Back in 1996, I and three friends had the privilege (having handsomely won the election) of editing the University of Queensland student newspaper “Semper Floreat”. The Latin name means “always flourish” but a more accurate one would be “always left-wing”. With a few exceptions before and after, the publication has consistently been in the hands of young radicals (as has been the student government in general), giving budding lefty scribes their first valuable experience of being published and read by thousands. Our team provided a breath of fresh air; sure, there was no mistaking the fact that we were on the right, but when addressing contentious issues we took pride in commissioning multiple points of view, giving our readers both – or more – sides of the story. We neither expected nor in fact got the appreciation from some quarters, with left-wing activists organising frequent protests against us throughout our one-year term in office. At one point in time, a team of private security guards had to be stationed in and outside our offices to prevent the left from invading and taking over the newspaper. It was a fun year. (Of the four of us editors, three were members of Young Liberals* and one was a right-wing Young Labor member, who as right-wing Labor people do, hated the left as much as we did. A quarter of a century after our landslide election, the right-wing Labor guy is still a right-wing Labor guy (though married to a lovely Lib) and of the three Liberals, one had sadly died young, one is now a member of the Greens, and then there is The Daily Chrenk.)
The following year, after the left won back the editorship of “Semper”, I remember opening their first issue to read a discussion where two young men of letters were furiously agreeing with each other that Rupert Murdoch is “perhaps the most evil man alive”. Granted, by the late 90s, most of the 20th century’s great villains (Hitler, Stalin, Mao) were long gone, but a few were still kicking around. So more evil than Saddam Hussein or Pol Pot? Apparently so.
I got thinking about those olden days earlier today when a tweet from the formerly funny actor John Cleese has popped on my newsfeed:
A very, very important point
And he's going to be opening up a TV channel next
Having poisoned our press, he's moving on to bigger things
The sooner he's chatting to Roger Ailes again, the better https://t.co/MojxkqTAZM
— John Cleese (@JohnCleese) October 21, 2020
Apparently it’s quite cool and edgy to wish somebody a speedy death if that somebody is Rupert Murdoch. Cleese was commenting on a tweet, which in turn was commenting on another tweet, by a senior MSNBC producer Kyle Griffin, who in turn was quoting a “Guardian” story titled “Why New Zealand rejected populist ideas other nations have embraced”, in which there was quoted (sorry, we’re nearly there) David Cormack, former head of policy and communications for the New Zealand Green, saying “A huge reason that our politics is not so extremely polarised and so far out there is because we no longer have Murdoch-owned press in New Zealand, and it’s never taken a foothold.” New Zealand, of course, is where Labour Party’s Jacinda Adern has just won a historic (for a very convoluted electoral system) victory with an absolute majority and so no need for messy coalition making.
For the left, Rupert Murdoch truly is an, if not the, Antichrist. He has been so before Trump and is likely to be so after Trump is gone. This is one of the great political constants of the last four decades across much of the English-speaking world.
That Murdoch has “extremely polarised” our politics, or that he has “poisoned” our media, is really a shorthand for “he has dared to provide an alternative view” for half of the electorate that is instinctively not left-wing. More so than any other media owners (most of them by now in any case gone, like Conrad Black), Murdoch has successfully worked to fill this rather big niche in the market. Today, he and his media empire are the only thing standing in the way of the total monopolistic domination of the English-language media by the left-wing Public-Private Partnership of state-run and profit-run television, print, and to a lesser extent radio outlets. That’s why the left hates him – if not for Murdoch, left-wing voices would be the only ones heard and read by the hundreds of millions of people in the United States, Great Britain and Australia.
The post-Marx, Gramscian/Frankfurt School left has seen the path to political power leading through the gradual take-over of the “commanding heights” of cultural production – if you can influence and control what people are taught, what they see, hear and read, what they feel and what they think, you will get your hands on the levers of power in a surer (and more peaceful) way than through a revolution and take-over of the means of production. This is in a way the reversal of classical Marxism where the economic power arrangements shape the culture of the people; for the new, cultural left, those who control the culture will in time hold the economic and political power too. This is not a conspiracy, just an ideological outlook that explains why our contemporary culture, education and the media overwhelmingly skew to the left.
But Rupert Murdoch remains a giant steaming Australian turd on the banquet table of the modern left.
Look at the United States. Of the biggest circulation daily newspapers, only two can be considered to the right of centre – “New York Post” and “The Wall Street Journal”, though the later more in its opinion pages than news reporting. Both are owned by Murdoch. The rest of the field offers various shades of conventional left. In 2016, only six newspapers endorsed Donald Trump (granted, a rather unconventional GOP candidate) for president, including such giants of print industry as “St. Joseph News-Press”, “Santa Barbara News-Press”, “The Waxahachie Daily Light”, Hillsboro’s “Times-Gazette”, “The Antelope Valley Press”, and (for a change in pace) “Las Vegas Review-Journal”. You get the drift. News and popular interest and lifestyle magazines – anything from “Time” to “Vanity Fair” -skews even more decisively to the left. On the small screen, Fox stands alone versus all the major free-to-air and cable channels. Radio is the only mass medium with a significant right-of-centre presence, the talk radio having been an oasis of voices other than the progressive mainstream for at least 30 years now.
In Great Britain, Murdoch owns the tabloid “Sun” and the respectable “Times”. The former is actually pretty ecumenical both in reporting and in opinion. The only other major British daily more unequivocally associated with the right, “The Telegraph”, is not owned by Murdoch, which makes it a significant outlier in the English-speaking world. Murdoch’s Sky is the only counterbalance to the progressive bias on the silver screen, led, of course, by the taxpayer-funded BBC empire.
Australia is a newspaper outlier. This is where Murdoch’s media empire has started and this is where Murdoch owns just over half of daily newspapers, all together accounting for about 70 per cent of the total circulation. The others, including the Fairfax newspapers, correspondingly lean to the left. If Australians at least have a better than elsewhere choice in print media, the television is pretty uniformly non-right, nowhere more so than at the state-owned (read: taxpayer-funded, left-run) ABC. As an alternative to it all there is only Sky, which as a subscribed-only service has a miniscule reach compared to the free-to-air channels.
Take away Murdoch then, and you have the mainstream media almost completely devoid of voices other than the conventional left-wing perspective in opinion and the crusading, politicised, biased reporting in the news. The alternative provided by most (but certainly not all) Murdoch’s outlets means that the progressive “education” of the population cannot be successfully concluded. As the popular observation goes, the left loves diversity in everything except opinion. The progressive utopia looks like United Colors of Benneton all singing from one catalogue. That we’re not there yet, despite the ginormous effort by the left, is largely due to Murdoch.
No wonder the left hates him so much. The good old Rupert has them frothing at the mouth; how dare he. the propagandist, the polariser, the modern Goebbels. But John Cleese will eventually get his wish. Murdoch Sr is now 89 (though if it’s true you’re only as old as the woman you feel, thanks to Jerry Hall, he’s only 64). His children are no ideological warriors; they range from safely conventional to conventionally left-leaning. So let’s enjoy Rupert while we still can – after he’s gone there is no one person to replace him in his role as the lone counter-point to the left’s domination of the media. We will need an army of Ruperts instead to stand athwart the narrative and call the bullshit. And we better start planning for it soon.
* for my American readers, a reminder that in Australia, Liberals are (or at least should be) the centre-right party.