The 'cancer on democracy' is more than just Murdoch

10 December 2020
Tom Gilchrist

“A cancer on democracy”: that’s how former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd describes Rupert Murdoch and his News Corp media empire. It’s a fitting description. News Corp controls around two-thirds of the daily newspaper circulation in Australia, giving the country one of the most concentrated levels of media ownership in the world. This dominance gives Murdoch enormous influence over political life, influence he uses to advance a vile right-wing agenda.

From climate change denial to cheering on the invasion of Iraq, there is barely a reactionary cause Murdoch’s empire hasn’t championed. Moral panics are a specialty, journalists fabulating transgender agendas or racialised crimewaves in their fevered imaginations and shouting them in bold text on the front pages of daily tabloids, or in equally hateful serifs in the case of national broadsheet the Australian.

This year, the Murdoch media have campaigned against public health measures to curb the spread of COVID-19, such as border closures, lockdowns and wearing masks. From the beginning of the pandemic, News Corp has pumped out a mix of misinformation and denialism straight out of the playbook of their decades-long campaign against climate science. The campaigning reached a fever pitch during the attacks on “Dictator Dan”—the Victorian premier—and the lifesaving lockdown that stopped Melbourne’s second wave. News Corp demanded a reopening of the economy that likely would have led to the sort of viral spread occurring elsewhere in the world.

News Corp criticisms of lockdowns were temporarily silenced when their mates in the Liberal Party introduced restrictions in South Australia. Murdoch has a particularly cosy relationship with the Coalition. As Rudd notes, over the last decade, in nineteen out of the last nineteen federal and state elections, the Murdoch media have campaigned for the Coalition.

The Coalition has done what it can to pay Murdoch back and expand his influence. Since 2017, the federal government has given $40 million in grants to the Murdoch-owned television subscription service Foxtel, while in the same period cutting $84 million from the ABC budget. A successful 2017 bill further loosened regulations on corporate ownership of the media, enabling an even greater level of concentration.

There are therefore plenty of good reasons why so many have flocked to sign Rudd’s petition for a royal commission into Murdoch’s empire and into media diversity. With more than 500,000 signatures, it is the largest e-petition in Australian history.

As the text of the petition notes, the Australian media landscape has become less diverse in recent years, with a mix of corporate takeovers, the sacking of journalists and the growth of online monopolies all contributing to an increasingly homogenous corporate media.

These developments make it harder for critical voices to be heard. The reality, however, is that whether there are two, three or five corporations that own the newspapers and television networks in Australia, the media is still run by and for big business.

Networks such as Nine and Seven have been just as enthusiastic in promoting a right-wing agenda. Both networks, for example, have facilitated One Nation leader Pauline Hanson’s return to federal politics. From 2016, Channel Seven gave regular paid appearances to the infamous racist on breakfast program Sunrise, helping to rebuild her public profile in the lead-up to the federal election, when she was elected as a senator. The weekly platform continued through to 2019, while similar regular appearances on Channel Nine’s Today Show continued through to June this year.

Kerry Stokes, the billionaire owner of the Seven network, has a special interest in defending Australia’s war criminals in the special forces. He’s taken alleged war criminal Ben Roberts-Smith under his wing, employing him as an executive and donating $1.9 million to his defamation case. In the wake of the Brereton report into war crimes in Afghanistan, Stokes offered to support the legal costs of accused war criminals, with a decades-old fund he established to support the SAS. It is therefore disturbing, but not surprising, to find Seven producing a reality show this year, SAS Australia, glorifying the criminal unit.

When it comes down to it, the entire mainstream media share the corporate, pro-capitalist worldview of Murdoch. They might be more or less critical of aspects of how the system is run, but no section of the mainstream media questions it’s basic premises: that profits rule, the rich and powerful run the show, and politics begins and ends in the dreary halls of parliament.

The billionaire owners of mainstream media outlets are part of the ruling class. Their TV channels and newspapers compete for advertising revenue. Their journalists and editors operate in, and are expected to respect, the world of the social elites, of business owners, bureaucrats and politicians.

Labor politicians often fall foul of the likes of Murdoch, who nine times out of ten will back the Coalition, the open party of the bosses. Rudd himself gained Murdoch’s support in the 2007 election, only to become the target of a Murdoch smear campaign once elected—primarily in response to his proposed Minerals Resource Rent Tax. The campaign was a factor in Rudd’s ouster as prime minister in June 2010.

Figures like Rudd can resent the corporate media’s power when it works against them. But because Labor wants to run Australian capitalism, it shares the underlying political outlook of the corporate media. Whether it’s backing the coal industry, supporting wars or locking up refugees, the reason Labor lines up with so many right-wing News Corp campaigns isn’t because the party’s been strong-armed by an all-powerful media, but because it fundamentally agrees with the premises of the argument: that profits come first, and that the interests of Australian capitalists must be advanced and defended.

Murdoch has faced public inquiries and investigations before, notably in the UK in the wake of the 2011 News of the World phone hacking scandal. But a real challenge to Murdoch’s power requires more than a polite inquiry. It must involve a challenge to his ideas.

On the few occasions that Labor has stood up to the Murdoch press, it has been able to win popular support against the seeming right-wing consensus. In Victoria, the Andrews government held fast to a lockdown strategy despite months of campaigning from all sections of the media. This approach won the government widespread support, including a big boost in the polls and a 71 percent approval rating for the premier.

In Queensland, News Corp has a virtual monopoly on both Brisbane and regional print media. But likewise, in recent months Annastacia Palaszczuk’s Labor has stared down a Murdoch campaign to end border closures, winning re-election with an increased majority.

These examples demonstrate what is possible, but they are exceptions to the rule. Usually, Labor governments capitulate or spontaneously embrace Murdoch’s agenda. What’s needed is a willingness to challenge the premises that underpin the corporate media’s politics.

One of Rudd’s criticisms of News Corp is that it operates as a partisan political force. But the problem isn’t just that News Corp takes sides in elections. It’s that it, along with the rest of the media, is always on the side of capitalism.

We need media that is unapologetically anti-capitalist. Red Flag is proud to be such a publication, to always take the side of workers and stand with the oppressed against the powerful. Our goal isn’t to sell advertising, win people to the status quo or otherwise be a loyal servant of the system. It’s to fight for a socialist alternative.

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