Michael Pascoe: How News Corp damages the Liberal Party, and Australian democracy

It is tempting to liken the conjugal embrace of the Murdochs’ News Corp and the Liberal Party to that of praying mantises – News Corp playing the female role of consuming the male after getting what she wants.

The Murdochs’ local business model increasingly is that of its American Fox News organ, playing to a conservative audience and in the process pushing its political arm further to the right.

But unlike the US, thankfully, Australia enjoys compulsory attendance at polling booths, preferential voting and a degree of healthy scepticism – a combination that anchors election-winning politics closer to the centre than either extreme.

Pushed out of government

The result has seen the Murdochs and fellow travellers pushing the Liberal Party to become more conservative, more disconnected from the centre and especially from women and the younger generations of voters (i.e. those under 50) – and thus out of government everywhere on the big island.

That is an argument put forward in last weekend’s Saturday Paper.

“With its concentration of ownership, its oversized influence, and its particular lock on the political right, News Corp has transformed the Liberal Party in consequential ways,” wrote Nyadol Nyuon.

“Elsewhere, News Corp has been characterised as the party’s media wing or as a house organ. While this is true, I think it under-estimates the real scope of influence. News Corp has captured the Liberal Party.

“It is shifting the party away from being a political organisation and remaking it in the image of its ideological and corporate interests. Put differently, News Corp has done to the Liberals what it has done to journalism.

“In my view, the nature of the relationship between News Corp and the Liberals has made the Liberals incapable, to a larger extent than other political parties, of acting like a normal political organisation. That is because the Liberals have undue dependence on News Corp.”

It is a tempting argument, one that has been made before and is demonstrably true on the ground.

Imre Salusinszky, conservative writer and former media director for Mike Baird when he was NSW’s Liberal premier, was blunt about the right-wing media influence in a 2017 Sydney Morning Herald column with particular reference to radio shock jocks Alan Jones and Ray Hadley.

That was when Jones, both on the Fairfax-owned 2GB and the Murdochs’ Sky News, was at his height – or depth, depending on how you viewed it.

Groundhog Day of hysteria’

“As a premier or prime minister, you can give them what they want, but this buys only short-term relief,” Mr Salusinszky wrote.

“Talkback radio in Sydney, in stark contrast to Melbourne, is a Groundhog Day of hysteria and panic. And it is always, utterly, all about them.

“While the pair’s influence on the electorate is overstated, their influence in Coalition party rooms, state and federal, is palpable. This is little surprise, given their willingness to harangue and bully Coalition ministers and backbenchers.

Sky News may go off air if Telstra and News Corp can't reach a deal.

Sky News has had its YouTube channel temporarily restricted before.

“Jones, particularly, operates like his own unruly faction within the Liberal Party, which means that, unlike [Julia] Gillard, [Malcolm] Turnbull cannot simply ignore him.”

Yes, 2017 seems like a long while ago, but the description of Sydney talkback radio then certainly fits the Sky After Dark menagerie, now available on regional free-to-air as well as on the Murdochs’ streaming channels.

Indeed, Mr Salusinszky noted Sky News along the way, but suggested it, like the Murdochs’ tabloids, was so far over the top that it turned voters off the Liberal party:

“An example is Sky News commentator Paul Murray. Murray, the blowhard’s blowhard, is very much on the right, but has a habit of regularly advising voters to abandon the Liberal and National parties because of their abandonment of ‘true conservative principles’. He doesn’t do much damage, it must be admitted, but only because his audience is small.”

Yes, certainly small, but influential within the Liberal Party because that’s what the audience is.

A “moderate” Liberal MP told me ahead of last year’s federal election of the frustration of going to branch meetings where the members would air whatever nonsense they had just been listening to on Sky.

Between their newspapers and Sky, the Murdochs have formed an echo chamber for increasingly conservative Coalition politics.

To protect your sanity, you wouldn’t want to watch much Sky After Dark, but the hard-to-looney end of the Liberal Party does.

The failure of Liberal “moderates” to stand up to the troglodytes gave birth to the teals, but News Corp is working hard to make moderates unwelcome in the Liberal Party to begin with.

As The New Daily’s James Robertson reported, Sky News gave a big run to a string of unpublished polling sourced to “an industry group” – with the NSW Minerals Council being a likely suspect.

“The polling forecast that the [NSW] election would turn on a huge swing to One Nation driven by voters’ anger at the Liberal government’s progressive environmental and social policies appears to have been seriously overplayed, with the party recording a swing of about 0.6 per cent – or the same as the Greens,” Robertson wrote on Sunday.

“The polling claimed One Nation and the Liberal Democrats would secure a 20-point share of the primary vote even in [then treasurer Matt] Kean’s own (leafy, well-educated) seat of Hornsby, but counting has them on only about half as much.

“A similar narrative about a surging vote for right-wing minor parties delivering a Labor government ran through much of Sky’s pre-election and election night coverage.

“ ‘One Nation has come in from the cold,’ former Liberal MP Bronwyn Bishop said.”

But the whole “Murdochs own the Liberal Party to the Liberal Party’s disadvantage” is only half of the story.

Created a monster

In the process, the Murdochs’ MO has created a monster in the audience than owns them.

That has been demonstrated in filings for the Dominion defamation case against Fox News.

The Murdochs and their senior executives encouraged/allowed the Trump lies to run and discouraged truthful reporting because that is what the Fox News audience wanted to hear.

The Murdochs’ primary concern was keeping the ratbag audience that wanted to hear lies and conspiracy theories.

Similarly, Sky News and the Murdoch press have created audiences that demand the ratbaggery and partisan slanting they are served.

That struck me a couple of years ago when The Australian carried (an unusually) straight report of an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change update. The reader comments that flooded after it were overwhelmingly negative, criticising the paper from running such stuff.

If the actors on Sky After Dark weren’t serving up the nonsense they deliver to their audience, they wouldn’t have that audience – the echo chamber has become a prison for all involved.

It has damaged the Liberal Party and will damage it more as it rolls on, effectively expelling mainstream views, pushing extremes for the alleged entertainment value, weakening the contest of genuine ideas that society benefits from.

The Murdochs, their myrmidons and the current Liberal Party may well deserve each other – but the poison ends up damaging all.

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