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Turnbull tells Senate inquiry Rupert Murdoch admitted ‘crazy agenda’ to restore Abbott as leader

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Amanda Meade
·5 min read
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Rupert Murdoch “acknowledged” that his media outlets were running a “crazy agenda” against the Malcolm Turnbull-led government so they could install Tony Abbott as leader again, Turnbull has told a Senate inquiry.

The former prime minister said when he was leader of the Liberal party he regularly asked Rupert why his stable, including Sky News Australia and the Australian, campaigned against him. Turnbull claims the News Corporation executive chairman admitted there was a Lachlan Murdoch-backed plan to damage his leadership so he lost the 2019 election in order to return Abbott as leader for a future 2022 election win.

Related: Turnbull blames 'rightwing media' for dumping from NSW climate change board

“There was this crazy agenda that Rupert acknowledged to me that was the push by [News Corp editor] Paul Whittaker, and apparently with Lachlan’s support, which was that my leadership should be overthrown or damaged so that we would lose the 2019 election and Tony Abbott could come back as opposition leader and then return us to glorious victory in 2022,” Turnbull told the media diversity inquiry.

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“Now this sounds completely unhinged, and it may well be so, but there is no doubt that that was being undertaken and I had a direct conversation with Rupert about it which [former editor of the Australian] Clive Mathieson, my chief-of-staff, was a witness [to] and took very good notes.”

Turnbull, who first met Rupert in 1974, said the media mogul “tends to sidestep conversations” which are difficult, such as climate change denial, but he did discuss the campaign with him.

Turnbull said he asked Rupert: “Why are you allowing this campaign against me and my government to continue? The only winner of this is going to be our opponents, the Labor party.”

Turnbull was reportedly warned in a phone call from media mogul Kerry Stokes that Murdoch and his company were intent on removing him from power, although Stokes has denied this.

News Corp dismissed Turnbull’s claims of interference as “speculation and conspiracy” when he made them in his memoir, A Bigger Picture, last year.

“I know what he said to Stokes,” Turnbull said. “And of course we saw what they were doing [in the papers]. There’s crazy stuff here but, equally, look at the United States – could you really have imagined that a major cable news network would have credited the proposition that Joe Biden had stolen the election?”

Turnbull told the committee that News Corp had evolved from a reasonable media organisation into a highly partisan one which is a danger to democracy. “The most powerful political actor in Australia is not the Liberal party or the National party or the Labor party, it is News Corporation,” he said.

“And it is utterly unaccountable. It is controlled by an American family and their interests are no longer, if they ever were, coextensive with our own.”

Turnbull said the company is so powerful it can force a government minister to say he was not leaned on by News Corp when he backflipped on a decision after a media campaign. He claimed last week that the NSW environment minister, Matt Kean, was influenced by a “concerted and ferocious” News Corp campaign after it reversed his appointment to lead a new climate change body.

“This is like somebody who is taken down to the police station, beaten over the head until they finally sign a fake confession, the last line of which says: ‘I confirm that I did so of my own free will.’”

Kean denied the claim, saying it is “not based in reality”. “I made the decision to appoint him, and I made the decision to withdraw or rescind the nomination,” Kean told Sky News.

News Corporation’s share of the metropolitan and regional print readership is 59%, up from 25% in 1984, according to a new media diversity report commissioned by GetUp. In second place is Nine Entertainment with a combined 23% readership share.

News Corp executive chairman, Michael Miller, previously told the inquiry that diversity “is not just about ownership”.

“It’s about the diversity of views and diversity of sources,” Miller said in February. “And importantly, the incredible diversity in the way people now access news and information.”

Related: 'Insensitive response': Scott Morrison apologises over News Corp harassment claim

Facebook executives told the inquiry they are focused on finalising deals with Australian news publishers under the news media code and will soon announce a project for regional news media too.

While they wouldn’t reveal the amount paid to the six media organisations who have already signed up for the Facebook News commercial deals, it was in the “tens of millions” for three-year deals.

The company denied it tried to influence the Australian parliament by removing news from Facebook and downplayed the importance of news to the platform.

“Only around 4% of News Feed is news,” the vice-president of policy, Simon Milne, said. “A very small proportion is news. We are not paying for news in News Feed, we are creating a new product.”

Turnbull was highly critical of the Google and Facebook deals, saying they were effectively a “shakedown” of Google and Facebook, and media organisations would be better supported by a tax on the digital platforms.

Former Murdoch editor Bruce Guthrie, who now runs the New Daily, has told the inquiry News Corp’s power has grown and it is “ludicrous” that an American millionaire can own 60% of the print market.

Guthrie said both News Corp and Nine Entertainment regularly took pot shots at the New Daily for being owned by the super funds in what was an attack on media diversity.

News Corp has been approached for comment on Turnbull’s claims.