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Could an editors’ meeting in California explain the spring in Tony Abbott’s step?

WAS it any real surprise that last week’s polls indicated the Gillard government got little or no bounce out of its latest budget? After all, if you relied on the biggest-selling daily newspapers for your reporting and analysis, the budget was a direct assault on the Australian way of life and family unit.

‘‘Work hard, pay more,’’ screamed the Herald Sun’s post-budget special edition. Its Sydney counterpart, The Daily Telegraph, maintained the theme with ‘‘It’s a bit rich - Swan pickpockets families on $150,000’‘.

They were certainly livelier than the traditional ‘‘Beer, cigs up’’ headlines, but they were also a long way from the truth.

The budget didn’t attack family benefits in the manner the two papers suggested. At most, there were a few minor tweaks that by some estimates would cost recipients $30 a year, tops.

The attacks didn’t stop there though, with Labor’s carbon tax and flood levy both singled out for criticism. No wonder most voters thought they’d be worse off, with only 11 per cent saying they’d be better off and 41 per cent saying they’d go backwards, according to Newspoll.

Budgets are pretty dull affairs for mass-market tabloids, used to selling on the back of strong emotions such as anger, envy and greed. While accountants, economists and masochists might find the budget papers attractive, they’re devoid of emotion, which is why tabloid editors try to inject as much as they can.

So it’s not entirely surprising the country’s biggest-selling dailies would seek to portray it as a heartless document that disadvantaged families, even those earning $150,000 a year.

That’s one explanation for the approach taken by the News Limited papers. The other is much more politically significant: that Rupert Murdoch has let it be known within his organisation that Australia needs change in Canberra and his editors were simply doing his bidding.

Certainly there’s a growing paranoia within Labor circles and elsewhere that the Murdoch press is against them and there’s little or nothing that can be done to change that. Given News controls about 70 per cent of Australian newspapers, which, in turn, feed talkback radio and evening news bulletins, that’s a fight most politicians want to avoid.

Not Bob Brown though, it seems. The Greens leader last week took aim at the Murdoch press, in particular The Australian. ‘‘I think the Murdoch media is doing a great disservice to this nation in perhaps the most important debate of the century so far, which is how we tackle climate change,’’ Brown said. ‘‘Its negativity and its scepticism do need to be tackled because, you know, we need news in our papers but we’re getting opinion far too much.’‘

Brown and other conspiracy theorists might have a point, particularly when they consider this: just days before the overwhelmingly negative coverage of the budget by News outlets, Murdoch and his most senior Australian editors and columnists gathered in California for one of his semi-regular confabs on the state of his media business.

The 80-year-old News Corp mogul keeps a weekender just outside the millionaires’ coastal enclave of Carmel, which once elected Clint Eastwood as its mayor. The Murdoch estate, roughly the size of a small European principality, stretches through rolling hills and valleys.

If the conspiracy theorists are right, it would have been here or at a local resort he sometimes uses for such conferences that the word went out - it’s Tony’s time now. This is not entirely fanciful. Indeed, Murdoch let it be known within News after dining with Abbott late last year that he liked the Liberal leader and what he represented. Perhaps he merely amplified this in California. Maybe he went further and that, in turn, fuelled the budget and carbon tax coverage.

Either way, it certainly wouldn’t have been a direction. That’s not Murdoch’s style. It would more likely have been an observation expressed by him or a lieutenant during or after dinner or at a coffee break between sessions. His editors, better than most at reading the wind, would have noted the boss’s latest leanings and applied this knowledge at the first opportunity - many of them would have arrived back in Australia the morning of the budget lock-up. Of course, it would be open to an editor to ignore the boss’s preferences, but as I discovered, that can sometimes come at a cost.

Either way, it seems increasingly apparent that Labor and the Greens are going to be facing a largely hostile popular press between now and any election. Bob Brown clearly senses this and I suspect Julia Gillard does too. Meanwhile, it looks just as obvious that Tony Abbott has Rupert Murdoch in his corner. No wonder the Liberal leader has a spring in his step - the News boss is not in the habit of backing losers.

Bruce Guthrie is a former editor of The Age, The Sunday Age and Herald Sun, and is the author of Man Bites Murdoch.

Read more: http://www.smh.com.au/national/mogul-in-the-corner-20110521-1exun.html#ixzz1N2Dcekl4

Ed: News does have form: Murdoch’s War, HERE
Earlier Bruce Guthrie: How to be a Murdoch man