In the weeks before the election campaign began, the opposition leader, Bill Shorten, turned down a standing invitation to meet with the US media mogul Rupert Murdoch, whose company, News Corporation, owns 70% of Australia’s newspaper circulation and Foxtel’s 24-hour news channel, Sky.
“News Limited and Mr Murdoch shouldn’t take that as any view on him in particular,” Shorten told the ABC’s 7.30 program in January. “I’ll deal with their local management just as I deal with the local management of the ABC. But my real conversation is not with the rich and powerful in this country.”
Wise or crazy brave? When Shorten picked up his Telegraph this morning, he might have been wondering.
The paper had splashed on a story accusing him of omitting a key detail in a story he told about his mother, Ann, on Monday night’s Q&A program. He explained how she had been unable to study law and instead became a teacher on a scholarship so she could bring up her children.
Ann Shorten did in fact study law in her late 40s and 50s and became a barrister at 53, as he has disclosed in numerous interviews.
But the Tele, on the front page and in its editorial, accused him of lying by omission when he failed to mention this late life experience in Monday’s interview.
Bias is sometimes in the eye of the beholder but News Corp has been a constant critic of Labor during this campaign, echoing Liberal calls for Labor to cost its climate change policies – something that would be without context if one doesn’t also take account of the cost of doing nothing, something the News Corp press conveniently ignores.
It has been a loud critic of the plan to end cash payments to self-funded retirees whose franking credits exceed their tax. It has warned of falling house prices from Labor’s changes to negative gearing. Yet it seems disinterested in the plans to use the savings to boost spending on hospital and schools – moves that would arguably help the readers of its tabloids the most.
Senior Labor figures such as Tanya Plibersek see a more venal motive behind News Corp’s coverage.
Defending Labor’s plans for an increase in the wages of childcare workers in Sydney on Wednesday, the deputy opposition leader neatly segued into a full-throated attack on News Corp’s low tax payments in Australia.
Morrisons’s government on the other hand “was prepared to protect every tax loophole” for high-income earners and multinationals, she said.
“What we saw was a new low from News Corp media in Australia, using someone’s dead mother to attack them on the front page of the News Ltd newspapers,” she said. “This is one of the dirtiest campaigns I have seen in my 20 years in parliament.
“I wonder if that’s got anything to with the fact that Rupert Murdoch and his companies paid little or no tax in Australia.
“It’s their [the Liberals’] cheer squad in the Murdoch media who are saying that Australia can’t afford to properly invest in hospitals and schools but we can afford to protect every tax loophole.”
In 2015, during a Senate corporate tax inquiry, the Australian Financial Review revealed that News was the only company in the tax office’s highest risk category, which left it open to what tax officials described as near-continuous audits.
Without identifying News, tax commissioner Chris Jordan told the inquiry: “Historically, this particular taxpayer has made it quite clear that they have not had an interest in being open with us and discussing any of their affairs with us prior to their doing transactions.”
In 2014 the AFR’s Neil Chenoweth reported that News had been successful in a case against the ATO over $2bn in deductions stemming from a shuffle between subsidiaries. The resulting tax credits cost the 2014 budget $882m and contributed to the deficit, he said.
He went on to suggest the tax office’s pursuit of News had been behind the breakdown in relations between Kevin Rudd’s government and News.
While News has recently coughed up $89m in tax after another court tussle with the ATO, the issue of tax avoidance by multinationals remains a constant challenge. As treasurer, Scott Morrison introduced legislation to clamp down on tax avoidance by multinationals but, despite efforts by successive governments, the ATO still estimates that at least $2.5bn in tax is being lost each year.
When the Guardian undertook an in-depth investigation into Murdoch and how he uses his influence in Australia in 2018, a common theme was that his political interventions often align with his business bottom line.
Former prime minister Kevin Rudd identifies his falling out with News Corp as stemming from his strong support of the NBN as a fibre to the home network, which has allowed all comers, including Netflix, Stan, Iview and Apple TV, to deliver on demand programming to Australian homes. It has come at the expense of News-owned Foxtel, which had the only cable network, he says.
Rudd is calling for a royal commission into how News Corp uses its extensive media assets, branding the company a “cancer on democracy”. Former Liberal prime minister Malcolm Turnbull is likely to be a strong supporter.
As he gave his final speech, Turnbull referred to an “insurgency” inside his party aided by outside forces in the media. He was referring to News.
One of the prominent News Corp columnists, Andrew Bolt, was moved to write that the Melbourne-based Herald Sun did not to run the story about Shorten’s mother today.
“I point that out not least because there is an unfortunate tendency of critics to assume that what one paper does is part of a wider ‘Murdoch media campaign’.”
The only problem is the story appeared not only in the Tele but on the front page of the Brisbane Courier Mail and in the Hobart Mercury – which tends to undermine that assertion.
Another News Corp stalwart, Miranda Devine, then piled on on the News Corp-owned Sky News to defend her employer and drive home the attack.
“All we’ve done on the front page is point out a glaring omission from Bill Shorten’s own narrative,” she said. “It’s all very plausible until you find out that she was a lawyer.”
She has slammed Shorten for “posing as a working-class boy made good”.
The reporter who wrote the Shorten story was also given air time to defend it, saying she had wanted to articulate his mother’s brilliant career.
Shorten for his part says he told the story to explain what drives him.
“My mum is the smartest woman I’ve ever known,” he said. “It has never occurred to me that women are not the equal of men.
“I can hear my mum now saying ‘Don’t worry about that rubbish’.
“But she might tell whoever is pulling down a six-figure sum at the Daily Telegraph: ‘Look it up. Look it up.’ All of what I’ve said is all of what has been said before.”
The problem for Shorten is that News Corp does play a significant role in disseminating and shaping perceptions particularly in one-newspaper cities such as Hobart, Brisbane and Adelaide.
It will take courage to stick to his convictions and stand up to the pressure if he does win government in 10 days’ time.
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