A few days after the most recent toppling of a sitting Australian prime minister by his own party, former prime minister Kevin Rudd—the first to be so unceremoniously deposed—penned a scathing indictment of Rupert Murdoch and his media empire.
Murdoch, Rudd said, is “the greatest cancer on Australian democracy,” and, far from being a mere media mogul, “operates as a political party, acting in pursuit of clearly defined commercial interests, in addition to his far-right ideological world-view.”
After implicating Murdoch in Brexit and the “hostile takeover” of the Republican Party by Donald Trump via Fox News, Rudd warned that the damage in Australia could be even greater given Murdoch owns two-thirds of the country’s print media. “No other democracy has anything approaching his effective media monopoly.”
At the heart of Murdoch’s Australian media empire is Sky News, the cable station that he acquired in 2016. While once a relatively strait-laced news channel (Britain take note), its evening programming has now taken a decidedly conservative turn, leading one critic to quip that it has “a kind of split personality.” While its daytime schedule continues to operate as a standard news service, “Sky after dark,” as it’s not-so-affectionately known, now features a Who’s Who of Murdoch’s star print columnists who make no secret of their hard-right credentials, making frequent targets of anyone deemed vaguely hostile to their ideological worldview.
One such columnist turned cable star, Andrew Bolt, claimed that Australia was being “colonised” by immigrants who refused to assimilate, paying particular attention to Muslim and Jewish communities. Less than two weeks later, Sky host Adam Giles invited on to his programme the white supremacist Blair Cottrell, a notorious local figure who’d previously been convicted for inciting serious contempt against Muslims.
The comparisons to Fox News are natural but local critics are loath to equate the two, pointing to Sky’s slightly more ideologically diverse range of voices, including former centrist Labor politicians. But this seems largely beside the point. First, the inclusion of centrists but lack of identifiably progressive voices only adds to the political distortion by positioning centrism as the farthest point on the left side of the ideological spectrum. Perhaps more importantly, what concerns Rudd and many other critics, including veteran political reporter Chris Uhlmann, is not so much the influence Sky has on public opinion formation—its ratings are relatively low—but its growing influence on the governing conservative Liberal/National Coalition.
In August, Malcolm Turnbull was ousted as prime minister and replaced with Scott Morrison, a staunch conservative with ties to the fundamentalist Pentecostal church. According to Uhlmann, while Sky’s direct influence on public opinion is limited due to its cable network status, its influence on the government is so great it is effectively a major player in the political process. He accused it of running a campaign against Turnbull. “Sky after dark at the moment,” Uhlmann declared in a television interview, shortly before Turnbull was ousted, “is turning Liberal/National Party voters into One Nation [a populist far-right party founded by Pauline Hanson] voters—and they’re not coming back.”
Indeed, when Turnbull survived the first leadership vote against him, the outraged conservative commentariat did not hold back their displeasure, both on Sky and other Murdoch platforms. Andrew Bolt derided the then prime minister as, “a narcissist trying to make the Liberal Party in his own… image,” while fellow Sky host Rita Panahi used her Murdoch print column to claim that this “level of self-obsession is unparalleled in modern Australian politics.” By the end of the week Turnbull was gone.
The net result of these shenanigans is not only that Sky commentators now quite clearly have skin in the game, but that Australia’s political landscape is being reshaped with the centre shifting ever further to the right.
It would be a reach to blame Murdoch and Sky News entirely for the shambolic state of Australia’s politics and public discourse. But it is sobering that, within the space of two weeks, Sky News sympathetically hosted a neo-Nazi giving his views legitimate social currency and recast a conservative sitting prime minister as a traitorous “leftist” undermining the Liberal Party—and hence conservatism—from within, leading to his unceremonious downfall.
As to how far its influence can go, now that one of their own approved boys is safely ensconced in the top spot and their power over the Liberal Party firmly consolidated, it’s safe to say, the Sky really is the limit.