The Murdoch press played its self-assigned role of shamelessly cheerleading for the conservatives in the election. But is Rupert’s influence quite what it used to be?
To answer that, we need to disentangle two threads that in the past have been woven together: Rupert Murdoch’s direct personal engagement with politicians, and the election coverage provided by his newspapers.
We have not seen any evidence of direct personal engagement this time. Neither Malcolm Turnbull nor Bill Shorten was observed flying halfway round the world to obtain the great man’s blessing, as Tony Blair did in 1995 when newly installed as leader of the British Labour Party.
It is probable that this kind of political deferrence is a thing of the past. The phone-hacking scandal of 2011 made Murdoch politically toxic in the UK and it is doubtful that a political leader in Australia would take a risk on him. But his newspapers remain a force, and the question of their influence, if any, remains a relevant question.
News Corp controls just on two-thirds of metropolitan and national daily newspaper circulation. It has a daily newspaper monopoly in Brisbane, Adelaide, Hobart and Darwin.
For all that their newsrooms are much reduced, it is still the newspapers that inject the most fresh material into the daily news cycle. That gives them an edge in setting the news agenda. Radio talkback and television feed off them all day, and the megaphone of social media now greatly amplifies this effect.
While increasing numbers of people are using social media as their main means of getting news, the content they get still largely comes from newspapers, which anyway own some of the biggest news websites, including News Corp’s news.com.au.
So, in the symbiosis that is rapidly expanding between legacy and new media, setting the news agenda – deciding what to pay attention to – remains an influential part of the role newspapers play in our political life.
Taken together, these factors provide a reasonable basis for discussing the influence of the Murdoch press in the recent election.
On the whole, that influence is malign. The reason is bias.
Bias limits and distorts the body of information that voters need to make an informed choice. It shuts out dissent and imposes distorting emphases.
The first responsibility of the media, including newspapers, is to provide a reliable body of information on which citizens may make political, economic and social choices. This much has been accepted and understood for at least 70 years, when the US Commission on the Freedom of the Press set down the functions newspapers were expected to fulfil for society.
As it happens, the News Corp bias is to the conservative side of politics, but this is beside the point. It is the bias itself that does the damage.
One way by which News Corp’s papers showed its bias was by mixing news and opinion all through their pages, making it difficult to disentangle factual content from commentary.
Another way was by turning the front pages of its tabloids, especially The Daily Telegraph in Sydney, into highly partisan satirical posters.
One had Bill Shorten as “Billnocchio”, with an elongated nose, with a story about how he was allegedly misleading the voters with a scare campaign about the GST.
Another had him dressed up as Willy Wonka with a purple bubble containing the words “Billy Shorten and the Money Factory”.
Then, on election eve, the Murdoch tabloids in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane all declared either a Labor loss (“Going down” in The Daily Telegraph) or a Coalition win (“Victory in sight” in The Courier-Mail and “PM triumph beckons” in the Herald Sun).
Whether Murdoch directed all this is highly improbable. He doesn’t have to. His one-time chief executive in Australia, John Hartigan, told Leigh Sales in an interview on ABC TV in 2011 that there was no need of directives from Murdoch because:
We think as a company.
More than 20 years ago The Economist made this shrewd assessment:
Perhaps Mr Murdoch’s biggest influence has been not so much in persuading people how to vote as in moulding a cultural and moral climate for politicians of varying hue to exploit.
So long as he retains ownership and control of his newspapers, this thread of Murdoch’s influence will linger.
Newspaper readership, as measured by Roy Morgan Research, shows a continuing decline in hard-copy numbers. Digital readership outstrips print readership for The Sydney Morning Herald, The Daily Telegraph, The Australian, The Age and the Herald Sun.
But the total reach of those newspapers remains very large. Morgan data show that the combined readerships of the print and digital version of those papers in March 2016 are, in round numbers:
The Sydney Morning Herald: 4 million
The Daily Telegraph: 3 million
The Age: 2.9 million
The Herald Sun: 2.8 million
The Australian: 2.2 million.
Given their continued role as the main provider of new news every day, and the amplifying effect of social media, their potential to influence the body politic remains substantial.
Yet the relentless bias of the Murdoch newspapers in favour of the Coalition did not deliver those parties a clear victory. What is going on?
First, the American political scientist Bernard Cohen said decades ago that the media aren’t much good at telling people what to think, but very effective in telling them what to think about. That dictum still holds.
Second, in a country like Australia, an educated population of voters sees through bias and makes up its own mind.
Third, there is an echo-chamber effect: people read the newspapers that already accord with their own worldview.
Fourth, voters seldom take any notice of newspaper editorials.
All the big newspapers ran editorials saying Turnbull should be returned. But research has shown for decades that only a very small proportion of a newspaper’s audience reads these turgid sermons, and they, par excellence, are preaching to the choir.