The deep, depressing irony of Michael Miller’s Press Club address

Michael Miller, the executive chairman of News Corp, fronted the National Press Club this week, issuing a stern admonishment of global tech companies such as TikTok, Meta, and X, and the immeasurable harm they are doing to our social fabric. 

“We know the collective damage they cause – to our young and elderly, businesses – big and small, to our democracy, and to our economy,” Miller said of the social media companies. 

Now, here’s a LA Times columnist just last year, on Rupert Murdoch’s announced retirement, summing up “the damage his empire has done”, namely: “Undermining democracy, miseducating the public, shredding the credibility of legitimate journalists.”

Is there an echo in here?

Miller opened his address by speaking about the Australian Values Statement visa applicants need to sign before coming to our country, describing it as a “list of shared values that ensure Australians, and visitors, look out for each other and collectively strive for the national common good”.

He then demanded we hold overseas social media companies to the same set of values, proposing a “social license” to operate in Australia that would make these tech platforms “liable for all content that is amplified, curated and controlled by their algorithms or recommender engines”. 

I completely agree with him. They should be held to a strict set of values. While we’re at it, we should also tax these companies 99% of their local earnings, increase the age limit, hold them legally accountable for breaches of media laws, copyright, and libel, and force Instagram to let us post goddamn links in posts. 

But, let’s also hold News Corp to the same set of values – values that “reflect the pillars of Australian society, and the principles that enshrine the way we treat each other” as Miller puts it, and maybe even hold them over the fire for a bit – lest they think these blame-passing distraction tactics are actually working.  

Let’s not pretend this entire rallying call is anything but a dummy spit from a company who recently had a flow of easy money from these social networks suddenly dry up. 

It wasn’t sudden at all, of course. Meta and Google have been threatening to pull this funding since it was first gained by threats of enforcing a News Media Bargaining Code. This easy money was manna from heaven and should have been treated as such, instead of an inalienable right, and an everlasting income stream. Especially seeing News Corp Australia are currently plugging other holes in the slow-turning leaky ocean liner, like rocketing printing costs, a dwindling newspaper readership, and a global downturn in advertising, and should know how quickly revenue streams can dry up. 

News Corp Australia is currently thinning out its bloated middle management structure, with long-serving employees currently being picked off silently and without any public announcements. Look over here, please. Forget the job losses. Miller wants you to be angry about social media, now, because it is an easy distraction and an easier scapegoat for the litany of social woes it is complicit in creating. 

And now the Facebook money has dried up, it’s time to shift the blame. 

After blaming Facebook for online scams, blackmail, cyberbullying, revenge porn, doxing, trolling, deep fakes, conspiracies, the surveillance economy, political interference, terrorists live-streaming massacres, glamorising anorexia, the epidemic of loneliness and anxiety, misogyny among young men, and the algorithms turning us into addicts and “elite female athletes [being] subjected to body shaming and trolling” – Miller gets to his real, actual gripe.

“Australia was one of the first countries to be disrupted by the online revolution, and media was one of the first industries,” he said.

“With Meta’s decision to walk away from its deal to pay Australian news companies for their content, our industry is in new territory once again.”

This is what they care about. The money has gone. Facebook stopped paying the vig.

Here’s News Corp’s US chief Robert Thomson, on stage interviewing Mark Zuckerberg, back at what CNBC called a “jovial” 2019 event in New York “celebrating the launch of Facebook’s News Tab”.

Thomson (who was profiled by the New Yorker in 2011, under the headline ‘Murdoch’s Best Friend’) was once the media’s most outspoken opponent of Facebook. He used to attack the platform’s “bot-infested badlands”, calling it a “dystopian” place for “the fake, the faux and the fallacious”.

Then they paid him. And suddenly he is at a Facebook celebration party, all jovial.

But now they aren’t paying. Facebook decided it doesn’t need news on its platforms to turn a profit – and so they stopped paying for it. 

No more protection money. So, once again: “The social media giants profit from evil videos, they profit from bullying. They profit from online con artists, they profit from glamourising eating disorders,” as Miller tells it.

“It’s intriguing that Meta has no problem turning off the news, but has a big problem turning off teenage fight clubs, the bullying of young women, or scam advertising.”

Never mind that News Corp has monetised these fight club videos numerous times over the past few years, and continues to do so. Rather than embedding a video of the Instagram post, or indeed not linking to it at all, they routinely rip these videos from whatever platform they originated on, upload them to their own video server, where they sell and show advertising before and after them – and amplify the content. 

Check out news.com.au on any given day and most of the lifestyle stories are directly sourced from TikTok. Likewise with all the shock-horror-the-kids-aren’t-alright bullshit. The trends start on TikTok – and are amplified by News Corp. News Corp journalists trawl social media for this shit. 

Miller also blames social media alone for a youth suicide epidemic, saying “the leading cause of death among Australians aged 15 to 24 is suicide” and “the problem started exploding, as young people became addicted to social media. The blue thumbs up has a lot to answer for.”

Now, this is alarming. And while suicide is, sadly, the leading cause of death for this age demographic, here’s some more information – this time, from 117 years of government data: “Throughout 1907 to 2022, the lowest suicide rates in males were observed in those aged 15­–19.”

Suicide rates for this age group actually peaked in 1988. Tiktok didn’t start anything. Suicide rates in the 20-24 age group peaked in 1997 for males, and are now roughly on par with those aged between 69 and 79. As for females 15-19, suicide rates peaked in 2012 and have dropped since. The highest at-risk group for both sexes? The 85+.

This is not to make light of what is a horrible situation, it is to simply point out that perhaps Miller’s introduction of youth suicide into the discussion is similar to the scaremongering that drives the profits of the company he has a direct say in shaping. 

This week, The Australian is celebrating its 60th birthday with a bit of revisionist history – republishing some heavily curated pieces from the past that paint the paper as a beacon of truth-telling and progressive momentum. 

In one instance they crow about publishing an opinion piece “well before the 1967 referendum” from professor Jock Marshall “who urged basic rights for Indigenous Australians”.

“The Australian has always stood for impartial, independent thinking”, the paper boasts, saying of its editorials around the Vietnam War, “we opposed the war and our nation’s involvement in it”.

Here’s another piece of “impartial independent thinking” from The Australian’s rich history. This one is from last October, titled: “The Voice would promote Aboriginal ‘nation’ sovereignty”, and written by one of the highest paid people on the company payroll.

But, fuzzy nostalgia is fun, so let’s also look back – way back, to 1949, and a piece of US legislation called the Fairness Doctrine, which was passed into law in order to stop the possibility of NBC, ABC, and CBS using their collective broadcasting power to set a biased public agenda. 

The Fairness Doctrine “mandated broadcast networks devote time to contrasting views on issues of public importance” and was called the “single most important requirement of operation in the public interest” by the Federal Communications Council in the 1970s. It stopped crazy one-sided media outlets from rising. You’ll note I used the past tense there.

By the 1980s Rupert Murdoch had amassed quite a bit of media control in the US, and was building a fourth media company from various pieces bought from around America. He used his growing media empire to endorse a brash, orange-face presidential candidate named Ronald Reagan (who did you think I meant?) who won, and whose administration quickly repealed the Fairness Doctrine, with President Reagan vetoing any further congressional attempts to reinstate it.

As the LA Times put it, “Murdoch didn’t endorse Reagan for the good of the nation.” 

In 1986, Rupert Murdoch launched the Fox Network. The Fairness Doctrine was repelled in 1987. In 1988, Rush Limbaugh started his talk radio rise, unfiltered by any pesky laws. The stage was set for Fox News to launch in 1996.

That’s America, you might be arguing. But Fox News is responsible for over 70% of the entire company’s pre-tax profit – which funds all those Abbie Chatfield hit-pieces. It matters where the money comes from. That’s Miller’s entire point regarding social media. “They monetise misery.”

Speaking of orange faces, Miller also said Facebook “failed to curb misinformation before the January 6 Capitol Hill riots.”

Hang on there.

It is a matter of record that Rupert Murdoch personally advised Trump during his presidency, and indeed, waged an election campaign on his behalf. 

The New York Post endorsed Trump in the New York GOP presidential primary, saying “Trump offers hope”, among other platitudes. 

Then, once elected as President, Trump would field direct calls from Murdoch “at least once a week”, with the mogul also speaking weekly to Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kuschner. He advised Trump on matters such as interpersonal relationships and how often he tweets. 

In mid-November, 2020, Lachlan Murdoch told Fox News Media CEO Suzanne Scott that “Fox should do a ton of pro-Trump legacy specials on Fox Nation”, but support was slipping.

After Fox called Arizona for Biden, an angry Trump said on ‘Fox & Friends’ that the biggest difference between the 2016 and 2020 elections was “Fox”.

We know all this due to court documents released last year, that show how Murdoch piloted Trump into the White House, and reveal the internal panic as it careened out of their control and culminated in the January 6 insurrection.

We also know that two days after the Capitol attack, Fox executive Preston Padden sent Rupert an article from the Washington Post saying “the pro-Trump media world peddled the lies that fuelled the Capitol mob. Fox News led the way”, with an email stating: “I do think Fox News needs a course correction.”

Rupert wrote back: “Fox News very busy pivoting. We want to make Trump a nonperson.”

Rupert also called the January 6 riot a “wake-up call for [Fox host Sean] Hannity, who has been privately disgusted by Trump for weeks, but was scared to lose viewers.”

So, let’s leave January 6 out of this. 

Given the deep irony in most of what Miller said, it’s not surprising that the journalists on the ground during this Press Club address questioned some of the holier-than-thou sentiments.

An AAP journalist pointed out that News Corp’s reporting “caused women to be bullied”, rattling off Yassmin Abdel-Magied, Brittany Higgins and Antoinette Lattouf as examples. Miller said this reporting “raised issues”, before unleashing the following caveat-drenched statement of support. 

“I’d actually stand by a lot of our journalism and the positive impact it has and the advocacy we undertake.”

The humour of him ‘actually’ standing by “a lot” of the journalism aside, describing this reporting as “advocacy” is a bridge too far, while saying it had a net “positive impact” is like the bridge on the Rainbow Road Mario Kart level too far.

An SBS journo brought up News Corp’s Voice reporting, while Crikey asked about the zero taxes paid by News Corp in Australia. Now, Crikey’s Daanyal Saeed felt that Miller dodged the question, by saying News Corp Australia had “no issues with the tax department”. 

I’d say his answer spoke volumes, namely: if the tax dodge is legal, then the taxman is happy. If it’s legal to pay zero tax in a country where you extracted $1.4 billion in profits last financial year, then everything is okay. Forget the hundreds of millions that could benefit the Australian people who your news services purport to serve. The tax man is happy. The shareholders are happy. The country is on fire.

Someone at the Press Club address even said, of Rupert Murdoch: “I couldn’t think of a single human being in the 300,000-year history of the species who’d done more collective damage to our sense of reality.”

Oh wait, that wasn’t at the Press Club – that was Prince Harry, writing in his book Spare, after calling Murdoch’s politics “just to the right of the Taliban’s”.

As with any major media organisation, the people who do the actual work are great.

I know many, many people who have passed through News Corp’s various media arms over the years. I have written dozens of articles for news.com.au over the years, and worked for Foxtel’s music channels back when such a phrase exists. Basically, if you want to work in mainstream media in Australia, you have a handful of companies to choose from, each flawed and fucked in their own special way, which is to say in the same way all corporations are. All pyramids are built by slaves, after all. 

But, if the Australians recent 60th anniversary praise chorus only serves to illustrate how backwards the paper has slid over six decades, the fact that News Corp Australia is in the middle of its biggest restructuring in years – possibly ever – means we could also see a realignment of how the company acts in the world.

This ‘social license’ that Miller touts as being vital for social media companies is far more vital for the country’s largest news media organisation.

So, I’m going to take Miller at face value and ask that he holds News Corp Australia to the same social license he expects a social media giant or an 18-year-old student to abide by.  They are rebuilding, reshaping, rehiring – and hopefully repairing. 

It’s not too late – and as those insurance ads you serve around troubling TikTok videos explain all too clearly: “Past performance is no guarantee of future results.”

The pandemic taught us that everyone loves a good pivot. And bad behaviour is such old news.

Enjoy your long weekend.



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