Rupert Murdoch: How magnate transformed Australia’s media

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Rupert Murdoch in front of a wall of sample newspapers in 1985IMAGE SOURCE,GETTY IMAGES

When Rupert Murdoch started his career, he was young, hungry and desperate to claw back his family’s stake in Australia’s news business.

Known as “the boy publisher” – the 22-year-old had inherited a paper in the small city of Adelaide from his father, and a plan to take on the international media.

The 92-year-old is arguably Australia’s most successful businessman internationally, and his unashamed quest for influence has underpinned his success.

“His genius has been to discover different ways in which his two passions – a desire for money and a thirst for power – can be combined,” is how Prof Robert Manne, a former News Corp contributor, described it in a 2011 essay.

But as his 70-year-career draws to a close, his legacy at home remains an open question.

Australia has one of the most concentrated media environments in the Western world – with News Corp’s 60% stake in the print market regularly drawing criticism.

Two former prime ministers have led calls for a Royal Commission into Murdoch’s impacts on the nation’s democracy – and his papers are accused of profiting off an “anger-tainment ecosystem”.

“It’s his lasting impact on institutions, right-wing news culture, and media ownership that matters, not what’s happening to Rupert at age 92,” says Prof Tim Dwyer, a media expert at the University of Sydney.

The “boy publisher”

The newspaper business runs in Rupert Murdoch’s blood.

“There’s this tendency to treat the Murdoch press as something that fell from the skies. Actually, Rupert is part of a lineage of popular press barons that goes back generations,” Walter Marsh, who has written about the media mogul’s early life, told ABC radio.

His father Sir Keith Murdoch was a well-known reporter and founding member of the Australian Journalists Association.

And by the 1930s he had acquired a string of newspapers and radio stations, establishing himself as a strong voice of the political right.

But by the time of Sir Keith’s death in 1952, debt had seen much of the family business sold off, and all that remained was the Adelaide News with its readership of roughly 75,000.

When Rupert took the paper over, he used bigger headlines and brasher stories to blow away his competitors.

He was known to personally redesign pages when he saw fit, although he claimed his editors retained a great deal of freedom.

The tabloid techniques worked.

By 1964 he owned papers in every state and was in the process of launching the nation’s first ever national broadsheet – The Australian. He was also planning his move into the UK market, something his father had tried but failed to do.

In 1996 News Corp expanded into 24-hour TV journalism with the launch of Sky News Australia, which stood apart with its opinion-based prime time offering.

The channel has long faced criticism for what are described as polarising or misleading segments including debates over the legitimacy of climate science, and a recent suggestion from one of its hosts that an upcoming referendum on Indigenous recognition could lead to “an apartheid system of governance”.

“It’s a brand that focuses on highly opinionated right-wing viewpoints. And it’s a news diet which people here have become accustomed to. One of the worst consequences has been decades of climate change scepticism,” Prof Dwyer says.

Political kingmaker

In one of his first TV interviews in 1967, a young Rupert Murdoch was asked if he “liked the feeling of power” his growing newspaper empire gave him.

“There’s only one honest answer to that of course, and it’s yes,” he replied.

Murdoch’s close relationships with some of the most defining political figures of the 21st Century is well documented across the US and UK.

Some Australian leaders say it was no different at home.

“The truth is as prime minister I was still fearful of the Murdoch media beast,” former prime minister Kevin Rudd told a senate inquiry on media diversity in 2021.

“No one should be frightened of Murdoch, but can I tell you, he’s a frightening kind of guy, because of the power he wields,” he added.

trump, murdoch and turnbullIMAGE SOURCE,REUTERS
Image caption,

Rupert Murdoch, seen here in 2017 with Donald Trump (L) and ex-PM Malcolm Turnbull – who signed a petition calling for an inquiry into News Corp’s power

It’s a characterisation News Corp executives have pushed back on – telling lawmakers at the time that their reporting focused on “the robust and open exchange of news, views and opinions”.

Mr Rudd started the campaign for a Royal Commission – Australia’s highest form of public inquiry – into News Corp’s power back in 2020, describing the company as a “cancer on democracy”.

But despite receiving half a million signatures of support, including that of former Liberal prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, efforts have stalled.

And Australia’s current prime minister Anthony Albanese made it clear he doesn’t support the proposal before entering office.

“It’s a bit like complaining about the referee in a footy game. It might make you feel OK [but] it doesn’t change the outcome,” he said after the petition launched.

Mr Albanese’s victory at the 2022 federal election – along with the success of a wave of climate-friendly, independent candidates – sparked fierce debate about whether News Corp’s influence was waning in Australia.

“The election outcome exposes a gaping disconnect between News Corp and voters,” political journalist Malcolm Farr wrote.

But Prof Dwyer says while the brand might be “on the wane” with younger Australian audiences turning away from traditional media, it’s not about to lose its influence overnight.

And when it comes to Lachlan, he thinks continuity will be king.

“Things won’t change very much at all – that’s the whole point of the News Corp brand, it’s there, it has a culture that’s not going to be tampered with, it continues irrespective of who is at the helm. And Lachlan is not really known for his centrist views.”

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