Politics Analysis

Murdoch’s power eroded by Victorian Election cooker conspiracies

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(Cartoon by Mark David / @MDavidCartoons)

The mainstream media's desperate bid to disgrace Victorian Premier Dan Andrews has revealed the absolute lunatic depths to which News Corp will sink, writes Dr Victoria Fielding.

I HAVE LONG been fascinated by the way a loss of political capital can undermine political power. I now wonder if Rupert Murdoch’s Herald Sun’s crackpot reporting of the Victorian Election campaign is a case of vanishing media capital.

Like a glass of capital water being spilled, former PM John Howard irretrievably spilled his political legitimacy by accepting lies about weapons of mass destruction when taking Australia to war in Iraq. He then over-reached again on industrial relations with WorkChoices' so-called reforms, leading him to lose the 2007 Election and his seat.

 A similar fate awaited Scott Morrison when, first, he said he didn’t hold a hose during the 2019-20 bushfire crisis and then he said the vaccine rollout was not a race. There was no going back for him after that mass spillage.

I thought about this permeant loss of political-media capital – a loss of legitimacy and in turn, political power – when I watched the Herald Sun’s unhinged attacks on Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews during the 2022 State Election campaign.

The Murdoch media’s hatred for Labor governments and particularly intense hatred of Daniel Andrews seem to have driven it way over the edge of credible news reporting. And let’s be honest, it was teetering way out on the edge already.

During the campaign, along with its usual wall-to-wall anti-Labor coverage, the Herald Sun promoted two extreme breaches of journalism ethics.

The first was an attempt to suggest a conspiracy in the handling of a car accident experienced by the premier’s wife, Catherine Andrews, with which the family had previously dealt at length.

The second was an unhinged conspiracy about Daniel Andrews’ 2021 injury resulting from a fall downstairs at a holiday rental. This cooker conspiracy was also promoted by Sky NewsPeta Credlin who claimed the synonym of stairs versus steps was a smoking gun.

Former Victorian Labor Premier Steve Bracks took great pleasure during the election night coverage, as did much of his audience, at pointing out to the Herald Sun that despite its 150 negative Labor stories, it had “zero influence” on the election outcome.

This loss of influence is fairly astounding considering the Herald Sun’s print and online audience of 4.5 million is the sixth largest readership in the country. However, it is not surprising that the Murdoch audience is not influenced, because if it was comprised of Labor voters, or even considering voting Labor, it would have stopped paying any attention to Murdoch outlets long ago.

Where the Herald Sun’s unhinged conspiracies have been more problematic for it is they are spilling its credibility and, in turn, hurting its agenda-setting power.

This power means it is not just Murdoch readers who are ear-bashed with anti-Labor coverage. Professor Matthew Ricketson argued that election campaigning by Murdoch outlets is ‘offset or diluted by the ABC’s coverage’, making Murdoch coverage less influential. Yet, this argument fails to address the influence Murdoch outlets have on the non-Murdoch outlets, like the ABC.

Media scholarship acknowledges that news outlets follow each others’ leads when it comes to agenda-setting. Dr Denis Muller made the point that the Victorian press pack misrepresented the Victorian Election as a close contest because it engaged in groupthink, believing each other’s misrepresentations to be more reliable than reality. This groupthink, and misplaced trust in each other is the reason Murdoch media has an outsized agenda-setting function across Australian media.

A worrying example of this Murdoch agenda-setting influence is the coverage of Catherine Andrews’ car accident during the Victorian Election. As critiqued by Media Watch, the day after the Herald Sun resurrected the car accident, the Premier was peppered with 17 questions about it by the press pack and outlets such as Channel 7, ABC News and Channel 10 led their news coverage with stories about the Premier’s past coming back to haunt him.

Outgoing ABC Editorial director Craig McMurtie recently gave further insight into why the ABC is so easily captured by politicised Murdoch narratives. McMurtie was at pains to reject criticism (by Murdoch media) that the ABC had an “anti-conservative bias”, a paranoia I have long worried leads the ABC to over-correct by consciously biasing its perspectives to the Right.

McMurtie described how, contrary to the complaints of conservative critics, ABC’s Insiders panel show is ‘dominated by non-ABC journalists’, including in the last year 42 Nine Media journalists, 28 from News Corporation, 19 from The Guardian, 13 from other outlets and 30 from the ABC.

We were reminded of just how dominant Right-wing voices are on the show when the morning after the Victorian Election, after the Herald Sun’s humiliating election reporting, Insiders hosted the Herald Sun’s political editor, James Campbell. Not once was Campbell asked to explain or justify his outlet’s politicised and unhinged campaigning and instead, he was taken for granted as a legitimate voice on the panel.

But, the good news is that despite the long-held grip the Murdoch media has had on an all-too-easily captured mainstream media, unhinged coverage such as the Herald Sun stairs reporting is spilling its media capital.

Journalist and journalism academic Dr Margaret Simons pointed out that the car crash coverage made it difficult for Herald Sun journalists to ever be believed if they do break a political scandal — the boy who cried wolf argument.

Furthermore, despite non-Murdoch outlets jumping on the car accident coverage, they seemed to draw the line at the stairs/steps conspiracy. It is possible that outlets like the ABC and Nine saw how demeaning it would be to report something quite this deranged and so ignored this agenda.

That is why I think perhaps when the Herald Sun decided to go down the stairs conspiracy to attack Daniel Andrews, it over-reached. Hopefully, its agenda-setting power has been spilled by the shattering of its media capital glass.

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

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