Politics Opinion

News Corp denies Albanese Government any credit for success

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(Cartoon by Mark David / @MDavidCartoons)

Despite its many achievements, the Albanese Government is denied credit in the mainstream media, which turns every success into a failure. Paul Begley reports.

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

IN A 2018 paper, economic sociologist Dr Oleg Komlik recalled a story about a 2002 dinner at which former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was asked to nominate her greatest legacy. Her reply was, “Tony Blair and New Labour. We forced our opponents to change their minds”.

Tony Blair as good as confirmed that assessment in a 2013 BBC interview. He recalled how “immensely kind and generous” Thatcher was to him when he was Prime Minister.

To that recollection, he added:

“Certain reforms she made, for example in Trade Union Law... we kept the basic legal framework... We didn’t renationalise many of state industries that she privatised... I always thought my job was to build on some of the things that she had done rather than reverse them... Many of the things she said... had a certain creditability... Whenever I wanted to ask her for advice, she would always give it... in a genuine, spirited way.”

When reflecting on Blair’s signature leadership of the illegal Coalition of the Willing on the false premise of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, it’s worth being mindful that it was a rare example of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire in Britain giving support to a Labour government via his mass circulation papers The Sun and News of the World.

What that meant was discrediting anyone who raised doubts about the false premise on which the Iraq War was initiated. That was a big job, with 121 Labour MPs breaking ranks in February 2003 on Blair’s hasty commitment to move ahead with the invasion of Iraq rather than further inspection.

The Guardian reported that the war motion passed the House of Commons with Tory support, though key Blair adviser Alastair Campbell made clear that Murdoch was pushing the Prime Minister on the danger of delay, a U.S. Republican position. Campbell wrote in his diary that on 11 March 2003, Murdoch phoned Blair on the matter, a call that Blair told him he regarded as “crude” and “not very clever”. Perhaps so, but it was effective.

Blair was persuaded not to wait for the results of the weapons inspectors but to push ahead with former U.S. President George Bush, former Australian PM John Howard and others in the coalition on preparations for an immediate invasion of Iraq, setting aside the objections of intelligence officers and a great many of his Labour Party colleagues.

Like Blair, since winning government in May 2022, the Albanese Government has surprised many of its supporters by adopting many of the signature policy positions of the Morrison Government.

They include:

  • the adoption of Morrison’s uncosted AUKUS national security policy on which Prime Minister Albanese put an eye-watering price tag of $368 billion;
  • promising not to repeal the $20.4 billion Stage 3 tax cuts for wealthy Australians;
  • granting fossil-fuel mining approvals;
  • adopting a knee-jerk black-and-white pro-Israeli position on the Israeli-Gaza War which quickly developed shades of grey; and
  • persisting with the trials of whistleblowers David McBride and Richard Boyle, whose bravery revealed criminal corruption in the Australian Defence Force and the Australian Tax Office respectively.

To those could be added Albanese’s promise not to fire senior public servants and heads of agencies, despite a number of them having displayed a distinct Liberal Party lean, in contrast with their duty to act as impartial administrators. Senior figures such as Kathryn Campbell, Mike Pezzullo, Greg Moriarty, Stephanie Foster, Reece Kershaw and Ita Buttrose come to mind.

It's as though the party that won the 2022 Election under the leadership of Anthony Albanese using a small target strategy, has decided to persist with the strategy in government by doing nothing that would incur the wrath of its opponents in the Parliament, the public service or the dominant Murdoch media.

That said, the Albanese Government has not been a “do nothing” government.

Apart from mending international relationships and beginning to fix visa and immigration corruption, it has:

A level of risk attended all these initiatives and they were all the subject of attack from the Opposition and News Corp at some level. Yet on the very big communication issue that ensures getting credit where credit is due for its positive work, Albanese has shown no appetite for reforming rules that would assist in imposing limits on media ownership as a way to facilitate a reasonable degree of media diversity.

It’s not for lack of knowledge about the problem and nor does the idea lack support. Led by Malcolm Turnbull, Kevin Rudd and Sharan Burrow, more than half a million Australians signed a petition calling on the Government to initiate a royal commission on the Murdoch media’s venomous influence on public affairs in this country. They were joined by a similar motion moved by MP Zoe Daniel in the House of Representatives and a bill drafted by Senator Sarah Hanson-Young in the Upper House. To date, the Albanese Government has ensured that those calls land on deaf ears.

I am aware of government resistance to listening, having written a respectful formal letter on media diversity to Communications Minister Michelle Rowland in June 2022. Well over a year later, no response to the letter or to reminders about it being unanswered has been received.

That said, it’s clear that deaf ears on the Murdoch question go beyond Rowland, despite her being the nominally responsible minister.

Rowland did not attend a meeting three months after Labor won office in August 2022 at which Deputy PM Richard Marles, Foreign Minister Penny Wong and Albanese met with Lachlan Murdoch and senior News Corp executives. The “stony silence” on requests for what was discussed at that meeting is curious given Albanese’s election promises about transparency and “doing government differently”, a reference to Scott Morrison’s obsession with secrecy.

The hoops that former Senator Rex Patrick had to jump through in order to get access to Albanese’s diary suggests the Labor PM might share an unfortunate trait with his predecessor.

Avoiding the trouble that taking on Murdoch would cause could be taken as a Labor strategy designed to win a second term in government. However, it’s only a strategy that makes sense if it isn’t strikingly apparent that News Corp works tirelessly to either not report Albanese’s achievements or to turn them into negative stories.

At the same time, News Corp outlets work relentlessly to promote Opposition Leader Peter Dutton as a heroic speaker of truths that “woke” mouths are not game to utter. And as the dominant media voice in Australia, sharing 86 per cent of outlets with one other like-minded owner, News Corp manages to set the default that other legacy media players increasingly follow, including the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s once robust news service.

The most recent example of the strategy has been to surrender to Dutton’s Liberal Party hysteria on refugee detention policy following the High Court decision that indefinite detention of refugees is illegal. Dutton falsely characterised the release of refugees as a Labor Party initiative, knowing full well that the Government does not control decisions made by the High Court.

He has also successfully whipped up a frenzy in the media about the release of 81 refugees who had been detained with criminal convictions but had served their time. Using language reminiscent of his mentor, Donald Trump, Dutton has repeated the calls he has made in the past about refugees being “rapists, murderers and paedophiles”.

His insistence that they be detained indefinitely ignores the fact that Australia has a parole system for prisoners who have served their time and are released into the community despite their criminal history. Displaying his faux tough-guy credentials, Dutton demanded special draconian conditions must apply to the release of the 81 refugees based on his populist rhetoric, to which the Albanese Government acquiesced with fast-track legislation, thus giving Dutton’s alarmism a credibility it does not deserve.

The Government now has possession of the Nixon Report on Australia’s visa system which, according to The Mandarin, reveals:

‘Gaps and weaknesses in the immigration system have allowed organised crime and unsavoury characters to thrive...’

The damning report found ‘criminal syndicates have exploited the Australian visa system to facilitate human trafficking, modern slavery, illegal sex work, illicit drug importation and money laundering’. These abuses of the system occurred during Dutton’s administration as Home Affairs Minister. Yet in acquiescing to his demands, the Albanese Government leaves room for the media to find his own government at fault for decisions that point squarely to Dutton’s personal incompetence and duplicity.

An explanation for that acquiescence could simply be that the Albanese Government doesn’t want to wear blame for any bad behaviour for which a released detainee ends up being accused. The mainstream media will predictably turn any incident into a horror story that points to Labor as soft on crime. Under News Corp's influence, it will also confirm the standard Trumpy narrative that Brown or Black-skinned refugees can be dismissed as immigrants from destinations that can simply be dismissed as “shithole countries”.  

From that step communicated to an insular population, refugees can be demonised once again as abusers of Australia’s legal and medical systems, followed by populist rhetoric that Australians are a generous people but must be forever on guard to avoid being treated as a soft touch.

Those assumptions are identical to the assumptions that drove Morrison ministers to initiate and pursue a savage “welfare cop on the beat” mentality via News Corp, despite knowing full well through their own data that a mere 0.1 per cent of 800,000 “debts” raised through Robodebt were related to fraud.

Neither Morrison nor Dutton has displayed any inclination to show remorse or even acknowledgement of the Robodebt Royal Commission findings. When the matter is raised in the Parliament, they have been more likely to display trademark smirks or amusement at revelations that would normally be regarded as career-ending for public figures responsible for them.

It's as though they know something the Government doesn’t know. What they know is that Albanese and his ministers can say what they like about them because led by News Corp, the mainstream media will either give it little or no coverage, or will limit reporting to the Opposition talking points in any coverage given.

It has been 18 months since Albanese won more than enough seats to form government. Since that time, he has worked with the Foreign Minister to restore a number of trade relationships that were badly affecting Australian export businesses, particularly with China. He has also established personal diplomatic relations with our allies in the United States, Europe and the Pacific region, each of which was in tatters through poor diplomacy and neglect.

He is given almost no credit in the Australian media for those successes which are instead buried in serial reports of him being out of the country when there were fires in the northern states, as though those reports are a reminder that he is no better than his predecessor who went on a secret Hawaiian holiday during the 2019-20 fires.

In the present international political climate – which is infected with a post-truth contagion emanating from Trump and Murdoch’s Fox News in the U.S. – Trumpy public figures in Australia know they will get media coverage by uttering any ridiculous thing at all about themselves or their opponents, and populist politicians routinely do that as a way to circulate mistruths, half-truths and outright lies that are intentionally designed to pollute the public space.

*This article is also available on audio here:

Paul Begley has worked for many years in public affairs roles, until recently as General Manager of Government and Media Relations with the Australian HR Institute. You can follow Paul on Twitter @yelgeb.

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