The Oz has always been thin-skinned, and my piece in the Fin the week before last attacking the Murdoch press (I’ve reprinted it over the fold) was bound to elicit a reaction. It came in the form of a full-length hit piece, written by Michael Stutchbury and including a fair few quotations to this blog. The headline An economist who is good in theory but on the far left in practice gives the general line. It has a bit of a phoned-in feel, like an exercise in party solidarity rather than a sudden concern with my errors
and obviously wasn’t a spontaneous outburst – Stutchbury told me had been directed to write it. That’s part of the price of working for the Empire these days (compare Caroline Overington’s part in the attack in Julie Posetti).
Mostly, the piece doesn’t misrepresent me – it’s quite true that I think Barack Obama is too centrist, and that Julia Gillard doesn’t care about equality. However, as I said to Stutchbury during our phone conversation, it’s a bit precious to complain about various pieces of colorful language on my part in a paper which referred to me as having a “totalitarian mindset”. At least, unlike the anonymous editorialist who penned that description, Stutchbury calls me out by name rather than coyly referring to “an opinion writer in a financial tabloid“.
More significantly, Stutchbury ducks the issue on climate change, saying
On climate change, Murdoch has backed giving the planet the benefit of the doubt. The Australian supports putting a price on carbon over Tony Abbott’s direct action. But the journalistic default should include some scepticism over whether scientists can accurately predict the climate decades ahead.
He must be reading a different paper to the one that has now racked up 60+ entries in Tim Lambert’s Australian War on Science series. And that’s without considering the truly appalling stuff put out by News International outlets like Fox and the Sunday Times.
Update Michael Stutchbury has called me to take issue with my statement that he told me he had been directed to write the piece. That was my recollection of our conversation, but he was very firm in rejecting it, and I’m not going to insist on my version of events, so I’ve struck out that part of the original post.
Only answer is to cut News’s reach
As recently as June, the imperial power of the Murdoch empire was at its full flower. The parts were impressive, but the whole was so much more than the sum. At the top end, the ownership of some of the world’s leading newspapers, such as The Times and the Wall Street Journal, gave the Murdochs a status and influence few press magnates have ever exceeded.
At the bottom end, tabloid papers provided both cash flow and a direct line of personal attack on any political or public figure foolish enough to cross the Murdoch interest. The picture was completed by electronic media interests like Sky and Fox, which not only amplified the power of the print media, but benefitted from an endless stream of political favours flowing from those eager to please the Murdochs or turn away their wrath.
Within a few short weeks, much of this edifice has collapsed, and much of the rest is in danger. The revelation that Murdoch’s News of the World had hacked the voicemail of a murdered schoolgirl, deleting messages in the hope of receiving more, opened the floodgates. A week later News of the World had been closed down, but by then the issue of illegal hacking was only a secondary part of the story.
After initially focusing on the ‘bad apples’ at the News of the World, members of the British political class, led by Ed Miliband of the Labour (one of the few figures not personally implicated in the process), revolted against decades of servitude to the Murdoch empire. That servitude had embroiled not only the leadership of both major political parties, but the Metropolitan police force which has now seen the resignation of its two most senior officers.
With leading Murdoch lieutenants Rebekah Brooks and Les Hinton having already resigned, and Brooks facing possible criminal charges, almost no-one in the UK elite can regard their position as safe. The Prime Minister, David Cameron is vulnerable, having displayed, at best, appallingly bad judgement.
The Murdochs themselves are at risk on many fronts, including possible civil and criminal prosecutions in both the UK and US, and challenges from the long-suffering shareholders of News Corporation. At a minimum, the litigation from the thousands of phone hacking victims will keep NewsCorp tied up in court for years to come.
Going beyond the press, the connections are now being drawn between the seemingly unchallengeable impunity of the Murdoch empire and that of the British elite as a whole, and most notably the banking sectors. Just as Murdoch seemed able to buy or bully his way out of any potential trouble, so the banks got off scot-free from the global financial crisis. Meanwhile, Cameron’s Conservative government is demanding that ordinary Britons pay the price of austerity to cover the debts run up in the rescue operations of 2008 and 2009. The crisis over Murdoch has re-energised resistance to the whole program of bank-backed austerity.
Such periods of political spring are inevitably short and business as usual will doubtless be restored in due course. By then, however, the revolt may have carried away not only much of Murdoch’s UK empire but the capacity of the government to push through a program based on a spurious premise of shared sacrifice.
What are the implications of all this for Australia? It seems unlikely that there has been any significant phone hacking here: that appears to be a UK-specific pathology. But in other respects, the power of News Corporation and the shamelessness with which that power is used to promote the political and commercial interests of the Murdoch empire is even greater here than in the UK.
The blatantly fact-free political campaigns run by News Corporation on issues such as climate change and fiscal stimulus have created huge difficulties for the Labor government (the Obama Administration in the US has had similar problems). Dealings between governments and the press are constrained by a set of conventions based on the presumption that the press is supposed to present a more or less accurate report of the events they cover and that governments are obligated to treat the press as a group seeking to find and report the truth. When that ceases to be the case, as it has done with News Corporation, it is hard to know how to respond.
We need a new set of institutions and assumptions to deal with the kind of openly partisan press represented by News Corporation. The first step must be to cut its power back to a more manageable level.