It is frequently asserted that if you change the government you change the country. But perhaps the assertion that if you change the government you also change the way the media – particularly the Murdoch media – reports on a government’s policies might be more apposite in Australia.
Just how apposite can be shown by a comparison of the NewsCorp coverage of the Rudd and Morrison stimuli. Some research commissioned from the invaluable media monitoring and analysis service, Mediaverse, vividly demonstrates the phenomenon.
No doubt if you are one of those increasingly rare people who read Murdoch media you are familiar with the latest coverage so let’s start with the Rudd years. On 4 February 2009 The Australian’s Janet Albrechtson, under the headline PM dumps facade for his ideological dream, wrote: “The GFC has provided the perfect excuse for Rudd to abandon his guise of economic conservative. Armed with a handy surplus, the present problems enable him to indulge in orgiastic spending, fulfilling the social democrat’s long-held ideological dreams yet dressing them up as a prudent economic response to the times.”
In The Herald-Sun on the same day the headline was Rudd’s $42 billion gamble the next blind throw of the dice. The copy said: “The PM has just bet $42 billion of your money on his hunch that this time, at last he understands what the hell is going on and how he can fix it. But his record shows that if he gets this one right, it will be a first.”
Three days later The Australian called the stimulus ‘Manna from Kevin’ and that “to justify it all the Government is declaring all the usual qualms about big deficits or wasting money or rampant consumerism can be buried under Australia’s overriding patriotic duty to spend its way out of trouble.”
The Adelaide Advertiser reprised the ‘orgiastic spending’ line and went on to say that “history tells us that activist short-term fiscal policy is more likely to fail than succeed – those consequences will be disastrous” and ended with a kicker about “a Whitlamesque strategy of handing out money, no questions asked; of bigger and bigger government; and of the sort of welfare socialism which ultimately failed so spectacularly last century.”
A week later Peter Van Onselen wrote in The Australian that “Kevin Rudd has attempted one of the most shameful examples of wedge politics in recent Australian political history….he stood up in Parliament and linked his controversial and contested $42 billion stimulus package with aid for victims of the Victorian bushfires.” Not quite what Rudd said or meant but who cares?
Later in February when Pacific Brands cut jobs The Herald Sun leapt to the conclusion that “Kevin Rudd’s stimulus package leaves workers drowning in Pacific.” Investors with long memories will remember that the GFC was among the least of Pacific Brands’ problems.
Flash forward 11 years and the tone and arguments are a little different. For instance, The Australian’s Judith Sloan put it all in respectable academic context by saying that in considering the Morrison stimulus: “Economists are having to get used to playing a different role in the present environment. Accustomed to pontificating about the merits and drawbacks of particular policy interventions in the context of relatively normal economic conditions, this approach is no longer viable or useful.”
On March 18 2020 The Australian headlined a Patrick Commins’ article with: Stimulus package ‘like firing a bazooka’ and predicted that “The federal government’s fiscal bazooka aimed at defending the economy from recession….is likely to be effective.” The same day Adam Creighton weighed in with “Thanks to the Coalition’s $18 billion stimulus package it’s almost certain the economy will avoid recession.”
On March 22 The Herald Sun front page trumpeted a $189 billion lifeline. On 31 March The Daily Telegraph hailed a $130 billion ‘transfusion’. Patrick Commins returned to the fray on March 22 on how experts applauded the Morrison Government’s targeted response and on 31 March a blockbuster bit of Paul Kelly bloviation splashed across The Australian front page: Depression Buster. Momentous. Astonishing. Historic. PM redefines ‘whatever it takes’ and concluded that “The Morrison Government has averted a depression in Australia. This is the most momentous and unprecedented fiscal decision in our history.”
Murdoch’s Greg Sheridan said that Scott Morrison could become Australia’s most important wartime leader unlike those also rans, John Curtin and Billy Hughes, who were actually only fighting real wars.
And it was not only the Murdoch media. John Roskam of the IPA told The Saturday Paper (4 April 2020) that “Aspects of the subsidies are unsustainable, too extravagant and ill thought through but the principle is right” although Roskam at least maintained his fundamental principles even if trimming a bit.
The Murdoch media were not alone in doing a triple back flip with multiple twists on the issue. Private Eye reports that The Daily Mail, in its 22 November 2019 pre-election editorial, said: “Corbyn’s blueprint to bankrupt Britain …would spray money around like a drunk at the races. Superficially it’s seductive. After all who doesn’t like free stuff and cheap living costs? But someone has to foot the bill.”
Roll around the first Tory budget in 2020 and The Daily Mail said: “Dr Feelgood to the rescue. Biggest Budget splurge in 30 years to boost Britain – RISHI’S MARVELOUS MEDICINE –multi-billion pound boost to kick start economic revival – Cash taps turned on to end decade of austerity – the day Dr Sunak gave UK a shot in the arm”.
Corbyn proposed increasing public spending by 82.9 billion pounds. The Tories actually increased it by 175 billion pounds and increased borrowing by 100 billion pounds taking it over 2 trillion pounds for the first time.
The Economist (21/3) also reminds us that in 2012 a group of Tory MPs published a book, Britannia Unchained, lamenting “Britain’s bloated state, high taxes and excessive regulation.” Some of the authors are current Cabinet Ministers and one, Dominic Raab, is sort of acting PM. Fast forward and railway franchise are being re-nationalised, energy prices controlled and new taxes are being introduced. Policies denounced as ‘Marxist’ when proposed by Ed Miliband have now been embraced.
Similarly in the US the Obama administration, with enormous effort, managed to get Congress to agree to a $830 billion stimulus package in 2009 without one Republican supporting it. Today Democrats are supporting a trillion dollar package. The Economist says: “Democrats, unlike many Republicans, still believe in expertise, objective truth and good government.”
Sadly one can’t say the same for the Murdoch media.
By the way Sally Young, a University of Melbourne academic who has recently published The Paper Emperors the first volume of a massive history of Australian newspapers, has published an interesting article in The Conversation about how many newspapers betrayed their readers during the Great Depression and are doing it again today.