, it was something like ten to one for sceptics or denialists, when in the scientific community it's more like between 97 and 99% of climate scientists who support the view that essentially human beings, through the emission of greenhouse gases, are primarily responsible for global warming. So the paper's coverage of climate change has been, I think, a disgrace, and anti-science and anti-reason. It's one of the things that I think is most unforgiveable about its coverage over the last years.

Matt Smith:

Is that unique to The Australian though…

Robert Manne:

Yes.

Matt Smith:

In Australia?

Robert Manne:

No broadsheet or serious paper, has given anything like this coverage. It's the kind of thing you find in the United States as well, but you wouldn't find it, in my view, in any other serious broadsheet in Europe and no other broadsheet in Australia. So it's not unique, but it's very distinctive and also The Australian has had a very, very heavy coverage of climate change and one that purports to be serious, and I think that it's by far the most biased paper, even if you look at the tabloids, like the Daily Telegraph and Herald-Sun. I think you'd find that The Australian is more biased than they are.

Matt Smith:

What role did The Australian play in the rise and fall of the Prime Ministership of Kevin Rudd?

Robert Manne:

That's a very important, also very complicated question – I'll just try and answer it simply. In the essay, what I've tried to do is take particular issues to exemplify different aspects of the way The Australian runs. The case with Kevin Rudd is strange because the editor, Chris Mitchell, started off as a strong supporter of Kevin Rudd. He was a personal friend, Rudd was the godfather of Chris Mitchell's son, there probably was an unhealthily close relationship and he thought he'd help make Rudd Prime Minister, had backed him during 2007. At a certain point it's clear that Rudd disappointed Mitchell, and I think it was mainly because he began to be very critical of what I call neo-liberalism – Rudd blamed the global financial crisis on the greed and excesses and ideological predispositions of the neo-liberals, and the Wall Street brokers and bankers. And I think Mitchell thought that he had been let down by someone he thought was right-wing. So what you get then, from about the beginning of 2009, is an accelerating campaign the paper ran against the government and they partly did this by campaigns over things like home insulation and the Education Revolution Program – they were right to do it over insulation, in my view they gave a very distorted picture of the education building program and the stimulus programs that the Rudd Government put in place. But then something snapped with the Super Profits Mining Tax and the paper went sort of berserk, and it campaigned remorselessly for about two months on the question of that tax. And my view is the paper does play a role in the fall of the Rudd Prime Ministership, because Rudd didn't lose much public support over that time, what he lost was the support of his caucus, and the inner sanctums of the Labor Party. And I think they were very influenced by the campaign The Australian ran, because you have to remember The Australian is the paper that is the common reading for what I call the political class. The Australian is read by politicians, public servants, business people and very committed citizens in general, much more even than the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age. So the caucus would have I think been influenced by this remorseless campaign that was in part personal and in part political, that was led by The Australian. So the essay gives a slightly revisionist version and says that The Australian should not be under-estimated as having played a role in undermining the Rudd Prime Ministership.

Matt Smith:

Has that trend continued to the Gillard Government at all?

Robert Manne:

Yes, very much so. Present politics is largely about this. The Australian never forgave Gillard for forming an alliance with the Greens. The Australian is astonishingly hostile to the Greens. They think the Greens are going to destroy Australian well-being and the Australian economy and they think of the Greens as an evil party or a totalitarian party or as a mad party or whatever. And once Gillard had signed an agreement with the Greens, in my view the paper became extremely hostile to the Gillard Government as well, or continued with the hostility that had built up under Rudd. And in the essay I analyse what I call a jihad against the Greens, and it's interesting that finally a politician broke ranks and decided to take the risk of being overtly critical of The Australian, which was of course Senator Bob Brown, who finally had enough and has made his complaints about the bias of The Australian, both over climate change and over the Greens, has made it explicit and has taken on the paper. He's probably the only politician apart from Stephen Conroy of Labor who's done that. But the mood is now growing.

Matt Smith:

Yeah, well there's been big developments this week in that sort of area.

Robert Manne:

That's right. The week we're talking about is late August, and essentially what's happened, the paper ran a column by Glenn Milne which was reproducing scuttlebutt about Julia Gillard, and it's been very interesting because the Gillard camp phoned the head of News Limited in Australia, John Hartigan. It must have been he that pulled the plug on the Glenn Milne column. They must have been threatened with defamation. But I think Hartigan also probably thought it was very damaging to News Limited that at this time a thing like that was run, and then you found people outside The Australian like Andrew Bolt, who were also involved in the campaign, for a moment even pulling the plug, or spitting the dummy, and for a day he decided he wouldn't be a columnist – he quickly changed his mind. But nevertheless, because of the larger turmoil of the Murdoch empire to do with the News of the World hacking scandal in Britain, News Limited is feeling I think vulnerable at the moment in a way it never has before. And The Australian is clearly the centre of that vulnerability I think.

Matt Smith:

Is this what you mean when you write about Australia's Murdoch problem?

Robert Manne:

When I write about Australia's Murdoch problem, or problems, I mean two things. The first is very clear cut to me, which is that it was a very bad decision to allow Murdoch in the late 1980s to take control of 70% of the important statewide national press. And that's still the case, and it seems to me that given that Murdoch is a political animal with a very strong set of neo-conservative and neo-liberal values, it was an astonishing mistake to allow him to have such influence. If you live, for example, in Brisbane, all you get is either the Courier-Mail which is a Murdoch paper, or The Australian which is a Murdoch paper. The same in Adelaide, you get a Murdoch paper and The Australian. In Sydney and Melbourne, you have a choice between Fairfax, but a huge tabloid, either the Daily Telegraph or the Herald-Sun plus The Australian. The first Murdoch problem is the fact that a very political animal with a very strong set of beliefs has control of 70% of the Australian press. But I think the second Murdoch problem that I talk about is The Australian, because of its influence in the political class, and because of the kind of mission it has, I think, to bring down governments like the Gillard Government, because of its relation to the Greens and because it did, I think, play a role in undermining the Rudd Government. So I think we have two Murdoch problems.

Matt Smith:

Has the phone hacking scandal damaged News Limited in Australia?

Robert Manne:

That's a good question and a hard question. I definitely think it has, although no-one including myself would claim at the moment that there's any evidence that News Limited paper have involved themselves in hacking. The problems they have is more to do with bias and ideology than they are with improper ways of gaining news I think. But on the other hand, there's a general sense now more than ever I can remember before, that all of the media empire that Murdoch has put together has been tarnished and called into question by the fact now that we have such conspicuous evidence of how dreadfully bad things got in his main Sunday paper in Britain. So I do think the sight of Rupert Murdoch in front of a House of Commons Committee – the fact that his son, James Murdoch, is in very grave danger at the moment, because it seems like he almost certainly misled the House of Commons Committee and others, including presumably the police, the whole empire is weakened. And Murdoch lacks the sort of clout and the capacity to instil fear in politicians that he once had. So it makes waves that have reached the Australian shore.

Matt Smith:

There are some who say that The Australian will only be around for as long as Rupert Murdoch is. Do you agree with this?

Robert Manne:

It's hard to know. It's likely. It's very hard to find out whether, or how much The Australian loses every year. Everyone seems to think it loses a great deal. But I talked to experts about the finances of newspapers, and they didn't know the exact profitability or in fact loss-making of The Australian because many of its finances are tied up with the other News Limited papers. The printing presses are shared, distribution is shared, and so on. So the finances are opaque. But on the other hand, everyone thinks it loses a lot of money, and I think most people see that it continues mainly because Rupert Murdoch sees it with pride, as the vehicle he can use to influence the trajectory of Australian life. So whether anyone has the will to keep it going with so much loss after Murdoch passes or loses his grip we don't know. I think it might be a fifty-fifty bet as to whether it would be able to continue. It presumably could be bought by someone else who might try and make a go of it, but whether it could ever be even vaguely profitable is unclear I think.

Matt Smith:

Do you think The Australian is an ethical newspaper?

Robert Manne:

No. No, I mean, journalists are ethical on it, but I think there's too much that's happened in the way it's reported things that it would be wrong to think of it as ethical. I think it twists news. I think it often begins with a conclusion and then searches for evidence to prove it. It kind of knows too much in advance. It targets individuals, it bears grudges, it boasts about its own performance, it's contemptuous of its rivals – none of these things seem to be consistent with any idea of ethics. If I read, as I do every day now, electronically the New York Times, and read The Australian, I have to say one seems to be an ethical paper and the other just doesn't.

Matt Smith:

Professor Robert Manne, thanks for your time today.

Robert Manne:

Good, thank you Matt.

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