c.2013 New York Times News Service

c.2013 New York Times News Service

SYDNEY — A lot has happened since Col Allan, editor-in-chief of The New York Post, returned to Sydney to provide “extra editorial leadership” for Rupert Murdoch’s Australian newspapers.

Since then, the chief executive of News Corp. Australia has resigned, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was shown on the cover of Sydney’s leading tabloid in a Nazi uniform and the ruling Labor Party earned bipartisan jeers for accusing Murdoch of plotting to subvert the election.

It has been a busy three weeks.

News Corp. is the largest newspaper publisher in Australia, with a total audited circulation of 17.3 million newspapers, according to company figures — a 59 percent market share. (Its next closest competitor, Fairfax Media, had total audited distribution of 6.3 million papers for 22 percent of the market.) Given the reach of News Corp. papers — particularly The Daily Telegraph in Sydney and the flagship paper, The Australian — they are often credited with having an outsize role in the country’s politics.

They have been front-and-center in the current national election pitting Rudd and the Labor Party against the Liberal Party led by Tony Abbott. The papers have run a string of scathing front-page editorials since Rudd called for elections last month. The decision to portray Rudd on the front page of The Daily Telegraph as Col. Klink from the 1965-71 television comedy “Hogan’s Heroes,” sporting a Nazi uniform and a monocle, raised eyebrows and led Rudd to publicly call out Murdoch over the coverage.

Murdoch has made it clear, Rudd told reporters last month, “that he doesn’t really like us, and would like to give us the old heave-ho,” adding, “I’m sure he sees it with crystal-clear clarity all the way from the United States.”

Although several Murdoch papers endorsed Rudd during his first successful run for the leadership in 2007, they quickly soured on his positions toward big business like a proposed tax on mining profits and an emissions trading scheme. The company was seen as instrumental in the media campaign that saw him ousted in a 2010 party coup amid record low approval ratings. Rudd returned to government in June after upheaval in the Labor Party.

One of the Labor government’s plans calls for a National Broadband Network that would deliver high-speed Internet access to wide swathes of the country, a service that would broadly compete with News Corp.’s subscription TV service, Foxtel, which remains the company’s most profitable Australian venture.

Polling data from a number of leading firms suggests that Rudd is trailing Abbott’s opposition Liberal-National coalition in the contest by a significant, but not overwhelming, margin.

Jonathan Holmes, a prominent media commentator on the Australian Broadcasting Corp., says the kind of tabloid treatment given to Rudd and the election has a greater impact because a single company’s papers are so dominant. They can effectively become, he said, a “political battering ram.”

“Behavior that would be completely OK in a genuinely pluralistic media environment is very much less OK in a market where you have such a dominant position,” he said in an interview.

But the politics are not restricted to the front pages of News Corp.’s papers. Less than two weeks after Allan arrived, Kim Williams, who was a senior executive at the Australian Broadcasting Corp. and Australian Film Commission before joining News Corp. more than a decade ago, resigned as the company’s Australia chief executive after just 18 months.


In a statement, Robert Thomson, global chief executive, said “Kim feels now is the right moment to leave the company, which he has served for two decades, following the successful implementation of the first stage of News Corp. Australia’s strategy to drive integration and improve efficiency, to invest in its editorial products and publishing system, and secure a path of growth in a multiplatform world.”

Williams was widely seen as a smart executive but one whose emphasis on data put him at odds with the brash, tabloid style of Australia’s papers. “They’re all running around saying, ‘This is a fantastic victory, we’ve saved newspapers,’” said a onetime News Corp. employee speaking on the condition of anonymity to avoid publicly criticizing former bosses. (News Corp. is so dominant in Australia’s newspapers that even some media analysts decline to speak publicly about the company.)


A spokesman for News Corp. Australia declined to make Allan or any other executives or editors available for comment. He requested that questions be submitted in writing, but those questions went unanswered.

This year, News Corp. divided its entertainment and publishing units into separate companies in an attempt to quarantine those profitable streams from its traditional newspaper businesses, which have been struggling to regain profitability. The Australian papers, like those elsewhere, are losing print readers and advertising revenue. Media analysts calculate that The Australian, the flagship national daily, has been losing $3 million a month, while other News Corp. Australia publications have been shedding circulation for some time.


“In the last 18 months, print advertising has nothing short of imploded. We’ve seen the worst declines in circulation numbers, the worst decline in advertising revenue numbers and these are published figures,” said a media analyst in Sydney speaking under the condition of anonymity in order to avoid being seen as publicly criticizing News Corp. executives.

“Unfortunately for Kim, he did preside over the worst declines ever seen in the newspaper industry. Now is that necessarily Kim’s fault? I don’t think so. I think everybody knows it wouldn’t have mattered who was in charge,” the analyst added.


The change is rich soil for rumor and several theories have emerged in the intense media scrutiny to explain both Allan’s unexpected return — he was previously editor in chief of Murdoch’s Sydney tabloid The Daily Telegraph — and Williams’ sudden departure.

Not everyone at the company, however, is buying into those gloomy assessments and theories.

“To be honest, I think that there are a lot of people who are putting two and two together and getting five,” Joe Hildebrand, a columnist at The Daily Telegraph, said in an interview.

The Australian newspapers certainly had a reputation for being tough on the government before Allan arrived. In March, The Daily Telegraph featured a front page in which Stephen Conroy, the information minister, was compared with Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and Fidel Castro. News Corp. newspapers were also relentless in their coverage of Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who was ousted in a party coup in June. In 2011, Gillard blasted News Corp. for publishing widely discredited claims about her conduct during a previous romantic relationship with a union official.

“If Rupert’s put Col here to try and make us go harder against the Labor government, quite frankly I don’t know how that is even possible,” Hildebrand added with a laugh.