Poor Andrew Bolt. Not long ago the right-wing blogger and News Corp columnist was in line to become the Bill O’Reilly of Australian television, leading the way into a Foxified future, assisted by changes to Australia’s media laws.
But not anymore.
The scenario would have gone like this: Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp buys control of Sky News, stacks it with a squad of right-wing opinion-mongers, led by Bolt. Then Australia’s media laws, which have locked Murdoch out of free-to-air television for more than 25 years, are changed by the Turnbull government. Then Lachlan Murdoch and friends buy the struggling Ten Network. Then Sky takes over news production for the network. Then Ten’s news division becomes increasingly like Sky’s, which is to say, more about opinion than fact, like Fox News is in America.
This is not baseless speculation. In December last year, News Corp did take over Sky News, through its parent company, Australian News Channel. And Sky News has indeed been stacked with a long roster of right wing tub-thumpers – many of them with previous Murdoch connections. In May, the foundering Ten Network was reported to be considering drastic changes under project “Blue Horizon”, which involved outsourcing news to Sky.
And Lachlan Murdoch and his elderly partner, Bruce Gordon, did indeed try to gain control of Ten. They drove it into administration in June. Their plan would have seen the network rid of a lot of its pesky debt and also put the weights on the Turnbull government to hasten the passage of regulatory changes advantageous to big players such as them. Then they would have bought it back from the administrators.
But they screwed it up. The government took longer than they planned to get the media law changes through the senate. They underestimated the hostility of creditors, staff and some minor shareholders. And they were gazumped by the American media giant CBS.
And so Bolt is left on the eighth floor of a Melbourne office building, holed up in a makeshift studio, broadcasting to an audience of almost no one. Guests ring a number to be let in and find their own way in the lift. There is no hair and make-up to speak of, none of the usual trappings of a television studio. This is as close as you can get to pirate radio without being on Mark Latham’s show.
Sure, there’s talk of further legal action by Gordon to try to stop the CBS takeover, and the Ten shareholders have not yet given final approval. But as Allan Goldin, a director of the Australian Shareholders’ Association and media specialist, says, while the deal is “still up in the air in theory; in practice it’s highly unlikely that CBS won’t take over the company”.
“Highly unlikely” is really an understatement. The prospect of a Murdoch owning the network now looks remote. And that, says Rodney Tiffen, emeritus professor of government and international relations at Sydney University, “is unequivocally good news”.
“It’s good news, first because it increases media competition, and second because CBS know what they’re doing and they’ve got deep pockets. Whereas Lachlan and Bruce Gordon have had a long time running Ten and they’ve not done a lot of good for it.”
Few would argue with him. Poor programming decisions, swingeing staff cuts, poor employee relations, a revolving door of management, multimillion-dollar losses and accumulated debt – Ten was, in the words of one senior staff member, “a sheer fuckin’ disaster”.
And CBS, though an American company, offers a deep roster of programming and, more importantly, a reputation for comprehensive and pretty straight news reporting, as well as corporate integrity – especially in comparison with the Murdoch empire.
“I think we’ve dodged a bullet,” Tiffen says.
So back to Bolt – and the large stockpile of other right-wing media commentators, shock jocks, former politicians and straight-out reactionaries gathered by Sky News. Their chance of making it from niche television to the broadcast big-time appears equally remote.
The whole affair makes for an interesting case study of the influence of conservative media, and the extent to which the perception of it is matched by reality. Consider just some of the names assembled by Sky News: 2GB’s Alan Jones; former chief of staff to Tony Abbott, Peta Credlin; former Liberal politicians Peter Reith and Ross Cameron; former Labor Right figures Mark Latham, now fired, and Graham Richardson, who lost his show; News Corp columnists Chris Kenny and of course Bolt, described by his employer as “Australia’s most-read blogger”.
So, how much influence does this dream team of influencers actually have? Not much, judging by audience size. Sky News’s evening offering of relentless, strident opinion attracts a rather smaller crowd than an average AFL game. Not an AFL final, an average club game. A couple of tens of thousands.
Some might argue that their power should not be measured by viewership alone, that when Peta Credlin, for example, offers some new insight into Abbott’s efforts to white-ant Malcolm Turnbull, it resonates through the broader media.
And that’s true. The question is, though, does that really change anything in terms of the direction of public debate? Or has the Foxification of Sky News revealed an illusion of power, like when Toto pulls back the curtain in The Wizard of Oz and reveals the fearsome wizard is a rather inadequate little man using echo effects? There is a growing body of evidence to suggest the latter.
The word “Foxification” is not our invention, but has been used a lot over the past year or so by media analysts. One of Murdoch’s then media writers, the venerable Mark Day, used it in May, in a piece in which he surveyed Sky News’s line-up of stridently opinionated presenters, and pondered whether there had been a “brand reset” since News Corp acquired it.
“Will it be ‘Foxified’ – that is, turned into a Down Under version of America’s most watched and controversial cable news channel, Fox News?” he asked, rhetorically, at the top. Later he answered his own question, saying that appeared “broadly” to be the case.
Day, an old-school journo at heart, suggested this was not such a good thing and that Sky News should “pull back to the core function of providing more news, at least part of the time”.
“Why not packages on war zones, science news or the ways the world’s climate or environmental problems are being addressed in other nations?” he asked. And again he answered himself: “because the numbers show audiences prefer opinion and debate programming”.
That, however, is a proposition that lacks necessary nuance. And perhaps the best way to show that is to go to a case study. Andrew Bolt’s TV career provides a good one.
There was a time when he was a regular panellist on the ABC’s agenda-setting Sunday morning political panel show, Insiders. It really was Barrie Cassidy’s show, but at least it provided an audience of several hundred thousand viewers for Bolt’s conservative opinions.
Trouble was, the ABC program offered a range of views apart from his. So in 2011, Bolt jumped at the chance to have his own rival show, free of such pluralism, on the Ten Network. When The Bolt Reportbegan in May that year, he declared his aim was to out-rate Insiders. His show aired at 10am, the same time as Insiders finished, initially for half an hour. In 2014, reportedly at the urging of Ten shareholder and Bolt supporter Gina Rinehart, it was extended to an hour.
It was competitive at the start, then began an inexorable slide. By November 2015, its audience had shrunk 60 per cent, to a little more than 110,000.
In January 2016, The Australian was the first to report that Ten had decided to can The Bolt Report. Bolt denied this. He had, he said, “decided to take the show to Sky instead, and keep my weekends free. News Corp did not refuse to keep paying for the show on Channel 10.”
Leaving aside the interesting revelation that News Corp had to pay Ten to put Bolt on air, the most relevant fact is that Bolt’s audience tanked further.
A few months ago, Fairfax Media’s Craig Mathieson analysed the ratings for Sky News’s nightly line-up. And what he reported was woeful.
On Tuesday, March 28, The Bolt Report drew a national audience at 7pm of just 27,000. Of those, 23,000 were aged over 55. Alan Jones’s 8pm show did a little better, with 34,000 viewers, and Paul Murray Live at 9pm topped out with 55,000. Meanwhile Insiders powers on, with an average 550,000 viewers.
So, to Day’s point that audiences “prefer opinion and debate”, perhaps one should add a caveat. Says Barrie Cassidy: “They want fact-based debate, rather than ideological bombast.”
Cassidy reckons Bolt probably did more for his conservative cause as a panellist – not just because of audience size, but because he might actually have been heard by some people who were persuadable. In this, I should make a disclosure: I am a panellist on Cassidy’s show, as are a number of my colleagues from The Saturday Paper.
Data from the United States underline the point that right-wing media increasingly preaches to the converted. A Pew Research Centre study in 2014 found that among people with “consistently” conservative views, 88 per cent trusted only Fox. People with more malleable views, in contrast, engaged with a far wider variety of sources of news and opinion – public radio, cable networks, CNN, MSNBC, The New York Times et cetera.
Furthermore, Fox viewers are literally a dying demographic. Nielsen ratings show the median age of its audience is 68. This is the TV they watch in God’s waiting room.
It’s not hard to see the political implications of this: the ranters on Fox may have a locked-in demographic of older, less-educated, typically white males, but they’re not making many converts.
There’s no denying, though, that Fox is big in America, unlike its imitator here. A partial explanation of that is that cable is ubiquitous in the States, while in this country only about a third of people get it. But perhaps a greater part of the explanation is that Sky’s presenters have other primary gigs on talkback radio, or in the Murdoch press. Perhaps if you can get your fix of Andrew Bolt in the paper or online, you don’t feel the need to watch him on TV.
The fact Sky News’s presenters have other outlets, though, does not necessarily make them more influential. The reason is that, like the Fox presenters in the US, they are preaching to the converted, but not really shifting much opinion.
Rodney Tiffen made this point strongly in an analysis a couple of years ago, of the relevance of the Murdoch media in two remarkable state elections.
“Over the past eight months, Victoria and Queensland have ejected first-term Liberal governments despite the best efforts of the Murdoch press in those states,” he wrote.
“Their slanted front pages, unbalanced coverage and combative editorials only highlighted their growing irrelevance to the electoral process.”
He attributed this in part to the structural factor of declining newspaper circulation. Murdoch papers, he calculated, reached only about 10 per cent of the population in 2015, or “probably about half of their reach when they supported John Howard in the 2001 election”.
Of that 10th of the population, he reckoned, more than half were already anti-Labor voters, and most of the rest “fairly settled in their political attitudes and largely immune to the papers’ persuasive efforts”.
Then there was the trust factor. He noted polling by Essential Media, showing 70 per cent trust in Fairfax’s Sydney Morning Heraldand Melbourne Age, compared with about 60 in News Corp’s broadsheet The Australian, and only about 50 per cent for The Daily Telegraph in Sydney, Herald Sun in Melbourne and The Courier-Mail in Brisbane.
Tiffen acknowledged the role of these media in agenda setting for what he called the “self-referential noise machine” of commercial radio talkback, but cautioned against mistaking its “volume and bluster” for persuasiveness.
Speaking to The Saturday Paper this week, Tiffen elaborated somewhat on his thesis. Now, he reckoned, the right-wing media actually presented more of the problem for the conservative side of politics than the progressive side.
“I don’t think they have a big impact now on converting voters from Labor to Liberal, because there are not many in their audiences left to convert,” he said.
“But when the Murdoch press and commercial talk radio get stuck into an issue that divides the conservative side of politics, they can still have an impact.
“If they run hard on an issue such as the greyhound racing ban, and mobilise the more conservative forces, that spooks the more liberal elements in the Coalition.”
Indeed, it’s not hard to identify other contemporary examples, such as coal seam gas mining. Here, some right-wing commentators, including Alan Jones, who back the anti-fracking farmers, are pitted against others who back the miners.
The result: tension between the Turnbull government, which wants more fracking, and states such as New South Wales, which see political peril in agreeing to that.
Or consider the response to climate change. The denialists on talkback and in the Murdoch media have utterly failed to sway public opinion against renewable energy, but they have played a big role in paralysing federal government policymaking.
Meanwhile, the dream team on Sky News seems to become ever more extreme and destructive, in what Mathieson called their “ideological obsession”.
Credlin’s loyalty to Abbott only fuels government disunity. Paul Murray cosies up to the extremists of One Nation and the libertarian gun enthusiast from the Liberal Democrats, David Leyonhjelm. He whales into the Liberal moderate Christopher Pyne as “piss-weak”, “useless”, “a wanker” and an “arsehole”, among other things. Bolt, broadcasting from under the stairs, instructs his viewers that it’s time to give up on the Liberal Party and back Cory Bernardi’s breakaway Australian Conservatives party.
Truly, Bill Shorten must be laughing. And Malcolm Turnbull’s only comfort is that hardly anyone is watching.