In Australia Election, Rupert Murdoch Was a Surprise Loser

Rupert Murdoch, chairman of News Corp and co-chairman of 21st Century Fox, in Sun Valley, Idaho on July 10, 2018.

Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Rupert Murdoch, who oversees a global media empire that includes Fox News, doesn’t like losing, but he just tasted defeat in Australia’s election. Despite years in which Murdoch’s media properties vociferously backed conservative Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Labor leader Anthony Albanese won the May 21 contest. Australia saw a wave of climate-friendly, independent candidates and Greens politicians take power in a thorough rejection of the culture wars around trans rights and “religious freedom” unleashed by Morrison and his backers in the Murdoch media.

Morrison lost for a range of reasons, including the basic fact that he’d become a deeply unpopular and unsympathetic figure after his Liberal Party had been in power for nearly a decade. He routinely mismanaged cases of sexual abuse and rape of women at the Australian Parliament House in Canberra. No amount of support and scaremongering from media outlets owned by Murdoch, who controls a stunning 65 percent of newspaper circulation in the country, could persuade voters to keep Morrison in power.

Despite daily attacks on Albanese and the other candidates who won office, the Murdoch campaign failed spectacularly. This shows that the power of the Murdoch empire isn’t enough when it’s selling rotten goods. More importantly, it shows the effectiveness of loud voices taking on Murdoch directly. Nobody does it better than former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who has spent years publicly condemning the mogul’s right-wing agenda. Rudd has urged politicians to reject Murdoch’s divide-and-conquer tactics, to name and shame the journalists and editors who produce Murdoch’s confected culture war poison. Albanese has been treading carefully, embracing a pro-business agenda and softening some of his previously more left-wing positions, but he mostly hasn’t taken Murdoch’s bait on race, climate, gender, or Covid-19. The majority of Australians simply didn’t like what the Murdoch press was selling.

The clout of the Murdoch empire is routinely examined in the U.S. and Britain but far less in Australia, where Rupert was born in 1931 and where his power began to take root. Australia was the first testing ground for the type of tabloid tactics that are now routine at Fox News, which Murdoch founded in 1996. In Australia, Murdoch’s media properties have long argued against the existence of climate change, let alone backing serious action to curtail it. Race-baiting, demonization of Muslims, and pro-war advocacy is built into the company’s journalistic DNA.

“It is the unhinged propaganda outfit that is central to the identity of the company,” Australian writer Richard Cooke argued in 2019. “It is the core that is lunatic, not the fringe.”

Australia is one of the most tightly concentrated media markets in the Western world, and the Murdoch family owns vast swathes of it: not just the Daily Telegraph, the Herald Sun, and the broadsheet The Australian, but a national cable television network too. Far-right, conspiratorial content from Murdoch’s Sky News Australia has given it a significant amount of influence online. Rudd warned last year that Sky News was aiming to “radicalise” the population within a decade, as Fox News had already done in the U.S.

Rudd has advocated consumer boycotts, including urging people not to use a popular Murdoch-owned real estate website, to target the Murdoch empire in the only area that matters: the bottom line.

Media Mogul Rupert Murdoch waves to photographers as he is driven away from News UK headquarters in London, on June 26, 2014.

Photo: Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images

Example for America

Albanese’s political journey has taken him from the socialist left, where he used to DJ indie hitsto the bland center on issues around taxation and climate. In the lead-up to the 2022 election, obedient foot soldiers in the Murdoch empire falsely targeted Albanese as anti-Israel. Perhaps this was payback for publicly criticizing Murdoch bias in the past, a rarity for a sitting politician in any country where Murdoch is powerful.

Albanese has not spent much time over the years condemning the Murdoch press or its outlets, worried that annoying them could have negative political consequences for his ascent. He even met with the mogul’s key Australian editors in late 2021. It was a choreographed dance that achieved nothing. One former Murdoch executive in Australia, Kim Williams, famously used the term “grin fucking,” meaning, “When I say to do something, you sit there and nod your head and grin, then walk away and fuck me over.” That’s what Albanese would have experienced after meeting with Murdoch’s lieutenants. His advantage, however, was a growing chorus in Australia, both online and in the non-Murdoch media, calling the mogul a “PR outfit” for Morrison and his agenda.

When was the last time a prominent British or American politician spoke consistently against Murdoch? A rare intervention was a recent letter sent to the Murdoch hierarchy by U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., who demanded a cessation of racist and dangerous commentary on Fox News. The U.S. needs much more of this — politicians, public figures, and social media campaigns calling out the Murdoch family and their board of directors for producing inflammatory content. American politicians are more likely to condemn Fox News hosts like Tucker Carlson but shy away from targeting the mogul who funds him. Australia shows that it’s possible to beat back the Murdoch worldview (though who knows for how long).

Let’s look at the example of former President Barack Obama, who often gives speeches about disinformation and Big Tech. His general and often vague criticisms are ineffective. He could use his voice to name names in the Murdoch empire, though that would require him to risk friendships in the lucrative and clubby corporate world where he seems most comfortable today. Obama should ask Rudd for advice on how to do it. For instance, during the recent election campaign, Rudd called out a Sky News journalist for doing “anything that Rupert Murdoch says to undermine Labor.”

Rudd, in fact, has become one of the most vocal critics of the Murdoch empire in the world.

“The truth is Murdoch has become a cancer, an arrogant cancer on our democracy,” he said in 2020. While Rudd was friendly with the media mogul and his editors while in power, he acknowledged last year that his fear of Murdoch only subsided when he left office in 2013. Rudd now advocates for a Royal Commission — an independent investigation that would give recommendations to the government — into the Murdoch empire.

When asked about the influence of Murdoch after Albanese’s win, Rudd told The Intercept via text message that “Lachlan Murdoch [Rupert’s son and chosen successor] would love Australians to believe that, because he failed to get a tired and corrupt government re-elected to a fourth term, concerns about his monopoly power are overstated. The truth is Murdoch’s print monopoly was instrumental in guiding the rest of the media by setting the core issues for the campaign and setting the terms of engagement on each of those issues.” Rudd said that the “next big test of Murdoch’s power will be how he drags the [losing] Liberal Party further to the far-right during these wilderness years, just like Fox News dragged the Republicans to the far-right during the Obama period, while pursuing the systematic delegitimization of the Albanese Government.”

The influence of the Murdoch press in Australia is more than just who controls the media outlets. Setting the agenda on climate, war, immigration, or media regulation is still often pushed by the Murdoch outlets and then slavishly followed by a cowed public broadcaster, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. The Murdoch strategy against the ABC, akin to its decadeslong war against the BBC in Britain, is death by a thousand cuts.

Though Murdoch and right-wing think tanks want to abolish or defund the ABC, it remains the most trusted news source in the country. As a result, conservative governments often place former senior Murdoch managers inside the ABC to neuter it from within. Meanwhile, Murdoch outlets constantly moan about “left-wing” bias. The effect has been debilitating, with the ABC often genuflecting before its most extreme opponents.

Paddy Manning, an Australian journalist and author of the forthcoming book “The Successor: The High-Stakes Life of Lachlan Murdoch,” told The Intercept that Lachlan Murdoch has a “pretty good” relationship with Albanese, bonding over a shared love of rugby. But living in Sydney with his family, his new superyacht just delivered, Lachlan recently decried the “media elites” in a major speech in which he tried to inject U.S.-style debates over “freedom” into the Australian bloodstream. His argument sunk without a trace because most Australians look at the U.S. and don’t want to mimic its broken political system.

Of course, this didn’t stop one Sky News show from announcing a few days after the Australian election, in true Fox News style, that “the resistance starts now. … 1000 days to take the country back from the mad left.” Australians had “voted for change,” Albanese said on election night, but some of Murdoch’s prominent commentators didn’t take it well, predicting that the country will descend into chaos and economic ruin. One hard-right pundit, Rowan Dean, predicted a conservative, global backlash — and former President Donald Trump winning the 2024 U.S. presidential election. The Murdoch press has already uncritically supported the likely new far-right Liberal leader, Peter Dutton, who has a history of demonizing anybody who isn’t white.

But trying to defenestrate Murdoch entirely should be opposed. “If you believe in a free press, then a Royal Commission targeted at the Murdoch media is hard to defend and could set a very dangerous precedent,” Manning said. “More importantly for the Murdoch media, getting into bed with one side of politics — as they have certainly done in recent years — is commercially risky because it ruins their reputation for independent journalism.” While Fox News is an unashamed backer of the Republican Party, in Australia Murdoch has a history of largely — but not every time — backing the Liberal Party against the Labor Party. Its goal now will be to push the Albanese government further to the right and wedge it on cultural issues. After all, Murdoch’s ultimate mission has always been wealth, power, and maintaining the white racial order.

Murdoch is powerless if nobody plays his game.

Undoubtedly, there was a gulf between Murdoch outlets and the Australian public in the recent election. However, there’s no chance that the Albanese government will unleash a war against the Murdoch empire: Its outlets are still too powerful, so it’s a battle the government would be unlikely to win. Although a wide majority of Australians loathe Murdoch media outlets, they still consume them in huge numbers, and Albanese will therefore be scared to tackle them head-on. Still, it’s possible to make Murdoch’s platforms even more despised by consistently highlighting their extremism.

The Murdoch disease isn’t fixed by banning its platforms or regulating it out of existence, as some might wish. Such a move is anti-democratic and counterproductive. However, the Australian government should at least force Murdoch parent company News Corp. to pay the taxes it owes. Also, citizens could choose to stop buying its newspapers, watching its networks, or engaging with its culture wars. Murdoch is powerless if nobody plays his game.

And Albanese should call out the Murdoch media when they’re advocating policies that harm the most vulnerable. He should clearly explain how Murdoch is dividing the country and has no interest in helping anybody except the wealthiest and whitest. The U.K. is showing the way: Murdoch’s newest television channel there, featuring loudmouth talk show host Piers Morgan, is struggling.

The lesson from Australia is that the influence of Murdoch and his employees isn’t impossible to dislodge. It’s possible to stand up to its bullying and a worldview that demonizes anybody who doesn’t believe in the supremacy of white Christians.

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