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Australian History

Why You Should Watch ‘The Rise of the Murdoch Dynasty’

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There’s only one Rupert” announced Donald Trump in June 2017. He was responding to an introduction given for him by the media mogul Rupert Murdoch. The two men have a relationship stretching back decades, and Murdoch and his media empire played a pivotal role in Trump’s election as US President, particularly via the television network Fox News.

Trump’s statement serves as a refrain in a new BBC documentary, The Rise of the Murdoch Dynasty, which everyone should try to watch before it disappears off BBC iPlayer.[1] It examines the business activities and family – particularly Rupert’s children, Elisabeth, Lachlan and James – of one of the most powerful and influential figures in recent British and global history.

Murdoch and his mass media conglomerate News Corp have for decades wielded enormous political and cultural influence in the UK, the US and Australia. In recent years, aside from supporting Trump, Murdoch’s UK tabloid the Sun played a key role in Brexit while his Australian media organisations have led efforts to undermine recognition of climate change and to resist attempts to combat it, even as the country experienced horrendous bushfires. Leading politicians in both countries have also maintained close connections with Murdoch.

The documentary arrives in the wake of HBO’s critically-acclaimed drama Succession, which uses the Murdoch family as its main source of inspiration while also drawing on other controversial media dynasties such as the owners of the Viacom, the Redstones. Indeed, The Rise of the Murdoch Dynasty apes the style and aesthetics of Succession.

Rupert Murdoch has long been depicted as an antidemocratic despot whose media organisations subvert the democratic process, coarsen popular culture, and stray into illegality.[2] In the UK, his newspapers having bragged about swaying the outcomes of elections, their use of features such as page 3, and their involvement in scandals such as smearing the victims of the Hillsborough disaster and Phone Hacking offer plenty of supporting evidence.

During protests against News Corps’ attempt to gain overall control of the broadcaster BSkyB in 2010, a campaigner in a Murdoch mask manipulated puppets of the then Prime Minister David Cameron and Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport Jeremy Hunt – the minister presiding over the decision.

Despite Hunt failing to refer the deal to the Competition Commission, the bid was ultimately withdrawn when the Phone Hacking scandal came to light. Subsequently, a raft of texts and emails exchanged between Hunt and News Corp were revealed, with one of the company’s lobbyists having told James Murdoch that Hunt “said we would get there in the end and he shared our objectives”. Hunt had publicly denied any relationship with the Murdochs, reinforcing the impression that they had far too much influence over leading politicians.

There is a long history of fears about the ability of the media to influence politicians and the public. This became particularly acute with the rise of the mass popular press at the end of nineteenth century, which reached much larger numbers of readers than ever before and which refined methods to grab the attention of the public, such as eye-catching headlines and layouts, emotive slogans, sensationalist stories, competitions, and gimmicks. While partly due to elite fears that the newly enfranchised masses could not be trusted to vote wisely, many of the critiques of the popular press were nevertheless well-grounded.

In the US, William Randolph Hearst became notorious for what his critics saw as the debasement of journalism and politics, while in the UK the same charges were levelled at the press barons, Lords Northcliffe, Rothermere, and Beaverbook. While such figures wielded less direct influence over the outcome of elections than they desired, the long-term impact of their newspapers over broader attitudes was significant. Indeed, tabloid values have seemingly taken root across the media and wider society.

The media environment has changed a lot over the last hundred or so years, and throughout Murdoch’s career. However, given the scale and international reach of Murdoch’s media concerns, it is reasonable to suggest that he has achieved a greater level of power and influence than the press barons ever managed.

Assessing the activities and impact of Murdoch is difficult because his modus operandi is secrecy”. As Rodney Tiffin notes, this is at odds with what should be the primary democratic purpose of news organisations: increasing public transparency. Murdoch operates outside of public view, exercising control via face-to-face conversations and phone calls that leave no paper trail.[3]

The Rise of the Murdoch Dynasty does a good job of surveying what we do know, and some of the insights from interviewees that worked within Murdoch’s media organizations are illuminating.[4]

One aspect of the documentary worth expanding upon concerns commonalities evident across Murdoch’s media organisations. As he stated in 1996, News Corp, “For better or worse, is a reflection of my thinking, my character, my values”.

A series of articles published in the New York Times outlines the driving motivation of Murdoch’s activities: conquest. Following in the footsteps of his father, from the start of his career Murdoch used his newspapers to gain political leverage over and intimidate Australian politicians, lending them support in return for political favours and the relaxation of media competition laws. This pattern was repeated as he moved into the UK and then the US.

The undermining of journalistic standards and the creation of workplace cultures that have encouraged and concealed toxic behaviour – and even outright illegality – have been common features across many of Murdoch’s media possessions.[5]

Accompanying this has been a distinctive form of right-wing politics.[6] While at times Murdoch has lent the support of his newspapers to centre-left parties such as New Labour, this has always been dependent on concessions, and his media empire has consistently pushed political positions such as hostility to trade unions, jingoism, hawkish foreign policies, climate change denial, and various conservative social values.[7] Indeed, in recent decades many of Murdoch’s newspapers and television channels have played a key role in the emergence of what has been termed a “culture war”, even including highbrow newspapers such as The Times.

The Rise of the Murdoch Dynasty is a great overview of how the world’s most powerful media mogul has amassed and wielded power, and given recent events it is vital viewing.

Aaron Ackerley is a historian of Modern British and imperial history, focusing on politics, the media, and popular culture. He is also the assistant editor of this blog. You can find him on Twitter @AaronAckerley

Cover image: Protester in a Rupert Murdoch mask manipulates puppets of David Cameron and Jeremy Hunt, London 2010. Courtesy of 38 Degrees, https://www.flickr.com/photos/38degrees/5887629591/ [accessed 06 August 2020].

[1] Episode 1 is due to be taken down on Saturday 15th August, so best hurry. Edit: This has now thankfully been extended, so you have plenty of time to catch it!

[2] This is a popular image that Murdoch himself is well aware of and has at times been willing to play up to. After first being depicted in the Simpsons –at the time owned by his 20th Century Fox production company – bedecked in a prison jumpsuit as an inmate as Springwood Minimum Security Prison, he later provided his voice for another appearance where he introduced himself as “the billionaire tyrant” – a line he apparently came up with himself.

[3] This has a precedent with previous media moguls; while the press barons Northcliffe and Beaverbrook donated their personal papers to archives, Rothermere ordered his own to be destroyed after he died and one of the papers he controlled, the Daily Mail, continues to deny public access to its internal archives, unlike most other surviving newspapers.

[4] Though this is variable. There are some eye-opening accounts of the illegal practices that were carried out at the Sun and the News of the World, including “darks arts” such as phone hacking, blagging and the bribing of police. Conversely, former News Corp executive Les Hinton’s contribution was largely a hagiography of Murdoch. In keeping with the expected pattern, the Murdoch family declined to contribute.

[5] This includes the covering up of sexual harassment at Fox News, and the macho bullying that occurred at the Sun, especially under the editorship of Kelvin MacKenzie.

[6] The packaging of this political viewpoint has been overseen by a number of key subordinates, such as the Sun editors Larry Lamb and Kelvin MacKenzie and the Fox News chairman Roger Ailes. Lachlan Murdoch has recently displaced James to become the de facto heir to the Murdoch empire, and his political views seem even more right-wing  than his father’s.

[7] For how this played out at the Sun, see: P. Chippindale, C. Horrie, Stick It Up Your Punter!: The Uncut Story of the Sun Newspaper (London, 1999).

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Where do we find evidence of everyday lives from the past? Using social surveys in historical research

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Survey research is now a vital part of policymaking, news reporting, and general knowledge. Yet researchers did not always know what we might call the basic facts about people’s lives. Historical social surveys aimed to fill this gap. Survey directors published the most influential accounts of the populations they studied, but social survey data were produced by everyday people and entire teams of researchers who worked alongside more famous figures. This means that their archives can be read to uncover a wide range of experiences and accounts of daily life in the past.

Social surveys date to the final decades of the nineteenth century, when researchers invited everyday people to participate in research projects about their neighbourhoods and communities for the first time. By going directly to their subjects for information (which was produced through observation, interviews, and questionnaires), social survey researchers endorsed and highlighted the experiences and opinions of everyday people.

Researchers such as Charles Booth (1840-1916) and W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963) pioneered methods of door-to-door research that made personal interactions part of the research process and helped to spread new ideas about social science. In their published forms, social surveys embedded statistical findings in detailed descriptions of the history, geography, society, and culture of the populations they studied. By the 1970s, however, strengthening commitment to evidence-based policy coexisted with criticisms of positivist social science that would eventually weaken its authority. At the same time, new patterns of work made house-to-house surveys difficult and moved survey research into the print, telephone, and online forms that you might encounter today.

Historic social surveys compel the attention of historians because they contain rare and revealing archival discoveries about the lives and attitudes of everyday people in the past.

Their mixture of information about researchers and subjects equips historians to interpret social survey archives in different ways. For example, social historians read questionnaires, budgets, and statistics to understand the lives of the people who participated in research projects, including working people, older people, and migrant communities. Historians of science take a different approach in order to examine how and why survey directors selected particular topics and methods. Such decisions have shaped public perceptions of issues such as poverty until today.

I read the archival records of the University of Melbourne Social Survey (1941–1943) in order to showcase the contributions of everyday people and low-paid, contract workers to social science and the historical record.

The University of Melbourne Social Survey was a massive—and not entirely successful—undertaking. The project cost close to £3,000. It employed dozens of interviewers and coders over a period of 20 months. The survey was designed to record information about one in 30 homes across Melbourne. To this end, interviewers visited just over 7,600 households.

The survey’s overall findings, however, were never published. Three short articles appeared in the journal of the Economic Society of Australia.  The only monograph described data collected from several hundred families living in the industrial suburbs of Footscray and Williamstown.

Instead, the vision of comprehensive, objective social knowledge about Melbourne was best realised in the survey forms that were collected door-to-door from thousands of participants (and are archived at the University of Melbourne). These were the work of 35 low-paid, contract workers, who were almost entirely women.

The University of Melbourne contract interviewers earned 2 shillings and 6 pence for each completed questionnaire, on a piecework basis and with no job security. The major challenges of their work included travelling long distances across the city only to encounter empty houses and uncooperative inhabitants.

Interviewers had to convince people that survey research was worthwhile and that researchers were trustworthy. A suspicious woman living in Mordialloc, for example, peered through a crack in her door to demand ‘who are you anyway? Who sent you?’ Unfortunately for the interviewer, she slammed the door shut without waiting for a reply.

Agnes Young rode the train 30 kilometres from the centre of Melbourne to seaside Chelsea in September 1941. She switched to a bicycle to cover the long distances between houses that she was required to visit on the outskirts. Young joked that she would have been better off riding a horse. One foggy morning she was lost in the bush until two children helped her to find her way. Over two days, Young reached 23 houses but completed only 15 survey forms. If she wanted to earn more, she would have to repeat the long journey another time.

Pat Counihan single-handedly completed over 2,000 questionnaires. She worked hard to finish an average of eight surveys per day and pocket £5 each week. This income was an improvement on what she had earned as a teacher. The money supported her husband, the artist Noel Counihan. Survey work also provided Counihan with opportunities to document exploitation of tenants and workers.

The organisers of the University of Melbourne survey left a number of the survey’s most difficult or sensitive inquiries about the state of people’s homes and the reliability of their answers to the back of the survey sheet, and to the discretion of interviewers. In response, Counihan described the poor conditions of houses across Melbourne. She detailed their broken windows, leaking ceilings, and verandas used as children’s bedrooms. Counihan was alert to the diverse causes of human suffering and she noted troubles ranging from mental breakdowns to neglected gardens, with medical problems sounding a constant note of pain and expense.

Across dozens of the most shocking records, Counihan repeated the phrase ‘the landlord will do nothing’. With this understated observation, Counihan made her survey forms testify to the common hardships she encountered across the city, the terrible treatment of tenants during a housing crisis, and the unfairness of people’s lives.

The Melbourne survey’s rich archive underlines the significance of popular participation in survey research and the intellectual contributions of its interviewers. Examining the research process of a survey like this one connects the intellectual history of social science to wider transformations in education, employment, and the role of expert knowledge in everyday life. When people participated in social surveys, they witnessed some of these changes first-hand. Fortunately for those of us who seek to understand the history of everyday life, many people them took the opportunity to speak back to experts and shape the historical record.

Charlotte Greenhalgh is Lecturer in History at the University of Waikato in Hamilton, New Zealand. This is an extract from her chapter in Reading Primary Sources. The Interpretation of Texts in Nineteenth and Twentieth Century History (London: Routledge, 2020). The book can be ordered with a 20% discount by entering the discount code FLR40 at the checkout.

Image: One of over 7,000 completed survey forms. Survey 44, 23 July 1942, box 13, 1973.002, Wilfred Prest collection, University of Melbourne Archives, Melbourne (UMA).

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‘The Great Australian Silence’: Sexual Violence in Australian History

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Like many settler colonies with evolving frontiers, there has been a continuous undercurrent of sexual violence in Australian history. From the first establishment of European settlements in Australia, forced sexual relations perpetrated by white settlers have remained relatively unspoken about in recollections of the Australian frontier experience, regardless of the victim’s race.

The term ‘the Great Australian Silence’ was first coined in a 1968 lecture delivered by anthropologist W.E.H. Stanner. Stanner utilised the term to address the manner in which certain critical areas of Indigenous and non-Indigenous history, including invasion, dispossession and massacres, had generally been ignored by Australian historians as part of a long-term structural trend, otherwise known as the ‘cult of forgetfulness’.[1]

Although scholarship has evolved over the past two decades to address certain aspects of ‘the Great Australian Silence’, a silence which undeniably excludes or minimises the prevalence of sexual violence perpetrated by white settlers predominantly against Aboriginal women, the scholarship has centred around massacres, genocide and child removal, with no substantial historiography on sexual violence.

Subsequently, it has been historically-set works of fiction that have been most effective in drawing public and academic attention to the relationship between the frontier, frontier violence and sexual violence. This includes the efforts of John Hillcoat and Kim Scott, whose works The Proposition and Benang: From the Heart will be briefly examined in this post, as well as the works of other contemporaries such as Kate Grenville (The Secret River, 2005) and Phillip Noyce (Rabbit-Proof Fence, 2002).

Although Scott and Hillcoat investigate these ideas in slightly different contexts, namely sexual violence towards white women in nineteenth-century frontier Queensland in Hillcoat’s The Proposition, and sexual violence towards Aboriginal women in Western Australia from European arrival through to the twentieth century in Scott’s Benang, they both attempt to highlight sexual violence as intrinsic to the frontier experience.

These two texts, when compared, emphasise differing aspects of colonial sexual violence. Hillcoat, in depicting the raped white colonial woman, presents sexual violence as a threat to the ideal of white nationhood; whereas Scott, in showing interracial sexual violence between settlers and Indigenous women, presents sexual violence as necessary for the survival of the white Australian nation.

In The Proposition, sexual violence is a vital and indivisible aspect of the film; indeed, “women’s bodies, or the violation of white women’s bodies to be exact, are called upon as both the motivation and means of resolving the proposition propelling the film”.[2]

The crime that motivates the proposition that drives the film is especially horrific as it involved the rape and murder of pregnant Eliza Hopkins, who embodied the future of the white nation. Furthermore, the place of sexual violence in relation to the frontier is emphasised in the penultimate scene in the Stanley homestead whereupon Martha, wife of Constable Stanley, is the victim of an attempted rape.

In this regard, Hillcoat draws substantial attention of the place of sexual violence against white women on the Australian frontier. In comparing The Proposition and Benang, the role of race is important to note, and here both creators serve to offer a nuanced insight into how sexual violence is presented in the context of colonial Australia based on the race of the violated woman. Rape is deemed a crime in The Proposition, arguably the worst crime that can be committed in such a society, whereas in Benang it is either an unacknowledged, un-criminalised consequence of the wider, also unacknowledged, crime of mass murder, or merely taken as an accepted aspect of colonisation

The sexual violence against Indigenous women in Benang does not serve to drive the plot of the novel; instead, it supplements and further highlights the violence faced by the Nyoongar people under white settlement. Furthermore, Scott highlights how sexual violence is intrinsic to other brutal and silenced aspects of colonialization, namely the eugenicist ideals held by those such as A. O. Neville, which subsequently motivate the mass removal of Indigenous children.

The most predominant occasions of rape are committed by Ern Scat, a Scotsman who legitimises his constant rape of his two Nyoongar wives as part of his eugenicist attempts to “breed out the colour”. For Scott, sexual violence and the expression of colonial hegemonic masculinity are depicted as a necessary part of colonisation, via the likening of the bodies of Aboriginal women to the land they are dispossessed from.

Indeed, Ern’s first experiences with the Aboriginal camps is a memory overwhelmed by sexual violence; as he remembers “the first night. The dirt on his bare knees, and how she turned her head away as her body took his thrusts”. Shifting between Sandy One’s mother being the product of rape, to the intrinsic place of rape after the massacre of Indigenous groups, through to Ern’s exploits, Benang details how sexual violence towards Aboriginal women is a continual and substantial feature of Australian history.

In comparing Hillcoat’s The Proposition and Scott’s Benang, one can see how historically-set texts have been vital in attempting to address the national silence regarding the place of sexual violence in Australian history.

It is worth noting that these examinations of sexual violence are done from the perspective of male creatives, and although they are successful in opening dialogue about ‘the Great Australian Silence’ regarding sexual violence in the history of the Australian frontier, texts by women, particularly Indigenous women, could offer further insights and perspectives into the relationship between sexual violence and Australian history.

Yet undeniably, Hillcoat and Scott both succeed in starting to challenge the silence and unspeakability regarding historical sexual violence in Australia, and thus offer a foundation for further discussion and research from a myriad of different perspectives. Ultimately, both texts work to render sexual violence in Australian history speakable, as it should be.[3]

Zoe Smith is a history and literature student at the Australian National University, with a specialisation in gender history and feminist theory. Having just completed a semester of study with the University of Sheffield History Department, she will be completing her third year of study this year, with full intentions of doing further research into sexual violence on the Australian frontier via an honours thesis and a PhD. You can find Zoe on Twitter @ZoeASmith4

Cover image: View of Millstream-Chichester National Park, Australia. The barren landscape is suggestive of the cultural silence discussed in the blog. Courtesy of Gypsy Denise. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Millstream_National_Park,_Pilbara,_Western_Australia.jpg [Accessed 4 February 2020].

[1] For more information on Stanner and the ‘Great Australian Silence’, see Andrew Gunstone, ‘Reconciliation and “The Great Australian Silence”’ in R. Eccleston, N. Sageman, and F. Gray (eds), The Refereed Proceedings of the 2012 Australian Political Studies Association Conference, (Melbourne, 2012).

[2] Tanya Dalziell, ‘Gunpowder and Gardens: Reading Women in The Proposition’, Studies in Australasian Cinema, 3.1 (2009), 122.

[3] The ideas and research presented in this blog post are featured in and further extended upon in an upcoming article due to be published in March by the Australian National University Undergraduate Research Journal. Interested readers will be able to access the article here: http://studentjournals.anu.edu.au/index.php/aurj

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