Normally, Canberra press conferences are a shouting contest to attract the prime minister’s attention.
This time Malcolm Turnbull decided to choose his own questioners, a seemingly minor switch that actually sent a clear message about who he blames for his downfall.
The reporters called upon, in order, were: Laura Tingle of the ABC’s 7.30; Philip Coorey, political editor of The Australian Financial Review; Katherine Murphy, Guardian Australia’s political editor; Chris Uhlmann, Nine Network’s political editor (who wasn’t present); Kieran Gilbert, the Sky News chief political reporter; and David Crowe, the chief political correspondent of the Age and Sydney Morning Herald.
Six questions, and almost all to journalists who had expressed disquiet about the way in which Turnbull was treated or the people who wanted him removed.
Turnbull ignored newspaper writers from News Corp Australia, which publishes something like 60 per cent of the papers read each day, something few political leaders would be willing to do, even those heading off into a comfortable retirement.
Without the protection offered by a big press office, and the leverage from a daily feed of editorially lucrative information, ex-politicians can suffer a lot of reputational pain from aggressive media outlets.
The snub wasn’t missed. “[It] was just a giant F you to the conservatives,” Daily Telegraph columnist Joe Hildebrand said on Studio 10, a TV show.
News Corp publishes the Telegraph, The Australian, the Herald Sun, the Courier-Mail, the Adelaide Advertiser, the Hobart Mercury and others.
Chairman Rupert Murdoch arrived in Australia on August 10, clutching the Financial Review, for an internal company awards night and a celebration of the Institute of Public Affairs, a free-market think tank in Melbourne.
Not long after, some of his papers seemed to exhibit an unusual level of hostility towards Turnbull, that culminated in Friday’s front page Telegraph headline: THE MADNESS OF MALCOLM.
A week earlier, the page-one headline was: “Exclusive – Dutton Ready to Roll.”
Not us, says tabloid editor
After he was removed Friday, Turnbull complained that the media had participated in an “insurgency” against him. Then he rolled into his selective questions.
The Telegraph‘s editor, Christopher Dore, says he would be surprised if Turnbull’s criticism was directed at his paper.
He says the paper’s editorial coverage has been straight, was critical of Dutton’s camp where appropriate, and its editorials didn’t back Dutton for prime minister.
“We run opinion pieces from all sides of the spectrum, [including] those who have strongly defended Malcolm, such as Miranda Devine, and those who have been more critical, such as Andrew Bolt for instance,” he said in an email.
The media’s complicity in the downfall of Australia’s fifth prime minister in five years is more complicated than a few of Murdoch’s editors turning on him.
Fairfax played a central role, through its part-owned business Macquarie Media, which employs the radio broadcasters who have harped for three years about the removal of their champion, Tony Abbott.
A son speaks out
In his farewell appearance, Turnbull complained about critical press coverage of his family. Yet some of the toughest articles about his son, Singapore fund manager Alex Turnbull, and son-in-law James Brown, appeared in the Financial Review.
Alex Turnbull, though, was more focused on Murdoch on Friday. He tweeted the media mogul a link to You Can’t Always Get What You Want by the Rolling Stones. “An ex of your wife wrote a great tune about times like this,” he said.
The question the Liberal party faces now is whether elements of the conservative media will shift their war against Turnbull to Scott Morrison. Australia’s thirtieth prime minister drew their wrath for his perceived disloyalty to Abbott during the 2015 leadership change and was famously dropped from Ray Hadley’s radio program last April.
There was one early, comforting sign for Morrison. On Friday afternoon, 2GB host Ben Fordham was fielding calls from Liberal voters expressing disappointment Dutton wasn’t elected.
Fordham described how he convinced Abbott to give weekly interviews on the station, a step that magnified the effect of Abbott’s criticism of the government’s policies.
Then Fordham made an unusual suggestion.
“Where does this end?” he asked. “When is this going to stop? I think it needs to stop now.”