News Corp operates like a political party, working closely with rightwing politicians to influence policy and elections and to destroy politicians who won’t agree to a partnership with the Murdochs, the former Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull says.
“I wasn’t going to run my government in partnership with Rupert or Lachlan Murdoch or their editors, and I knew [News Corp would] resent that,” Turnbull writes in his memoir, which was leaked by the Australian on Thursday.
“It attacks its enemies and protects its friends, as it did [former prime minister Tony] Abbott and as it is today protecting [Scott] Morrison to the point of ignoring big issues of accountability.”
Turnbull says his fatal flaw, according to media barons, was not that he was “too liberal” but his lack of deference and his personal wealth, because all the billionaires liked a politician who depended on them.
The journalist who leaked the book, A Bigger Picture, before its Monday release is the Australian’s national affairs editor, Simon Benson, who is identified by Turnbull as a key player in a secret alliance between Murdoch and the right wing of Australia’s Coalition government.
Turnbull claims the Coalition ingratiates itself with Murdoch outlets through strategic leaks in return for favourable coverage.
Benson, along with the Australian’s former and current editor Paul Whittaker and Chris Dore, “could rightly feel they had a hand in running the country”, Turnbull alleges.
Turnbull says when Abbott was prime minister he and his chief of staff, Peta Credlin, were so close to News Corp they would make cabinet decisions available to its reporters before they were confirmed.
“If more journalists who’ve worked at News Corporation were prepared publicly to tell the truth about the extent of their control and influence, even the most cynical Australians would be appalled,” he writes.
Turnbull claims that two senior journalists, the Australian’s editor-at-large Paul Kelly and its then national affairs editor, David Crowe, told him privately that the agenda at News Corp and Sky News was to “destroy” the Turnbull government.
Crowe told Turnbull he resigned in 2017 because he was “depressed and despairing” and “can’t take it anymore” at the Australian.
Kelly, a former editor-in-chief of the paper, allegedly said the corporation believed Turnbull had to be destroyed because he was “too left wing” and “no better than [opposition leader Bill] Shorten”.
Kelly told Guardian Australia Turnbull’s account is “colourful but unbalanced”. “I argued, in public and private, the primary political contest for media coverage must be Government versus Labor, not Liberal progressives versus Liberal conservatives,” Kelly said. “Both the paper and Sky gave free scope to my views when they did not necessarily agree with them.”
Crowe said the editors believed attacking Turnbull was good for business because readers loved stories that undermined Turnbull and praised Abbott. The reporter, now the chief political correspondent for the Herald and the Age, does not dispute Turnbull’s account.
Turnbull writes that the “privileged access” News Corp had under Abbott wasn’t going to continue under his leadership, after he succeeded in challenging Abbott in 2015.
“With Abbott they had a deferential prime minister they thought they controlled,” he writes.
He says he was attacked relentlessly by the company’s rightwing columnists and, when Sky News employed Credlin, they gave a “powerful platform to a vindictive, vengeful enemy of my government”.
Turnbull says he discussed the “vicious personal partisanship” of the Australian and Sky News with Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch many times but they minimised it by claiming the outlets were not influential because they had small audiences.
He said the 2GB broadcasters Alan Jones and Ray Hadley – full of “vanity and megalomania” – loved to berate and bully politicians like him who weren’t “in their pocket”.
Under his leadership, Turnbull says, Morrison was constantly briefing Benson, liked to keep himself “constantly in the centre of things” and used leaks to pre-empt government decisions.
The former prime minister believes Murdoch wanted him to win the 2016 election because his prime ministership was better than a Labor government but Credlin and Sky News were relentless critics and the corporation eventually “bought into the Abbott madness of destroying the government to bring about its defeat so that Tony could come back as leader in opposition before returning to government in 2022”.
Credlin said apart from flashes of brilliance Turnbull had no work ethic and had the wrong temperament for politics.
“He has no moral compass,” she told 2GB. “I’ve never met a more reprehensible human being.”
Turnbull is also critical of the way News Corp newspapers undermined efforts to combat climate change, in particular during the summer bushfires when they mocked Greta Thunberg.
“As we reflect on Rupert Murdoch’s achievements, we have to ask, what good has he done apart from making himself and his family rich?
“His media have championed climate change denial relentlessly, and played a very influential role in the lack of climate action in our country and in the United States especially.”
Turnbull says on an international scale the Murdochs “routinely exploit and encourage intolerance and racial and religious animosities” and are the “fiercest defenders of Trump” and “keenest promoters of Brexit”. Outlets including Fox News must take much of the blame for the US being a divided, inward-turning nation today, he says.