Mur­doch’s fail­ure to launch Fox here

With the col­lapse of Mur­doch’s takeover plan for Ten, some­thing else ended: the de­signs for his Sky ros­ter to take a de facto Fox News to the main­stream.

The Saturday Paper - - Front Page - Mike Sec­combe re­ports. MIKE SEC­COMBE is The Satur­day Pa­per’s na­tional cor­re­spon­dent.

Poor An­drew Bolt. Not long ago the rightwing blog­ger and News Corp colum­nist was in line to be­come the Bill O’Reilly of Aus­tralian tele­vi­sion, lead­ing the way into a Fox­i­fied fu­ture, as­sisted by changes to Aus­tralia’s me­dia laws.

But not any­more.

The sce­nario would have gone like this: Ru­pert Mur­doch’s News Corp buys con­trol of Sky News, stacks it with squad of right-wing opin­ion-mon­gers, led by Bolt. Then Aus­tralia’s me­dia laws, which have locked Mur­doch out of free-to-air tele­vi­sion for more than 25 years, are changed by the Turn­bull gov­ern­ment. Then Lach­lan Mur­doch and friends buy the strug­gling Ten Net­work. Then Sky takes over news pro­duc­tion for the net­work. Then Ten’s news di­vi­sion be­comes in­creas­ingly like Sky’s, which is to say, more about opin­ion than fact, like Fox News is in Amer­ica.

This is not base­less spec­u­la­tion. In De­cem­ber last year, News Corp did take over Sky News, through its par­ent com­pany, Aus­tralian News Chan­nel. And Sky News has in­deed been stacked with a long ros­ter of right wing tub-thumpers – many of them with pre­vi­ous Mur­doch con­nec­tions. In May, the founder­ing Ten Net­work was re­ported to be con­sid­er­ing dras­tic changes un­der project “Blue Hori­zon”, which in­volved out­sourc­ing news to Sky.

And Lach­lan Mur­doch and his el­derly part­ner, Bruce Gor­don, did in­deed try to gain con­trol of Ten. They drove it into ad­min­is­tra­tion in June. Their plan would have seen the net­work rid of a lot of its pesky debt and also put the weights on the Turn­bull gov­ern­ment to has­ten the pas­sage of reg­u­la­tory changes ad­van­ta­geous to big play­ers such as them. Then they would have bought it back from the ad­min­is­tra­tors.

But they screwed it up. The gov­ern­ment took longer than they planned to get the me­dia law changes through the se­nate. They un­der­es­ti­mated the hos­til­ity of cred­i­tors, staff and some mi­nor share­hold­ers. And they were gazumped by the Amer­i­can me­dia gi­ant CBS.

And so Bolt is left on the eighth floor of a Mel­bourne of­fice build­ing, holed up in a makeshift stu­dio, broad­cast­ing to an au­di­ence of al­most no one. Guests ring a num­ber to be let in and find their own way in the lift. There is no hair and makea

up to speak of, none of the usual trap­pings of a tele­vi­sion stu­dio. This is as close as you can get to pi­rate ra­dio with­out be­ing on Mark Latham’s show.

Sure, there’s talk of fur­ther le­gal ac­tion by Gor­don to try to stop the CBS takeover, and the Ten share­hold­ers have not yet given fi­nal ap­proval. But as Al­lan Goldin, a di­rec­tor of the Aus­tralian Share­hold­ers’ As­so­ci­a­tion and me­dia spe­cial­ist, says, while the deal is “still up in the air in the­ory; in prac­tice it’s highly un­likely that CBS won’t take over the com­pany”.

“Highly un­likely” is re­ally an un­der­state­ment. The prospect of a Mur­doch own­ing the net­work now looks re­mote. And that, says Rod­ney Tif­fen, emer­i­tus pro­fes­sor of gov­ern­ment and in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions at Syd­ney Univer­sity, “is un­equiv­o­cally good news”.

“It’s good news, first be­cause it in­creases me­dia com­pe­ti­tion, and sec­ond be­cause CBS know what they’re do­ing and they’ve got deep pock­ets. Whereas Lach­lan and Bruce Gor­don have had a long time run­ning Ten and they’ve not done a lot of good for it.”

Few would ar­gue with him. Poor pro­gram­ming de­ci­sions, swinge­ing staff cuts, poor em­ployee re­la­tions, a re­volv­ing door of man­age­ment, mul­timil­lion-dol­lar losses and ac­cu­mu­lated debt – Ten was, in the words of one se­nior staff mem­ber, “a sheer fuckin’ dis­as­ter”.

And CBS, though an Amer­i­can com­pany, of­fers a deep ros­ter of pro­gram­ming and, more im­por­tantly, a rep­u­ta­tion for com­pre­hen­sive and pretty straight news re­port­ing, as well as corporate in­tegrity – es­pe­cially in com­par­i­son with the Mur­doch em­pire.

“I think we’ve dodged a bul­let,” Tif­fen says.

So back to Bolt – and the large stock­pile of other right-wing me­dia com­men­ta­tors, shock jocks, for­mer politi­cians and straight-out re­ac­tionar­ies gath­ered by Sky News. Their chance of mak­ing it from niche tele­vi­sion to the broad­cast big-time ap­pears equally re­mote.

The whole af­fair makes for an in­ter­est­ing case study of the in­flu­ence of con­ser­va­tive me­dia, and the ex­tent to which the per­cep­tion of it is matched by re­al­ity. Con­sider just some of the names as­sem­bled by Sky News: 2GB’s Alan Jones; for­mer chief of staff to Tony Ab­bott, Peta Credlin; for­mer Lib­eral politi­cians Peter Reith and Ross Cameron; for­mer La­bor Right fig­ures Mark Latham, now fired, and Gra­ham Richard­son, who lost his show; News Corp colum­nists Chris Kenny and of course Bolt, de­scribed by his em­ployer as “Aus­tralia’s most-read blog­ger”.

So, how much in­flu­ence does this dream team of in­flu­encers ac­tu­ally have? Not much, judg­ing by au­di­ence size. Sky News’s evening of­fer­ing of re­lent­less, stri­dent opin­ion at­tracts a rather smaller crowd than an av­er­age AFL game. Not an AFL fi­nal, an av­er­age club game. A cou­ple of tens of thou­sands.

Some might ar­gue that their power should not be mea­sured by view­er­ship alone, that when Peta Credlin, for ex­am­ple, of­fers some new in­sight into Ab­bott’s ef­forts to white-ant Mal­colm Turn­bull, it res­onates through the broader me­dia.

And that’s true. The ques­tion is, though, does that re­ally change any­thing in terms of the di­rec­tion of pub­lic de­bate? Or has the Fox­i­fi­ca­tion of Sky News re­vealed an il­lu­sion of power, like when Toto pulls back the cur­tain in The Wizard of Oz and re­veals the fear­some wizard is a rather inad­e­quate lit­tle man us­ing echo ef­fects? There is a grow­ing body of ev­i­dence to sug­gest the lat­ter.

The word “Fox­i­fi­ca­tion” is not our in­ven­tion, but has been used a lot over the past year or so by me­dia an­a­lysts.

One of Mur­doch’s then me­dia writ­ers, the ven­er­a­ble Mark Day, used it in May, in a piece in which he sur­veyed Sky

News’s line-up of stri­dently opin­ion­ated pre­sen­ters, and pon­dered whether there had been a “brand re­set” since News Corp ac­quired it.

“Will it be ‘Fox­i­fied’ – that is, turned into a Down Un­der ver­sion of Amer­ica’s most watched and con­tro­ver­sial cable news chan­nel, Fox News?” he asked, rhetor­i­cally, at the top. Later he an­swered his own ques­tion, say­ing that ap­peared “broadly” to be the case.

Day, an old-school journo at heart, sug­gested this was not such a good thing and that Sky News should “pull back to the core func­tion of pro­vid­ing more news, at least part of the time”.

“Why not pack­ages on war zones, science news or the ways the world’s cli­mate or en­vi­ron­men­tal prob­lems are be­ing ad­dressed in other na­tions?” he asked. And again he an­swered him­self: “be­cause the num­bers show au­di­ences pre­fer opin­ion and de­bate pro­gram­ming ”.

That, how­ever, is a propo­si­tion that lacks nec­es­sary nu­ance. And per­haps the best way to show that is to go to a case study. An­drew Bolt’s TV ca­reer pro­vides a good one.

There was a time when he was a reg­u­lar pan­el­list on the ABC’s agen­daset­ting Sun­day morn­ing po­lit­i­cal panel show, In­sid­ers. It re­ally was Barrie Cas­sidy’s show, but at least it pro­vided an au­di­ence of sev­eral hun­dred thou­sand view­ers for Bolt’s con­ser­va­tive opin­ions.

Trou­ble was, the ABC pro­gram of­fered a range of views apart from his. So in 2011, Bolt jumped at the chance to have his own ri­val show, free of such plu­ral­ism, on the Ten Net­work. When The Bolt Re­port be­gan in May that year, he de­clared his aim was to out-rate In­sid­ers. His show aired at 10am, the same time as In­sid­ers fin­ished, ini­tially for half an hour. In 2014, re­port­edly at the urg­ing of Ten share­holder and Bolt sup­porter Gina Rine­hart, it was ex­tended to an hour.

It was com­pet­i­tive at the start, then be­gan an in­ex­orable slide. By Novem­ber 2015, its au­di­ence had shrunk 60 per cent, to a lit­tle more than 110,000.

In Jan­uary 2016, The Aus­tralian was the first to re­port that Ten had de­cided to can The Bolt Re­port. Bolt de­nied this. He had, he said, “de­cided to take the show to Sky in­stead, and keep my week­ends free. News Corp did not refuse to keep pay­ing for the show on Chan­nel 10.”

Leav­ing aside the in­ter­est­ing rev­e­la­tion that News Corp had to pay Ten to put Bolt on air, the most rel­e­vant fact is that Bolt’s au­di­ence tanked fur­ther.

A few months ago, Fair­fax Me­dia’s Craig Math­ieson an­a­lysed the rat­ings for Sky News’s nightly line-up. And what he re­ported was woe­ful.

On Tues­day, March 28, The Bolt Re­port drew a na­tional au­di­ence at 7pm of just 27,000. Of those, 23,000 were aged over 55. Alan Jones’s 8pm show did a lit­tle bet­ter, with 34,000 view­ers, and Paul Mur­ray Live at 9pm topped out with 55,000. Mean­while In­sid­ers pow­ers on, with an av­er­age 550,000 view­ers.

So, to Day’s point that au­di­ences “pre­fer opin­ion and de­bate”, per­haps one should add a caveat. Says Barrie Cas­sidy: “They want fact-based de­bate, rather than ide­o­log­i­cal bom­bast.”

Cas­sidy reck­ons Bolt prob­a­bly did more for his con­ser­va­tive cause as a pan­el­list – not just be­cause of au­di­ence size, but be­cause he might ac­tu­ally have been heard by some peo­ple who were per­suad­able. In this, I should make a dis­clo­sure: I am a pan­el­list on Cas­sidy’s show, as are a num­ber of my col­leagues from The Satur­day Pa­per.

Data from the United States un­der­line the point that right-wing me­dia in­creas­ingly preaches to the con­verted. A Pew Re­search Cen­tre study in 2014 found that among peo­ple with “con­sis­tently” con­ser­va­tive views, 88 per cent trusted only Fox. Peo­ple with more mal­leable views, in con­trast, en­gaged with a far wider va­ri­ety of sources of news and opin­ion – pub­lic ra­dio, cable net­works, CNN, MSNBC, The New York Times et cetera.

Fur­ther­more, Fox view­ers are lit­er­ally a dy­ing de­mo­graphic. Nielsen rat­ings show the me­dian age of its au­di­ence is 68. This is the TV they watch in God’s wait­ing room.

It’s not hard to see the po­lit­i­cal im­pli­ca­tions of this: the ranters on Fox may have a locked-in de­mo­graphic of older, less-ed­u­cated, typ­i­cally white males, but they’re not mak­ing many con­verts.

There’s no deny­ing, though, that Fox is big in Amer­ica, un­like its im­i­ta­tor here. A par­tial ex­pla­na­tion of that is that cable is ubiq­ui­tous in the States, while in this coun­try only about a third of peo­ple get it. But per­haps a greater part of the ex­pla­na­tion is that Sky’s pre­sen­ters have other pri­mary gigs on talk­back ra­dio, or in the Mur­doch press. Per­haps if you can get your fix of An­drew Bolt in the pa­per or on­line, you don’t feel the need to watch him on TV.

The fact Sky News’s pre­sen­ters have other out­lets, though, does not nec­es­sar­ily make them more in­flu­en­tial. The rea­son is that, like the Fox pre­sen­ters in the US, they are preach­ing to the con­verted, but not re­ally shift­ing much opin­ion.

Rod­ney Tif­fen made this point strongly in an anal­y­sis a cou­ple of years ago, of the rel­e­vance of the Mur­doch me­dia in two re­mark­able state elec­tions.

“Over the past eight months, Vic­to­ria and Queens­land have ejected first-term Lib­eral gov­ern­ments de­spite the best ef­forts of the Mur­doch press in those states,” he wrote.

“Their slanted front pages, un­bal­anced cov­er­age and com­bat­ive ed­i­to­ri­als only high­lighted their grow­ing ir­rel­e­vance to the elec­toral process.”

He at­trib­uted this in part to the struc­tural fac­tor of de­clin­ing news­pa­per cir­cu­la­tion. Mur­doch pa­pers, he cal­cu­lated, reached only about 10 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion in 2015, or “prob­a­bly about half of their reach when they sup­ported John Howard in the 2001 elec­tion”.

Of that 10th of the pop­u­la­tion, he reck­oned, more than half were al­ready anti-La­bor vot­ers, and most of the rest “fairly set­tled in their po­lit­i­cal at­ti­tudes and largely im­mune to the pa­pers’ per­sua­sive ef­forts”.

Then there was the trust fac­tor. He noted polling by Es­sen­tial Me­dia, show­ing 70 per cent trust in Fair­fax’s Syd­ney Morn­ing Her­ald and Mel­bourne Age, com­pared with about 60 in News Corp’s broad­sheet The Aus­tralian, and only about 50 per cent for The Daily Tele­graph in Syd­ney, Her­ald Sun in Mel­bourne and The Courier-Mail in Bris­bane.

Tif­fen ac­knowl­edged the role of these me­dia in agenda set­ting for what he called the “self-ref­er­en­tial noise ma­chine” of com­mer­cial ra­dio talk­back, but cau­tioned against mis­tak­ing its “vol­ume and blus­ter” for per­sua­sive­ness.

Speak­ing to The Satur­day Pa­per this week, Tif­fen elab­o­rated some­what on his the­sis. Now, he reck­oned, the rightwing me­dia ac­tu­ally pre­sented more of the prob­lem for the con­ser­va­tive side of pol­i­tics than the pro­gres­sive side.

“I don’t think they have a big im­pact now on con­vert­ing vot­ers from La­bor to Lib­eral, be­cause there are not many in their au­di­ences left to con­vert,” he said.

“But when the Mur­doch press and com­mer­cial talk ra­dio get stuck into an is­sue that di­vides the con­ser­va­tive side of pol­i­tics, they can still have an im­pact.

“If they run hard on an is­sue such as the grey­hound rac­ing ban, and mo­bilise the more con­ser­va­tive forces, that spooks the more lib­eral el­e­ments in the Coali­tion.”

In­deed, it’s not hard to iden­tify other con­tem­po­rary ex­am­ples, such as coal seam gas min­ing. Here, some right-wing com­men­ta­tors, in­clud­ing Alan Jones, who back the anti-frack­ing farm­ers, are pit­ted against oth­ers who back the min­ers.

The re­sult: ten­sion be­tween the Turn­bull gov­ern­ment, which wants more frack­ing, and states such as New South Wales, which see po­lit­i­cal peril in agree­ing to that.

Or con­sider the re­sponse to cli­mate change. The de­nial­ists on talk­back and in the Mur­doch me­dia have ut­terly failed to sway pub­lic opin­ion against re­new­able en­ergy, but they have played a big role in paralysing fed­eral gov­ern­ment pol­i­cy­mak­ing.

Mean­while, the dream team on Sky News seems to be­come ever more ex­treme and de­struc­tive, in what Math­ieson called their “ide­o­log­i­cal ob­ses­sion”.

Credlin’s loy­alty to Ab­bott only fu­els gov­ern­ment dis­unity. Paul Mur­ray cosies up to the ex­trem­ists of

One Na­tion and the lib­er­tar­ian gun en­thu­si­ast from the Lib­eral Democrats, David Ley­on­hjelm. He whales into the Lib­eral moder­ate Christo­pher Pyne as “piss-weak”, “use­less”, “a wanker” and an “ar­se­hole”, among other things. Bolt, broad­cast­ing from un­der the stairs, in­structs his view­ers that it’s time to give up on the Lib­eral Party and back

Cory Bernardi’s break­away Aus­tralian Con­ser­va­tives party.

Truly, Bill Shorten must be laugh­ing. And Mal­colm Turn­bull’s only com­fort is that hardly any­one is watch­ing. •


An­drew Bolt on Sky News’s

The Bolt Re­port

this week.

MIKE SEC­COMBE is The Satur­day Pa­per’s na­tional cor­re­spon­dent.

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