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Liberal Party and News Corp Voice coverage right on script

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Cartoon by Mark David/@markdavidcartoons

News Corp's coverage of the Voice Referendum is materially similar to the Liberal Party's talking points, writes Dr Victoria Fielding.

*Also listen to the audio version of this article on Spotify HERE.

AMONGST THE explosive revelations exposed in correspondence between the Secretary of the Home Affairs Department, Michael Pezzullo and Liberal Party "power broker" Scott Briggs was an incredible peek behind the curtain into the cosy relationship between the Liberal Party and powerful media shock jock Alan Jones.

On his 2GB radio show in 2019, Jones uncharacteristically began advocating for the release of the Murugappan family from the Christmas Island Detention Centre.

Tamil asylum seekers Nades and Priya Murugappan arrived in Australia in 2012 and 2013. They settled in the Queensland town of Biloela and had two daughters, with the family becoming much-loved members of the community.

When their appeals for asylum were rejected, they were detained by Australian Border Force officials in March 2018. In 2019, the Liberal National Government tried to fly them back to Sri Lanka but were stopped by a court injunction mid-flight. The family were then sent to Christmas Island. They were the only inhabitants in the detention centre and were treated like criminals, kept under 24-hour security.

A community campaign to bring the Murugappan family "Home to Bilo", brought nationwide compassion to the plight of asylum seekers locked up in indefinite detention. This campaign had some unexpected supporters, including Barnaby Joyce, who defied the Coalition to call for the family’s release. It is noteworthy that a 2019 letter has since emerged in which Joyce apologised to Opposition Leader Peter Dutton for doing so.

Alan Jones was also a surprise supporter of the family.

He said:

“I can’t get my head around this… I have argued in my letters to the Prime Minister that they are exactly the type of people we should be encouraging to move to regional areas, to chip in where regional areas can’t get workers. Peter Dutton and the [Coalition] Government say they’ve removed all children from detention centres in Australia. That’s not true, is it?”

It was not only surprising that Jones showed compassion and empathy for the Murugappan family, something he rarely showed anyone else, but also because he went so off script in his usual cheering support for anything and everything the Liberal and National parties did.

For example, in a 2017 interview with then-Immigration Minister, Peter Dutton, Jones asked Dutton if he agreed that lawyers offering to assist asylum seekers were "un-Australian".

Dutton replied:

“Of course it is.”

Thanks to the text messages between Pezzullo and Briggs, the public has an insight into how the Secretary of the Home Affairs Department and his "power broker" mate reacted to Jones going off-script about the Murugappan family. And this insight raises all kinds of alarm bells.

The Age reports that on 21 August 2019, Pezzullo sent Briggs a WhatsApp message that read:

'What's the go with Alan Jones and the Sri Lankan family?'

Briggs replied:

I think he is in a bad place at the moment. Under enormous pressure to retire. And so I think his remarks are part of broader problem he has with us at the moment... We've brokered a peace meeting this week to reset the relationship which should help calm him down on all fronts.

Pezzullo then wrote:

'In the meantime, he'll rant about this family I presume'.

If you think this sounds more than a little suspect, you would be right. Remember that Briggs was known to have deep links to the Liberal Party, serving as the deputy director of the NSW Liberal Party from August 2005 to 2007. According to his LinkedIn career history, he had stints at Nine Entertainment Co. in regulatory affairs and was Commercial Director at Foxtel’s Fox Sports.

When he had the conversation with Pezzullo about Alan Jones, Briggs was a principal at Southern Strategy — 'a professional consulting firm specialising in government and general corporate and commercial advisory'. He was also chairman and co-founder of PACE First — 'an independent risk, security and crisis consultancy'.

In what capacity Briggs was referring to Alan Jones’ “problem with us”, is unclear. But it is well known that Briggs was a close ally of Scott Morrison’s before and after he became PM. So close, in fact, that Pezzullo congratulated Briggs for playing a “blinder” when Morrison betrayed Malcolm Turnbull and Peter Dutton to win the 2018 Liberal leadership spill.

That people like Briggs, a consultant whose clients are unknown, who is not a democratically elected politician, and not a staffer working under the transparent eye of freedom of information policies, can hold enough power to mediate in secret between a Prime Minister and a powerful public service leader is scary enough.

But to also find out that Briggs was responsible for brokering peace between the Liberal National Government and Alan Jones is truly shocking. But the thing is, such a revelation is paradoxically both astonishing, while also entirely unsurprising.

As a researcher studying media representation of political contestation, my findings regularly find that Right-wing media reporting and commentary closely follow the Liberal Party political script.

This symbiosis is so close that it is usually impossible to differentiate between a Liberal Party politician opposing progressive policies in parliament and a media talking head like Alan Jones ranting against progressive policies in the media.

In the Murdoch Referendum Accountability Project, we have found that 70 per cent of arguments about the Voice platformed by The Australian, The Daily Telegraph, Herald Sun and Sky News, are "No" arguments.

This imbalance is far more extreme amongst commentators, with 88 per cent of arguments "No". The majority of the "No" arguments at News Corp are presented not by external sources from the "No" campaign, but by News Corp voices themselves.

News Corp commentators, including particularly Andrew Bolt, Peta Credlin, Sharri Markson and Rita Panahi, are waging a scare campaign against the Voice, with some of this fearmongering underpinned by blatant misinformation.

If there is some "Liberal-aligned-power-broker-lobbyist-consultant" working in the shadows keeping an eye on News Corp’s Voice coverage, they would have little need to broker a peace meeting to reset their relationship with Australia’s largest media organisation.

The relationship is not only plainly intact, it is stunningly on script.

*This article is also available on audio here:

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

If you would like updates from the Australians for a Murdoch Royal Commission Murdoch Referendum Accountability Project, join here.

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