Politics Analysis

Australian journalists need to stop legitimising Murdoch and Trump

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(Cartoon by Mark David / @MDavidCartoons)

Sky News’ ability to create a media storm about Donald Trump attacking Kevin Rudd shows how easily Australian journalists are played.

This episode also raises questions about the Australian media’s capacity to do watchdog journalism in the public interest.

Former Prime Ministers Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull have both criticised News Corp for acting more like a political party than a media organisation. This political game-playing was on full display in Sky News’ recent scandalous weaponising of Donald Trump’s boorishness to try to cause political problems for Australia’s U.S. ambassador, Kevin Rudd.

As reported by ABC’s Media Watch, Sky News arranged for its friendly UK cousin, GB News, to have host Nigel Farage, the extremist Right-wing ex-politician, provoke Trump to attack Rudd in a televised interview.

Trump appeared to not know who Rudd was. When told that Rudd had warned people that Trump was a dangerous political leader – which is true – in his usual incoherent and venomous fashion, Trump called Rudd “nasty” and “not the brightest bulb”.

Trump’s behaviour is characteristically unfitting of an ex-president and current presidential candidate. But as per usual, Australian media, like most of its U.S. peers, took Trump’s outburst to be a legitimate political statement and created a media storm framing the outburst as a problem for Rudd — not a problem for Trump.

Sky News was thrilled to have provoked the increasingly deranged Trump into abusing Australia’s U.S. Ambassador. It also enjoyed setting an agenda across the whole Australian media which dutifully followed Sky News’ lead in hyping up the incident and giving it legitimacy.

Sky News then followed up with another story reporting Kevin Rudd was furious at it for creating this faux-drama.

It confirmed it was done as revenge on Rudd, with presenter Sharri Markson admitting:

“Rudd can't expect us not to ask Trump about these comments when Rudd spent years calling for a royal commission into our company and endlessly criticised our public interest journalism.”

The Sky News team and its News Corp colleagues surely laugh at themselves when they make statements like this, suggesting they do public-interest journalism. Their political game-playing – as per their own admission in attacking Rudd as a sadistic form of political revenge – is all in aid of their own power and influence. They work directly against the public interest and do so by design.

The entire point of their news organisation is to participate in politics under the façade of journalism, using the genre of news and commentary manipulatively as a form of political campaigning.

News Corp’s political game-playing is well known and understood in Australian media. As the country’s largest and most influential news organisation, News Corp uses its power for political purposes to skew democracy in favour of its Right-wing political and cultural interests. We all know that this is happening and has been happening for decades — so, why do journalists at other outlets so willingly play along?

News Corp’s competitors had three options when it came to the Trump versus Rudd story.

They could ignore it, choosing not to give it oxygen when it was so clearly a political stunt by News Corp and their nasty GB News mates. They could also act as watchdogs on media power by calling it out as a political stunt and discussing why it’s concerning that News Corp uses the façade of news and commentary to wage political campaigns.

Or, they could treat it as a credible story and support News Corp’s campaigning by creating a media storm about it, legitimising Sky News’ political game-playing in the process. Australian journalists, in the vast majority, chose option three, which is a hugely concerning indictment on all of them.

Even worse, not only did they choose to give unearned legitimacy to this beat-up, but they also used it as a stick with which to beat the Albanese Government. For example, ABC’s Jake Evans wrote that Trump had thrown Rudd’s ‘future into question’.

Phillip Coorey and Matthew Cranston at the Australian Financial Review used the incident to pressure Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Foreign Minister Penny Wong to ‘back Rudd’, implying that they might have concerns about his role as Ambassador due to Trump’s unhinged attack.

Matthew Knott at Nine’s papers called the Labor Government’s appointment of Rudd as U.S. Ambassador a ‘bomb waiting to explode’ and said all Donald Trump did was innocently light the fuse.

Australian journalists seem to like to be played by News Corp as a violin. But there is also another major issue with them joining in Sky News’ attack on Kevin Rudd and Labor. The whole incident has shown that, just like they do when News Corp is misbehaving, the Australian mainstream media has no intention of holding Donald Trump to account for his unacceptable behaviour.

Trump’s egregiously rude attack on Rudd should be reported as a problematic way for a presidential candidate to treat a major allies’ ambassador. Yet, as is usually the case when Trump misbehaves, rather than report that he is misbehaving, Australian journalists – like many of their U.S. peers – report his behaviour as if it is entirely normal.

There seems to be a mass acceptance that Trump does things “differently” than other political leaders. Instead of holding him to account, his behaviour is normalised and thus legitimised by the media.

On top of this, Trump’s already dreadfully rude behaviour is becoming increasingly unhinged. Salon reported that over 100 U.S. doctors have signed an open letter diagnosing Trump with probable dementia. This piece makes the point that someone experiencing such a steep decline in his mental capacities should not be in control of nuclear weapons, yet, ‘Not enough people are sounding the alarm’ about Trump being ‘dangerously demented’.

This dangerous dementia seemed to be apparent when Trump admitted he had never heard of Kevin Rudd. Not only did he seem to not know the name of Australia’s U.S. Ambassador, something which should be reported as a concerning misstep for a credible presidential candidate, but had Trump really never heard of former Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd? Or had he known him previously, but forgotten he existed?

The fact that no one in the Australian mainstream media even thought to make this point is possibly the most concerning part of this whole sorry saga.

Dr Victoria Fielding is an Independent Australia columnist. You can follow Victoria on Twitter @DrVicFielding.

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