In the home country of Rupert Murdoch, can a politician attack News Corp. and still win an election? The answer to that question could come as early as Saturday.
In Australia, the opposition Labor Party is poised to seize victory despite a fierce campaign from the Murdoch press. In the past, Labor leaders have tried to broker a truce with Murdoch, the Australian-born mogul whose company owns large chunks of the U.S. media, but also an estimated 59 percent of Australia’s newspapers by market share. Two recent Labor prime ministers — Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd — both visited Murdoch in the United States, presumably bending a knee in the hope of avoiding outright hostility.
Not this time. Bill Shorten, the current Labor leader who looks likely to become prime minister after Saturday’s election, chose not to make the usual overtures.
He may have been emboldened by last year’s election in the state of Victoria, in which local Murdoch newspapers campaigned against a popular Labor premier, Daniel Andrews. Andrews won by an even higher margin than he had previously.
The failure of the Murdoch campaign in Victoria did not prevent a fresh attack on Labor during the current national election campaign. Among the Murdoch headlines in the past few days:
- Shorten’s ruthless lunge for power has been laid bare
- How much money will Aussies lose under Shorten’s plan
- Shorten stoops to new low on Morrison’s religious beliefs
But the most notable “splash” came last week, when Sydney’s Daily Telegraph offered a front-page article alleging that Shorten had overstated the difficulties faced by his mother in realizing her professional dreams.
Throughout his career, Shorten has spoken of his mother’s professional disappointment as inspiring his political ambitions. According to his account, his mother had wanted a career in the law, but — as the eldest of four children — had to accept a scholarship to become a teacher to attend university.
Shorten repeated the story during a television interview last week, omitting a detail that he had included when previously telling the story: In the end, his mother partly achieved her dream, becoming a barrister in her 50s.
For the Telegraph, omitting the conclusion of the tale amounted to a lie — or so it would seem from the headline, “Mother of Invention.” The article claimed that Ann Shorten, who died in 2014, had gone on to have an “illustrious career,” and that Bill Shorten “comes off as the slippery salesman yet again.” In its editorial, the paper opined: “Far from being thwarted, she achieved her Australian dream.”
If the Telegraph’s “revelation” was meant to derail Labor’s campaign, the attempt backfired badly.
In an emotional news conference, Shorten talked afresh about his mother’s sacrifices and the age discrimination she faced when she finally achieved her goal. On social media, a #MyMum hashtag trended as people shared stories of their mothers and the limited horizons they had been offered by the Australia of the time.
Shorten is sometimes derided as being wooden and inauthentic, but the Telegraph story gave him the opportunity to finally find his voice. He spoke with tears in his eyes about his mother’s experiences and how they connected with his political convictions. It was one of those electrifying moments that sometimes win elections.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison rapidly distanced himself. “Bill lost his mother five years ago and I can understand that would have upset him a great deal,” he said. “I would only extend my best wishes to him.”
Even some of News Corp.’s own journalists, past and present, broke ranks. Prominent columnist Andrew Bolt, normally splenetic in his attacks on Labor, said he understood Shorten’s anger. Tony Koch, a one-time star of the Murdoch stable, penned a piece attacking the papers for which he had worked for 30 years. A current Murdoch writer, Rick Morton, seemed to agree, telling journalism students that, in recent months, “the craziness has been dialed up” — and positing that the “loss of relevance” had something to do with it.
Meanwhile, Labor has gone on the offensive in a way that’s quite different to its past, trying-to-please approach. The party’s deputy leader, Tanya Plibersek, responded to the story on Ann Shorten by accusing the Murdoch empire of sinking to a “new low” and paying little in taxes.
Is Labor’s attack on Murdoch an example of being courageous in the “Yes Minister” sense of the word — in other words, far from advisable ahead of an election? Or, in a world of social media, declining circulations and increasingly media-savvy readers, does the Murdoch mainstream suddenly lack the ability to land a killer punch?
Australia will deliver its own answer to that question on Saturday. But for now, Shorten’s strong polling despite weeks of News Corp. attacks speaks for itself.