A Populist Hero?


Down here, in this great southern land, we take ‘mateship’ seriously. Asked to nominate ‘true Australian values’, almost 40% of those who took part in a special Bulletin survey came up with ‘mateship’ or ‘loyalty’ … While the Bulletin survey shows we believe there is much to love about Australia today, almost 40% of those surveyed say we are no longer the land of the fair go. More than 80% say the gap between Australia’s rich and poor is increasing, while 70% say we are too close to America.

This is part of the Bulletin Editor-in-Chief, John Lehmann’s latest editorial, which was published three days ago. It was also his last.

ACP Magazines announced yesterday morning that they had made the sad decision to can Australia’s longest running magazine for financial reasons. There was no mention of the role played by the private equity firm CVC Asia Pacific which now owns 75 per cent of PBL Media (ACP’s parent company) in the decision, or of the deal just brokered by Lachlan Murdoch and James Packer which should see them with a substantial joint interest in ACP.

Lehmann’s last editorial must be ringing in a few people’s ears down at the Bulletin office and other ‘quality’ media outlets. For opponents of concentrated media ownership, the findings of the survey he cites could just as well be a laundry list of what they hate about contemporary media entrepreneurs, whether they be anonymous venture capitalists or individual moguls: they have no loyalty to staff and readers, or to traditional journalistic values; they care about profits rather than equity; they belong to the wealthy classes who are out-of-touch with the rest of us; and, in the case of Australia’s newest media tycoon, Lachlan Murdoch, he’s a quasi-American, influenced by the tabloid mentality of US media culture.

Certainly, the death of the Bulletin will be seen by many in the media as the canary in the coalmine with respect to Lachlan Murdoch’s future plans, regardless of his role in the decision. In fact, when I interviewed Associate Professor David McKnight from the Centre for Social Research in Journalism and Communication at UNSW a few days ago for comment on the Murdoch/Packer deal, he predicted that the Bulletin would prove a bellwether for how Murdoch might discharge his newfound media power. Today he said:

It’s a bad omen for journalism that the first consequence of Lachlan Murdoch’s new move is the closure of such a magazine. But the most damning thing is that Murdoch’s team — and Packer’s before that — is not good at their job. They are unable and unwilling to reinvent the Bulletin, which it so obviously needs.

Regardless of whether the Murdoch/Packer deal in any way affected the decision to shut it down, the loss of the Bulletin will further polarise both sides of the media ownership debate.

Curiously, this is a debate in which both sides accuse the other of the same charge: elitism.

Just who these elites are depends on your perspective. According to the neo-conservative opinion writers who’ve bred like rabbits across our media landscape, the average Aussie battler should be in no doubt — it’s the cultural elites who’ve reproduced unchecked, eroding our culture.

In case you’ve forgotten, here’s what one looks like: he lives in a beachside enclave in the eastern suburbs of Sydney where he can be spotted sipping lattes at one of the many cafes, he studied something soft like philosophy at uni, and he’s an active patrons of the arts, prone to quoting creative-types like Baz Luhrmann.

The bloke I’ve just reduced to an empty cultural stereotype is Lachlan Murdoch. Lucky for the ordinary Australian (lucky, because he’s just emerged as one of the most powerful media players in this country), Murdoch’s prepared to champion their cause.

Here he is in 2002, speaking from this egalitarian platform, challenging what he calls ‘the orthodoxy of the media elite’ and their exclusionary politics:

The industry is littered with self-styled media purists who believe the business of media — the requirement to make a profit — somehow corrupts the craft … the Australian media elite define their club through standards designed only to exclude. Entry requires that you either rely on taxpayer’s money to draw your pay cheque, or that your newspaper folds twice over, and god forbid, don’t ever think about a profit.

I believe narrow-mindedness — disguised as high-mindedness — risks making its media irrelevant … A point of pride for companies like our own is our ability to cater to all members of society; to all demographics and everyone who demands and deserves their own ‘quality’ media. Our lack of loftiness is a point of distinction. We do not patronise our readers and audiences. We believe there’s no ‘high culture’ or ‘low culture’.

It’s just this populist attitude that has the so-called media elite twisting their knickers over the deal he struck with Packer on the weekend. Supporters of the deal would argue that these elites, far from having lofty ideals, are simply trying to protect their own power base. Critics say it’s the other way around.

On Online Opinion Tim Wallace argues that "[Lachlan] Murdoch’s perception of himself as a populist hero rather than a person whose position and pay packet has more in common with the divine right of kings is palpably absurd, not to mention drearily unoriginal."

Wallace is invoking a now well-worn critique of neo-conservative ideology — specifically the idea that powerful business elites like Murdoch have harnessed the rhetoric of market populism to their own self-serving ends. Put simply, this critique says that the market populism doctrine — the belief that the market will bring about economic democracy — has been appropriated by big business to deceptively align themselves with the interests of the ordinary person and in the process create a false enemy: anyone who opposes the rampant individualism of the free market. These people are the real elitists, this sleight-of-hand argument says, because by opposing the will of the market they reveal their contempt for the tastes and desires of the ordinary person.

David McKnight, who is researching a book on Rupert Murdoch and his media, thinks Lachlan Murdoch’s strategy of conflating the free market with democracy is ‘self-serving nonsense’.

"The discourse of market populism which Lachlan Murdoch refers to makes the wealthy elites appear as rebels against the established order — they are the de-regulationists, after all. Genuine rebels and dissidents are reframed as elite supporters or terrible orthodoxies — such as the dreaded ‘political correctness’. It’s laughable," says McKnight.

The hypocritical nub of the Murdoch strategy for critics like McKnight is that they "charge the Left with disguising their personal interests with the public interest, yet they themselves construct their private interest as public interest."

Like all stories about power, the Murdoch/Packer deal has inspired histrionics in both supporters and opponents who inhabit the two opposing, ideologically pitched, camps on this issue. Of course, emotion can make people prone to ignoring the facts on the table in favour of asking speculative, subjective questions like the one that hangs over this current deal: Is Lachlan his father’s son?

Again, it depends who you ask, but just about everyone has an opinion. As the Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation at QUT, Professor Stuart Cunningham points out, this is precisely the problem:

Most arguments about Murdoch start from a set of conclusions and work from there. Lachlan Murdoch must be acutely aware of this. When the deal was announced he made a point of differentiating himself from family interests: "This is nothing to do with News Limited, or for that matter, News Corporation".

But to his critics, this claim of independence is disingenuous to say the least. If nothing else, as an heir to the Murdoch empire who continues to sit on the News Corp board, it’s "simply impossible", argues Crikey’s Stephen Mayne, to make such a clear distinction between his personal interests and those of his father.

Professor Cunningham thinks the jury’s still out on what impact Lachlan Murdoch will have on the contemporary media landscape. While we certainly "shouldn’t deny there are reasons for worrying about media power", Cunningham warns we need to be "evidence-driven about this". He points to the fact that "News has actually crossed the popular/elite divide" in the way Murdoch claims.

He also stresses the historical difference between Rupert Murdoch and Kerry Packer on the diversity of ownership issue:

Packer has remained on the side of market populism whereas Murdoch senior has an interesting history of upscale ownership — the Village Voice, The Times, The Australian, the Wall Street Journal are all examples of broadsheet/quality outlets. This reality is of a piece with the idea that they have worked both ends of the popular media and the specialist media spectrum. My view is that, for better or worse, Murdoch senior is an innovator in media.

On Murdoch junior’s new deal, Cunningham reckons all we can safely say at this stage is it’s a deal which suggests "that the trend towards the anonymisation of media ownership — the post-mogul era — is not a singular trend line". It also upsets conventional wisdom that "old media is no longer a sexy investment to younger generations".

But whether the bastions of old media survive the deal is another question.

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