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April 19th 2018 print

John Ruddick

Rupert Murdoch’s Greatest Legacy

One doesn't like to be morbid, but when the press magnate breathes his last Australia's last remaining decent newspaper will likely fall victim to the bean-counters. A Guardian-style trust would guarantee its survival, and only the man who founded it can make that happen

rupertThere is a decision that can be made which would be of greater significance for the ongoing success of Australia than the outcome of any federal election for years to come.  It is a decision for one man — Rupert Murdoch.  We need a plan in place that ensures publication of The Australian newspaper for centuries to come.

In this age of tweets and posts we need to retain a quality coast-to-coast newspaper of record, an under-appreciated yet vital piece of national infrastructure.  Of course, the most elite thinkers turn to Quadrant for their regular injection of intellectual substance, but the thoughtful among the masses need a daily window into the big issues facing the nation and the world.  The Australian has served that purpose well since 1964.

The content of broadsheet newspapers around the world today is probably of a higher standard than ever, but financially they are struggling.  Let’s hope it’s temporary but it may be permanent. If The Australian were to ever fold it would not be replaced and the nation most definitely left the poorer.  We would have only state-centric newspapers. A national newspaper fosters a national perspective – the most important perspective.

In the 1990s, when Rupert had a minor cancer scare, he was asked at his next press conference if the episode had made him think of retirement and he responded, “No … my recovery has only strengthened my belief in my invincibility.”  Let’s hope he’s right, but if he is not and if The Australian were to face an extended period of commercial questionability in a post-Rupert era we cannot risk some accounting boffin to recommend its closure.

The model of eternal life for The Australian is The Guardian, which commenced publication in 1821.  From 1872 to 1929 the editor was Charles P. Scott who during his long tenure ended up becoming the proprietor.  Scott ensured the ongoing publication of The Guardian by bequeathing ownership to the Scott Trust, which had sufficient funds to keep the presses rolling regardless of the bottom line. If Scott is looking down now from above he would surely be pleased he left a powerful journalistic legacy that continues to this day. I’m hoping Rupert can share Scott’s vision. The trust that owns The Guardian is strictly prohibited from influencing editorial, but if we truly want to preserve Rupert’s spirit then his trustees will need to be empowered to maintain a degree of influence.

Through News Corporation, Rupert has a majority interest in several hundred media outlets.  Almost all were acquired through takeovers, but he conceived The Australian , launched it and gave it its character. It has always been Rupert’s little baby.  The Australian has been a consistent force for good in Australia.  One of many examples is that soon after The Australian was launched, Rupert hired a small plane, a pilot and a photographer and they flew around the Outback to take photos of remote Aboriginal communities.  He then launched a campaign through The Australian that awoke middle Australia to the desperate plight of too many indigenous peoples.  The Australian’s commitment to Aboriginal disadvantage has been a consistent theme to this day.

The Australian has backed Liberal and Labor over the years and, in retrospect, he has usually made the right call.  He backed Whitlam in 1969 and 1972 when the Liberals had run out of puff and it probably was time for a change. He backed Fraser in 1975 when Whitlamism had gone off the rails.  He backed Hawke, Keating (except 1996), Howard (most of the time), Rudd (in 2007 but not 2013) Abbott and Turnbull.  Rupert is a right-winger … but when a leader of a left-wing party comes along who is fiscally responsible he’s happy to consider backing them.  He’s wise enough to recognise that a democracy will elect left-wing governments from time to time so its better to have a good one.

The Australian lead the nation in promoting the economic reforms of the 1980s.  It has championed free trade, the American alliance and our engagement with Asia, and and has allocated op-ed space to writers as diverse as Phillip Adams and Janet Albrechtsen.  The Oz was wrong on the republic and the 2003 invasion of Iraq, but all newspapers get some of the big calls wrong — The Guardian despised Abraham Lincoln and celebrated his death while the New York Times outrageously downplayed the Holocaust during WWII.

Rupert Murdoch loves Australia.  Some detractors will trot out the cheap line that he cashed in his passport for American citizenship in the 1980s, but we should all be grateful he did.  Rupert is the Alexander the Great of media.  He has risen from the proprietor of Adelaide’s then-junior newspaper to the king of American news which wouldn’t have been possible without US citizenship.  Along the way he has made his many Australian shareholders richer and thereby poured enormous tax revenues into Canberra.

As a young man Rupert drove across the US and remarked to his travelling companion, “one day when they move the pieces around the chessboard of America I will be a player at the table.”  He has been a confidante of US presidents since JFK and has used that power to argue for Australian interests.  He has acted effectively as a de facto Australian ambassador in the most powerful nation on earth and earned respect for Australia along the way.

It was recently revealed President Trump has weekly phone calls with Rupert.  Ambassador Hockey no doubt played a role in securing an Australian exemption for the recent steel tariff, but I suspect Rupert also nudged the president towards a favourable outcome for Down Under.  When Bill Gates was asked what it was like to be the most influential man in the world he replied, “I don’t know. Ask Rupert Murdoch.”  But despite his awesome power, despite being in the inner circle of the most powerful of inner circles, Rupert’s Aussie patriotism runs deep.

His father, Keith, was a reporter on the frontlines in Gallipoli and it was his gruesome report (which resulted in his arrest) that gave birth to our most enduring national myth.  When Australians are polled on the question of the best Australian movie of all time Gallipoli easily tops the list.  That movie was funded not by News Corp — or News Ltd, as it then was — but by private citizen Rupert Murdoch.

Rupert has been more than generous towards his homeland so I’m reluctant to propose he gives even more, but we simply need The Australian for centuries to come. And only Rupert has the power to deliver.  For centuries to come thinking Australians will quietly say to themselves while being enlightened by a daily reading of The Australian, ‘Thank you, Rupert Murdoch.’

John Ruddick is a former candidate for the federal presidency of the Liberal Party

Comments [24]

  1. Sert says:

    I am a regular reader of The Australian and for the 12 months there has been a noticeable decline in the standard of content. I find its content turning the same way as the SM H – lefty, lightweight click bait.

    • Doubting Thomas says:

      I agree. Can’t quite put my finger on why, but it definitely has fallen in standard. An example is the nature of the coverage of issues like the Israel Folau thing. It should barely have rated a couple of column inches in the news pages a paper of the stature of the Australian, of course, The Mocker’s splendid demolition of the FitzSimons hypocrisy was pretty much all that needed to be said elsewhere. Leave the trivia to the tabloids.

    • LBLoveday says:

      If you have any doubt about The Australian “Goin’ downhill ‘n’ pickin’ up speed”

      read this rubbish from their home-page.

  2. Jody says:

    Sorry, disagree; never as bad as the tabloid SMH and its grievance olympics contestants. We get “The Australian” every day; my husband completes the crossword first thing, then reads the thing from cover to cover. I read online and comment regularly. Where would we be without Grace Collier and Janet Albrechtsen? But, the sad reality is that television and newspapers are largely 20th century media and have been replaced by U-Tube; discussions, debates, interviews the likes of which you NEVER see on television. I’ve watched HOURS of them and I love the intellectual challenge. In fact, I’m the biggest participant and user of social media of anybody my age that I know. Brilliant!

    • LBLoveday says:

      Which crossword? I find the Quick too easy and the Times too hard, so I do the Daily Telegraph ones.

      • Jody says:

        The “Smell-a-graph”!!! OMG. We don’t find the Quick too easy as there’s always one word which we cannot solve. Usually botanic references, or words from a different culture or engineering terms. My husband does it; I become impatient with poor clues and slang words.

        • LBLoveday says:

          What I call “The Punishing Hand” descended on me when I printed out today’s Quick to check and there was your “one word” – I did not know EPISCOPATE, but there are far too many for my liking that do not need thinking “Faucet” = “tap” or a leg-up from a letter common to an intersecting word, which is why I deem it too easy despite being a word or two I don’t know.
          I get DT, Herald Sun, The Advertiser, Courier Mail on one subscription – all have the same crosswords – cheaper than The Australian.

  3. ianl says:

    Creighton, now from the Aus, is beginning to redeem himself in my view.

    He made the obvious point on TV tonight that SA’s $100m Musk battery would only supply (limited) power for a few hours to a tiny portion of the SA population, rather than the days/weeks that are needed for reliability. Although this is self-evident, it’s the first time I’ve seen it published in the MSM (well, Sky, anyway).

    But Jody is right in that the MSM is now dumbed down almost completely to the lowest common denominator due to declining audience.

    • Jody says:

      In fact, the continued funding of the ABC and SBS is analogous to the profligate waste of the NBN. It simply can no longer be justified for the taxpayer to be in the business of public broadcasting – any more than everybody should be entitled to free education. For god’s sake this last is an anachronism from the colonies when people had no money – not yachts parked off Sydney harbour and yearly holidays abroad. And the ABC has been relegated as a costly white elephant because of modern technology.

      WE NEED A ROYAL COMMISSION INTO THE ABC AND ITS PROFLIGATE WASTE OF PUBLIC MONEY on the grounds that it can no longer be justified. Why are we stopping at the banks? Let’s get this Royal Commission ball rolling decently, once and for all.

  4. LBLoveday says:

    “…some accounting boffin to recommend its closure”.
    It may be the left-leaning boys, pushed by the “good women” behind them, who do it without the heeding of an accounting boffin.

  5. Jody says:

    It will take something like the Centre for Independent Studies and the IPA to advocate and lobby for the ABC to close or, at least, be downsized and rationalized. They’ll be called fascists, extremists and the like (as the IPA was recently, when my son tweeted in return ‘that therefore means the Australia Institute is extremist”) but they have to just ride out this industrial-strength muck.

  6. Bran Dee says:

    So many good columnists in The Australian, Judith Sloane for instance and the splendid thinker and classics referencing Henry Ergas. A downside is the population boosting of the editorials. It is one way to facilitate the selling of more papers but is a very blunt axe. Sloane and Ergas write rationally against the governments misleading vision of the financial nirvana they imagine of us continuing with KRudd’s ‘big Australia’.

    Nothing of course is up to the pleasure given by the late Bill Leak’s Cartoons.

  7. whitelaughter says:

    Is *any* newspaper going to survive? It seems doubtful. But The Australian is in better position than most. Grabbing figures from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_newspapers_in_Australia_by_circulation, and comparing 2002 to 2017, we get:

    2002 2017 Fraction of circulation remaining.

    THE AUSTRALIAN 130378 . 94448 . 72%
    WEST AUSTRALIAN 207793 . 133774 . 64%
    COURIER MAIL 215371 . 135007 . 62%
    MERCURY 49895 . 28265 . 56%
    HERALD SUN 548764 . 303140 . 55(.24)%
    ADVERTISER 203582 . 112097 . 55(.06)%
    DAILY TELEGRAPH 406200 . 221641 . 54%
    NORTHERN TERRITORY NEWS 22151 . 11279 . 51%
    AUST FINANCIAL REVIEW 88674 . 44635 . 50%
    AGE 197700 . 83229 . 42%
    CANBERRA TIMES 38694 . 15298 . 39%
    SYDNEY MORNING HERALD 228800 . 88634 . 38%

    The only paper I can really comment on is my local rag, the Canberra Times, which has been appalling for as long as I’ve known it (realised that it was yellow journalism in the late 80s, when I was still in my late teens). That it is dying faster than most is not surprising.
    But I’d be surprised if the bean counters recommended abolishing the Australian, given it has suffered the least of all of the major papers.

    • whitelaughter says:

      apologies for mess, apparently Quadrant can’t cope with tabs :/

    • Jody says:

      The minute – the very minute – somebody quotes the Sydney Morning Herald to me my eyes glaze over and I go into a complete stupor. I feel like invoking the robots from “Dr. Who”….’ex-ter-min-ate’!!

      • Len says:

        I don’t know how far Murdoch is directly involved in the editorial policy of The Australian. I think it likely that he is influential in the selection of editors who do seem to have hands-on control of the direction of editorial policy.

        I was a subscriber/reader of The Australian from its first issue in 1964 until I terminated my subscription early in 2017. During that period it had many swings in its direction and I accepted most of those as the price of reading a national newspaper with a range of opinion provided by a diverse collection of writers.

        However, sometimes the price paid by its readership (maybe Australians as a whole), which has at times has been very high, lay in the results of The Australian’s at times capricious policy directions. John Ruddick has pointed to two of those caprices: the support for Whitlam in 1969 and 1972 and Rudd in 2017. With the added succession of Gillard these have been worst two national governments of the last sixty years.

        Why anyone would have supported Whitlam even in 1969 raises a question about judgement, but by 1972 the Whitlam Government had already demonstrated that it had well and truly run off the rails. In this context it is interesting to note that the General Manager of News Limited from about 1966 to 1973 had previously been Gough Whitlam’s Private Secretary and in 1966 had unsuccessfully stood as a Labor candidate. In early 1975 he was appointed head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, replacing a very experienced and highly regarded incumbent.

        Supporting Rudd in 2017 again raises a question of judgement. In that case by the then editor of The Australian who has since, I understand, admitted it was a mistake. But it was a mistake that should not have been made. Rudd’s character flaws were already on very public display each day in Question Time when he was Leader of the Opposition. Of course the then editor’s judgment may have been compromised by his being, I understand, a godfather to one of Rudd’s children. But in that case the proximity of the relationship should have provided even greater opportunity for insight into character and a reluctance to use a responsible position in support of a personal connection.

        Hard copy newspapers seem to be on the wane worldwide and particularly so in the case of broadsheets. In Australia, The Australian seems likely to outlast most but I still question its longer term future. Newspapers are not necessary as sources of news these days; radio, television and websites provide more timely and more readily available news. If they are to serve a worthwhile purpose in the future I suggest it is more likely to be via more detailed analyses of the news and opinion pieces. This is a purpose already catered for by many online magazines and these are likely to become even more numerous. Quadrant is already in this market and so is The Spectator. They have the advantages of lower production and distribution costs for the online versions while also at this time providing hard copy versions for those who require them.

        My own impression is also that there was a decline in the quality of the content in The Australian but commencing at least some three years ago. This seemed to coincide with an apparent attempt to attract subscribers from the likes of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. I think that was reflected in the nature and quality of many of the online comments from new commenters.

        I agree with other commenters here about the excellence of opinion writers: Collier, Albrechtsen, Ergas and Sloan. Others that readily come to mind are: Jennifer Oriel, Maurice Newman, Bettina Arndt and Tony Makin. I think the excellence of all these writers has masked to some extent the decline in the quality of output and direction of the in-house writers.

        The interesting thing is that The Australian’s online commenters for the most part made it clear that they were not impressed with the output of the in-house writers and some others (eg, Savva’s contributions) but the message was not heeded. And so I think the decline will continue.

        Murdoch could do much worse for the future than invest in and promote Quadrant. For success that would require him to accept the present editors, their independence and their editorial policy. They in turn would need to nurture future editors and plan for their succession.

        • Jody says:

          I notice Gary Johns is missing in action; his opinion pieces were always very valuable. This is a fine online journal I can thoroughly recommended, started by an Australian female: it’s absolutely brilliant!

          http://quillette.com/

          • LBLoveday says:

            Johns stopped writing when he became Commissioner of the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission – his last The Oz article was about his new job. He puts out a fortnightly column for the ACNC.

        • LBLoveday says:

          “…by 1972 the Whitlam Government had already demonstrated that it had well and truly run off the rails”

          The Whitlam Government came into being in consequence of the election of 2 December 1972.

          • Jody says:

            I was working at the ABC when it all went pear-shaped for Whitlam. The luvvies were mournful and long-faced and watched speeches of him and hissed at conservatives and spat venum. Well, you know the rest. I was silently cheering amongst my small group of girlfriends and air-pumping!! Then I joined the Liberal Party for the “Turn on the Lights Campaign” and what a night that victory was!! Fraser turned into a dud, but it felt very good in 1975 when the Coalition won an absolute landslide. That made my ABC colleagues much more bitter and acrimonious. Right across the board.

          • Len says:

            You are correct. The reference to 1972 should have been to 1974. Thank you.

  8. Jody says:

    “The Intellectual Dark Web” – the new moniker to a questioning coterie of intellectuals who populate the internet:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=trhTbEs2GGE