Murdoch flexes his muscles

Murdoch’s newspapers go ballistic against PM Kevin Rudd ahead of the Australian elections, writes MAYA RANGANATHAN
Posted/Updated Saturday, Aug 10 13:00:08, 2013
Much like the Mumbai restaurateur Srinivas Shetty, who chose to register his protest against tax on the bill he gave his customers, a co-owner of a cafe´ ‘Slightly Twisted Refreshments’, in the northern Brisbane suburb of Nundah in Queensland, has posted a sign in the cafe´ that has gone viral on social media.
In the week that was, when the Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd set the date of elections as September 7, a hotly-debated issue on and offline has been the headlines in the front page of Rupert Murdoch-owned News Corporation’s Daily Telegraph published in Sydney. On the opening day of the election campaign it screamed ‘Kick this Mob Out’. On Aug 8, the front page depicted Rudd, Deputy Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Craig Thomson as characters from the 1960s era TV show, Hogan’s Heroes, the 60s CBS show set in a German Prisoner of War camp in World War II.  (In the series, Colonel Hogan manipulates Klink and gets Schultz to look ignore Allied forces’ ‘secret operations’) Even if Rudd’s daughter made light of the depiction, the association to Nazis was not lost to readers.
The oligopolistic competition in the Australian media, particularly the print media, has been the subject of much academic scrutiny. There are two national and 10 state/territory daily newspapers, 37 regional dailies and 470 other regional and suburban newspapers. All the major newspapers are owned either by News Limited, a subsidiary of Murdoch’s News Corporation (founded in Adelaide but now based in the United States), or Fairfax Media. PM Rudd’s statement in a press conference that Murdoch owns 70 per cent of newspapers in Australia may be factually incorrect, as News Corp has clarified that it accounts for only 33% of the newspaper titles that have “sales audited by the Audit Bureau of Circulation.” But considering that News Corp owns a number of small, local publications, Murdoch’s reach is indeed phenomenal. It has been pointed out that “News Corp Australia titles account for 59% of the sales of all daily newspapers, with sales of 17.3m papers a week, making it Australia's most influential newspaper publisher by a considerable margin.” And in the capital cities News Corporation titles accounted for 65% of circulation in 2011 with Fairfax Media, controlling 25%.
Murdoch’s use of his media for political manoeuvring is well-known. In 1992, his UK tabloid The Sun took credit for the Conservative Party victory. It has been reported that following the formation of the minority Labor government in Australia in 2010, Murdoch made it clear to the editors of his Australian newspapers that he wanted the Labor government out at all costs. In 2011, he supposedly met Liberal Party leader Tony Abbott and offered support. The reasons offered for Murdoch’s current position are interesting. Paul Sheehan, a columnist in the Sydney Morning Herald argued that this was a calculative business man in action. The Labor government’s building of the National Broadband Network (NBN) has caused alarm bells to ring as “the quick downloading of movies and other content would be a threat to Murdoch's Foxtel TV operation,” he argued. It is worth noting that the Opposition’s plans for a national broadband are less ambitious. Rudd himself has said that the rollout of the National Broadband Network would pose “a commercial threat to Foxtel” (Foxtel cable television is a monopoly jointly owned with Telstra) and has called for Tony Abbot to come clean on ‘discussions’ with the Media Moghul on the broadband policy. Murdoch clarified on Twitter that he had no issues with the NBN. “We all like idea of NBN, especially perfect for Foxtel. But how can it be financed in present situation?”
This line of reasoning for Murdoch’s animosity to Labor may well be simplistic as, if commercial gain was the only imperative, it makes little sense for Murdoch to hold on to loss-making newspapers like The Australian, The New York Post or The Times. In 2012, it was reported that The Australian was losing more than $25 million a year. The second reason offered for Murdoch’s dislike of the Labor party, the supposed fear that a Labor regime would tighten press regulations eventually leading to a restriction of editorial freedoms, seems more valid. One can only conclude that Murdoch is keen on exerting an influence on Australian politics and perhaps, succeed in ways he could not in the US.
Murdoch’s operations in Australia are currently led by Col Allan, nicknamed ‘Col Pot’after the Cambodian dictator, a trusted lieutenant of Murdoch associated with The Daily Telegraph and The New York Post. The agenda became clear soon after Col Allan’s arrival in Australia on July 29, from the headlines in the papers from the News Corp stable. On Aug 3, one of the headlines on the national daily The Australian read: The $250bn cost of Kevin Rudd: a tale of waste and spending; in Sydney’s The Daily Telegraph it was: Price of Labor - another huge budget shambles … and now we're $30bn in the red and in Melbourne’s Herald Sun it was simply: It's a Ruddy mess.
The Rudd-bashing however, has led to criticisms that the Murdoch empire is ‘turning on itself’ in an effort to win Murdoch’s attention and not take on the competition. Based on the market values of News Corp, a $3.57 billion listed company, the Financial Review on Aug 9 commented that News Corp showed every sign of “a deeply dysfunctional corporation,” with Col Allan trying to usher in old practices instead of looking to the future at a time when digitial technologies are sounding the death knell of the print medium.
Meanwhile, the Press Council has received 77 objections to the ‘Kick the mob out’ article and 19 objections to the parody of the Hogan’s Heroes’ show. Much like in the case of the Parel restaurateur, the Brisbane cafe-owner’s message has gone viral. But contrary to the experience of the Indian restaurateur, no political party supporters have coming knocking on his doors.  While people have been more than supportive of the decision much to the surprise of the owner himself, he is not without detractors. He has come in for criticism for doing “exact same thing as Rupert Murdoch,” that is “only promoting his own view.”


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