“As a small media pond inhabited by large sharks, Australia today is a breeding ground for censorship by omission, the most virulent form. Like all his newspapers throughout the world, Murdoch’s harnessed team in Australia follows the path paved with his “interests” and his world-view (which is crystallised in the pages of his Weekly Standard in Washington, the voice of America’s “neo-conservatives”). They echo his description of George W. Bush and Tony Blair as “heroes” of the Iraq invasion and his dismissal of the “necessary” blood they spilt, and they consign to oblivion the truths told by history, such as the support Saddam Hussein received from the Murdoch press in the 1980s.
“One of his tabloids invented an al-Qaeda training camp near Melbourne; all of them promote the Australian elite’s obsequiousness to American power, just as they laud Prime Minister John Howard’s vicious campaign against a few thousand asylum-seekers, who are locked away in camps described by a United Nations inspectors as among the worst violations of human rights he had seen.”
John Pilger (editor), Tell Me Lies: Investigative Journalism and its Triumphs (Jonathan Cape, 2004).
Warrick Costin is News Limited’s Canberra Business Manager. In April and May of this year he prepared a guide to 30 of the most marginal seats in the country. To be used by executives and senior staff, the documents provide invaluable insights into the way Murdoch publications attempt to subvert the political process in Australia.
Our investigation reveals that similar marginal seat guides have been written for at least the previous four or five elections. Costin acknowledged this when I called him in Canberra. The internal documents are published at Limited News, and display a deep knowledge of the major concerns of voters in key electorates, including religion and education. The aim of the documents is clear – to select certain stories and angles to influence voters in marginal seats. Nothing is explicit, however – a more subtle approach is utilised.
In Bruce Page’s The Murdoch Archipelago (Simon & Schuster, 2003), he explains the way that Murdoch plays the political game:
“He did not suppose he could personally create election outcomes. His concern was creating obligations.”
For example, The Australian thoroughly favoured a Labor win in 1972, and Page suggests that Murdoch wanted to be the Australian High Commissioner in London as a reward. He even worked on a victory speech he thought Whitlam should give to the nation.
In 2004, however, the Murdoch empire supports whatever party will best serve its business interests. As James Fallows wrote in The Atlantic’s profile in September 2003:
“[Murdoch] is principally a businessman. (What drives him) is not ideology but a cool concern for the bottom line and the belief that the media should be treated like any other business, not as a semi-sacred public trust.”
The Australian Gazette is a daily news sheet produced by a senior News Ltd staff member and read by Rupert Murdoch himself. Take this example of April 6, 2004. Mark Latham’s “ill-considered policy of cut and run in Iraq” is highlighted (reflected in the latest quoted Newspoll) as well as the retirement of Communications Minister Richard Alston. The desired result is made clear: “[a new minister] will hopefully clear the decks for a minister (or gulp, shadow minister) with a better grasp of the portfolio after the election”. A “better grasp” refers to the Murdoch aim of further deregulation of the media sector and a loosening of the cross media laws.
Take a look at The Gazette of May 11, 2001 and it becomes clear that the document is written specifically for Murdoch himself, even mentioning the media’s coverage of his wedding to Wendi Deng.
The edition of April 7, 2004 explains the supposed thought processes of ‘aspirational voters’ in the mortgage belt around Sydney and why they elect John Howard.
The documents highlight the Murdoch fear of a Labor Federal government and coverage in The Australian and his tabloids over the last year have consistently shown contempt for the ALP and new leader Mark Latham, especially on the issues of Iraq and industrial relations.
A corporate strategy to undermine the Opposition’s message is explained and given context.
When contacted by Webdiary, Murdoch’s Corporate Affairs Manager Janet Fife-Yeomans confirmed the authenticity of the documents but said there was nothing “sinister” about them:
“Neither the government nor the opposition had anything to do with it. Nor does News Limited have any electoral preferences for October 9. News Limited’s editorial is shaped by the news of the day.”
ABC’s Media Watch examined some of the documents in September, specifically the claim that before the 2001 election News Ltd tried to convince the ALP to advertise its education policy in its media. Amazingly, no media organisation further investigated the internal News Ltd documents after the airing of Media Watch.
When Warrick Costin launched this year’s marginal seats guide to News Ltd employees, his speech was a rallying cry to the troops. Marginal seats issues were outlined and various seats were broken down into areas to be targeted.
Take the Liberal held seat of Eden Monaro. For what reason, other than to assist slanted coverage, would journalists need to know the number of dependent children, household income, number of taxpayers and single parents?
A representative of the Limited News website explains:
“If it is merely journalism, why has it been left to a senior Business Manager to prepare the document and present it to employees? It is smart, because it does not target a political parties, it targets issues and individual politicians. Bias starts within the news coverage itself, in the choice of issues and their emphasis.”
“…some of the major concerns of the people of Bass are on the themes of safety and security.”
Michael Organ is the Greens MP for the NSW seat of Cunningham. News Ltd’s hysterical scare campaign against the Greens during the election campaign is given further context with this material on the seat.
Neither Costin nor Fife-Yeomans would discuss details of the marginal seats guide.
Examining the dozens of documents – see the summary of the seats – reveals an easy-access guide to News Ltd journalists as to how certain issues and coverage could affect voters in marginal seats.
Last Sunday’s page one story in Murdoch’s biggest paper, The Sunday Telegraph continues the anti-Latham scare campaign. The paper’s editorial was even more unequivocal:
“Mr. Howard has served this country well as Prime Minister, delivering eight years of unparalled prosperity, protecting its borders and taking a firm stand against the extremists who threaten our very way of life. A vote for the Coalition on October 9 is a vote for prudence, responsibility and security. Mr. Howard’s team deserves a fourth term.”
Murdoch was a major cheerleader of the Iraq war. He said before the invasion:
“The greatest thing to come out of this for the world economy…would be $20 a barrel for oil. That’s bigger than any tax cut in any country.”
All of his Australian papers followed their master’s voice (see this Guardian piece for more information).
And true to form, all of Murdoch’s Sunday papers editorialised this week for another Howard term. The News Limited internal documents give insight as to the reasons behind this uniformity the Coalition will be more amenable to Murdoch’s business and strategic interests.
It is interesting to note, however, that The Australian’s anti-Saddam stance is a relatively new phenomenon. Eddie Davers reveals in an Overland study that The Australian strongly supported the Iraq dictator during the 1980s:
“The US defines its allies not by their values but by their obedience. Saddam Hussein was obedient during the period of his worst atrocities, and was therefore an ally. His disobedience attracted the wrath of the US. And disobedience, in the final analysis, is the standard applied by The Australian.”
“(During the 1980s) the reason for the pro-Iraqi coverage is the same as that for the pro-Israeli (and pro-Indonesian) coverage – obedience. The US was pro-Iraqi because Iraq performed a function. Its utility, not its power, earned it the support of the US, and of corporate media like The Australian.”
The Limited News files show that commercial interests supercede other considerations. The April 9, 2004 edition of the Australian Gazette provides specific directions on the Murdoch “line” to be taken on Iraq, and not one Murdoch editor in Australia has shifted from this required editorial position.
An Australian Gazette of April 12, 2004 further articulates the editorial directive of playing down the growing insurgency in Iraq:
“It is little wonder that some people are confused about the situation in Iraq. The SMH features on its world page, under the headline ‘How GI bullies are making enemies of their Iraqi friends’, a piece by Paul McGeough explaining that Iraqis that detested Saddam are now united against a new perceived oppressor. And Fairfax cannot believe their flagship is losing credibility…”
The marginal seats guide was completed before the Howard government’s last budget and released in time for a possible early election. The release of Outfoxed gives us an even clearer picture of the ways in which Murdoch and his senior staff slant and twist news to fulfil a right-wing agenda and subvert the democratic process. The Atlantic’s James Fallows:
“The political component in Murdoch’s media operation is larger than people inside the company admit and perhaps larger than they believe. But it is smaller than most people who dread Murdoch’s influence assume. He is principally a businessman of conventional business-conservative views, who vents those views when possible but now when they interfere with any important corporate goal.”
The Limited News documents provide invaluable evidence of a media organization determined to achieve power at any cost. Next time a Murdoch newspaper echoes its master’s voice on the moral rightness of the Iraq war, remember The Australian’s Foreign Editor Greg Sheridan describing a mass murderer closer to home, Indonesia’s Suharto. He called the dictator “a monster of the Left’s imagination” and “even in human rights there is a case for Suharto”. The Murdoch broadsheet supported his reign because, like subsequent US administrations, Murdoch “defines [his] allies not by their values but by their obedience” (Eddie Davers, Overland 2003).
ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN writes the Sydney Morning Herald Webdiary’s Engineering Consent column on the workings of the media. For an introduction to Murdoch’s way, see Holding the line at news.
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org