Trump not first politician to be ditched by Rupert Murdoch
By Jude Sheerin
BBC News, Washington
The bashing of Donald Trump by Rupert Murdoch’s US newspapers looks like a familiar pattern of the Australian-born media baron turning on political leaders who are no longer useful to him.
This was the confidential instruction for a political hit job issued by Rupert Murdoch in the mid-1970s to his editors, according to an American diplomat’s telegram sent to the US Department of State.
The target was Australia’s Prime Minister Gough Whitlam.
The Labour leader had been a guest at the Murdoch sheep farm outside Canberra, drawing admiring coverage in his left-leaning broadsheet The Australian.
But after winning election in 1972, Whitlam stopped speaking to Murdoch, as Michael Wolff recounts in his absorbing biography The Man Who Owns the News.
From that point the relationship only grew worse. Among other things, the Whitlam government dragged its feet on granting licences for Murdoch’s venture into bauxite mining, before devaluing the Australian dollar, costing the media magnate in his foreign exchange dealings.
In response, The Australian began assailing the prime minister’s administration with suggestions of financial and sexual scandal.
Murdoch himself penned articles savaging Whitlam, writes Wolff, and stared down a revolt from newsroom staff outraged by the paper’s dramatic shift to the right.
Ten months after that “Kill Whitlam” directive, the prime minister was dismissed by the governor general of Australia amid a budget crisis.
Since Murdoch inherited Adelaide’s The News 70 years ago, conjuring from these unlikely beginnings a multi-billion dollar global business empire, 18 Australian prime ministers have come and gone.
Through his media megaphone, Murdoch is said to have helped overthrow a few of them, including more recently Malcolm Turnbull and Kevin Rudd.
Thirteen British prime ministers and 10 American presidents, meanwhile, have taken office since Murdoch’s raucous style of journalism began shaping voter opinion in the UK and US.
But the Sun King, as he has been dubbed, reigns on.
Former Fox News executive and chief Murdoch lobbyist Preston Padden watched his boss at close quarters as he exercised the art of political power.
“The Rupert Murdoch I knew was gentlemanly, courtly,” says Padden, who scheduled the media baron’s meetings on Capitol Hill as he built up his television holdings in the mid-1990s. “I never heard him raise his voice.
“He also gives generously. I mean, when [Senate Republican minority leader] Mitch McConnell calls Rupert and says, ‘I need a million dollars for this Pac [political action committee] or that Pac’, mostly Rupert complies.
“Particularly the Republicans were always eager to see him. Because he’s a rock star, right? I mean, the world figure.”
Despite Murdoch’s genial manner, a sneering contempt for elected office-holders was said to lurk behind that craggy-faced smile.
In 2011, Kelvin MacKenzie, editor of Murdoch’s Sun during the British tabloid’s heyday, told the Leveson Inquiry into press ethics following a phone-hacking scandal at Murdoch’s News of the World: “Rupert told me there is nothing more gut-wrenching than a room full of politicians.
“They queued up like the bloody seven dwarves to kiss his rear end.”
There is perhaps no greater demonstration of the awesome power wielded by the Sun than when a collapse in pound sterling forced Britain into a humiliating withdrawal from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism in 1992, as detailed in Peter Chippindale and Chris Horrie’s riveting history of the newspaper, Stick It Up Your Punter!
When Prime Minister John Major telephoned MacKenzie to ask how he planned to cover the story, the editor replied: “Prime Minister, I have on my desk in front of me a very large bucket of [expletive], which I am just about to pour all over you.”
The next-day headline, a riff on the economic turmoil and Tory sleaze, screamed: “Now we’ve ALL been screwed by the Cabinet.”
Though Murdoch says he has never asked a prime minister for anything, Sir John told a different story.
He claimed the News Corp titan had badgered him at a dinner in February 1997 to rethink his direction on Europe.
“It is not very often someone sits in front of a prime minister and says, ‘I would like you to change your policy and if you don’t change your policy my organisation cannot support you’,” he told the Leveson Inquiry.
Sir John said he refused.
The Sun switched its backing a month later to Sir John’s Labour rival, Tony Blair, who went on to win a landslide victory that spring.
Blair had already flown out in 1995 to Hayman Island in Queensland, Australia, to secure Murdoch’s endorsement.
Australian PM Paul Keating offered some advice to Blair before that meeting.
According to the diaries of former Blair spin doctor Alastair Campbell, Keating told the British Labour leader of Murdoch: “He’s a big bad [expletive], and the only way you can deal with him is to make sure he thinks you can be a big bad [expletive] too.”
Lance Price, who was an adviser to Prime Minister Blair, says Murdoch was a de facto member of the cabinet, especially when it came to big decisions.
“Tony Blair would take into account how Rupert Murdoch and his titles might respond to any policy decision that he was thinking about,” Price tells the BBC.
“He’d be more concerned about Murdoch, and at his reaction, than he was to the transport secretary or he would be at the secretary of state for the environment.
“So in that sense, I felt that he [Murdoch] had a place in the cabinet table.”
Which brings us to Trump.
Despite their professed friendship, Murdoch’s reported contempt for his fellow New York billionaire is laid bare in Michael Wolff’s fly-on-the-wall books about the Trump presidency.
According to Fire and Fury, Murdoch once ended a phone call with the-then commander-in-chief by hanging up and referring to him as an idiot, adding an obscenity.
The chilly shift in tone among the media baron’s formerly Trump-friendly outlets has been noticeable since Republicans fizzled out in last week’s midterm elections.
On Tuesday night, Fox News cut away during Trump’s announcement of his new White House campaign. The Wall Street Journal editorial board called Trump a “loser” and predicted certain defeat for him. The New York Post covered Trump’s declaration with a bottom-of-front-page footer irreverently headlined, “Florida Man Makes Announcement”.
Whether the Trump equivalent of a “Kill Whitlam” directive has gone out to Murdoch’s editors is not yet clear.
The hostile tone is all the more remarkable bearing in mind that Trump is the first US president with whom Murdoch has been able to cultivate a friendship.
But as Trump is no doubt aware, the media baron’s idea of a personal connection is just as transactional as his own is often said to be.
Or as one witness, in evidence to the Leveson Inquiry, said witheringly of the Murdoch media’s treacherous dealings: “It’s just business.”