Turnbull lodged complaint with Murdoch over coverage in last days of his prime ministership
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Turnbull lodged complaint with Murdoch over coverage in last days of his prime ministership

Former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull spoke to News Corp executive chairman Rupert Murdoch two days before last month’s Liberal Party leadership spill, urging the media mogul to stop a campaign against him.

Mr Turnbull challenged Mr Murdoch over the coverage of his government in News Corp newspapers and its Sky News television channel, arguing the media company was intensifying the leadership turmoil.

Fairfax Media has been told Mr Murdoch played down his part in fuelling the leadership speculation, saying it was primarily a matter for his son Lachlan, who is his co-chairman and a stronger presence in the company’s Australian operations.

Power and influence: Media moguls Rupert Murdoch, Kerry Stokes and Lachlan Murdoch, and former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull.

Power and influence: Media moguls Rupert Murdoch, Kerry Stokes and Lachlan Murdoch, and former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull.Credit:Bloomberg, AAP, Alex Ellinghausen

Only later, according to sources familiar with the conversations, did Mr Turnbull learn of a private discussion in which Mr Murdoch told fellow media mogul Kerry Stokes that the government leadership had to change.

"Malcolm has got to go," Mr Murdoch is said to have told Mr Stokes, the chairman of Seven West Media, in a conversation during the lead-up to the crisis, according to several people who learned of the remark.

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The comment is now the centre of a ferocious dispute over media power in Australia, with sources at Seven West Media disputing accounts of the conversation while News Corp rejects accusations of bias.

Mr Stokes told Fairfax Media he did not interfere with editorial opinions at Seven West outlets despite a report by the ABC on Tuesday night about the conversations between the media proprietors.

"The ABC’s headline asked what did I have to do with the Liberal leadership spill. The answer is absolutely nothing," Mr Stokes said.

"I do not enter into speculative political gossip nor interfere with editorial opinions.

"The ABC was wrong in asserting that The West Australian backed Scott Morrison at my direction. That is not the way I operate.

"Furthermore, the characterisation and supposed details of the private conversations assigned to me are wrong."

Those around Mr Turnbull laid some of the blame on News Corp editors as well as Sky News commentators such as Peta Credlin, and 2GB hosts Alan Jones and Ray Hadley.

Those around Mr Turnbull laid some of the blame on News Corp editors as well as Sky News commentators such as Peta Credlin, and 2GB hosts Alan Jones and Ray Hadley.Credit:Fairfax Media

The conversations go to the heart of the media coverage of the chaos in Parliament before the final ballot, with Mr Murdoch apparently convinced the leadership spill was needed while Mr Stokes believed Mr Turnbull should stay.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison dismissed the issue on Wednesday when asked by the ABC whether it was right for the media proprietors to play a "heavy hand" in the leadership spill.

"I don’t think it happened," Mr Morrison said.

"I don’t believe it happened at all, and you’d think I’d know, given I was involved."

But Fairfax Media has been told that Mr Turnbull and Mr Stokes spoke several times around the time of the first leadership ballot on Tuesday, August 21, and the final vote to remove Mr Turnbull on Friday, August 24.

Failed leadership contender Peter Dutton at Parliament House on Wednesday.

Failed leadership contender Peter Dutton at Parliament House on Wednesday.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

Several sources have also confirmed the conversation between Mr Turnbull and Mr Murdoch.

The role of the media was a major concern for Mr Turnbull as he and his supporters tried to counter Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton.

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News Corp general manager Liz Deegan disputed the account of the conversation between Mr Murdoch and Mr Stokes reported by The Australian Financial Review on Tuesday and by ABC political editor Andrew Probyn later the same day.

"The ABC and AFR reporting is merely that – speculation and conspiracy," Ms Deegan said.

The phone conversation between Mr Turnbull and Mr Murdoch took place on Wednesday, August 22, one day after the first ballot amid widespread expectations that Mr Dutton would launch a second strike.

The discussion was the result of several days of organisation on both sides to set up the time for the call.

News Corp coverage had been a significant factor in the days before the spill, with The Daily Telegraph reporting on Friday, August 17, that conservative MPs were urging Mr Dutton to mount a challenge.

Mr Dutton responded with almost 24 hours of silence after the report appeared, while Mr Turnbull and Finance Minister Mathias Cormann worked behind the scenes to get him to issue a public statement of loyalty.

News Corp publications were not alone in reporting the pressure on Mr Turnbull, with Fairfax Media revealing "Dutton set to strike" on Monday, August 20.

Those around Mr Turnbull laid some of the blame for the leadership unrest on News Corp editors as well as Sky News commentators such as Peta Credlin, the former chief of staff to former prime minister Tony Abbott.

Mr Turnbull did not single out News Corp, however, and also blamed radio hosts Alan Jones and Ray Hadley of 2GB, a radio station controlled by Fairfax Media, the publisher of this newspaper.

"The reality is that a minority in the party room supported by others outside the Parliament have sought to bully, intimidate others into making this change of leadership that they're seeking," Mr Turnbull said on the day before the final ballot.

"It’s been described by many people, including those who feel they cannot resist it, as a form of madness."

Jones has admitted calling Liberal MPs to urge them to vote against Mr Turnbull.

One Liberal backbencher, Warren Entsch, last week described the messages from media commentators as an "absolute disgrace" and said he had seen some of the texts to his colleagues.

News Corp columnist Chris Kenny, of The Australian and Sky News, blasted the "far-fetched" claims that Mr Murdoch "directed the dispensing of a prime minister" through his newspapers and pay-TV channel.

While Mr Kenny cited editorials in The Australian as proof the paper did not campaign to remove Mr Turnbull, others pointed to relentless criticism in news stories and opinion pieces to build pressure on the then prime minister.

One observer said it was the "oldest trick in the book" to quote editorials that few readers ever noticed.

"The damage you do on the front page is not outweighed by what you bury on page 13," he said.

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Former prime minister Kevin Rudd seized on the ABC report to call for a royal commission into Mr Murdoch’s influence.

"Turns out there may be more to all this than Murdoch wants us to know," Mr Rudd tweeted.

"Murdoch ran a vicious campaign in 2013 to elect Abbott. Same in 2018 for Dutton/Morrison."

This triggered a response from Andrew Butcher, who was the chief News Corp spokesman in New York in 2007 when Mr Rudd sought out a meeting with Mr Murdoch to convey the impression of approval for Labor.

Mr Butcher, who left News several years ago, said Mr Rudd had "absolutely cultivated" the media proprietor, as had other Labor figures such as Julia Gillard.