The unbelievable Andrew Bolt

Comment and analysis

By Barry Tucker                    22 November, 2013

Andrew Bolt is an experienced and senior journalist, a former editor and, today, a newspaper columnist who has his own TV show (The Bolt Report). He is a paid propagandist for media mogul Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp and, on Channel 10, for Murdoch and mining magnate Gina Rinehart — both climate change/global warming denialists.

In Australia and in the UK Murdoch is opposed to the taxpayer funded Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) and the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). He claims these organisations have an unfair advantage, they are competition (they don’t carry paid ads) and — most curious of all — they threaten the diversity that private enterprise could otherwise offer. These arguments are consistent among those who work for Murdoch, who must therefore be opposed to independent thinking. The Institute of Public Affairs, a Liberal think tank founded by Murdoch’s father Keith, and others, recommends that the ABC be broken up and sold. See items 50 and 51.

Murdoch’s arguments were put forward, with a slightly different spin, in Australia recently by another of his employees, Mary Kissel — an editorial board member of the Wall Street Journal, owned by Dow Jones & Co, a division of Murdoch’s News Corp. Kissel argues that public funding is detrimental to innovation. She does not point out that Murdoch’s near-monopoly of print media in Australia (plus TV holdings) is itself detrimental to innovation, as well as free enterprise, variety, diversity and as we have recently seen democracy itself.

Earlier today I read something that shocked and disgusted me. Not because it influenced me but because of the influence it might have on readers who are less well informed. Occasionally in TruthinNewsMedia I take a newspaper article apart, line by line. This is one of those days and the subject is the unbelievable Andrew Bolt.

Bolt wrote the article below, an “opinion” piece, in Murdoch’s Melbourne newspaper, the Herald Sun.

ABC can’t keep its big advantage over private media

THE Abbott Government has wanted to dodge the fight it must have with the ABC. It can’t afford the blood right now. It needs to establish its power and trust. And there’s Malcolm Turnbull, of course, the ABC favourite who stands guard as Communications Minister.

The above is the headline and the introduction, not necessarily written by Bolt. However, I begin there. There can be only one justification for the headline: Murdoch’s print media empire is failing, Ch10 is in trouble, and he wants to remove any competition. The ABC can keep its “big advantage” (and it should) as long as the taxpayers are prepared to pay for it. The alternative is whatever Murdoch wants to give readers and viewers. It’s strange that Murdoch and his propagandists can argue that the existing diversity is a barrier to diversity or innovation, which would disappear if he got his way. A monopoly is no incentive to provide diversity, innovation or outstanding service.

THE Abbott Government has wanted to dodge the fight it must have with the ABC. It can’t afford the blood right now.

If the Abbott government has wanted to dodge the fight why is News Corp trying to pick one? Is Murdoch or the government running the country? Why must it have this fight? Presumably because of the reasons I’ve already outlined.

It can’t afford the blood right now.

Indeed. The leader of the Liberal-National Party Coalition government, Tony Abbott, his Immigration Minister, Scott Morrison, and his Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, have bungled Australia’s relationship with Indonesia because of their policy of turning back refugee boats (which Indonesia opposes) and because of Abbott’s refusal to openly apologise to Indonesia’s first family for the Australian security services hacking their mobile ‘phones, which occurred under the previous Labor government’s watch. There are many things wrong with this Abbott government and they began to emerge very soon after the 7 September federal election — especially on issues of “secrecy”. This is not the time to detail them, but Bolt is right when he says the government “can’t afford the blood right now”.

It needs to establish its power and trust.

The government is having trouble establishing its power. It won a majority of seats after the distribution of preferences, but not on the initial vote, which puts its mandate in doubt. It fought the election on promises of immediate action on stopping refugee boats and abolishing the “carbon tax”. It has done neither. Indonesia has cancelled co-operation on “boats” due to Abbott’s mishandling of diplomacy and the Labor/Green alliance in the Senate will not allow the carbon tax abolition Bills to pass, putting the country at risk of a Double Dissolution election only a few months after the last election. This government is having some difficulty establishing trust, although it promised a government of experienced (Howard era) ministers and government by “adults”. Power, as Abbott sees it, is getting Bills passed by the Lower House, where he has a considerable majority. There has been speculation for some years that Abbott will force a Double Dissolution in the hope of getting control of both Houses. God only knows why he wants such power and what he would do with it. Trust will come if he can demonstrate that he is governing for all of the people, as he promised, and not just for the Liberal party, which seems to be the case.

And there’s Malcolm Turnbull, of course, the ABC favourite who stands guard as Communications Minister.

So, apart from the government’s real problems, there’s Malcolm Turnbull, “of course”. “… of course, …” must mean that Bolt must think every reader knows what he means by that. But what does this code mean? Turnbull was Liberal leader in Opposition before Abbott beat him by a single vote (1 invalid and 2 MPs absent) on 1 December, 2009, on the issue of a carbon trading scheme which the previous Liberal government had been on the verge of introducing. Abbott previously flapped around like a fish out of water on the issue (once referring to himself as “a weather vane”). He identified a no action policy on climate change as an issue that Murdoch would support and won his backing. Since then Turnbull has been the shadow communications spokesman and is now its Minister. Turnbull, whether he believes in it or not, opposes Labor’s fibre to the home national broadband (NBN), favouring his fibre/existing copper hybrid which can be completed earlier and cheaper. Abbott and his Treasurer, Joe Hockey, have stated publicly that the ABC will not be privatised (Hockey has said any waste in the service will be cut). Presumably then, Turnbull would be in agreement with Abbott and Hockey. I haven’t seen any evidence that Turnbull is the ABC’s favourite or that he is standing guard. Government ministers have said the ABC will not be privatised. What is Turnbull supposed to be guarding against? Maybe, with the voting as close as it was, and Abbott’s messy start in switching from Opposition to government, Turnbull is a threat to Abbott’s leadership. If Abbott can’t get his carbon tax abolition Bills through the Senate, or if there’s a massive flip-flop in favour of a carbon trading scheme (also Labor’s preference) Turnbull (a previous supporter of an ETS) would be in better standing than Abbott. So he’s a potential threat to Abbott and the abolition agenda. Time will tell.

Here’s a comment from Bolt on 25 October, 2013. Bolt’s claim that the ABC “has a strong and near-uniform Leftist bias that is a breach of its charter” is laughable. This claim is often made by those on the Right. It may have been true many years ago, but it has not been the case since former Liberal Prime Minister John Howard appointed people to the ABC’s board with instructions to root out the Left bias. Earlier this year Abbott said present MD Mark Scott (one of Howard’s appointees) “still had some work to do”. That is also laughable. Since early last year I have been challenging people who make the claim of Left bias in the ABC to name just one Left-wing journalist or one program with a Leftist bias. No one has been able to do it. But the claim suits the Murdoch/IPA/Liberal party agenda. As WWII Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels said, keep repeating the lie until people accept it as the truth.

But for how much longer can the Government let the ABC run amok? I don’t just mean that the taxpayer-funded ABC has become even more stridently partisan since the election. Not satisfied with having Leftists helm every one of its main current affairs shows, it’s now screening slabs of comfort food for Labor viewers traumatised by the election result, from an hour of Julia Gillard being “interviewed” by worshipper Anne Summers to four hours of Paul Keating being adored by Kerry O’Brien. Just as concerning is how the ABC is metastasising, using our $1.1 billion a year to strangle private media outlets and stifle diversity.

The above paragraph is just plain sick. Where is the evidence that the ABC is running amok? Bolt says it has become “even more stridently partisan since the election”He has a point, to a degree. It is absolutely crystal clear that practically all of Australia’s political journalists were out to demolish the former Labor government, which was something of a national embarrassment. Job done, some journalists have focussed on the new Liberal government and they are having a picnic. Some of the stridently Right-leaning ABC journalists, Chris Uhlmann for example, have been moved on to other areas — their job of bringing down the Labor government completed. Uhlmann is producing a documentary on the past few years of Labor in government. Given his anti-Labor bias, I shudder to think how that will turn out.

The interview with Gillard was an interview (I ask the questions and you answer them), so I don’t see the need for the quotation marks. The second of the two interviews was telecast by Sky TV (1/3rd News Corp, ch7 and ch9); Bolt thinks this is irrelevant. In the reference to the O’Brien/Keating interview there is a snarky and irrelevant remark. I’ve been following these four interviews with Keating. O’Brien puts some tough questions to Keating, puts him on the spot. Keating answers directly. One criticism I could agree with, if Bolt had made it, O’Brien could dig deeper at times.

So the ABC is using its budget “to strangle private media outlets and stifle diversity”.

You would think, with his years of experience in journalism, Bolt would have learnt a few things about business. The ABC provides diversity, as everyone including Bolt knows. With its various radio, television and overseas TV service, Australia Network, it is very diverse — which costs a lot of money. The reality here is that the old newsprint business model is falling apart as people and advertising move to the interwebs*. At the same time, newspapers making this migration are having a hard time convincing people to pay for online reading material. Bolt and his boss Rupert need to toughen up, to get real. People won’t pay good money for a shit product — that’s the problem. Giving Rupert a complete monopoly by selling the ABC to him is not the answer. Mark Scott would agree. Somewhere in this resource centre is a reference to Scott quoting the UK Guardian editor, who said there can be no justification for selling publicly funded media in order to prop up a failing commercial business model**.

No healthy democracy should have a state media this dominant, with the ABC sprawling over four national TV channels and four radio networks, and now an online newspaper that gives free the kind of news and views that dying Fairfax newspapers must sell to survive. And, of course, there’s the taxpayer-funded SBS and taxpayer-funded Conversation.

The first phrase above just knocks me out. How dumb is the Australian electorate supposed to be? How dumb is Bolt if he thinks any serious-minded person could swallow that line? His boss, Murdoch, dominates the news media in this country. Bolt knows it and so do most journalists (they are not all political, of course) and even some of the readers.

The ABC’s online newspaper that Bolt refers to must be The Drum, or it could be one of the many sites for ABC radio and tv news. If it’s The Drum online he’s referring to, hell, even Bolt can post a story there but I’m sure it wouldn’t be the kind of thing Fairfax newspapers need to sell to survive. It’s curious that Bolt mentions dying Fairfax newspapers in this context and not those of his boss, or the few other surviving, smaller groups. In referring to SBS and The Conversation, Bolt ignores the fact that they are not entirely taxpayer funded and both produce a better product than anything the Murdoch empire can put out. Again, it’s a case of get rid of the competition, especially the good stuff, and leave the field clear for us to own everything and produce cheap, profitable garbage.

This week showed the danger the ABC now poses to diversity. In May, Peter Fray, former editor-in-chief of the Sydney Morning Herald, started PolitiFact Australia, a website that checked the truth of what politicians said. But while he was hiring staff, the Gillard Labor government gave the ABC a $10 million top-up, in part to create a Fact Check unit of its own in direct competition not just with PolitiFact but Fairfax’s own “Fact Checker”.

No surprise this week PolitiFact said it had cut its staff from seven full-timers to just three part-timers and even they would be gone unless some moneybags showed up.

Said Fray: “We don’t have the budget the ABC does and taxpayers’ funding.”

Taking the three paras/sentences above together, um, boo hoo. Once again, it’s an object lesson in running a successful business. First rule: Identify a need that is not being filled. Second rule: Make it profitable. Peter Fray had an idea, gave it a whirl, it wasn’t profitable. He failed, go sit in the naughty corner, think about the mistakes you made, get up and try something else. It’s how businessmen learn to run a business. You don’t learn that in Harvard Business School, as would-be moguls Warwick Fairfax, James Packer and Lachlan Murdoch discovered — very much to their cost. I’m a bit of a news and politics tragic, but I don’t think I would go so far as to visit all three of those fact-checkers to see what they decided about every story. It’s horses for courses. I don’t see the need for fact-checking departments. Journalists are supposed to check their own facts. You’d think Bolt would know that by now.

So how much longer will the Government let the ABC destroy free enterprise – and the culture that supports it?

As I’ve said before, the ABC is not out to destroy free enterprise; that is not its job. It’s flat out trying to make up for the news, variety of opinion and in-depth analysis the free enterprise news media is failing to deliver. We are fortunate to have a political system and a culture that supports a rich and multi-faceted resource like the ABC. I call it our national treasure. You would think Bolt would know that too. And you know what? I suspect he does.

Bolt was interviewed by Jane Hutcheon for ABC TV’s One Plus One, which ran on Friday night, Saturday and Sunday, 21-23 February, 2014, and was heavily promoted (and I emphasise heavily), especially throughout Saturday on ABC News24. The promo said Bolt is “one of Australia’s most powerful opinion makers”. He has columns in Murdoch newspapers, a blog site and presents the now one-hour The Bolt Report on Channel 10 on Sundays (Channel 10 is part-owned by Murdoch family members, mining billionaire Gina Rinehart and others). I fail to see the justification for the One Plus One program, especially because the interview barely dealt with the constant controversy surrounding Bolt’s views on global warming. He is either a sceptic or a denialist.

In the interview, Bolt describes himself as “a doubter” and he meant about things in general. He also said he was concerned about anyone who did not doubt, or question. In the context of “doubt”, I refer you to this article by Robert Manne***, published in The Monthly in August 2012, entitled A Dark Victory – How vested interests defeated climate science. It deals with the history of the climate change denial movement and its prime objective of creating “doubt over reason”. It refers briefly to Bolt and how he operates. Murdoch’s Fox News has been exposed in Slate for distorting facts to influence the climate change debate.

Bolt’s extended Sunday show on Channel 10 will include a News Watch segment. In an article in The Guardian online, Ch10 said the new segment would “put the media under genuine scrutiny”.

* See websites of Audit Bureau of Circulations, MuMBRELLA, Morgan Research and Essential Media for periodical figures on newspaper circulation and sales. If the declining rate continues they will disappear within five years.

** UK Guardian Editor Alan Rusbridger, in the Cudlipp lecture, January 2010.

*** Robert Manne is Emeritus Professor and Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow at La Trobe University and has twice been voted Australia’s leading public intellectual. He is the author of Left, Right, Left: Political Essays, 1977–2005 and Making Trouble.

Further reading. Professor John Quiggin (@JohnQuiggin), an economist at the University of Queensland, does battle with Bolt on global warming/climate change and other matters. In his latest blog, Quiggin provides a list of what he calls “Bolt’s greatest hits, or rather misses”. Links are provided to them and comments appear below.

Anne Summers profiled Bolt for The Monthly in 2011. See here for reviews of the Summers article.

Mainstream news media largely ignored the March in March protests of March 15-17, but those who did report it focused mainly on a few rude and offensive signs. Bolt referred to some of these signs in his 16 March column, including one banner that said: “RESIGN, DICKHEAD”. Lyndon Morley, who created that banner, has responded on his website lyndonmorley.com. The article was reproduced on the news magazine IndependentAustralia.

I am constantly being told to ignore Bolt because his opinions do not matter and they appeal to a small audience. I have a different view, which is expressed in Morley’s response.

Update, 19 March, 2014. A controversy has emerged over an appearance on the ABC’s Q&A of Professor Marcia Langton and Andrew Bolt. Bolt took exception to a remark by Langton. He claimed she had called him a racist and he demanded an apology. This is an ongoing debate and the incident and subsequent comments may be subject to legal actions. There is a wealth of material available by searching Google. For that reason and because the matter is continuing and unresolved it will not be reported on here. It may be subsequently summarised when it is resolved.

Update, 27 March, 2014. Writing in NewMatilda, Ben Eltham describes how the needs of one man, Andrew Bolt, is causing the federal government to rewrite discrimination law, especially Section 18C and related sections of the Racial Discrimination Act. The article includes a comment by Human Rights Commissioner Gillian Triggs.

In The Sydney Morning Herald today, Peter Hartcher and James Massola report that the original draft of proposed changes to the Racial Discrimination Act by Attorney-General Senator George Brandis was rejected by Cabinet and his Bill has been watered down and changed to an exposure draft, for public debate.