Breaking News Corp: Kevin Rudd On His War Against Rupert Murdoch

We spoke to the former PM about Rupert Murdoch's influence on our world.

Rudd Murdoch

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If you’ve ever wanted an illustration of just how much power Rupert Murdoch wields over the people who work for him – and over the broader conservative political establishment – look no further than what happened in the US over the weekend.

In the space of a few hours, Murdoch’s TV and print operation switched from slavishly supporting Donald Trump, to abandoning him as it became clear he was about to be swept from power. Fox News hosts who had joined in on Trump’s conspiratorial pre-election ravings about election fraud were suddenly urging him to act with “grace and composure” in leaving office. The New York Post, which heartily endorsed Trump and gave the biggest platform to Trump’s Hunter Biden misinformation campaign, ran a front page proclaiming that “our long national nightmare is over”. In Australia, Andrew Bolt made the switch from prematurely gloating over a Trump victory, to attacking Trump as un-Presidential in the space of about 48 hours. It’s as shameless as it is transparent.

Without his biggest media backer to trumpet his false claims of election fraud, Trump and his remaining allies are just a clown car of grifters pissing into the wind between a dildo shop and a crematorium.

Trump isn’t the first politician to be abandoned by Rupert Murdoch at the exact moment their usefulness expires, just ask former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who only received the reluctant support of the Murdoch press when it became clear that the Kevin 07 train couldn’t be stopped.

“Without his biggest media backer to trumpet his false claims of election fraud, Trump and his remaining allies are just a clown car of grifters pissing into the wind between a dildo shop and a crematorium.”

“Murdoch is one of the greatest users of politicians of the left and the right the world has ever seen,” Rudd told me over the phone. “[Murdoch is] governed by his own deep interest, which is the maximisation of personal power because he regards that as the ultimate aphrodisiac. And secondly, to maximise his commercial interests. And thirdly, to maximise his right-wing ideology.”

Rudd’s petition for a Royal Commission into the Murdoch press is now the most popular parliamentary petition of all time, clocking in more than 500,000 signatures before it closed late last week.

But there’s roughly zero chance of such a Royal Commission coming into being in the near future. Despite its popularity, the Rudd petition has no legal force. It merely requires a response from the relevant minister, which will likely be a polite “Yeah, nah”.

Rudd knows this (although he says he remains optimistic), so what exactly is the point?

Kevin Rudd’s War On Rupert Murdoch

“Part of my motivation doing this was to give people courage to do it,” Rudd says. “Because we all know Murdoch’s form, which is that people stand up and take him on and challenge his monopoly and challenge his business interests and challenge his far-right ideology, and he takes your head off personally in a very vicious sort of way.”

It’s telling that the two highest profile backers of the petition are both former prime ministers who have nothing to lose by going after Murdoch now. Along with Rudd, Malcolm Turnbull has put his name to the campaign, and the two ex-PMs made a joint appearance on Insiders over the weekend to push their cause.

There’s undoubtedly elements of hypocrisy and revenge in each man’s crusade against Rupert Murdoch, both spent a large part of their careers either courting the Murdoch press, or at least trying to placate it.

Throughout his time as PM, Turnbull did everything he could to assuage News by promoting Peter Dutton, delaying marriage equality and diluting his climate change principles. It was Turnbull who finally scrapped Australia’s outdated media ownership laws – much to Murdoch’s delight – but they were never replaced with a framework that was fit-for-purpose in the 21st century. Still, it was never going to be enough for a conservative media establishment that had never trusted Turnbull, but he gave it a red hot go anyway.

In his time in politics, Rudd grew so close to the then-editor of The Australian, Chris Mitchell, that he was named godfather to Mitchell’s son. Rudd’s backers used the Canberra press gallery – including News Corp journalists – to great affect as they sought to undermine Julia Gillard as Prime Minister, before the company turned savagely on Rudd once the campaign succeeded.

When I suggest to Rudd that there’s an element of hypocrisy in running this campaign long after Murdoch’s usefulness expired for him, he has a pretty simple response: “Bullshit”. He’s adamant that his relationship with the Murdoch press was just a necessary reality of being a senior politician, of any party, in Australia.

“The value at stake is: in a democracy, should contesting and contestable ideas have a platform which enables those ideas to be ventilated, for facts in our national political debate to be presented, and for opinions to be openly and fairly and competitively contested? So am I personally passionate about that? Yes, because if you kill that, you kill the lifeblood of our democracy.”

Right Idea, Wrong Motivation?

Rudd says he wants a Royal Commission to “hang a lantern” on the issues facing our media. And when you dig a little deeper (beyond Rudd’s obvious and seething rage at Murdoch) he does raise some genuine, systemic issues facing the media. He speaks about ownership concentration, media diversity, declining revenues, and hyper-partisanisation.

These are real issues affecting every media organisation, including News Corp. Rudd frequently describes News Corp as a cancer on our democracy, and he’s right. News Corp frequently gives a platform to racists, homophobes, and climate change deniers. It runs a right-wing agenda that’s often out of step with the community, and it thinks it has the right to choose our Prime Ministers. It often attacks its loudest critics. Several people I approached for this article declined to comment on the record, because it’s just not worth the risk. News Corp is a disease, but it’s also a symptom.

It’s easy (too easy) to simply look at News Corp’s toxic influence in Australia and blame it on the political leanings of an 89-year-old New York billionaire. But there should be room for a more nuanced conversation – exactly the kind of nuanced conversation News Corp undermines.

Commercial media remains a game of reach – trying to put your content in front of as many eyeballs as possible, then selling ads on that content. Big legacy players are trying to innovate while small digital players (like Junkee) rely on search and social traffic to stay afloat. By its nature, content designed to reach as many people as possible needs to be louder than the rest, which lends itself towards sensationalism, hyper-partisanship and echo chambers. This is the type of content News Corp excels at, but they’re not alone.

If 500,000 Australians were willing to sign a petition saying they’re unhappy with News Corp, and News Corp controls 70% of Australia’s print media industry, then we don’t have a News Corp problem, we have a media problem.

“If 500,000 Australians were willing to sign a petition saying they’re unhappy with News Corp, and News Corp controls 70% of Australia’s print media industry, then we don’t have a News Corp problem, we have a media problem.”

Marcus Strom is the federal president of the journalist’s union, the MEAA, which finds itself in something of a tricky place. It didn’t have time to form an official position on the petition – many News Corp employees are also union members – and Strom himself didn’t sign it, but he says he understands why half a million people did, including some Australian journalists.

Strom accepts that some of News Corp’s journalism is a long way from the union’s principles of ethical journalism as laid down by the MEAA Code of Ethics, but doesn’t believe a Royal Commission is the answer.

“Every day, the majority of News Corp journalists are doing their job: gathering information, reporting news. However, it is clear that the front pages and editorial pages are being used to wage one-sided and constant political campaigns,” he said. “The petition raises pertinent issues around media ownership, media integrity and media regulation. These issues are widely known but I’m not sure a Royal Commission into one news organisation will give us any further answers.”

Rudd isn’t convinced by arguments that an inquiry into News Corp represents a threat to media freedom (the suggestion draws the sixth and seventh “bullshits” of our interview), comparing his campaign to the Finkelstein Inquiry in Australia, and the Leveson Inquiry in the UK.

“That’s bullshit,” he says. “And the reason it’s bullshit is that we all operate within a nation of laws. And the idea that media operations don’t operate within a nation of laws is just a false proposition, often advanced by those defending a media monopoly position. And to protect them against any level of scrutiny.”

It’s not clear what laws Rudd thinks News Corp has broken, beyond the laws of good journalism, but it probably doesn’t matter. Rudd will continue his campaign against News Corp, which has given him something to publicly fight for after leaving politics, and News Corp will continue to attack Rudd for doing so. Everyone wins.

Rob Stott is the Editorial Director of Junkee Media. He worked for News Corp a long time ago, and he didn’t sign Rudd’s petition, although he understands why a lot of people did. You can yell at him about Kevin Rudd, Rupert Murdoch or petitions @Rob_Stott.