Of Vices and Newspaper Men

Thomas Mitchell

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It’s easy to satirise The Daily Telegraph. The News Corp paper has ceased any pretence of fairness or balance. Screaming headlines during the 2013 election – like the notorious “Kick this mob out”, “Does this guy ever shut up”, and the priceless, and pretty weird, “Hair brained; A fly takes a liking to Kevin Rudd’s head yesterday” – show how flippantly Murdoch and many of his editors wield the political axe.

But, who’s laughing? Well, there are the cynics laughing at the Tele, and the fools who lap it up. More than that, though, there’s the Rupert Murdoch and the Tele itself.

In 1992, the British Sun ran the infamous headline “It’s the Sun wot won it”. For The Daily Telegraph, this headline probably isn’t politically accurate, but financially, it’s a winner.

The Daily Telegraph has almost the highest circulation of any print newspaper. The paper’s influence probably isn’t as noxious as you think, though.

It’s usually assumed that swinging voters will be most strongly affected by media campaigns, but this isn’t always the case.

Studies show that the least and most informed voters share a common resistance to bias. For the former, it’s because they’re probably buying the Tele for the NRL section, and for the latter, because they have better informed positions due to higher media consumption.

Indeed, it would seem the majority of The Daily Telegraph’s readership is only interested in the NRL section. In January 2013, an Essential Research survey of the paper’s readers found the Tele had the least credibility amongst their own readers of any Australian paper in the study. Just 48 per cent of their readers trusted the Tele, and 50 per cent did not.

Still, it is pretty worrying to have The Daily Telegraph capering about so viciously during election campaigns. Content analysis done during the election wrap up by the communist ABC program Media Watch found that of 193 political stories, just 6 were pro-Labor and 43 pro-Coalition. Only 5 were anti-Coalition, while a staggering 143 were found to be anti-Labor. The remaining 86 were judged neutral.

Those at the shallow end of this dream pool were (justifiably) outraged; the Press Council received around 200 complaints over media bias during the 2013 election campaign, mostly against the Murdoch tabloids.

To be fair to the Libs, this isn’t always a partisan phenomenon. In his 1972 election tilt, Gough Whitlam was similarly the beneficiary of Murdoch’s favour. The honeymoon was short-lived, though, as Whitlam crashed or crashed through.

When The Daily Telegraph soured towards Whitlam, stories and headlines similar to the recent bout flourished. For example, the Tele’s city edition of 1 December 1975 claimed “Welfare Bludgers Get $350 A Week”. The country edition claimed the total was $700. In fact, the figure was actually $350 per week for a household of four adults and six children.

It’s an easy conclusion to draw that Murdoch’s papers run along the most profitable political lines, making money out of sensationalism.

Looking at the weekday circulation figures for print newspapers from Enhanced Media Metrics Australia and the Standard Media Index, The Daily Telegraph has been outsold only by its Victorian Murdoch stablemate the Herald Sun over the last few quarters. The Sunday Telegraph has consistently been the highest selling weekend print newspaper.

Despite this, in a surprise appointment during the run-up to the 2013 election campaign, a longtime Murdoch crusader, Col Allan, was recruited to provide “extra editorial leadership” in the run-up to the 2013 election. He thought the paper’s screaming headlines were a bit boring, and his appointment and involvement in the 2013 election coverage seemed a tacit endorsement of The Daily Telegraph’s worsening penchant for sensationalism over substance.

Finances are one possible motive for Murdoch’s crusades. News Corp’s Foxtel will indeed be challenged by the NBN, as Kevin Rudd suggested was the reason for Murdoch’s bias last year. Also, a government as libertarian as Abbott’s is clearly good for business prospects overall. But this paints too simplistic a picture of Murdoch as a cartoonish capitalist clown. It seems most likely that ego and influence drive Murdoch’s Australian press ventures. In 2007, he famously revealed to journalist Ken Auletta that “being involved with the editor of a paper in a day-to-day campaign… trying to influence people” was the thing he most enjoyed about his business empire.

According to Media academic David McKnight, “If commercial advantage was Murdoch’s real measure of success, he would have closed newspapers like The Australian, London’s The Times and the New York Post many years ago. All lose money.”

The Australian is reportedly subsidised for losses of around $25 – 30 million annually, and The Times has been in the red for many years. The New York Post has never made money under Murdoch.

Indeed, it was under the widely celebrated Col Allan’s editorship that the New York Post slipped from running a loss of around $20 million per year, to something more like $100 million.

So while the financial success of Murdoch’s tabloids does seem to be proportional to their vitriol, there are clearly other, more personal, factors at play too.

News Corp controls 60 per cent of Australian newspapers, and 70 per cent of daily metropolitan circulation. Whether Murdoch’s motivation is profit, or in simply “trying to influence people”, they serve the Murdochs and weaken the press as a Fourth Estate.

If The Daily Telegraph’s readers don’t buy whatever political agenda they’re selling, let alone the rest of us, and Rupert’s not exactly laughing all the way to the bank, that really only leaves Rupert Murdoch laughing indulgently to himself.

In June, Malcolm Turnbull released an anodyne discussion paper on “Media Ownership and Control” reforms, signalling he wants industry consent on the more dramatic propositions.

Turnbull’s process doesn’t look promising; hopefully Labor’s recent experience will give it impetus to address Australia’s media laws next time.

Although, that might depend on the next election…