July 29 (Bloomberg) -- One would expect Australia, the birthplace of Rupert Murdoch and of the family’s media empire, to be transfixed by the U.K. investigation of News Corp. for phone-hacking and police bribery.
All the more so because Murdoch cut such a self-consciously Australian figure at his testimony before a British parliamentary committee. His self-presentation seemed intended to evoke nothing so much as that Australian icon: the “Anzac Digger.”
This is a nickname for the tough, independent-minded World War I soldiers who died in great numbers at Anzac Cove during the battle of Gallipoli against the Turks in April 1915 and who have become the keystones of Australia’s modern foundational myth of national unity and self-sacrifice. It is not, however, a sobriquet anyone had previously applied to Murdoch, who is pejoratively known in Australia as the “Dirty Digger.”
Nonetheless, Murdoch was quick to remind his interrogators of the fearless traditions of investigative journalism he had inherited from his journalist father, Keith, whom he habitually invokes for having defied the embargoes of the U.K. military establishment to break the news of Britain’s willful incompetence in the Dardanelles campaign, including the failed battle of Gallipoli.
There seemed more than an element of filial re-enactment in Rupert Murdoch’s carefully crafted performance. He presented himself as a lean and craggy, if slightly creaky, Antipodean outsider, a tough elderly man fearlessly taking on the might of the British Labor establishment and their leftist Guardian-reading supporters.
He was a man repressing his inclination to thump the table, and he replied to their inquisition in terse and broad Australian tones, baring his humility for all to see. He also blamed everything on those who had betrayed his trust, just as Australians like to blame the betrayals of the British generals for the sacrifice of their country’s youth on the stony slopes at Gallipoli.
It was a perfect piece of populist theater from one of the masters of the genre, yet it belied that his father became Australia’s first media mogul and taught Rupert everything he now knows about how to eliminate press rivals and manipulate pliant politicians.
And, surprisingly, since any invocation of the nation’s military past and present is usually a certain winner on all sides of politics in Australia, the letter columns of local Murdoch tabloids and the telephones of talkback-radio kings have shown few signs of popular sympathy for, or even interest in, the plight of the Dirty Digger and his family.
Conversely, we might have expected hearty rejoicings at the possibility of payback time among those Australians on the political left, who have borne the brunt of hostility from Murdoch newspaper and television commentators for decades. Bob Brown, the leader of the Greens Party, has long described all of Murdoch’s newspapers, including its respectable flagship the Australian, as “hate media.” Yet even Brown’s response to the rocking of News Corp. has been muted. Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who is in desperate need of a political diversion from the crushing opposition campaign against her proposed anti-emission “carbon tax,” did no more than suggest that Murdoch’s Australian companies might have some “hard questions to answer” over the British scandal.
Not a Crime
How do we explain this unexpected and pervasive bout of indifference to the fate of a man whose influence has long been courted or loathed? Partly because owning 70 percent of Australia’s newspapers and deploying them in a relentlessly partisan political manner is no crime. Also, as is the case in the U.S., neither the government nor Murdoch’s media rivals have been able to find a confirmed instance of phone hacking or other News of the World-style journalistic transgressions.
Initial talk of a possible wide-ranging parliamentary investigation into media ethics and cross-ownership has died down to a call for the introduction of some limited legal protections for people against unwarranted violations of personal privacy. Here, too, Murdoch’s media rivals are treading softly for fear that such legislation might cramp their own freedoms to investigate.
But I suspect there is a larger cause for public indifference: Rupert Murdoch and his son James are no longer seen as Australians. This isn’t simply because they have U.S. citizenship and lived for most of their lives as expatriates. Australians are always ready to adopt as nationals any celebrity who might spend even a fraction of time in their country.
The BeeGees, for example, are considered favorite sons on the grounds that the disco stars spent a few of their childhood years Down Under. Well-known expatriates in the U.K., such as Barry Humphries and Clive James, or the film star Paul Hogan in the U.S., are generally regarded with affection or indulgence.
It’s certainly not Rupert Murdoch’s local reputation for philanthropic miserliness or personal and political thuggery that caused Australians to lose interest. Kerry Packer, his great press-baron rival who died in 2005, had a Neanderthal style and a physically terrifying presence, yet a surprising number of Australians of all walks of life retain feelings of affection for that particular media bully.
Perhaps it is because there was never anything studied about Packer’s public performances or his Australian persona: masculine to the back teeth, he drank, swore, adored cricket and rugby, and gambled compulsively on the horses and in casinos. To adapt the words of Randy Newman’s song “Rednecks” about the southern populist Lester Maddox, Australians are inclined to say of Packer that “he might be a thug, but he’s our thug.”
They don’t generally feel the same way about Murdoch. He is seen to be a cold-blooded international tycoon and wirepuller, whose “digger” image is wholly cynical and whose global ruthlessness is a matter for shame. And Australians are equally quick to abandon their affiliations with any expatriates who prove embarrassing: Mel Gibson, who for a while embodied the “Anzac Digger” after starring in Peter Weir’s film “Gallipoli,” is unquestionably an American now after his run-ins with the law and anti-Semitic tirade. So, too, it seems, are the Murdochs.
(Iain McCalman, a professor of history at the University of Sydney and the author of “Darwin’s Armada,” is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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