When leaders take on media moguls, it always makes for a spicy story. When the characters are Kevin Rudd and Rupert Murdoch, one hangs out for the next episode.
In the Labor camp, a few people must be holding their breaths as Rudd escalates the battle. In News, Murdoch has other issues than the attacks coming from the PM.
The as-yet-unexplained resignation today of Kim Williams, chief executive of News Corp Australia, signals some turmoil in the organisation.
In his email to staff Williams said: “It is certainly not a decision made lightly, or without an awareness of the impact decisions like this inevitably have on many close colleagues, clients and diverse bodies within the media community.”
That is like a mystery clue. Industry sources say there was a power struggle for Murdoch’s support. Obviously Williams lost out. But we know little of the detail.
Chief executive of News Corp Robert Thomson said that Williams thought it was the “right moment” to leave (right for whom, exactly?) but it is certainly an awkward moment, just when News is under a lot of public scrutiny for its coverage of this election campaign.
Williams, who came from Foxtel, has been the square peg. He has not been regarded by the News editorial hierarchy as knowing much about newspapers. They were unimpressed by his push for copy sharing across the group, and his wish to get stories up online first. As one source put it, “he didn’t understand the culture”.
Andrew Crook reported in Crikey that News journalist Piers Akerman had been highly critical of Williams, complaining around the place that the company was being run by consultants, like Fairfax.
When you are a political leader and Murdoch’s against you, there are three possible responses. Grin, or grimace, and bear it. Try to be accommodating. Or take him on.
Rudd has been doing the latter all week, declaring that Murdoch wants to see him our of office and Tony Abbott installed and that he is trying to protect Foxtel’s interests from the NBN.
On the NBN claim, the counter argument, put by News and Telstra, which co-own Foxtel, is that the NBN would benefit Foxtel.
Rudd, however, today pressed his line on Murdoch’s commercial conflict of interest, pointing out that the opposition’s broadband policy would connect fibre only to the node, so people would have to rely on copper wire from the node to the house. “If you’re relying on copper … you’re not going to be able to access movies from the source.”
Today Rudd went a lot further than earlier in targeting Murdoch (although the PM wants to be seen as the victim). He said News editors had been summoned to a meeting in Sydney last week with Col Allan, Murdoch’s hard man who is back from New York (where he is editor-in-chief of the New York Post) to help out editorially for a while.
“What we know from that meeting … is that the message delivered very clearly was to them, ‘Go hard on Rudd, start from Sunday and don’t back off’”.
If Rudd’s account is accurate, the editors have done their best to please. Monday’s Daily Telegraph in Sydney told people they had the chance to “KICK THIS MOB OUT”. Then there was Thursday’s Telegraph, following Anthony Albanese’s beer with disgraced former Labor MP Craig Thomson, which depicted Rudd and Albanese as Nazis from Hogan’s Heroes. Today’s Courier Mail, after Peter Beattie’s return to politics, had as its front page “Send in the Clown”.
Whether there is any connection between the Williams affair and the Rudd-Murdoch clash is unknown.
The Australian Financial Review’s Neil Chenoweth argues that the recent editorial presentation reflects the dysfunction following the restructuring of the Murdoch empire, which separated it into two parts.
The side with the entertainment assets is functional but the print side is far from it. “News Corporation has a deep commercial interest in defeating the government and subverting the National Broadband Network but the anti-Labor campaign is driven by far more visceral impulses”, Chenoweth writes. “News Corp Australia is locked in a bitter struggle, not with the age-old enemy Fairfax Media, but with itself.
"And the election coverage is merely an extension of that – each headline becomes a way of securing Rupert’s approval.
"Allan’s Thursday front page, photoshopping a scene from Hogan’s Heroes from 1971, might be unintelligible to most of the Tele’s audience, but it scores with the only demographic that matters – Rupert Murdoch”.
Within the government, Williams is seen as being friendly towards Labor. Perhaps not surprising, since he is married to Gough Whitlam’s daughter. And, just to square the circle, Whitlam came under huge attack from the Murdoch press in 1975.