Meddling Murdoch: How The Australian poisons Federal Election coverage

News Corp’s major papers plaster overwhelming support for the Liberal National Party over their pages in a last-ditch effort to save ScoMo’s campaign.

Every three years, media coverage controls and constructs the narrative around our Federal Election. It is no secret that Australia has one of the most concentrated landscapes of media ownership in the world. News Corp, owned by Rupert Murdoch, controls 59 per cent of our metropolitan and national print media markets by readership according to a 2021 GetUp report, a ubiquity that is unprecedented in liberal democracies globally. The report emphasises how Murdoch media erodes democracy in countries like Australia, evidenced perhaps most pervasively by our public discussions around climate change. News Corp climate misinformation has “hindered climate policy, encouraged negative sentiments towards climate action, and actively driven a political wedge into our public debate”, it observes.  

Considering this, it’s crucial that we interrogate News Corp’s election coverage if the 2022 Federal Election is to unfold in the context of a vibrant and functioning democracy.

The Murdoch-LNP alliance

Throughout this election, Murdoch newspapers have splashed anti-Labour, pro-Liberal, anti-Teal Independents sentiment across their front pages – from the PM’s swipes at Albanese’s 5.1 per cent wage increase promise on the front page of The Australian (“PM warns of ‘vandal’ Albanese”), to puff-pieces about threatened Liberal candidates like Josh Frydenberg and Katherine Deves in the Daily Telegraph and Herald Sun.

The Australians for Murdoch Royal Commission, an organisation campaigning against Murdoch’s media monopoly founded after Kevin Rudds’ 2020 ePetition, tracked the daily coverage bias of the 2022 Federal Election across all Australian Murdoch newspapers from 5 May to 11 May (The Australian, The Advertiser, The Daily Telegraph, The Courier Mail, and The Herald Sun). On average, it found that 38 articles per day across all papers contained pro-LNP sentiment, 32 were ‘neutral’, and just 11 were pro-ALP. On the worst day, 5 May, a 35 article gap divided pro-LNP and pro-ALP article-counts on the bias tracker.

“[Murdoch media is] a particular type of propaganda that steals the semiotics of journalism — the look and feel of the news — and shapes it for virality in the social media age,” writes Christopher Warren for Crikey.

Naturally, the true reach of Murdoch media is difficult to measure in the digital news era. ​​Media analysts have long suggested that the global decline of print media is blunting News Corp’s influence. In its Annual Report 2021, NewsCorp said it reached 5.5 million Australians on average every week through its print newspapers in 2020, compared to its 810,000 aggregate closing number of online subscribers as of June 30, 2021. Nonetheless, according to UNSW Associate professor David McKnight, newspapers still play a major agenda setting role because they have the biggest newsrooms in the country, and originate the raw material for more news stories than any other news medium. 

Further, reach is not necessarily commensurate with successful influence on public opinion. The power News Corp wields in the Australian political landscape may also lie in politicians seeking to appease News Corp editors with policy changes, with the threat of Murdoch media debasement ever-present. As veteran and respected ABC journalist Quentin Dempster notes: “The record shows the Murdoch culture cuts straight to the chase by effectively blackmailing or intimidating governments and their spin doctors: ‘give us the first drop on government news or a stream of bad headlines can be expected to follow.’ It’s worked a treat for News Corp in Australia for years.”

Analysing Federal Election coverage in The Australian

Readership and public image

As of June 2021, the digital and print readership of The Australian nationwide made up around a quarter of the total number of Australia’s monthly news readers, or 5.2 million, according to Roy Morgan research. It ranked higher than all other Murdoch brands in a 2020 study measuring the perceived trustworthiness of Australian news companies, coming in third with a score of 3.53 on a scale of 1 to 4. Public service media outlets ABC and SBS ranked highest on this trustworthiness scale, with ABC TV topping the chart with a score of 3.99. The Australian’s perception as relatively-trustworthy in comparison to tabloids like The Daily Telegraph is concerning when one considers the increasingly partisan perspectives it platforms. The Australian consistently campaigns against the ABC, the ALP, and most left-wing causes, populated by conservative writers like Peter Van Onselen and Chris Kenny. Its support for the Liberal National Party is generally consistent with Murdoch’s empire of media outlets, and its approach to this federal election is no exception.  

Federal Election 2022 Reporting

I filtered through the past week’s federal election reporting on The Australian online, specifically the period of Saturday 7 May — Saturday 14 May. On the website, this content is categorised under ‘Politics’.

The total number of articles whose main subject was the ALP in this period was 39. Of these, 34 contained explicit critique of the party and/or Anthony Albanese, achieved via three main characterisations; federal budget ‘over-spending’ and economic ineptitude – the most prolific (17), the coyness, clumsiness and sleaziness of its members (10), and a general inadequacy for leadership role (2). ALP election policies subjected to the most attacks included Albanese’s backing of a national average wage increase last week (15), and Labor’s $1 billion boost to medicare (e.g. ‘Labor’s $1 billion dollar Medicare splurge’ [14 May] and ‘Close to universal free childcare? You must be kidding’ [13 May]). Articles about the ALP leader himself are calculated to ridicule, delegitimise and vilify, including ‘The Albo Experiment’, ‘Albo coy on politicians social grillings’, and ‘Fumbling Albo takes a knock’. 

By comparison, of the 39 articles specifically written about the LNP and Scott Morrison’s election campaign, 26 are explicitly pro-Scomo or the LNP. Unlike articles concerning Albanese, Scomo is painted in a sympathetic and heroic light by the language of The Australian. ‘Mum by Scott’s side in enemy territory,’ reads one article headline from 8 May. ‘For Scott the Underdog, a week is indeed a long time in politics’ announces another on 14 May. Following another week of poor Newspoll ratings, this article’s byline stretches so far as to argue a redemption arc is still possible for the PM: ‘His personal image has only worsened. But starting with his campaign launch, the PM still can produce another miracle,’ it states. Articles such as ‘Bulldozer Morrison ready to rebuild’ (14 May) and ‘Lib candidates still in it to win it: Howard’ (12 May) extrapolate on this image of Morrison as capable of transformation and rebuilding. 

The Teal Independents were the only other runners in the election mentioned multiple times, eight of the total nine articles characterising them as sly and deceptive (e.g. ‘Deception key to teals’ quest for power’ [7 May] and ‘The teal peril: power without responsibility’ [11 May]). 

Of the 13 articles that contain what is considerably negative sentiment towards the LNP, only 3 are genuine critiques of policy (‘Libs caught in absurd climate trap’ (14 May), ‘Put up or pay up, PM warned on wages’ [12 May], and ‘Morrison’s promise to change too little, too late? [13 May]). The others comprise reporting on slip-ups (e.g. ‘LNP candidate faces AFP fraud probe [8 May]) and negative public sentiment (e.g. ‘Coalition under fire both North and South’ [11 May]). 

Notably, there were exactly zero articles about the Greens over this last week of election reporting on The Australian. 

What does this mean for the election? 

Readers of The Australian and Murdoch media more broadly are inundated with pro-LNP and anti-ALP sentiment. Only by spreading awareness of such bias and boycotting these publications can Murdoch’s nefarious influence over Australian democracy be stifled – the boycott of Murdoch’s The Sun in England provides a roadmap to follow. 

Further, if the mogul’s preferred leadership candidate, the LNP, is toppled in this federal election, as the polls are currently predicting, the Royal Commission into Murdoch media that Kevin Rudd and the left have incessantly campaigned for since 2020 will hopefully come to fruition.