Thursday 16 Aug 2018 | 04:28 | SYDNEY
Thursday 16 Aug 2018 | 04:28 | SYDNEY

Murdoch, liberalism and international broadcasting


Graeme Dobell

31 October 2008 08:20

One cross carried by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation is that Rupert Murdoch has long been at war with the British Broadcasting Corporation. Rupert is anti-BBC (and, by extension here in the antipodes, anti-ABC) for all the usual Thatcherite/neocon reasons. The publicly funded broadcaster pushes agendas which are trendy/soft headed /socialist/greenie/left-wing/biased/ politically correct….(you get the idea).

Beyond such issues of politics and principle, though, there is also the matter of cash. Rupert battles the BBC because its existence is an important influence on the TV market in Britain. Perhaps even more significantly, the BBC helps set the boundaries of the regulatory regime in Britain. Thus, the BBC has a strong say about what Murdoch can achieve with one of his great TV cash cows, Sky.

In the way of Rupert’s empire, his papers in Australia long ago picked up the anti-BBC vibe, and diatribes against the public broadcaster here have been a staple of the op-ed and editorial pages. The Howard era gave an extra edge to the ABC-bashing. The ABC claims the loyalty of many traditional Liberal voters. This produces a troubling nexus, encapsulated in the lament by one of Howard’s lieutenants that the problem with the ABC is that, 'it’s our enemy talking to our friends.'

All this is part of the scene-setting for what looms as a fascinating set of Boyer lectures by Rupert Murdoch on the ABC, starting next weekend.

In talking on 'A Golden Age of Freedom', how does one of the greatest Australian exports of the last century view the chances for global capitalism in this century? Do newspapers have a future? Oh, and what about that war in Iraq that Rupert famously opined was going to deliver us all cheap oil?

The Boyer ruminations will cast light on the suggestion that the 77-year-old mogul is turning into a liberal – well, the American version of a liberal. The liberal revelation comes from Michael Wolff, a contributing editor of Vanity Fair, who is writing yet another biography of Citizen Rupert. In the October edition of the magazine, Wolff gave a glimpse of what he has discovered about Murdoch moving away from the version of his beliefs offered by the Fox network: Here’s the headline – Rupert Murdoch is becoming a liberal.'

Given what is happening in America at the moment, Rupert de-Foxing himself and converting to liberalism is a little like Richard Nixon’s proclamation that, “We’re all Keynesians now.” Being a liberal may be the minimum qualification necessary for any media magnate who needs to seek a favour in Obamaland. And magnates seek favours the way magnets go after metal.

Word of Rupert’s conversion to liberalism and the value of public institutions may be slow reaching Oz. Witness the latest column from Malcom Colless on the wicked ABC and how its international efforts are not really promoting Australia’s interests in the Asia Pacific.

The Colless view is that the ABC’s international radio and TV arms – Radio Australia and Australia Network – 'leave Australia hopelessly outgunned in the rapidly developing communications battle for relevance in the region.' There were some classic Murdochian op-ed lashes at the ABC’s 'political correctness' and 'precious egos', 'the shibboleths extolling the sanctity of editorial independence inside the ABC', and 'the ABC’s paranoia about the evils of advertising.'

Personal declaration: I have worked for the ABC and Radio Australia since 1975, so I am as much a product of its culture as Malcolm is a Murdochian after his more than three decades at News Ltd.

I will offer no defence of the ABC’s international effort. Instead, let me offer one explanation of the Colless view of journalism and point to one omission in his thoughts on the $20 million that Foreign Affairs gives each year to Australia Network.

EXPLANATION: Some may be puzzled by the reference to 'shibboleths extolling the sanctity of editorial independence'. In the Murdoch world, this is a shorthand version of the argument that the Fairfax papers and the ABC have been captured by their left-wing journalists. The criticism is that they have turned into worker cooperatives which use the idea of 'editorial independence' to protect their control. It’s a strange reading of how you draw the best value from journalists and a free press, I grant you, but it turns up regularly in The Australian. The view only makes any sense if you relate it to the News Ltd. editorial culture.

Rupert Murdoch seldom has to worry about who is in charge on his papers. At News Ltd. the pesky liberal journos are controlled and directed by a strong 'backbench'. The backbench is where the editors and top sub-editors shape the paper. When operating properly, a strong backbench gives consistency and direction to a paper. At its worst – witness the harlot end of Fleet Street – the strong backbench dreams up weird headlines and demands that the hacks come up with reporting to match the headline.

OMISSION: The one thing Colless forgot to mention is that there is only one realistic competitor to the ABC to run Australia Network. And that competitor is – surprise – the Australian arm of Sky TV, partly owned by Rupert Murdoch. The five year international TV contract, let by Foreign Affairs, comes up for renewal in 2010.

Channel Nine – sinking under debt – will not be in the race. Channel Seven had its go at running the Asia Pacific TV service and the effort went broke. Channel Ten’s minimal reporting resources mean it’s a non-starter. Sky was the one true contestant when the ABC had its contract renewed in 2005.

Alexander Downer’s decision to leave the international service with the ABC was an unusual example of a politician saying 'no' to the business interests of Rupert Murdoch. But Downer did one thing to give hope to Sky. He changed the name of the service from ABC Asia Pacific to Australia Network. That means there’d be no need to strip the ABC from the masthead if the contract went to a different bidder.

Next time you read a Murdochian musing on the need to project a strong, credible voice in our international television service for the Asia Pacific, remember the colour of the Sky in Rupertworld.