Murdoch's 'Australian': A Powerful Player
Part three of four
Robert Manne, one of Australia's top public intellectuals and journalists, tells me the first thing to know about The Australian.
"It is by far the most detailed paper in regard to national politics," he says. "And it's also at a higher level of analysis, in general, than the other papers."
Second, he says the paper is "smarter, sharper" than the others — with more resources and fewer profit demands to boot. Manne explains why:
"The Australian has the personal support of Rupert Murdoch," he says. "Everyone knows it. He created the paper. He's incredibly proud of it as one of his creations."
Indeed, Murdoch launched the paper in July 1964, with this mission statement printed prominently on the front page:
"Here is Australia's first truly national newspaper. It is produced today because you want it; because the nation needs it. In these pages you will find the impartial information and the independent thinking that are essential to the further advance of our country. This paper is tied to no party, to no state, and has no chains of any kind. Its guide is faith in Australia and the country's future."
And then there's a third component: The Australian is not just a chronicler, but a player in national politics. It has no peer.
Under Chris Mitchell, the paper's editor for the past nine years, The Australian favored smaller government, with fewer regulations on business, supported the invasion of Iraq, was skeptical of increased immigration and was actively concerned with issues affecting Australia's aborigines.
Those stances drive news coverage, not just editorials. And although its circulation is relatively modest — 130,000 daily — The Australian greatly influences not only News Ltd.'s other papers, but also the debate on talk radio, blogs and TV, including News Corp.'s Sky News Australia, in which News Corp. has a controlling stake.
James Chessell, a former business and media reporter for The Australian, meets me in the gleaming lobby of a hotel in downtown Sydney. He says he admires Mitchell, his former editor.
"I think he was pretty successful about putting out a paper that stood for something," he says. "You might not agree with it, but you knew where The Australian stood on a range of issues."
Chessell, now deputy business editor at the Australian Financial Review, a publication owned by the rival Fairfax Media company, says critics are wrong to attribute The Australian's editorial choices to meddling by Murdoch.
But, he says, it's more accurate to say "someone's probably not going to edit The Australian or The Daily Telegraph in Sydney if they haven't risen up through News and aren't sort of enmeshed in the culture and probably don't have similar views to other people at News."
"News" in this case refers to News Ltd., the company's Australian newspaper wing.
The papers do not always act in perfect lockstep. And individual reporters and columnists at The Australian itself are not monochromatic; they come in different ideological shades and even the occasional different flavor. But that said, the Murdoch papers have been hammering away at Labour Prime Minister Julia Gillard and her Green Party allies, with The Australian in the lead, and some officials ascribe a sinister intent — as the communications minister, Stephen Conroy, did last summer.
"You should start from the basis The Australian don't bother reporting news anymore," he said during an exchange at a parliamentary hearing. "They're engaged in regime change."
Andrew Jaspan is former editor in chief of the Melbourne Age, a Fairfax paper that is seen as more sympathetic to Labour. He says aggrieved politicians never like tough coverage, but this time may have a point.
"There is constant scrutiny of the Labour Party by The Australian, which at times is not just forensic, it actually becomes quite caustic," he says. "It's quite corrosive."
The governing Labour Party has suffered from infighting and policy reversals, and its popularity has dropped sharply in the polls. But Jaspan notes that Australia has fared better than just about any industrialized society during the global financial crisis. You'd never know that, he says, from The Australian or its sister papers.
"I think the key role of the newspapers is to do two things: One is to set the tone for debate and the second one is to act as attack dogs," he says. "When politicians or policies are put forward that they disagree with, they go in very hard on those."
The Australian is not strictly partisan. In fact, it supported the rise of former Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd before a falling out.
Murdoch and his executives and journalists in Australia declined to be interviewed by NPR.
Critics Feel The Power
Even 10,000 miles away, News Ltd. executives are dealing with the repercussions of newspaper scandals in London that revealed the hold the Murdoch press had over public officials there. At the scandal's height last July, John Hartigan, then CEO and chairman of News Ltd., was asked by the Australian Broadcasting Corp. if his newspapers also bullied politicians.
"Look, I think we take them to their official capacity and responsibilities. I don't believe that we ever overstep," he replied. "Yes, it's a love-hate relationship, and sometimes it's loving, and sometimes it's very hateful, but I don't think, generally speaking, that we exceed our authority."
Politicians from both major Australian parties have granted Murdoch's company key concessions, but the firm doesn't always get what it wants. Its cable TV division has notably failed to win exclusive rights to broadcast rugby and Australian football. But journalists say the paper exacts a toll on those who oppose News Ltd. too vehemently.
Manne was once a favorite of the political right as an anti-communist magazine editor. No more. Last fall, he took aim at The Australian with a lengthy critique. The paper commissioned a full book review of that critique.
"What I would say is that on any given day The Australian simultaneously produces some of the best and some of the worst journalism in this country," Matthew Ricketson, a former Australian staffer who was subsequently media editor for the rival Melbourne Age, wrote in his review. "Reading it can be disorienting, like watching a driver with one foot on the accelerator, the other on the brake."
Ricketson even wrote that he found Manne's critique "persuasive overall" – and encouraged readers to explore it for themselves to make up their own minds.
But the newspaper also fired back, Manne says.
"I calculated at a certain point, they published within about two or three weeks, 40,000 words of response," he said. "Every senior journalist, almost, had two [thousand] or 3,000 words trying to take me down, including the editor himself, Chris Mitchell."
Manne seemed stupefied by the ferocity.
"They essentially said I'd lost my mind. That I was insane," he says. "That I was a narcissist. That I had a series of personal agendas which were driving me on."
Other journalists say the message was clear: Don't cross The Australian.