Maxwell Newton, “Manipulating the Media,”
Australian Penthouse, April 1980, pp. 125-28, 144-45.
The Australian news media exists to be exploited. Any thought of a truthful or objective newspaper or TV service is laughable.
It is fashionable these days to bewail the increasing monopolisation of newspapers and television. The cry goes that too much media ownership in one man’s hands leads to that man’s views being pushed down everyone’s throats. The media is manipulating us.
I have always found it far more interesting to work out how to manipulate the media. The simple fact is the media exists to be exploited. It is not monolithic.
The outcries over Rupert Murdoch’s raid on the Melbourne Herald organisation, the Fairfaxes desperate and costly rescue operation, and the bleatings of the Melbourne Age over its Sydney control would be laughable if they weren’t so pathetic in their total misunderstanding of how the media works and is cynically manipulated.
Media manipulation is a fascinating indoor game. It is of course entirely misleading to talk of manipulation of the media as if there were at the outset a whiter-than-white position of objective truth adhered to by journalists and owners.
Every piece of information published in any one of the arms of the media is published because someone, usually a journalist, has made a decision to publish it. Those who make the decisions vary in their outlook, beliefs and judgements whether they work for the nation’s biggest owner, or for the smallest independent publisher.
In some cases, the owners of the media will impose their own choice patterns but when these owner-choice patterns are imposed we experience the phenomenon of “proprietorial interference” — much detested by journalists.
Some proprietors are more prone to impose their choice patterns than others. But they must all do it because they have the final responsibility for making the enterprise survive and be profitable. Hence they have the power and the right to do what they want with their businesses.
By far the greatest part of choosing news, however, rests on individual journalists, including editors. Here it is that so much undermining can take place; here it is that the great bulk of manipulation of the media occurs.
My early experiences in manipulation were proprietorial, predominantly in the field of manipulating Labor party politicians at the behest of the management of that dark Byzantine company, John Fairfax and Sons, for whom I worked for nine years from 1956.
These were times when the Fairfax organisation was passionately opposed to Menzies and fought bitterly against Britain’s entry to the Common Market.
In the late fifties the power structure of John Fairfax was very settled. Rupert Henderson had been the executive head of the company since 1939 and Angus McLachlan had been the deputy chief executive since 1949.
Warwick Fairfax was to be seen mooning around from time to time. Little or nothing was known about him by the lower orders, except that he had a tendency to get divorced rather frequently, and he had a taste for importing British journalists to be editor of the Sydney Morning Herald.
The editor of the Sydney Morning Herald did not, however, have wide power. His authority was confined to the leader page of the Sydney Morning Herald. He had no control over the other pages in the paper. Other company publications — notably the Sun, the Sun-Herald and the Financial Review — were supposed to watch what was written in the leader columns of the Sydney Morning Herald and take their editorial line from that.
Because the editor of the Sydney Morning Herald had so little authority, the control of the paper was split and the man who had the day-to-day general influence was the news editor.
Board influence on the policies and actions of the Sydney Morning Herald thus tended to be felt in two ways; directly on to the editor, in matters of editorial policy statements — and here Warwick was the one who took the most day to day interest — and directly on to the news editor — and here Angus McLachlan and later Louis Leck (a former News Editor and later Assistant to the General Manager) were predominant. In the background was the presence of Rupert Henderson, a man of enormous force of personality, creativeness and totally committed to the enlargement and support of the Sydney Morning Herald.
In the Fairfax organisation, as I knew it, there were always bound to be acute problems over policy issues. The company had, and has, considerable pretensions to publish newspapers which will attract the respect of serious readers. Yet the company organisation cannot accommodate any but minimal deviations from a central policy line — on the issues which the company management deem at any time to be important.
As in so many old established bureaucracies, the internal power plays give rise to results which seem inexplicable to the public. In the case of Fairfax, the controlling clique has been in power for almost 40 years — a long time for three or four men to have such power. It is only to be expected that the results are often curious.
The Fairfax money is old money. The Sydney Morning Herald is getting on for 150 years old. The Fairfax family has been in control of the company for aeons. They have always been able to depend on very solid sources of revenue from their papers — they enjoy the largest weekday classified ads lineage in the world. These facts explain a lot about the Fairfax policies.
They need not be unduly worried about adopting unpopular policies. They are not terribly short-sighted in their view. They have a tradition of intellectual pride and pretensions.
Policy fights within the Fairfax organisation tend to arise from policy differences within the ruling clique. They are often obscure in their origins. They can be devastating to the journalists concerned and lead to a heavy loss of talent from time to time.
Against this, Rupert Murdoch’s money is relatively new money — very new money in fact. Rupert is still under 50, and has used his paper’s policies and power potential as part of the overall market development strategy for his amazing climb to power and wealth.
Being such a forceful and ambitious developer in publishing, Rupert has been influenced by two factors: first there is his nationalism in Australia, his commitment to “developing the country”, a very old and strong theme in Australian thinking; secondly, there is his intense desire to back a winner.
In my experience, the first strand in his thinking made him very suspicious of the “Treasury thinking” which I espoused, notably in the area of opposition to subsidies and handouts of all kinds. This was a big source of difference between Rupert and me during the hectic first year of establishment and development of The Australian.
Secondly, I would explain his support for Whitlam in 1972 as a conjuncture of the two strands of his thinking.
Far more directly than the Fairfaxes, with their old money and their vast classified ads income (giving them far greater independence of circulation trends and advertiser pressure) Rupert is bound to be highly sensitive to editorial policy lines which could be seen as a threat to circulation.
In the early days of The Australian, I sat down one day and wrote a short editorial summarising my thoughts on the issue of State Aid for Catholic Schools — a hot issue in 1965. I said, in effect, that while one was bound to oppose the notion of the State providing support to religious schools, it was obvious that Catholics were going to stubbornly continue to send their children to Catholic schools. In practice, this meant that Catholic children were getting a sub-standard education. And although it was possible to dismiss this fact by saying that they only had their parents to blame for this, it was still true that, as a result hundreds of thousands of Australian children were getting a sub-standard education.
Accordingly, it was not really fair to punish the children for the prejudices of their parents.
This leader evoked a violent response from the Catholic community and with their usual fervour they responded by sending thousands of printed petitions, containing more thousands of signatures to The Australian in Canberra (virtually all of them from good old Irish Catholic Victoria). This experience undoubtedly unsettled Rupert.
He was further unsettled when he discovered that I would be quite happy to bomb Haiphong, while he was well ahead of the hippies in his opposition to the Vietnam war. At the same time, Rupert had made friends with Jack McEwen, who by this time did not like me overmuch. Add to these pressures the terrifying losses being sustained by The Australian (and the threat it eventually came to represent to Rupert’s whole group survival) and it was clear that Rupert and I would have to part.
Such problems are bound to be part and parcel of the development program Rupert has in mind. He is bound to judge his editors very specifically in terms of the results they achieve in circulation. And he is bound to use the power he has in the papers he already owns to expand his business.
When he does pick a winner, the possibilities for further privileges for his group from political patronage are bound to be substantial. All this makes the political stance of his papers far less predictable than that of the Fairfax papers. Apart from his fundamental “Advance Australia” stance, Rupert wants his papers to help him get further along the track to greatness, involving more money, more papers, more potential for influence.
In all these questions of the influence of the Press and TV, my experience from the inside looking out has been a sense of the immovability of the public mind, of the very slow speed with which public ideas change.
During the Whitlam years there was a period when many Australian journalists clung to the support of Whitlam. This was very true of many of the Fairfax publications, notably the Age, the Financial Review and the National Times. The then Fairfax board seemed to have lost its grip.
The change in the public estimation of the Whitlam years has brought about substantial moderation in the policies of the Fairfax publications. In my view, Rupert woke up to Whitlam a lot earlier than any of his journalists. He had the power to change the view taken by his papers and he did it.
This in turn made his papers look a lot more with it than the Fairfax papers, which dragged on with their sickly support for socialism long after Rupert had realised what a mistake he had made.
Of course, the Melbourne Herald group, the great grey dull weight of them around the Continent, were hardly guilty of one piercing thought of any kind about Whitlam. One of the great advantages of Rupert taking over the Herald group and splitting it up would have been the imparting of some excitement to those appallingly dull papers.
While the newspaper-TV world has a monolithic appearance, experience shows how important are the tensions within the world. Media moguls who ignore the current of market place thinking will find their products do not sell.
This worries some of them like Rupert Murdoch, more than others such as Fairfax and the great dull world of the Melbourne Herald octopus.
In the late Sixties I helped in the management of a big propaganda campaign on behalf of the margarine industry. A great deal of money was spent on this campaign which was designed to undermine the butter lobby and to bring about the abolition of quotas on table margarine, which has since occurred.
In this campaign, great public impact was achieved and the margarine case was taken on board virtually without question by all the various arms of the media.
It was astonishing to observe with what ease the journalists and editors concerned accepted the fact that margarine was being unfairly penalised.
In this campaign advertising was combined with editorial pressure. Such campaigns are the daily stuff of propaganda and business. I marvel at the sang froid with which Mike Willesee allows his name and presence to be used for the promotion of one-sided stories about Australia’s oil problems on behalf of the Exxon mega-corporation.
The world of thinking and discussion in this country, and indeed in the entire Western world, is muddled and confused by the torrent of lies and half-truths concocted for the purpose of promoting the commercial interests of various groups.
When I was in Canberra, Richard Farmer (now a very successful alcohol merchant but then fresh from the position of Private Secretary to the Chairman of the Public Service Board, Fred Wheeler) and I composed a little booklet explaining various techniques which might be used for the purpose of undermining journalists and using them to promote dubious causes in their columns.
One of our favoured techniques was the herd leader play. This involves picking out the journalist who the herd leader in his particular area of interest and undermining him so that he will take up the cause concerned. This technique was used with considerable effect in the margarine case above.
No influential journalist came out against the margarine case which was presented as a demand for fair play, and an efficient and economic use of the nation’s resources.
I have had particular personal experience of the herd leader technique as I was chosen as the herd leader back in the 1950s by the Director-General of Civil Aviation, Don Anderson in promoting Don Anderson’s views about how the “two airline policy” should work.
In this case, Don and his Assistant Director General, Harold Poulton, used another technique on my very effectively. This is the technique of the calculated leak which causes the journalist concerned to rush off hot breathing to give his leaked version the fullest possible play.
About 1967 I was the only Australian journalist attending the Commonwealth Finance Minister’s Conference in Trinidad and the International Monetary Fund Meeting in Rio.
I was arrested in Trinidad by the Assistant Commissioner of Police because it happened that I had in my possession copies of several of the confidential conference discussion papers. After a senior member of the Australian delegation vouched for me, I was allowed to stay in Trinidad, although these Caribbean police people do not have much of a sense of humour where secret documents are concerned.
Subsequently, Billy McMahon who was leading the Australian delegation, gave me the documents anyway, including the forecasts the British had given the conference of their balance of payments.
As these forecasts showed rather clearly that the British had been telling their own people lies, it was of interest to have these documents published in the British Press. I was at the time Australian Correspondent for the London Economist and the London Financial Times. I handed over these secret papers to the staff members of those present in Trinidad, with a view to undermining the British, which is what Billy wanted me to do anyway. Similarly, at the 1961 Commonwealth Prime Minister’s Conference on the British entry to the Common Market, Jack McEwen gave me the usual private briefings, with a view to undermining Menzies who was then committed to condoning the British plan to go into EEC without giving any but derisory safeguards for Australian trade.
Again, at the time of the Vernon Report in 1966 there was a very strong and determined operation mounted by the Commonwealth Treasury to undermine the Vernon Report and particularly Jack McEwen. In this case, the Treasury deployed one of their most capable officers to run a parallel operation to the working of the Vernon Committee. (This Vernon Committee, under Sir James Vernon of CSR was being used by McEwen to produce very gloomy balance of payments forecasts for Australia and then use these forecasts to justify highly protectionist tariff policies and eventually the establishment of an alternative top economic policy secretariat to challenge the Treasury.)
By the time the Vernon Report was ready to be presented to Parliament, the Treasury had prepared a devastating rebuttal. I was invited to a private briefing, with the Treasury people and was taken through the Vernon Report paragraph by paragraph with a full and detailed explanation of the Treasury critique. No doubt other journalists had the similar experience. Certainly, Peter Samuel (who was at that time I believe still working for the Canberra Times) came out with a criticism of the Report no less devastating than mine.
Menzies gave the Report a frightful shellacking in Parliament and it died on the spot. This was an excellent example of the power of the calculated leak when used by efficient and determined operatives.
In the Civil Aviation case, I was writing for the Sydney Morning Herald and the Financial Review at the time. Don Anderson and Harold Poulton used to give me exhaustive briefings on the development of their policies at a time when these policies were hotly debated. I used to check back all the facts of these often involved stories with them. They gained access, through a very enlightened policy of preferred leaking, to the editorial pages of two very influential papers and had their plans played to their public — the Parliament, the airline industry, and to a degree the people at large — in the manner designed by them.
This goes on all the time.
The calculated leak can also be used for self-protection by journalists. Thus, in 1968, when Gorton and McEwen were trying to have me imprisoned for allegedly breaking the Official Secrets Act, I knew that Gorton had become personally embarrassed by an incident with a woman, and I was able to have the woman make a Statutory Declaration against Gorton, which I put in a safe. I made it known to Gorton that I had it.
A vitally important source of information to journalists in these days of the virtual irrelevance of the House of Representatives (the Senate being the only parliamentary skerrick of protection left for the people against the executive) is the Commonwealth Public Service. It is essential to penetrate the Public Service and of course the calculated leak is a major weapon used by civil servants in their incessant tribal wars.
In 1959-60, I recruited a senior officer in the Department of External Affairs (as it then was) to write for the Financial Review. He was paid twenty pounds per article and during the months he worked for me, he provided a valuable source of calculated leaks of impeccable authority. Unfortunately, he became infatuated with my first wife and tried to run off with her so I had to get rid of him.
During the 1960s, I had officers of the Department of Trade working for me and they were paid for that. The information they leaked to me, including handwritten copies of cables, was most helpful in the process of undermining Jack McEwen and Alan Westerman.
On another occasion, I had the daughter of a Permanent Head of a Commonwealth Department working for me and she provided many goodies taken from her daddy’s briefcase. This information was in turn used to undermine her daddy, now deceased.
Experience also shows it is possible to have a big influence with a tiny publication. For some time between 1965 and 1971, I wrote a weekly political and economic newsletter which caused a great deal of trouble and aroused deep passions in the breasts of the likes of Jack McEwen and Billy McMahon.
In this, I devoted myself primarily to penetrating the Commonwealth Public Service, and at one time I had numerous Public Servants on my payroll.
Jack McEwen reached the point of such loss of control over the information unfavourable to his cause being published in this newsletter that he named me as a Japanese spy in the Parliament and attempted to have me expelled from the Parliamentary Press Gallery. His Press Secretary went round the Gallery telling journalists if they voted to expel me, Jack would guarantee to leak to them in the future. This offer was made public by Alan Wood (now Director of the prestigious Syntec economic forecasting organisation) and Jack’s offer rebounded on him.
On another occasion, Jack and Gorton between them had my house in Canberra raided by the Commonwealth Police. Due to the incompetence of the Commonwealth Police they got nowhere.
On a further occasion, Jack produced various cheques in Parliament attempting to show that I was behind a campaign to denigrate the Country Party through a publication called “The Great Dairy Hoax”.
Although I was in fact responsible for this campaign, Jack got the wrong cheque and once again fell on his face.
Yet again, after Harold Holt was killed, Jack announced (through the pages of The Australian) that he would not serve under Billy McMahon as Prime Minister because I was supposed to be exerting some sort of Svengali influence over Billy. The point is that it is possible from a tiny base to raise issues which will blow up into the sort of political explosion papers not only cannot ignore, but will attempt to increase in size. The media exists to be exploited.
The best exponent of this at present is Bob Hawke. He has done nothing to justify the sort of space he commands. His achievements are minimal, yet he is a supreme publicist, a manipulator, a play actor.
He has manipulated the media to the point where, without a shred of evidence in support, he is being touted by the opinion polls as a potential Prime Minister. What an achievement for a publicist, what a laughing stock this makes of thoughts of the impregnability and immovability of the media!
It is sometimes forgotten that the big metropolitan papers and TV stations are not the be-all and end-all of the media in Australia. In the early 1970s I owned all the country papers from Nowra to the Victorian border.
At that time, the State NSW member for this area was Jack Beale (also a Minister). Jack and I cooperated in efforts to ensure Jack’s re-election. We succeeded on one occasion and failed on another.
At this time there was no other independent newspaper on the coast, and Jack Beale got the full run of my papers. I am not sure it did Jack a lot of good, but he thought it was important at the time. This was my tyrannical use of a relatively minor power situation.
From my point of view, I was able to use the believed power of the papers to strike bargains which I hoped would be helpful to me.
No doubt this is what Rupert and the Fairfaxes get up to. Some people, feeling frustrated, want to own papers for a particular propaganda purpose. I have always thought this is an expensive way to solve a public relations problem. Yet Hancock and Wright asked me to do this in Perth some years ago.
I undertook to set up a new paper for them, including the purchase of all the plant, establishment of the factory, hiring of journalists and the rest. This task was accomplished and the paper concerned achieved a modest circulation, as the Sunday Independent. The cost of this program was huge and the enterprise is still only a commercially marginal proposition, according to what Lang Hancock has told me. He has expressed his disappointment with the project and has pulled out of it.
He wanted the Independent to be the spokesman for his views — with which I have great sympathy — in opposition to big Government. He also wanted something to have against Charlie Court.
As it turned out, the paper acquired a life of its own and in the process, it ceased to be the outspoken champion of the causes loved by Lang. He would have done far better to spend his money on hiring a competent but small team of propagandists.
Not only Australian Governments use manipulation. Foreign governments routinely manipulate Australian journalists; one such important measure being the free trip to the country concerned. I spend several months in the United States on a so-called Leader Grant, which is a typically frank American way of pointing up the importance of identifying and then attempting to undermine the “herd leaders” of the future. I also went to Britain twice at their Government’s invitation as well as to Sweden.
The Japanese are very assiduous in this matter of manipulation. They have a highly organised system of calculated leaks which penetrates not only the orthodox Japanese press but also the wide range of incredibly well informed “trade press”.
I had quite a lot to do with this Japanese apparatus. I became very involved with a leading publisher in the Japanese trade press and was in turn taken into a part of the closed circle of the Japanese “old boy network” in Tokyo. I was presented to Mr Ohiro about 1971-72 well before he came Prime Minister — and was told after the interview that Mr Ohira would be very grateful if my company would care to retain him for a fee of $A16,000 per year.
I did not go ahead but was able to observe the devastatingly practical manner in which the Japanese operate their own highly developed (and highly lucrative) system of manipulation, involving as it does Japanese Government officials, Japanese publishers, Japanese trading houses and Japanese politicians in a remarkably woven net of intrigue, deals and manipulation.
It was quite common to have to make such payments, on the joint venture account I operated with my Japanese agent as “two suit lengths of English cloth for Trading Company manager, helping establishment of information section”. There are other times when the process of manipulation becomes more intimate and direct.
Thus, during the 1975 election campaign when I had the control of the Sunday Observer and John Sorrell was Editor, we committed the paper, as well as our whole printing facilities, to the cause of Phil Lynch, who is one of the very few honest politicians I have met. A very strong effort was made to promote Phil and to give all the available printing and publicity support from the whole of that (relatively insignificant) organisation.
In sum, the process of manipulation, of management of “news”, of pressures, of favours, is so widespread and so diverse that I find it laughable that anyone could seriously talk about a “truthful” press or an “objective” TV news service.
The whole idea is a joke.
We live in a world where at all times the media organisations are subject to constant pressure, aimed at undermining those organisations for the purpose of promoting the interests of the thousands of diverse power structures in our community. There is no institutional “cure” for this. The only thing worth doing is to study the way these things are done and learn to recognise some of the worst abuses.
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