There’s no doubt of the chokehold the Murdoch press has on Australian democracy. Australia’s media concentration statistics make for grim reading — some of the worst in the developed world in terms of digital media, and second only to China and Egypt in terms of print. The Murdoch vice-grip reduces political discourse in this country to a game of flag-waving and tribalism; one in which it openly cheers for conservative parties of government, and has an almost monopolistic dominance. This is not conspiracy theory: Murdoch’s fingers are in electoral pies across the Western world. His newspapers’ coverage has been acknowledged by the Trump and Leave campaigns as pivotal to those victories. Indeed, Tony Abbott has said in reference to his signature broadsheet The Australian, “no newspaper has more profoundly or more consistently shaped the intellectual life of our country. The Australian has borne [Murdoch’s] ideals…it has been his gift to our nation”. This influence is so intertwined with the Western politik, its reach such a bygone assumption that Murdoch rags have gone so far as to claim credit for political victories on the front pages — “it was The Sun wot won it”.
This has long been recognised by media academics, the red side of politics, and anyone with functioning eyesight. In retirement, Kevin Rudd has sought to do something about it by encouraging us all to sign a parliamentary petition for a Royal Commission into the influence of the Murdoch empire. This has caught fire, and across progressive social media circles we’ve seen fervent agreement about the cancerous threat the Murdochs pose to Australian politics. An inquiry that is predicated on unveiling the relationship between conservative politicians and the Murdoch press is ostensibly a good thing, and should be welcome in such a cripplingly polarised political environment — if it would actually achieve anything.
Kevin Rudd’s chosen strategy of parliamentary petitions is intriguing, and is based in a British approach — the UK Parliament’s e-petitions system provides relatively transparent avenues for concerned parties to petition it, as well as mechanisms (without guarantees) for motions to be debated in public, with enough support. In the UK, if one gets 10,000 signatures, the Government will formally respond, and one gets 100,000 signatures, the request is considered by the Petitions Committee for debate in Parliament. The largest ever petition (since the e-petitions website was launched in 2006) garnered 6.1 million signatures, and requested the revocation of Article 50 and for the UK to remain in the European Union. Those keen on international relations may have noticed that this did not happen — indeed, the consequent debate in Parliament was one-sided, with the Government taking it as an opportunity to further justify and articulate its plans for the exit process.
Closer to home, the largest ever Parliamentary petition was in 2014, with 1.2 million people supporting a petition against unconsulted changes to the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. This was addressed to then-Health Minister Peter Dutton, who didn’t change anything. Australia’s e-petitions process is largely the same as the UK, but lacks any mechanisms that would expedite public debates on issues, or guarantee action on the part of governments. Kevin Rudd’s petition on Murdoch’s empire has 373,689 signatures at the time of writing, and closes in just under a fortnight. Somewhat ironically, a parliamentary petition is the exact kind of empty stunt that Labor hacks love to criticise the Greens for, but the Greens have actually articulated in some detail their commitment at a federal level to a Productivity Commission review into media diversity and ownership, in contrast to the ALP not mentioning the issue at all in their national platform. Without any sort of guarantee of even a letter back from Minister for Communications Paul Fletcher, what makes petitioning the Parliament an effective mechanism of change on any issue, let alone one as critical to the health of our democracy as this?
These are not novel points: I would posit that Mr Rudd knows them very well, and this is simply the vacuous virtue-signalling of a scorned ex-Prime Minister. That this has become the centre of recent Labor activism on such an important issue merely demonstrates the ALP’s broader inhibitions when it comes to meaningful activism, or even change through Parliamentary means. By next election, it will have been almost a decade since the last federal Labor government, and instead of grassroots organising, we see the party apparatus trying to mobilise in the abyss of waterdrop Twitter. It’s not as if Rudd didn’t have two stints as Prime Minister wherein he could address media diversity and siphoning, or as if it wasn’t Paul Keating who actively cheered for Murdoch’s takeover of The Herald and Weekly Times in 1987. The Labor Party are as cynically opportunistic when it comes to the media as any other political party, and have played as significant a role in the desecration of the Australian media landscape to the point that it has reached today.
There are actually brilliant lessons to be learned from the UK, where arguably Murdoch’s grip on national media is tighter. Instead of petitioning, we should look to Hillsborough. At the 1989 FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool FC and Nottingham Forest, police mismanagement of the Leppings Lane Stand end resulted in an extraordinary human crush: 96 people lost their lives, and a further 766 were injured. Four days later, the Murdoch tabloid The Sun ran untrue and unsubstantiated front page headlines claiming that working-class Liverpool supporters looted from the dead, urinated on police, and bashed good samaritans in the commotion.
Newsagents refused to stock the paper, and Merseysiders refused to buy it. Readership plummeted to virtually nothing. To this day, Liverpudlians refuse to say the name, and refer to it in writing as The S*n, or otherwise The Scum. Sun journalists are still banned from Liverpool FC and Everton FC grounds. To this day, arriving in Liverpool, nearly every taxi at Lime Street Station is emblazoned with warnings, “Do not buy The Sun”, and football fans in particular across the UK as well as the worldwide audiences that consume the Premier League are conscious of The Sun’s reputation as a lying, sensationalist tabloid rag. There are the obvious cultural effects of boycotts, but there are also much wider-reaching political effects. The Sun was one of the most read newspapers in Liverpool (and indeed the UK as a whole), and when readership largely switched from the Eurosceptic tabloid to the altogether more pro-EU Daily Mirror as a result of the boycott, it resulted in something extraordinary. Merseysiders were generally cynical of the EU before the Hillsborough disasters, and the boycott resulted in a more pronounced shift in favour compared to the rest of the nation. This is argued to have resulted in a Brexit vote in 2016 almost 12% greater in favour of Remain than would otherwise have been the case, and it also has changed voting attitudes in a city that whilst working class, has been targeted by conservatives for decades. The key difference between Merseyside and its Remain vote from 21 other counties with similar demographics was organisation against Murdoch influence.
This is what we can do in Australia. We have had mass disaster in no small part compounded by the influence of the Murdoch empire, as recently as last summer with bushfires that the Herald Sun and Daily Telegraph claimed were the result of anything but the climate change that so obviously exacerbated them. With more than 400 dead as a result of the bushfires, there is an incandescent hotbed of community anger at not only the incompetence and mismanagement that resulted in the tragedy of last summer, but at the lies being peddled in a Murdoch-dominated media about it. This is not an isolated incident by any means — the Murdoch press have lied about, exacerbated and exploited tragedy in this country for decades, and herein lies the opportunity for grassroots organising. When there is a media mogul hellbent on tearing apart the lives of working people and manipulating the political process for personal gain, with tangible evidence of the destruction in its wake, it should be a focus of organising as well as a policy priority for the parties affected.
Kevin Rudd is right – the Murdoch empire is a stain on the state of Australian political discourse and a cancerous danger to the health of our democracy. The only problem is asking the Government nicely won’t fix that, and this commitment to empty grandstanding over grassroots organising is precisely what will continue the cycle. Rupert Murdoch didn’t get his hands on the mantle of power by operating in good faith: we would do well to remember that in working to kick him out.