BookReviews

Power and panic

The political idiosyncrasies of Murdoch and of the Australian population

Reviewed by Peter Coleman

Rupert Murdoch: An Investigation of Political Power
by David McKnight
Allen & Unwin
Sydney, 2012

Panic
by David Marr
Black Inc.
Melbourne, 2011

The titles and especially the subtitles of the library of books about Rupert Murdoch indicate the fascination he exerts. They present him variously as wizard, ringmaster, mogul, titan, prince, and the world’s greatest dealmaker. They also claim to see him as Aussie, arrogant, barefaced, cheeky, obsessive, secretive and unbridled. Like Stalin, he runs an archipelago for his zeks. He owns the news.

Two things distinguish the latest study, David McKnight’s Rupert Murdoch, which takes as its starting point the phone hacking scandals in Britain. The first is that it is almost exclusively concerned with Murdoch’s politics (see the book’s subtitle). McKnight does not dismiss Murdoch’s political ideas as rationalisations or mere programs for making money. He sees Murdoch’s ideas as allimportant to him and his company as a political crusader. His genius for making money is a means of adding clout to his politics. Beyond that, McKnight appears to have zero interest in Murdoch the businessman. He mentions in passing “a financial crisis that nearly destroyed his media empire”, but he tells us nothing about it.

He traces Murdoch’s political development from the anti-Tory schoolboy rebel at Geelong Grammar through the days door-knocking for the Labour Party in Britain and speech-writing for Gough Whitlam in Australia, and on to his later espousal of the radical-conservative Thatcher-Reagan ideology of populism, free markets, low taxes and small government. At Oxford he stood for the secretaryship of the Labour Club but was disqualified because he openly campaigned for votes—an ungentlemanly practice banned under Club rules. “Forty years later,” according to McKnight, “Murdoch was still livid about the ruling.” Even the other day he was tweeting against the “lies and libels” of “old toffs and right-wingers.”

McKnight plainly despises Murdoch’s libertarian political vision. Once a journalist on the Communist weekly Tribune, he remains a man of the left. But—and this is the second point that distinguishes his book—he is able to expound Murdoch’s political ideas in an almost even-handed way that makes it easy to cheer Murdoch and support him in his current travails. He remains sceptical of Murdoch’s scorn for snobs and elites although he admires his Aussie independence of them. He quotes (twice) an observation Murdoch made in 2005: “A long time ago the British were pretty patronising towards Australians, pat you on your head and say ‘You’ll do well’, and when you do well, they kick you to death.” Typically Private Eye, which Murdoch regards as an offbeat and snobbish voice of the British Establishment, dubbed him the Dirty Digger, a sobriquet he hates but which stuck. McKnight also recalls David Frost’s patronising and never-to-be-forgiven television interview with Murdoch in 1969. The biographer Michael Wolff quotes Murdoch 40 years after the interview: “I feel like saying ‘I’ll get that bastard one day’ but he’ll die before I get him.”

McKnight makes a similar attempt at even-handedness in his depiction of Murdoch the journalist and editor-in-chief. One minute he is the boss who tolerates no disagreement from his zeks, the next his editors ignore him or argue furiously with him. McKnight tells the story of one London editor who protested to a grumbling Murdoch that his paper had followed the Murdoch line supporting Margaret Thatcher in the Falklands War. Murdoch responded: “Yeah, but you didn’t mean it, didya?”

In a supportive foreword (“disturbing … deserves a very wide readership”) Professor Robert Manne concludes that Murdoch’s empire is “beginning to look decidedly shakey”. This is an old story. Twenty years ago there was a book on Murdoch called: The Decline of an Empire. McKnight is more perceptive than these happy doomsters. He ends his investigation with the prediction that the old man will continue to influence world politics “for a considerable time to come.”

 

THERE are two David Marrs battling it out in Panic, his new selection of articles, essays and orations. One of them, the dominant Marr, sees Australians as a flighty, fearful, gullible people easily stampeded into panics over anything from terrorists to illegal immigrants. “It came to me,” he tells us, “that I have been writing about panics all my career.” Hence this book. But the other Marr sees Australia as “this golden country, so prosperous, so safe and orderly”, a society which in the end settles its noisy disagreements calmly, rationally, democratically. How does he reconcile these two visions?

The answer is he doesn’t. The first David Marr is the award-winning journalist—clear, stylish and leftish. He scores several hits when mocking the ebbs and flows of public opinion. But I doubt he really believes that the stories he tells are examples of an Australian penchant to panic. The issues of child pornography or drugs, for example, inevitably and properly arouse forceful argument. It is not panic-mongering to debate them robustly. 

In one chapter Marr depicts prime minister John Howard’s rally in Sydney’s City Recital Hall launching his 2001 (‘Tampa’) election campaign. It was, Marr says, “one of the most extraordinary scenes I’ve witnessed in my life.” Towards the end of his speech Howard turned to border protection and in a low-key, almost tentative voice spoke these famous words: “We have a proud record of welcoming people from 140 nations. But we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.” It was a winning speech and Howard received a standing ovation. But how could such a simple statement of Australian sovereignty possibly be seen by Marr as panic-mongering?

In another chapter Marr ridicules the preparations for the 2007 APEC meeting of world leaders. Sydney was in lock-down. Most city workers recall it as an unpleasant if brief abridgement of their rights in their home town. But they also knew that if you are hosting a meeting which includes the presidents of the United States, China, Russia and Indonesia, you’d better be sure of their security. Marr presents it as the dead end of Howard’s grubby “politics of fear”. In this age of terrorism, with fresh memories of Bali, London or Madrid among scores of terrorist attacks around the world, does anyone (apart from a couple of ABC dorks, the Chaser ‘boys’) really share this assessment?

One particular reason for doubting Marr’s commitment to his theme of panic is that there is not a word in his wide-ranging book about one of the greatest panics that ever gripped the country: global warming. We were all going to die of thirst. The Great Barrier Reef was dying. The South Pole was melting. Our coastal suburbs would be washed away. In the end Marr’s second theme—how the rational Australia will always prevail over the panic-mongerers—is the real message of Panic. Perhaps there is another book here. How about calling it No Panic? Or, quoting Marr, The Golden Country?