Sane people trying to fathom the Herald Sun’s bizarre coverage of Victorian Premier Dan Andrews over the past few days might be helped by some insights from the founding of News Limited, the company on which Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation empire has been built and of which the Herald Sun is part.
The main insight is that journalism is not, and never has been, the purpose of News Corporation. Its purpose, its reason for existence, is to provide the means by which three generations of the Murdoch family accumulate wealth and exert power.
In her magisterial history of Australian newspaper empires, Paper Emperors, Sally Young tells what she calls the real story of the birth of News Limited.
The company’s own creation myth is that its first newspaper, the Adelaide News, was the work of a couple of rugged individuals, a “miner” called Gerald Mussen, who was in fact an industrial consultant to Broken Hill Associated Smelters, and a former editor of the Melbourne Herald, J. E. Davidson.
As Young makes clear, these two had long worked as collaborating propagandists for the Herald and Weekly Times, of which Keith Murdoch was managing director, and its associated mining interests in Broken Hill and Port Pirie. The evidence indicates that Mussen and Davidson were financed into the newspaper start-up by these interests for the purpose of continuing the propagandising.
Keith Murdoch later acquired the paper in his own right and bequeathed it to Rupert.
Propagandising was News’s original sin, and it has never been redeemed. Instead it has broadened out to beat-ups, misinformation, disinformation and conspiracy theories.
Of course, along the way it has done plenty of journalism, some of it very high quality. In 1959, the Adelaide News, under the editorship of Rohan Rivett, played a large role in securing a judicial review of the Rupert Max Stuart case. Stuart had been sentenced to hang for the rape and murder of a nine-year-old girl, after a trial that caused much public disquiet. His conviction was never conclusively overturned but he was released after 14 years in prison.
More recently, Hedley Thomas’s exposés of the wrong done to Dr Mohamed Haneef and the inadequacies of the police investigation into the murder of Lynette Dawson, for which her husband Chris was recently convicted, have been instances of public-interest journalism at its best.
However, this function of doing journalism – the “what” – is to be distinguished from the “why”. The journalism is done in pursuit of the organisation’s primary purpose, the empowerment and enrichment of the Murdochs, while every now and again also serving the public interest.
The coverage of Daniel Andrews needs to be seen in this light.
The starting point is that the Murdochs – Lachlan or Rupert or both – clearly prefer a non-Labor government, and the continuance in office of a Labor administration in Victoria is an offence against their wishes.
So we saw in the 2018 election campaign a racist scare campaign against so-called African gangs, pushed along by Peter Dutton, now leader of the Liberal-National opposition in federal parliament, and turbo-charged by the Herald Sun.
It backfired spectacularly, and Andrews won in a landslide. That simply aggravated the offence.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the Herald Sun promoted increasingly shrill criticisms of the Andrews lockdowns, particularly by the former Liberal federal treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, who subsequently lost his Melbourne seat of Kooyong in the May federal election. More aggravation.
Most recently, on November 4, 22 days before the 2022 Victorian state election, there was yet further offence. Newspoll showed the Liberal Party trailing Labor 46-54% in two-party-preferred terms. Landslide territory again.
This succession of rebuffs shows that the capacity of the Murdoch media to influence electoral outcomes is weaker than it once was, adding insult to injury.
Time for some mud-chucking in the hope that enough will stick.
First, the Herald Sun resurrects a nine-year-old motor accident involving not Andrews himself but his wife. It publishes online a video-taped interview with the cyclist involved in the collision, and his father.
The interview is long on innuendo and short on facts. It is insinuated that in some undefined way, Andrews improperly used his power to deny the young man justice and that the legal system let him down.
Time, too, to resurrect a conspiracy theory.
On March 9 2021, Andrews slipped on some outside stairs at a holiday house he and his family had rented on the Mornington Peninsula, injuring his back and ribs.
As The Guardian has reported, an anonymous post about what had allegedly “really” happened appeared first on an encrypted messaging app favoured by far-right activists and conspiracy theorists, then moved to a fringe website promoting QAnon and Port Arthur massacre misinformation.
The conspiracy theory asserted that Andrews’ injuries had been sustained in dark circumstances.
For reasons best known to herself, the Liberals’ then Shadow Treasurer Louise Staley, decided this was a fire worth throwing fuel on, so she published a list of 12 questions she said Andrews needed to answer about the incident.
The list was predicated on so much misinformation and disinformation that Ambulance Victoria, whose crew had taken Andrews to hospital, and the chief commissioner of police both felt it necessary to issue statements setting out the facts.
This had the effect of killing off the conspiracy theory, and when Matthew Guy took over as leader of the Liberal Party a few months later, he demoted Staley to shadow minister for scrutiny of government.
Yet on November 6, the Sunday Herald Sun devoted many hundreds of words to a rehash of the conspiracy theory. This time it included a photograph of the steps, noting that the house had been repainted since the incident. What might have been covered up by a fresh coat of paint, the reader is implicitly invited to ask.
News Corporation is cradled in conflict of interest, overt and covert influence-peddling and propaganda, all for the purpose of advancing the Murdoch family’s interests. Abuse of media power is baked into its culture.
This does not excuse what the Herald Sun is doing, but helps explain it.