In 1953, the Communist East German regime quashed a widespread uprising and afterwards admonished the protesters, saying the government had lost confidence in the people. In a famous satirical poem, left-wing author Bertolt Brecht said that, if so, perhaps the government could dissolve the people and elect a new lot.
One guesses that after the recent Australian election, News Corp would also like to elect a new public, as the result highlighted its own irrelevance and how out of touch it is with the Australian mainstream. Rather than directly attacking the public, though, it aimed its vitriol at the Greens and the teal independents, both of whom had wildly successful elections, and against Labor, which regained government from opposition.
So far, the media company’s epic fail seems not to have occasioned any soul- searching. Indeed some in its stable – in a triumph of ideological fantasy over numeracy – have asserted the result was due to the Liberals moving too far “left”.
Questions remain about the future though: will the election lead News Corp to change, either out of professional shame or in the interests of expanding its market share beyond the right-wing, populist ghetto it inhabits? And how will it treat the incoming government?
Some insight might be gained from how the jewel in Murdoch’s crown, his greatest commercial and political success of the past three decades, Fox News, covered the administrations of US presidents Barack Obama and Joe Biden, both of whose elections it had vehemently opposed.
The opposition to Obama from Fox’s commentators was immediate and unrelenting. Even before he took office, after an economic setback during the global recession which had been going on for months, Fox News star Sean Hannity said Obama was to blame, because the prospect of his taking over had made wealthy people get out of the market.
On the day of the president’s inauguration, Rush Limbaugh declared: “I hope he fails”. On day three, Laura Ingraham declared “our country is less safe today”. The next day, their new star Glenn Beck said Obama had ended the war on terror, and a week later asserted the country was on a march towards socialism.
Over the next few years, Fox gave oxygen to the “birther” issue. This was the claim that Obama was not born in America and so was not eligible to be president – that his birth certificate showing he was born in Hawaii was fake. In two months in early 2011, Fox devoted 52 items to “birther” stories, 44 of which featured the claim without any other view being put.
Fox also took decisive steps transgressing what others would consider professional boundaries in becoming directly involved in the formation of the Tea Party, a right-wing movement that proclaimed it wanted to take their country back, who demanded ever more right-wing candidates in the Republican Party. Not only did Fox give abundant publicity to their rallies, its then most prominent star, Glenn Beck spoke at numerous rallies.
This points to an interesting paradox: Fox News probably persuades few Democrats to change sides. Rather, the biggest losers from Fox’s impact have been moderate Republicans, as Fox has helped move the party ever more to the right.
Could it be that News Corp is having, or will have, a similar impact on the conservative side of Australian politics, making it harder for the Liberals to develop sane policies on issues such as global warming?
After Biden’s election, several Fox presenters supported Trump’s claims that the election was stolen, that Trump had really won. This strikes at one of the fundamental pillars of democracy: that the vote count can be trusted.
More recently, Fox has promoted an equally dangerous idea, especially promoted by its highest-paid performer, Tucker Carlson. This is known as the Great Replacement Theory. A long-term demographic trend in the US is that the proportion of whites is gradually declining as those of Blacks, Latinos and other ethnic groups grow more quickly.
Carlson and others turn this into a conspiracy theory: that Democratic elites are seeking to force demographic change through immigration, to replace the current electorate with new more “obedient” people from the Third World.
Carlson has made more than 400 references to this absurd conspiracy. In the past year these dangerous views have moved from the fringes, with substantial proportions of Republicans agreeing with some aspects of the theory.
It is impossible to imagine a more moderate or centrist Fox News. Its business model is built on delivering a predictable product to its niche audience of alienated, older whites, mobilising their resentments over status anxiety, cutting through the complexities of the modern world with simple affirmations of their prejudices.
Its most successful shows rarely attract more than 2-3% of the viewing public, itself a shrinking percentage of the total population. But its mix of strong opinions and minimal expenditure on reporting has been wildly profitable.
There was a time when Rupert Murdoch had a shrewd populist touch and, for reasons of both patronage and reputation, aimed to be on the winning side in elections. Those days are gone. The past few decades have seen the “Foxification” of News Corp.
This does not mean we will see claims of electoral fraud or replacement theories in Australia. But it does mean that the company’s formula for commercial viability is giving a predictable product to a niche audience.
In turn, this means that Murdoch’s outlets are now rusted-on supporters of right-wing parties and views, indifferent to any electoral counter-currents. Many of his most prominent commentators have the consistency of a stopped clock.
Decades of conformity in a strongly hierarchical empire have produced a hardening of the editorial arteries, a mediocre culture that seems incapable of delivering anything other than more of the same.