Australia has become the complacent country. Complacent about its future economic competitiveness. Complacent about climate change. Complacent about how to navigate our future in the region given China’s rise, America’s response and a neighbourhood increasingly torn between the two. Complacent too about the gradual erosion of our democracy itself through a growing “pay for play” culture from financial donations to political parties, an increasing assault on the independence of the public service and the abuse of monopolistic media power.
The latter, in particular, is perverting our national politics, undermining the public commons on which the nation can conduct a balanced policy debate on our national future. The Murdoch media has mutated to become a cancerous growth on our democracy. It no longer even pretends to be a media organisation, separating out news coverage from editorial option. Instead it has become a de facto political party prosecuting its own ideological and economic interests, acting as an effective coalition partner of the Liberal party.
You don’t have to be a Rhodes scholar to work out that since 2007 through to 2010, 2013, 2016 and 2019, the Murdoch media, representing some 70% of the nation’s total print media, has hated the Australian Labor party’s guts. More broadly, they despise the progressive left. And they will do anything within their power to keep Labor out of office.
Even in 2007, when some Murdoch mastheads technically endorsed me in their pre-election editorials, Murdoch’s tabloids for the year prior to that election did everything they could to destroy my leadership through one series of personal accusations of scandal, misdemeanour or corruption after another. No Liberal leader has been subjected to anything similar, but it has become routine for Labor leaders. Once they failed and Murdoch concluded that a Labor win was unavoidable, that’s when the technical, pre-election “editorial” endorsement was deployed to put themselves on the right side of history.
If you look at Murdoch’s election “news” coverage during the 2007 campaign, it was at best 50-50. Roll the clock to 2010 and 2013, it was more like 80-20 against Labor. Then 90-10 in 2016. And in 2019 it was 100-0, when all pretence of being a news organisation was finally given up. And Murdoch’s print dominance in this country bleeds into both radio and television and through to social media.
The Murdoch beast itself is deeply ideological. Its papers conducted a relentless campaign against any form of economic stimulus during the global financial crisis, arguing that financial markets would magically self-correct. Its far right agenda on climate change is clear to all. Murdoch’s mastheads are driving Australia’s national China hysteria with “Reds under every bed” rapidly morphing into the “Yellow Peril”, as one giant throwback to 1950s McCarthyism, where any dissenting views are attacked as being in Beijing’s pocket. The Murdoch media – in Australia, the US and in the UK – led the charge to go to war in Iraq in 2003; 16 years later we are still paying the price in Iraq, Syria and an emboldened Iran. In the UK, Murdoch backed both Brexit and, for a time, Scotland breaking away from Britain. In the US, Murdoch’s Fox has been the great Trump enabler. Indeed, without Fox, it’s doubtful Trump would have been elected.
The Murdoch commercial agenda in the 2013 election was also on full display. My government had advanced a fibre optic to the premises NBN across Australia as part of a $42bn plan. Murdoch was determined to kill it because it represented a threat to his only significant profit centre left in Australia, the Fox cable entertainment network. Why? Because the NBN we were building would enable Foxtel competitors such as Netflix to provide direct entertainment products to the home. Which is why Murdoch did a deal with the Liberals to kill it by turning fibre optic to the premises into fibre optic to the node, thereby leaving the last bit of the NBN unconnected unless customers were willing to pay for it. This has left Australia’s broadband one of the slowest and least reliable in the world. Denials by Murdoch executives, or by their Liberal party accomplices, are unbelievable.
Murdoch’s agenda is patently ideological, commercial and of course political. But it is also global. Across much of the Anglosphere, these debates occur in parallel. But interestingly not in Canada – because Murdoch is not in Canada.
And for those who think it will all expire when Rupert dies, there’s another Murdoch in waiting. Lachlan is every bit as conservative as his father, including being a climate change denier. Murdoch has cultivated an atmosphere of fear in Australia. Debating Murdoch’s power has long been effectively off-limits. Politicians, academics, corporates, even journalists and commentators from other news organisations are fearful for their own reputations, because they know from experience that Murdoch’s editorial henchmen will come after anyone who attacks them, with a view to shredding the offender’s reputation. Murdoch editors see no need to correct the record when they print inaccuracies or just make stories up. After all, who is going to have the guts to challenge them? Which is why we have such a deafening national silence in this country on the problem which dare not speak its name: Murdoch.
Nine’s takeover of Fairfax, the country’s only remaining independent newspaper organisation including the Sydney Morning Herald, the Age and the Financial Review, is a further nail in the coffin of media diversity in Australia. Nine’s chairman is Peter Costello, long known for his fair and balanced views on Australian politics. And then we have Hugh Marks, Nine CEO, who hosted a $750,000 fundraiser for the Liberal party at Nine headquarters, as if this was now perfectly normal, before a belated apology after a backlash from reporters.
The time has come for a full royal commission into the ownership and operation of the media in this country. Murdoch has too much power. The rest of the print media is now heading to the right. The ABC, under systemic editorial and budgetary attack, its board repoliticised by the government in defiance of the ABC Reform Act (2012), is now frightened of its own shadow. And social media offers no credible alternative as a common, neutral platform for any form of national political conversation.
Taken together with Clive Palmer’s $60m paid campaign against Labor leading up to the last election (the likes of which we have never seen before in our politics), the growing swagger of the conservative’s general assault on the independence of the public service and other national institutions like the ABC, together with the new intellectual respectability now being accorded the authoritarian right both in this country and across the west, we can no longer simply assume, in the absence of fundamental reform, that the Australian democratic project as we have know it for the last 100 years will necessarily remain the permanent condition of our politics for the future.
• Kevin Rudd is a former prime minister of Australia. This is based on a recent public lecture at the University of Sydney in a series entitled “The Complacent Country”
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