Australian prime minister fights back as Murdoch releases the hounds

This is not about one election, it is about billions of dollars and the future of broadcasting

One of Rupert Murdoch's biggest money spinners, The Simpsons television show, has sometimes featured curmudgeonly old Mr Burns instructing his ever-suffering sidekick Smithers to "release the hounds" on some poor unfortunate.

In the past week Murdoch seems to have channelled his cash cow by ordering his Australian newspapers (which control 70 per cent of metropolitan daily sales) to release the hounds on prime minister Kevin Rudd and his Labor government.

After the federal election was announced last Sunday, the following day's Daily Telegraph tabloid front page screamed in huge capital letters that its readers should "KICK THIS MOB OUT" and elect Liberal Party leader Tony Abbott as prime minister.

On Thursday, the Telegraph lampooned Rudd and deputy prime minister Anthony Albanese as Nazis from the 1960s comedy show Hogan's Heroes.


On May 20th last, Murdoch used his Twitter account to say “nothing can save this miserable government. Election cannot come soon enough.”

On June 27th, after Rudd had deposed Julia Gillard to return as prime minister, Murdoch tweeted: "Australian public now totally disgusted with Labor Party wrecking country with its sordid intrigues."

Rudd though is not some hapless cartoon misfortunate. Yesterday he stepped up his fightback against Murdoch after the announcement that News Corp Australia chief executive Kim Williams had suddenly quit.

“Fact number one is Mr Murdoch has said in black and white that he wants Mr Abbott to be prime minister of Australia. No one disputes he controls 70 per cent of newspapers,” Rudd told reporters.

“We also know as a fact that Mr Murdoch sent out his right- hand man to Australia, Mr Col Allan, we know as fact a large number of his editors were called to a meeting in Sydney last week,” Rudd continued.

“What we know from that meeting . . . is the message that was given to them was go hard on Rudd, start from Sunday and don’t back off.”

New York Post editor-in-chief Allan returned to his native Australia last week to add some heft in the run-up to the September 7th election. Williams, son- in-law of former Labor prime minister Gough Whitlam, was reportedly not consulted about Allan's return and resigned days later after two decades working for Murdoch.

All the Murdoch papers backed Rudd and Labor in the 2007 election, much as his British press backed Tony Blair and UK Labour in 1997. Although the Sun etc remained loyal to Labour for two subsequent elections, their more powerful antipodean cousins turned on Labor in 2010.

Murdoch doesn’t like backing the wrong horse and his papers have unrelentingly attacked Labor every step of the way since it barely retained power as a minority government three years ago.

There is precedence for this. Murdoch’s News Ltd backed Labor in 1972 when Whitlam led it back to power after 23 years in opposition, only to turn on it in the 1975 campaign.

So vicious were the attacks on Labor then that journalists at the Australian went on strike in protest at the one-sided coverage on which Murdoch insisted. (With so many journalists being made redundant in recent years in Australia, it is inconceivable that could happen now.)

One of the reasons Murdoch is so strongly backing Abbott and the Liberal-National coalition is that his default political outlook is conservative.

(The Liberal Party has a handful of liberals, but most of its MPs are conservative to right-wing. Its junior partner, the Nationals, only runs in the country and is conservative about everything bar handouts to farmers.)

Murdoch is nothing if not pragmatic and if parties of the left in Britain or Australia can be of benefit to his grand plans, he will back them as he sees fit. Neither Labour nor Labor now backs these plans to his liking.

Although it has been denied, there is little doubt that Labor’s unrolling of the national broadband network – which will deliver a high-speed fibre internet connection to almost all Australian homes if Labor retains power – is seen as a direct threat to Murdoch’s Foxtel cable television company.

If, for instance, the national rugby league and Australian Rules football competitions can stream games directly to televisions through fibre, they can cut out the Foxtel middleman.

This isn’t about one election; it’s about billions of dollars and the future of broadcasting. Murdoch has retorted that the Liberals also have a broadband plan. Indeed they do, but it relies on century-old copper wire technology rather than fibre.

Tomorrow night’s televised debate between Rudd and Abbott promises to be fiery.