Imagine if the ACTU issued a poster with Rupert Murdoch decked out in the uniform of a Nazi concentration camp Kommandant. Cue Andrew Bolt’s sorrowful ruminations on the barbarism on the Left, and a querulous seventeen part conversation between Gerard Henderson and his dog about the outrageous appropriation of the Holocaust.
Apologies demanded. Resignations sought. Endless tut-tutting from the mandarins of public opinion.
But what’s this we see? A front page from the Daily Telegraph with Kevin Rudd and Antony Albanese depicted in fascist uniforms?
Larrikin satire! A robust expression of political opinion! An exercise in free speech that only the most uptight killjoy would oppose!
These days, the Right’s moved so far beyond shame that one points out hypocrisy merely through force of habit.
Nonetheless, the Telegraph’s antics do deserve some scrutiny, if only because they highlight a significant political shift.
As everyone knows, Rupert Murdoch’s taking a keen interest in the Australian election, dispatching the former editor of the New York Post, a certain Col Allan, to ginger up what he evidently regards as the lacklustre efforts of his local outlets. Thus the Tele marked the launch of the campaign by commanding its readers to ‘Kick this mob out’, an injunction it has now clarified by depicting the mob in question as the cast of Hogan’s Heroes.
Obviously, Murdoch has form in the election-swinging game – famously, in 1992, his Sun celebrated Labour’s defeat by running a victory lap under the headline, ‘It’s the Sun wot won it’.
But, whether or not the Sun’s claim was ever actually true, that was a headline from a quite different era.
Unlike the traditional broadsheets, which were designed to be unfurled on the dining table by the leisurely middle-class breakfaster, the tabloids were constructed for a working class readership. You could snap open your paper during smoko, at your lunch break, on the train or in the tram. It offered information for those in a hurry, with big headlines, striking pictures and a ruthless deployment of the ‘inverted pyramid’ structure so that the gist of a story could be absorbed just by skimming a few lines. The tabloids were, quite consciously, not about intricate analyses of insider politics: the format suited sport, entertainment and gossip than parliamentary proceedings.
Politically, of course, that made them very useful. If you were a media tycoon with a broadsheet paper, you could, no doubt, moralise endlessly about the workers. But, if you you owned a tabloid, you could moralise to them, a whole different kettle of fish. The majority of Sun readers almost certainly voted Labour and bought the paper for its football coverage rather than its editorials, but they still had to flip past the Tory populism in order to get to the sports, and so you could trust that you’d influence some of them along the way.
Today, however, matters are different. Want to catch up on news headlines while waiting for a train? Your phone will do that, even as it plays you music and delivers you your messages. What’s more, it gives you the stories you want, selected from an array of different sources, filtered via social media. If you’re seeking scores from the weekend’s game, you can get them directly, without any interaction whatsoever with the political editors.
Think about all the complaints on Facebook and Twitter about the Tele cover. By and large, people posted images of the print edition, because if you linked directly to the Telegraph website, the Hogan’s Heroes mash-up was far, far less visible, so much so that if you read the Tele online you might well not have noticed the cover at all.
That’s not to say that the conservative media can’t exert a political influence. Quite obviously, the print editions of the tabloids still sell vast numbers of copies; quite obviously, Andrew Bolt pulls traffic; quite obviously, FOX News remains influential in the US.
But the decentralisation that’s now taking place means that no single outlet can claim the monopoly the tabloids once enjoyed. Back in the day, if you were in Melbourne and you wanted to read a paper at your bus-stop of a morning, you bought the Sun, just like everyone else, and you were exposed to its pundits, whether you wanted to read them or not. Today, however, Bolt’s readers are far more self-selecting, which means that his blog’s far more about preaching to the choir (as the hilarious @boltcomments twitter account demonstrates) than swaying the unconverted.
That tendency’s even more pronounced in the US, where the less deranged of the Republican strategists openly recognise that the GOP’s integration into Fox News and the Rush Limbaugh Show has been disastrous, tying the party to a demographic that’s increasingly unrepresentative of America as a whole. Indeed, as Alex Seitz-Wald recently argued in Salon, key sectors of the American conservative media have degenerated into a more-or-less overt racket, predominantly concerned with bilking their elderly white supporters out of their life savings in return for various snake oil schemes.
In the Drum, Tim Dunlop writes:
The Tele is not only reaching fewer people, it is, like talkback radio, increasingly preaching to the converted, a diminishing and aging demographic of people set in their ways who merely want their prejudices reinforced. Preaching to the converted is the opposite of mainstream influence.
Today’s cover illustrates his point.
It’s not just that the Hogan’s Heroes motif is innately bizarre (does the Tele think Craig Thompson an Allied resistance fighter?). It’s also that, to depict Kevin Rudd’s involvement in the most tepid political scandal imaginable, the Tele invokes a television show that ceased production, um, forty-two years ago. A reference to Colonel Klink does not suggest a publication on the cutting edge of popular culture, so much as one mired in a time that has long since passed.
Ironically, by going after Rudd in such an inept fashion, Murdoch might very well be demonstrating his weakness rather than his strength. Remember how in the Wizard of Oz the curtain drew back to reveal the great and powerful sorcerer to be a rather feeble elderly gentleman?
That’s the scene that seems to be playing out now. Murdoch’s spell is breaking.