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Christopher Warren

11 Murdoch moments that shaped journalism

This is the second instalment in a new series, The Murdoch Century, examining the legacy of News Corp and Rupert Murdoch.

Sixty years ago Rupert Murdoch was busy revolutionising journalism: in his tabloids, through a joyful embrace of sensationalism; in his broadsheets, through an iconoclastic, opinionated independence; across his media, with a willingness to confound political enemies to his benefit.

The big decisions he made across the years (and around the world) have shaped not just his company, but global journalism with an ever-adapting two-tier product line: down-market tabloids aimed at the working man and an upscale talking-points memo for the conservative elite, squeezing out an increasingly progressive and educated middle (and usually ignoring women altogether).

First in the UK, then in the US, he found his targeting coincided with the political project of the political right, setting up one of the unanswerable questions of modern media: who came first? The Murdoch chicken or the Thatcher/Trump egg? 

How did we get here? Through these 11 simple steps: 

1960: the beginning of a tabloid resurrection

Tabloid papers — and tabloid sensibility — has always sat at News Corp’s heart. Yet back in the 1950s when Murdoch was looking for a path into media monopoly, tabloids were simply out of fashion, their hold on the latest news disrupted by broadcast television, their city-based distribution by the car commute. 

So when in 1960 Fairfax family consigliere Rupert “Rags” Henderson on-sold Sydney’s struggling The Daily Mirror, he figured it a temple-tappingly smart ploy to bury the already irritating Adelaide-based Rupert. Instead, Murdoch transformed the paper into the city’s biggest seller, mixing in strong writing and bold design with the sensationalism of Sydney’s sin-city swinging ’60s, helped along by a few titillating murders (like the still-unsolved Bogle-Chandler case) and the all-too-public evidence in fault-only divorce hearings. For the largely male audience, he added in the now infamous bikini-clad page three models.

1964: The Oz is born 

The mass-market tabloids were always market constrained, rarely appealing to the valuable A-B demographic the company wanted. In 1960s Australia, it was a particularly hard market to crack, locked up as it was by Sydney’s Fairfaxes and Melbourne’s Symes. 

Murdoch’s plan? Pitch over their heads to the top of the market with a deeper journalism for a new — national — market. He launched The Australian in 1964 with a new approach to Australian politics, one that centred the ravening beast that now haunts all political reporting: the economy. Great idea. Hard to action.

1969: Murdoch takes tops off in the UK 

In 1969, Murdoch took The Daily Mirror model to the UK, buying and relaunching the loss-making The Sun into the prototype of the country’s now notorious “red top” papers. Page three went topless (encouraging Private Eye magazine to tag him “the Dirty Digger”). That paper, too, became the country’s largest seller. 

Twelve years later, he added the upmarket The Times and The Sunday Times to his stable, making him the largest publisher in the UK. In 1983, in a global scoop, he published the Hitler diaries. Oops. They turned out to be fake. Shrug. They sold a lot of papers.

1975: Murdoch switches sides

Murdoch loves the drama of politics. He picks sides, of course, and since his disillusionment with Gough Whitlam, those sides have almost always been on the right. His preferences shape the company’s journalism through some mysterious process of corporate osmosis. 

But the switch came a bit too abruptly for his journalists. In the 1975 election campaign, they went on strike on protest against editorial interference, only returning to work with a commitment to respect the journalists’ code of ethics. In Australia, at least, it meant Murdoch’s enthusiastic embrace of right-wing leaders such as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan had to wait until John Howard was elected in 1996.

It’s always been a strongly held belief in the company that the journalism comes first. Until Fox News, that is…

1976: Murdoch takes a bite of the big apple

In 1976, Murdoch bought the afternoon New York Post, meshing the masthead’s strong tabloid traditions into the evolving Mirror/Sun model. The Post style came to be embodied in its Australian personalities: last century, Steve Dunleavy, considered the prototype for Robert Downey Jr’s Australian journalist Wayne Gale in Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers: this century, Col Allan, former editor of The Daily Telegraph.

The New York Post always struggled for readership (even after moving it to mornings) and revenues. But it’s made its own contributions to the Murdoch model as generations of company subeditors try to match the wit of the famous 1983 “Headless Body in Topless Bar” while the 1977 launch of Page Six gossip entrenched the company at the heart of the celebrity news supply chain (and helped kick off the public career of local real estate speculator Donald Trump.

It would be another 30 years before the Murdochs finally broke through at scale to the high-wealth audience with the purchase of The Wall Street Journal in 2007. 

1980s: tabloids’ darker turn in Thatcher’s Britain

Despite audience growth, the Murdoch tabloid resurrection always had its darker punch-down underside. In Thatcher’s 1980s Britain, it broke out in the open. Never one to resist a good jingo war, The Sun made itself the media flagship in the Malvina/Falklands conflict, with chilling moments like a celebratory “GOTCHA” headline over the hundreds of deaths in the Belgrano sinking. 

The Murdochs had traditionally been frenemies of the industry’s unions (Rupert’s father, Sir Keith Murdoch, had been a founding member of the Australian Journalists Association, and Rupert had struck union deals as part of his UK takeovers). But in 1986, he brought his new Thatcherite politics in-house, breaking the power of the UK print unions with a shift of operations to London’s Wapping. 

In 1989, the now de-unionised Sun reached new depths with its reporting of the 1989 Hillsborough football disaster (ironically front-paged as “The Truth”) which has seen the paper effectively boycotted in Liverpool ever since. Yet it was unrepentant enough to brag of the Tories’ surprise 1992 election win: “It’s the Sun wot won it”. (Turns out, even Rupert was embarrassed.)

1991: near-death debt crisis reshapes papers again

Australia was spared the worst of the darkening turn. There was even a brief moment in the late 1980s when it looked, with the 1987 takeover of the Herald & Weekly Times, that the company’s tabloid model would evolve towards a sharper, more centrist mid-market version like the HWT’s flagship Sun-Pictorial.

 But as the company struggled out from under its near-death debt crisis in 1991, it re-engineered its Australian papers, closing the afternoon mastheads and merging the rest into an increasingly look-alike network of city-based tabloids. (In COVID-struck 2020, most of the company’s regional and community network would be rolled into the city mastheads.) 

As politics turned to the Howard decade, the papers started moving their journalists to non-union individual contracts and moved the content closer to the nastiness of the UK Sun model.

1996: Fox News is born

Fox News. Fair and balanced. Its 1996 launch marked the moment when the Murdochs embraced a large overtly politically aligned voice. Stylistically, it meshed the look and feel of broadcast news with the company’s punch-down tabloid style and the shouty-faced anger of talkback radio. And being 24/7 television, it did it without nuance or humour. 

War again came to the network’s rescue: from the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the network (and the company as a whole) threw its resources behind George W Bush’s “war on terror”. In the lead-up to the invasion, just about every Murdoch paper editorialised in support, while The Australian used a “Countdown to War” daily tagline.

It was a key pivot. From then on, in style and substance, Fox has supplemented the tabloids as the driver of the company’s editorial style.. It’s also hardened its politics, all but ending Murdoch’s once-readiness to accommodate acceptable “third way” leaders such as Bill Clinton and Tony Blair.

2011: the hacking scandal hits a ‘humble’ Murdoch

The nastiness of the company’s journalism was reflected in its day-to-day practice when the revelation of its hacking of phone-answering machines, its use of private investigators and access to private information from corrupt police all exposed an internal amoral culture.

The scandal forced the company’s UK arm through successive embarrassing public inquiries (including Murdoch’s most “humble day”), cost the company more than £1 billion (so far) in legal costs and payouts, forced the closure of the News of the World and ended the planned takeover of Sky UK.

As the tabloid style had once boosted the company, now it blocked its growth: News Corp became just another (and not terribly important) UK publisher — although neither of the country’s major parties are keen to test the enduring limits of their power. To narrow its focus, a now-separated Fox sold its entertainment assets to Disney, leaving the bulk of the family’s wealth in a passive shareholding. 

2012: digital disruption — it’s good for some

The digital disruption has flipped the Murdochs’ forked upscale/down-market strategy. Suddenly it’s the long-term money losers like The Australian and London’s The Times, along with The Wall Street Journal, that are making the money with their shift to digital subscriptions, while the tabloids struggle.

According to the company’s latest report to its US regulator, The Australian has about 318,000 paying subscribers — more than The Daily Telegraph and the Herald Sun combined. To get there, the paper has had to increasingly pander to its paying subscribers. Once, its conservative rhetoric was largely hidden in its opinion pages. Then it jumped, first to the front-page splash, then to the early culture wars around education. Now its audience demands all culture wars, all the time. The paper has year-by-year shed its “good journalists” whose thoughtful reporting had sustained the masthead’s credibility. 

Similarly, The Times in London (early behind a hard paywall in 2010) has about 565,000 subscribers and The Wall Street Journal (where the Murdochs inherited a well-advanced digital transition) about 4.5 million. 

At the once powerful tabloids, it’s not so good news. Although it’s turned its Australian city-tabloids into a locally branded but nationally shared news offering, its influence has slid condensing into a smaller and ageing audience.

2023: the Murdochs are monstered by their own creation

The company’s journalism is being forced through a new pivot, as the Murdochs lose control of the audience they’ve spent 60 years curating. Now that the audience is paying the News piper (through masthead subscriptions and through Fox’s cable fees) it insists on calling the tune.

And as the 2020 election, the 2021 Capitol riots, the consequent defamation action by Dominion Voting Systems and the 2023 settlement have demonstrated, that audience no longer particularly cares if that tune is fact-based news or not.

It marks the moment when the Murdochs, once the great disrupters of journalism, find themselves disrupted by the monster they themselves have fostered.

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