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Scandals at newspapers owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp have sparked debate over how much influence they hold in Britain. But the media conglomerate casts an even greater shadow in Murdoch's native Australia. News Corp. produces a majority of all newspapers sold there. Among the Murdoch titles is the country's only national general interest newspaper, the Australian. In this second part of a series, NPR's David Folkenflik reports on The Australian's outsize influence.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Robert Manne is one of Australia's preeminent public intellectuals and journalists. And he tells me the first thing to know about The Australian.
ROBERT MANNE: It is, by far, the most detailed paper in regard to national politics. And it's also at a higher level of analysis, in general, than the other papers.
FOLKENFLIK: It's smarter?
MANNE: Smarter. Yeah. Sharper.
FOLKENFLIK: Manne shares a second key.
MANNE: The Australian has the personal support of Rupert Murdoch. Everyone knows it. He created the paper. He's incredibly proud of it as one of his creations.
FOLKENFLIK: And then there's a third component: The Australian is not just a chronicler, but a player in national politics. It has no peer.
Under Chris Mitchell, the paper's editor for the past nine years, The Australian favored smaller government with less regulation of business, supported the invasion of Iraq, was skeptical of increased immigration and was actively concerned with issues affecting Aboriginals.
Those stances drive news coverage, not just editorials. And The Australian greatly influences not only News Corp.'s other papers, but debate on talk radio, blogs and TV - including News Corp.'s Sky News Australia.
James Chessell meets me in the gleaming lobby of a hotel in downtown Sydney. He's a former business and media reporter for The Australian, with admiration for his former editor Chris Mitchell.
JAMES CHESSELL: And I think he was pretty successful about putting out a paper that stood for something. You might not agree with it, but you knew where The Australian stood on a range of issues.
FOLKENFLIK: Chessell is now deputy business editor at the Australian Financial Review, a publication of the rival Fairfax Media Company. He says critics are wrong to attribute The Australian's editorial choices to meddling by Rupert Murdoch.
But he says it's more accurate to say...
CHESSELL: You know, someone's probably not going to edit The Australian or The Daily Telegraph in Sydney if they haven't risen up through News and aren't sort of enmeshed in the culture and probably don't have similar views to other people at News.
FOLKENFLIK: News meaning News Limited, the company's Australian newspaper wing.
The Murdoch papers have been hammering away at Labor Prime Minister Julia Gillard and her Green Party allies. And some officials ascribe a sinister intent, as the communications minister, Stephen Conroy, did last summer.
STEPHEN CONROY: Well, I mean, you should start from the basis The Australian don't bother reporting news anymore. They're engaged in regime change.
FOLKENFLIK: Regime change. Andrew Jaspan is past editor-in-chief of The Melbourne Age, a Fairfax paper which is seen as more sympathetic to Labor. As we speak at a café, he says aggrieved politicians never like tough coverage, but this time they may have a point.
ANDREW JASPAN: There is constant scrutiny of the Labor Party by The Australian, which at times is not just forensic, it actually becomes quite caustic. It's quite corrosive.
FOLKENFLIK: The governing Labor Party has suffered from infighting and policy reversals, and its popularity has dropped sharply in the polls. But Jaspan notes that Australia has fared better than just about any industrialized society during the global financial crisis. You'd never know that, he says, from The Australian or its sister papers.
JASPAN: I think the key role of the newspapers is to do two things: One is to set the tone for debate. And the second one is to act as attack dogs. When politicians or policies are put forward that they disagree with, they go in very hard on those.
FOLKENFLIK: The Australian is not strictly partisan. In fact, it supported the rise of former Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd before a falling-out.
Murdoch and his executives and journalists there declined to be interviewed by NPR.
Even 10,000 miles away, News Limited executives are still dealing with the repercussions of newspaper scandals in London that revealed the hold the Murdoch press had over public officials there. At the scandal's height, last July, John Hartigan, then CEO and chairman of News Limited, talked to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Do your newspapers in Australia bully politicians or officials in that manner?
JOHN HARTIGAN: Look, I think we take them to their official capacity and responsibilities. I don't believe that we ever overstep. Yes, it's a love-hate relationship, and sometimes it's loving and sometimes it's very hateful. But I don't think, generally speaking, that we exceed our authority.
FOLKENFLIK: Politicians from both major Australian parties have granted News Corp. key concessions, but the company doesn't always get what it wants. Its cable TV division has notably failed to win exclusive rights to broadcast rugby and Australian football. But journalists say the paper exacts a toll on those who oppose News Limited too vehemently.
Robert Manne was once a favorite of the political right, as an anti-communist magazine editor. No more. Last fall, Manne took aim at The Australian with a lengthy critique. And The Australian fired back.
MANNE: I calculated, at a certain point, they published within about two or three weeks, 40,000 words of response. Every senior journalist, almost, had two or three thousand words trying to take me down, including the editor himself, Chris Mitchell.
FOLKENFLIK: Manne seemed stupefied by the ferocity.
MANNE: They essentially said I'd lost my mind, that I was insane, and that I was a narcissist; that I had a series of personal agendas which were driving me on.
FOLKENFLIK: Other journalists say the message was clear: Don't cross The Australian.
David Folkenflik, NPR News.
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