Col Allan has six Australian papers to play with but only one style of muscular journalism. It doesn’t really matter which government is in power. He has no other model and he’s not going anywhere. So he’ll be coming for you too, Tony. It’s what he does.
At some point the operational centre running the Liberal Party’s federal election campaign has to consider the mess that Tony Abbott has got himself into with Rupert Murdoch.
Abbott was on track to win the election anyway. But that’s never going to wash with Rupert. That’s not going to get Abbott off the hook.
Under Col Allan, News Corp Australia has unleashed an extraordinary campaign to denigrate the Labor Prime Minister at every opportunity, while endlessly praising Tony Abbott.
There is a cost to this. First, Murdoch will demand his price . . . every year. It’s what he does.
Second, it looks like Col Allan isn’t going back to New York. He’s hanging around. He has six big papers to play with but only one style of journalism: it’s about brute force. It doesn’t really matter which government is in power. He has no other model. So he’ll be coming for you too.
News Corp Australia, whether overtly or not, will claim that it got Abbott into government. This puts Abbott into an impossible situation.
It undermines the legitimacy of his incoming government. This is not a partisan thing. You may or may not feel Abbott deserves to be PM. But whether you are a Liberal or Labor supporter. it’s absolutely unacceptable for a foreign company to be able to claim that it determined the Australian government.
In three states the only newspaper voice is Murdoch’s, as filtered by Col Allan. The underlying truth is that no country in the world can afford to have 65 per cent of its capital city newspaper sales owned by a meddlesome foreigner.
Many times over the years Murdoch’s people have threatened to turn the News Ltd papers loose on the government of the day, but in the end they haven’t. Wiser heads prevailed. Because it’s a card you can only play once.
And then there’s the message this graceless cabaret of an election sends to politicians in the UK and the US.
On the last day of the Leveson Inquiry in July 2012 David Sherborne, barrister for the hacking victims, warned: “Let us not be under any illusions here. Following the end of this stage of the inquiry . . . the counter-attack will start, as will perhaps the settling of old scores.”
Setting out to determine who governs Australia is a triple power play: Britain and the US should be aware that Rupert Murdoch is still in charge and his attitude to political power has not changed at all.
How do these things play out? An affidavit filed in 1998 by a former director of News International, describes a
“breakfast meeting at Mr Murdoch’s St James’ apartment on 24 March 1987… The meeting was constantly interrupted by telephone calls to Mr Murdoch including a call from Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke seeking support in his then unannounced forthcoming election. I have a contemporaneous diary note marked Document (3).”
Hawke had given Murdoch the go-ahead to buy the bulk of Australia’s newspapers. But that was four months earlier. Now when Hawke asked for Murdoch’s support, Murdoch said, “Well, what’s in it for me?”
The danger in having a foreigner control Australia’s newspapers is not just that he will use the papers to push his own commercial interest—for example against the National Broadband Network—but also that he will use them to push the brand of extremist politics favored by his political clique in the US, or that he may push another nation’s interests at Australia’s expense. Or that he may do all three things.
As a possible example, in the 1990s Irwin Stelzer, who was Rupert Murdoch’s closest confidant, wrote endlessly in the Sunday Times that joining the European Community was for bad for Britain, while explaining in the New York Post that Britain joining the EC was bad for the US. (In what I have always regarded as a sterling piece of upward management Stelzer’s columns were reprinted in the Courier Mail by its then editor, Chris Mitchell, the only paper in the world to do so).
Media ownership in Australia has been a balancing act since Paul Keating and Hawke waved through Murdoch’s 1987 Herald and Weekly Times Group takeover—Murdoch keeping his papers right of centre, continually critical of any Labor Government, but with a modicum of reserve, while the government of the day pretends that Murdoch is still an Australian.
The exception has been The Australian, which Mitchell has spent a decade forging into an ideological weapon. Elsewhere, Murdoch’s papers have been conservative but devoted most of their hostile fire to state politics. News Limited papers showed a tough, no-nonsense competence and professionalism.
Col Allan showed how hard this game could be played at the state level as editor of the Daily Telegraph in the 1990s. His photographers dogged state and local politicians until they caught them drinking in the wrong place, jaywalking or breaking road rules. As a merry jape he would superimpose politicians’ faces on film characters with outrageous headlines.
He would pick up on a perceived problem and splash with it, forcing then Premier Bob Carr to have a crisis response team always poised to deal with the Telegraph’s crise de jour. What was really at issue was not whatever had piqued the Tele’s attention. It was about power—the ability of a newspaper editor to slap the government around–and this game was an endless process.
The effect was paralyzing on government. Or at least on state government. Allan played federal politics pretty straight.
While this happened management was in limbo, first in that uncertain time when Lachlan Murdoch was taking over from Ken Cowley as head of News Australia, then from 2000 when Lachlan left Australia for New York.
Lachlan’s replacement as head of News Australia was John Hartigan. I suspect Lachlan saw him as an affable choice whom he could easily replace if his own US move didn’t work out.
After Lachlan resigned from News Corp in 2005 Hartigan remained in place amid continuing speculation that Rupert would coax Lachlan back to run News Australia. Harto was so instantly disposable.
But Lachlan never came back. In the mean time Australian operations continued on remote control, mostly run without interference from head office by the newspaper editors.
When Chase Carey (now CEO of 21st Century Fox) visited here last year he made it clear that Australia was hands-off territory. It was entirely Rupert Murdoch’s domain, a bit like the Murdoch family’s private playground.
As a consequence Australia could be seen not quite as a sheltered workshop but shaped by an absence of accountability, a lack of rigour—News Corp Australia as Neverland, run by his treasured editors, Rupert Murdoch’s Lost Boys.
After Murdoch held his annual meeting of newspaper editors at his ranch in California in April 2011 there were stories that the Australian editors had been briefed to target the Gillard Labor government in Canberra.
That month Chris Mitchell’s understudy at The Australian, Paul Whittaker, became editor of the Daily Telegraph in Sydney and he promptly began the work of transforming what had been a tabloid which generally ignored federal politics into an attack dog.
By late June 2011 the hacking scandal had engulfed News Corp UK. From that point the corporate imperative was to show that News Corp globally was a responsible corporate citizen, certainly not threatening governments. Fox News even dumped Glenn Beck and was for a brief period a little less fractious.
The memo didn’t get to Australia. Rupert’s Australian editors were Fire-and-Forget weapons. A little like old soldiers in the jungle who don’t pick up that the war has moved on, News Corp Australia maintained its direction and ferocity. “I certainly find it hard not to see some of the Leveson inquiry treatment of Rupert as McCarthyist and puerile,” Chris Mitchell wrote privately.
The Daily Telegraph photoshopped the Speaker, Peter Slipper, as a rat and ran a major hit on him about his expenses claims or other past conduct at least once a month for 15 months. This campaign culminated in paying the air fare of his then staffer, James Ashby, to Sydney where Ashby consulted with his lawyers for a bogus sexual harassment case after meeting with a News Limited executive.
In the face of unrelenting negative coverage from the News Ltd papers the Gillard government came to believe News had crossed the line. It sought to pass media reform which would disadvantage News but failed to get it up. The election campaign was always going to be bloody.
August 2013: Enter Col Allan.
Whatever had gone before now looked half-hearted. Allan brought the same tool box he had developed at the Telegraph in the 1990s, then used at the New York Post for the last decade: following deputy PM Anthony Albanese around until he had a drink with disgraced Craig Thompson; the outrageous headlines (‘Throw this mob out’), photoshopping the PM and deputy PM into an old Hogan’s Heroes scene).
Allan dragged up an old Facebook picture of one of Rudd’s sons for another splash—in the same fashion that the New York Post targeted Chelsea Clinton in 1998 after Joel Klein at the Department of Justice began a rare adverse action against News Corp.
This time in Australia it was the national government Col was aiming at—and it wasn’t just the Telegraph he was playing with. He had papers in six state capitals to wield. In Brisbane the Courier Mail once prided itself as the only serious News Ltd broadsheet (other than the Australian), even if it had recently gone compact.
Now when former Premier Peter Beattie announced he was running the Courier splashed with “Send in the Clown”. After the Brisbane election debate it splashed on Abbott’s line on the PM: “Does this guy ever shut up?” Bad as the front pages have been, they give no real feeling for the page after page of anti-government stories inside. And there is no other print voice in Queensland, or South Australia, Tasmania or the Northern Territory.
This is classic Col Allan journalism. You can type him as right-wing or conservative but that misses the point. There are no genuine politics to this movement. It works just as well with any government. It’s about power.
To make it quite clear where the avalanche of pro-Abbott stories is coming from (and who is ready to receive a new government’s grateful thanks), Rupert Murdoch himself has taken up the cause on Twitter, tweeting that Abbott is a rare man of conviction while Rudd is all over the place. The tweets are about putting down a place marker. And not just for Australia.
From further afield, what politicians in Britain and the US can draw from this is that leaving Rupert Murdoch with a flesh wound is like writing a suicide note. He is taking names. He will come after you.
For Abbott, the most alarming aspect of this situation is that the primary reason Allan is here is not just to win Abbott his election. Murdoch sent Allan to Australia to fix up his papers because they are failing.
Allan’s solution is a new model of journalism—or rather, Allan’s own very very old style of journalism, which is about continual fights and turf wars with the government. Any government. He’s going for the circulation gain.
What that means is that Allan probably will be hanging around. His work is not yet done, though he promised Joe Pompeno of Capital magazine in New York, “I will return”. Even if and when he goes back to New York, the effect here will continue. Murdoch’s editors will be looking over their shoulders, trying to match what is expected of them.
What would Col do?
Because this style of crazy, debilitating attacks on government is not just a journalism model. It’s a business model. All it needs is a government. Any government. Any ideas?