Mr Murdoch buys and sells papers

Friday, 31 August 2007 

One of the funniest sights over the last few months was to see journalists of one of the world’s leading cheerleaders for the pursuit of profit, The Wall Street Journal, suddenly be concerned that Mr Murdoch may use the same criteria for them.

Of course he will. But The WSJ is a prize for Mr Murdoch not so much because the paper itself is profitable but for the same reason he buys newspapers everywhere, its influence.

Mr Murdoch’s media business interests require influence over government policy, and one fortunate advantage he has is that governments still tend to be highly susceptible to the power of the press. The ability of newspapers to influence politics tends to be exaggerated and says more about the political parties’ lack of a social base than the power of the written word. One of the ironies of Mr Murdoch’s business model is that the myth of the power of the press tends to be especially drummed up by precisely those who are most against him, those who want to blame the Murdoch press for the defeats of left wing parties. For left-wing supporters this is usually a more comfortable strategy than examining the agenda of those parties themselves.

Unlike The WSJ and The Times in London, in Australia, Mr Murdoch has chosen to create a journal of influence himself. The Australian may originally be promoted as a nationwide paper but in reality its audience is partly targeting the business community but more hopefully the circles of influence over government policy. In this move from the business club lounges of the nation’s airports into the corridors of power in Canberra, and for The Australian to be seen shaping opinion, it must keep in step with it.

One of the problems for The Australian this year is to keep up with the change in power that is already underway in Canberra and is about to become a formal reality. There has been a mis-reading of the political shift shared by most national journalists this year, but for The Australian such a mis-reading is particularly a problem because of its targeted readership compared to The Age, SMH or AFR. Mr Murdoch’s tabloids have already been much more favourable to Rudd, but The Australian’s closeness to the government has led it to be too caught up in the assumptions that underpinned the Howard period. It has been an especially trying year for Dennis Shanahan whose excellent government contacts have constantly led him astray as they themselves are struggling to work out what is going on. It is unsurprising that the paper became so sensitive to the supposed power of the political blogs (which is also exaggerated) and the editorial line ended up painting itself into a corner defending Shanahan’s optimistic interpretation of the polls. The Australian was in danger of looking out of touch with where power was moving.

But it has certainly got itself out of that corner now. Indeed,
yesterday’s editorial has criticised the government on grounds that neither this blog, nor probably even Mr Keating, would disagree, namely its profound policy vacuum. This is a damning criticism, not only because it goes to the heart of Howard’s problem but also it leaves a lot of flexibility for a Rudd alternative. The Australian will probably raise questions over whether Rudd does have an alternative and the shift is not only to keep in touch with developments but an attempt to influence the incoming government for a favourable agenda from a better position than open hostility. But more importantly it shows as with Grattan’s article in The Age today, that behind all the bluster and confidence coming from government Ministers, those at the centre in Canberra know full well what is coming up.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Friday, 31 August 2007.

Filed under Media analysis

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