With Rupert Murdoch’s chosen government waging a war on journalists in Australia, democratic values in his country of birth are in peril, writes CJ Werleman.
Australia’s democracy is under imminent threat from two distinct sources that have become increasingly intertwined: the ruling conservative coalition and the Rupert Murdoch news media empire.
This week, David Kaye, the United Nations rapporteur who is tasked by the Human Rights Council with monitoring the state of freedom of opinion and expression among all the 193 UN member states, identified Australia as leading the Western democratic world in media restrictions.
“We are seeing a lot of backsliding around the world in democratic societies around basic protections, and a lot of it has been digital interference [with press freedoms],” he told The Sydney Morning Herald, citing recently introduced surveillance laws in Britain and France.
The issue is the capacity of News Limited to influence the opinions of the vast majority of less engaged citizens whose political understanding is shaped directly by popular newspapers and television.Robert Manne
“Australia is following that line. But I think it’s also gone a lot further,” Kaye added.
The evidence for his claims exist in plain sight, including the recent federal police raids on the homes and offices of journalists, which would be “unthinkable” in either the US or the UK; the conservative government accessing the private records of phone and internet users, and the harassment of a journalist who revealed war crimes committed by Australian soldiers in Afghanistan.
These are the repressive actions of a democracy in crisis.
Kaye also pointed to newly passed laws that he described as “outliers” and “really concerning,” specifically legislation allowing the government to force social media companies to hand over private information regarding their users, and threatening time in prison for sharing of violent content online.
Then there’s Rupert Murdoch.
Although one of the police raids conducted last month was at the home of a Murdoch employee, his global media empire has a significant hold over the country’s media, with ownership of 70% of the daily newspaper market.
This would pose a direct threat to an open and democratic society even if Murdoch were an apolitical figure who presided over a print journalism empire that sought to honestly and fairly report and comment on Australian politics and culture. But, Murdoch is anything but apolitical – he’s a right-wing ideologue who prays at the altar of free market fundamentalism and his newspapers have demonstrated a willingness to use any means, including appeals to racism and bigotry, to agitate and mobilise voters towards right-wing political parties around the world.
“The issue is not the absence of alternative sources of information for politically engaged citizens,” observes Robert Manne, who is widely regarded as one of Australia’s leading public intellectuals. “In the age of the internet, there are hundreds of easily accessible sources of information. The issue is rather the capacity of News Limited to influence the opinions of the vast majority of less engaged citizens whose political understanding is shaped directly by the popular newspapers and indirectly through the commercial radio and television programs which rely on the daily papers for the content of their programs and, more deeply, for the way they interpret the world.”
A Leg-Up for ‘ScoMo’
Murdoch’s newspapers not only reinforce his ideological bent, but also the political and cultural values and preference of Australia’s conservative coalition – namely the respective liberal and national parties.
From denying the reality and consequences of climate change; mocking the “intellectual left”, millennials and “social justice warriors”; scapegoating migrants and demonising asylum seekers; to unapologetically cheerleading for the 2003 invasion of Iraq; to putting a positive spin on the objectively calamitous and scandal-ridden Trump presidency, Murdoch-owned newspapers have shifted the country’s centre-left tilt ever further towards the right.
This reality is abundantly evident in the shock re-election of the coalition in the recent federal election, which even Prime Minister Scott Morrison – an evangelical Christian – described as a “miracle”.
A democracy can neither thrive nor survive when one individual, a political ideologue who seeks to delegitimise left-wing political values and parties, controls 70% of the print news media market.
But, it’s not Jesus Christ that Morrison has to thank, but rather the divine intervention of none other than Rupert Murdoch, whose newspapers have universally backed Morrison’s Liberal Party in every election during the past two decades, with the exclusion of the 2007 ballot.
“They were extremely, predictably, unrelentingly partisan… they don’t even pretend to be impartial any more,” Rod Tiffen, Emeritus Professor in Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney, who has been studying the Murdoch effect for years, told The Sydney Morning Herald.
With Labour winning the two-party preferred vote in New South Wales, Victoria, and South Australia, the 2019 election ultimately came down to the state of Queensland, where Murdoch enjoys a near monopoly over the newspaper market.
“The core skill craft of the Murdoch editors, through headlines, photo selection and personality-based stories is to de-legitimise Labour leaders over time, as opposed to, for example [Prime Minister] Morrison, who is routinely referred to as matey ‘ScoMo’ or respectfully as simple ‘PM’. And try and find one unflattering photo of Morrison for the whole campaign. All these factors have a cumulative effect,” said former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to The Age following this year’s election.
What Rudd is also describing is the way Murdoch’s Fox News editorialises positive coverage for US President Donald Trump and the Republican Party, while at the same time delegitimising and smearing their political opposition. It’s a dynamic that has also played out in the UK for decades due to the influence Murdoch’s three national newspapers have over British politics.
Ultimately, a democracy can neither thrive nor survive when one individual, a political ideologue who seeks to delegitimise left-wing political values and parties, controls 70% of the print news media market, because that amounts to nearly three-quarters of the way to what a totalitarian state like North Korea looks like.
With Murdoch’s chosen government waging a war on journalists, or rather those whose job is to hold those in power accountable for their policies and deeds, Australia’s democracy is in urgent peril.