It’s hard to imagine Rupert Murdoch sitting on Twitter, isn’t it? But tweet he does and today Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and his deputy Anthony Albanese tweeted back. For “tweet” and “tweeted” in that sentence, substitute “punch” and “punched”.
The brawl started with Murdoch’s: “Oz politics! We all like ideal of NBN, especially perfect for Foxtel. But first how can it be financed in present situation?”
This prompted Albanese, now in charge of NBN, to tweet “Our #NBN plan will deliver affordable high speed broadband to every home and business and produce a solid rate of return”.
This had Rudd (who incidentally has 1,309,250 followers to Rupert’s 456,452), chiming in: “100% agree @AlboMP. That might be Mr Murdoch’s view in New York. Here in Oz I want high speed NBN for all, not just some.”
Murdoch and his News Corporation and Rudd are at war in this campaign.
As he tries, against the odds, to survive this election, Rudd has every reason to be worried about the potential impact of the Murdoch press, especially the Daily Telegraph in Sydney, where the ALP is desperately attempting to hang on to seats and the Courier Mail in Queensland, where Labor needs to win them.
The Telegraph’s headline after the election was called - Finally, you now have the chance to … KICK THIS MOB OUT - spurred an enormous amount of debate. But there have been plenty of other in-your-face headlines in the tabloids.
The Australian has been relentlessly critical of the returned Rudd.
This is despite the once-close personal friendship between him and Australian editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell.
(Rudd has hired as his adviser on media strategy the well-respected former chief political correspondent of The Australian, Matthew Franklin, who must find the drop-in on the News stable somewhat character-forming as he does his press gallery rounds.)
Media watchers predicted that Rudd was in for extra tabloid fire when Col Allan, Murdoch hard hitter who is editor-in-chief of the New York Post, returned recently to help out editorially. (Allan was the one who took Rudd, then opposition leader, for a drunken evening to the Scores nightclub in New York.)
Conservative commentator Paul Sheehan wrote in Fairfax Media a couple of days ago that there were not just political but commercial motives afoot. News Corp viewed the NBN “as a threat to the business model of its most important Australian asset, Foxtel, jointly owned with Telstra. The company much prefers the Coalition’s less costly but also less ambitious national broadband strategy”.
Rudd didn’t hold back today. “Mr Murdoch is entitled to his view. It is a democracy, it is a free press. He owns 70% of the newspapers in this country.
"I think he’s made it fairly clear … that he doesn’t really like us and would like to give us the heave ho and would like to get rid of us and get his mate Mr Abbott in.
"The bottom line is - it is for others to ask the question why Mr Murdoch really doesn’t want the National Broadband Network to be connected to everyone’s homes and everyone’s small business premises. Does he sense it represents a commercial challenge to Foxtel which is a major cash cow for his company or not”.
The PM added a sarcastic slapdown - he was sure Murdoch saw things “with crystal clear clarity all the way from the United States”.
News in a statement today quickly denied the interests of Foxtel were having any influence on coverage. “Any suggestion that the editorial position of our newspapers is based upon the commercial interests of Foxtel demonstrates a complete ignorance of both our business and of Foxtel.
"The general News business would benefit from faster national broadband speeds and Foxtel will benefit as it is be able to offer more choice and new services to consumers.”
Labor has has some dramatic fights with the Murdoch media in the distant and near past. Murdoch (well known for his interventions in British politics and US politics) was a great supporter of Gough Whitlam’s election in 1972; in 1975 he ran a trenchant campaign against him - journalists on The Australian went on strike because of the coverage.
Fast forward to Julia Gillard, who got a rough time from the Murdoch stable. This probably led her to go in harder than was good for her in the wake of the British phone hacking scandal, when she said “I do believe that Australians watching all of that happening overseas with News Corp are looking at News Ltd here and are wanting to see News Ltd answer some hard questions.”
Her government set up an inquiry into the newspaper industry which made some strong recommendations. Communications minister Stephen Conroy later brought in legislation with much watered-down provisions. Late and ill-prepared, the bills failed to get crossbench support. But News and other sections of the media reacted with a massive campaign.
Rudd calculates he has nothing to lose in his attacks on Murdoch. If he thought he could win him over, you can bet he’d be mounting a charm offensive. Rudd can only hope that he can deliver his message adequately via TV and social media.
But he is using strictly small arms fire against the mogul. Labor learned tough lessons from Conroy’s sortie with even mild proposals to stop further concentration and beef up the newspaper industry’s voluntary watchdog.
When a journalist from The Australian today asked whether he had any plans to change the media laws if re-elected, Rudd was categoric. “We have no such plans at all”.
There will be many policy issues in this campaign, but they won’t include media policy, despite the serious and continuing shrinkage of diversity in the newspaper industry.