You dont get many better examples of the problem that come with a highly concentrated media industry than the way the media empires of Rupert Murdoch and kerry Packer have covered Prime Minister John Howard over the past few weeks.
YOU don’t get many better examples of the problems that come with a highly concentrated media industry than the way the media empires of Rupert Murdoch and Kerry Packer have covered Prime Minister John Howard over the past few weeks.

One of the reasons we have set up Crikey is that so much of our media is not genuine balanced news reporting but rather a reflection of the corporate interests of media owners such as Murdoch and Packer.

I worked for Murdoch for seven years as a finance reporter, business editor and, briefly, as chief of staff of the Sydney Daily Telegraph. This gave me a special insight into how Murdoch’s Australian tabloids behave.

Murdoch Out For Howard’s Blood

It is a statement of the bleeding obvious that the Murdoch press has given Howard a much tougher run since the digital policy package went against and in favour of Kerry Packer and the other free to air networks late last year. Rupert has considerable experience when it comes to using his papers for political mileage. The Murdoch tabloids backed Howard to the hilt before the election giving the GST a very easy run. When this made no apparent difference to the digital decision, the Murdoch tabloids suddenly turned on the Howard government. A quick skim through the January editions paints a pretty clear picture.

Carr Deals With Murdoch And Telegraph Backs Carr

Having been chief of staff during the last NSW election, I saw the Telegraph give Bob Carr a pretty easy ride despite chronic financial mismanagement and ill-discipline in his government. As the COS I probably should have pushed it harder because a quick read of the paper’s coverage during the previous state election in 1995 showed it did a much more comprehensive job then. Unlike Carr, Liberal leader Kerry Chikarovski got a pretty ordinary run and Col used to make jokes about the pains of having lunch with her. Contrast this with his close friendship with Bob Carr and the fact he had dinner with him on the Thursday before the election. Col would also deliberately starve Chikarovski of oxygen with minimal or negative coverage whenever the Sydney Morning Herald got an inside run from the Opposition. This was to teach her chief of staff, Luis M Garcia, a lesson for giving stories to his former employer ahead of the Telegraph.

So what did Carr do for Murdoch in a corporate sense? Well, to start with, Bob Carr gifted News Corp the Sydney showgrounds site on a peppercorn rent for his Fox Studios when former Premier John Fahey had been reluctant to do so. And then the Carr government agreed the then state-controlled TAB Ltd would buy Sky Channel from Murdoch and Packer at a lofty price of $260 million. Murdoch had bought his half share from Packer for about $50 million in 1995. It would be a big call to bluntly state that this is why the Telegraph did not seriously examine Carr’s Kirneresque financial policies, blowouts at WorkCover, scandals in the electricity industry and union featherbedding right through the public sector. Some if it is pretty boring, technical stuff for a tabloid but it is important nonetheless. The contrast could not be starker between Col’s relatively soft treatment of Carr and Piers Ackerman’s rabid Herald Sun campaign against Joan Kirner in 1992. Both were Murdoch tabloids and the editorial stands probably reflected the natural political leanings of the two editors AND the sympathies of Rupert Murdoch at the time.

Then again, Kerry Chikarovski was hardly an inspirational alternative, particularly when she promised to outspend Carr in a reckless fashion.

Howard And Packer

The Howard/Packer relationship appears to be one of mutual benefit that goes back several years when Packer fell out with Paul Keating after saying on A Current Affair that Howard would make an excellent prime minister. Keating publicly accused Howard and Packer of doing a secret deal and it was true that Howard as Prime Minister attempted to deliver Fairfax into the hands of Kerry Packer before the ill-considered changes mooted for our media laws were shouted down.

Packer again publicly endorsed Howard during the last election campaign and the two were photographed together at a Liberal Party fundraiser where Packer said Labor deserved “a few more years in the wilderness”.

Telegraph Delivers Howard Power

Kim Beazley’s policy platform was so Whitlamesque that News Ltd papers backed Howard – the theory being that the economy would perform much better under Howard’s tax reform package. Howard rang Daily Telegraph editor Col Allan two days after the election and said he’d won it for him with his election day front page splash: “LABOR SET TO SEIZE POWER” Two key western Sydney marginal seats were retained by the Opposition after this reverse psychology headline in which Col later told me he deliberately used the word seize to create the impression of Labor grabbing something they weren’t entitled to.

Allan and Piers Ackerman were both guests of Howard’s at his election thank you dinner in Woollahra, not far from Paul Keating’s $2.3 million mansion, a few nights later.

When you work as a section editor for Murdoch, you learn to second guess and anticipate his agenda and produce pages accordingly. So it would not necessarily be a directive from Lachlan that is driving the rabidly anti-Howard coverage in the Murdoch press. Everyone from Col Allan to Terry McCrann to The Australian’s editorial writers are joining in at the moment.

Howard’s Son Dragged Into Dispute

The story which most infuriated the PM was the Daily Telegraph’s January 18 front page headline “PM’s son in death house: Police probe university students’ party”. He spent an hour lecturing new Telegraph editor Steve Howard the following day but Howard the editor would just have been dutifully following riding instructions from Col Allan, who is now editor in chief.

The irony of this story is that it was a follow up of Channel Nine’s 6pm news the previous evening. Col is rabidly against following up television stories and is still running an almighty feud against Channel Nine in Sydney after Peter Stirling rubbished the Telegraph on The Footy Show.

Col made an exception with Deborah Cornwell’s “death party” story which Nine ran late in the bulletin and had held for several days. Interestingly, Nine also apparently underplayed the Howard connection. So while the Packer TV station treated the PM’s son with kid gloves, The Telegraph lifted its ban on doing television follow ups to give it the full treatment the next morning.

Packer’s Bulletin Alleges Murdoch Conspiracy

The behaviour of both camps demonstrate their current political agendas which are largely driven by their commercial goals in the television market. Packer’s Bulletin followed up with a cover story last week headlined “The Murdoch Conspiracy” in which editor in chief Max Walsh, possibly after a discussion with one or both of the Packers, alleged there was a conspiracy which we are alluding to here. Max stretched the argument a bit in suggesting that News Ltd editorial executives holding options were trying to enrich themselves. Very few Murdoch executives get options and digital TV in Australia wouldn’t move the share price of a $90 billion company anyway.

Walsh refers in his article to an “optioned-up” News Ltd lobbyist who was heard on the night of the digital decision muttering at the National Press Club in Canberra that “we will get little Johnny Howard”. This would be highly ironic if he is referring to Graham Morris, the News Ltd lobbyist on $500,000 a year who was John Howard’s best mate until being sacked as his chief of staff amid the travel rorts scandals in 1997. However, I don’t know for sure that is was Morris and he has since denied it but announced his departure from News Ltd.

The Packers are slightly less overt with their political allegiances than the Murdochs who regularly get out the jackboots. Look no further than what Ackerman did to Joan Kirner in 1991 and 1992. The Murdoch press was almost as hysterical in 1972 against Liberal PM Billy McMahon and in 1975 also campaigned hard against Gough Whitlam.

Murdoch Flexes His Muscles In Uk And US Too

When Murdoch backs a politician he doesn’t pull any punches. His support for Margaret Thatcher in Britain during the 1980s knew no bounds. Thatcher enabled him to turn the London Sun into a cash machine when he became the first employer to take full advantage of Britain’s new industrial laws to smash the print unions in a famous and bloody battle. On the morning of John Major’s only election victory, The Sun also famously ran a picture of Labor leader Neil Kinnock’s head in a light bulb under the headline: “IF LABOR WINS THE ELECTION WILL THE LAST PERSON LEAVING BRITAIN PLEASE TURN OUT THE LIGHTS”.

If that wasn’t enough, the standard page three girl was replaced with an ugly frump under the headline that went along the lines of: “THIS IS WHAT A PAGE THREE GIRL WOULD LOOK LIKE IF LABOR WON THE ELECTION”.

Across the Atlantic, Murdoch’s New York Post has been equally vociferous in its support for go-getting Republican Mayor Rudy Guilliani. Watch for this to materialise in Rudy’s upcoming Senate contest with Hilary Clinton. There is no other media mogul in the world who chooses to exercise political power like Murdoch and it would appear Howard is simply the latest of many targets.

He Does It In China Too

Witness the amazing support Murdoch gives to the Chinese government. The Australian’s editor in chief David Armstrong and International Editor Paul Kelly were recently featured on the front page of the Communist Government’s People’s Daily being quoted saying the Chinese leadership would be most welcome in Australian during a visit a few weeks later. Murdoch publicly attacked the Dalai Lama saying some cynics refer to him as a “a very political old monk shuffling around in Gucci shoes”.

Murdoch’s book publishing arm, Harper Collins, also cancelled a publishing contract with John Patton, the last British governor of Hong Kong, allegedly because it would have upset the Chinese government. Then there is the issue of Murdoch’s Asian satellite broadcasting company STAR TV throwing the BBC off its Chinese service.

I asked Rupert Murdoch about all of these issue at the News Corp AGM in November last year in one omnibus question as to why he was sucking up to the Chinese government to such as extraordinary degree. In response he denied using the Australian’s editorial policy for commercial gains and said he wasn’t prepared to pay the BBC $10 million a year when they were trying to destroy his business in Britain. The Dalai Lama criticisms and Patten’s book contract were not addressed.

Packer A Serial Political Backer As Well

Kerry Packer has been using his media outlets for political gain for almost three decades now. Who could forget the famous NSW by-election in which the local Packer-owned paper carried an editorial written by Neville Wran’s then staffer Peter Barron. Not surprisingly it warmly endorsed Wran and he won the by-election and clung onto power. This happened not long after Wran helped Packer get the lights installed at the SCG during his battle with the cricket establishment over World Series Cricket.

Paul Barry’s excellent book The Rise and Rise of Kerry Packer also details numerous examples of Bob Hawke opting for media policy which tended to favour our richest man. Packer publicly endorsed Hawke during the 80s which naturally had nothing to do with the fact that the taxpayers took a huge bath in satellite company Aussat which Channel Nine was delighted to make good use of without owning.

Former NSW Liberal Premier John Fahey complained that one of Packer’s magazines carried a scathing article on him shortly before the 1995 election which was won by former Bulletin journalist Bob Carr. The anti-Fahey story was written by a Packer journalist who Fahey had never met. There were also plenty of consternation in the ranks of the Victorian ALP when Jeff Kennett got two free kicks on Burke’s Back Yard during the recent state election whilst Steve Bracks got thoroughly done over by the Sunday program for alleged branch stacking problems in the ALP which didn’t have much to do with him. Paul Lyneham saved Nine’s neck with a critical piece on Kennett for 60 Minutes on the Sunday before the election.

Too Much Power Lets The Moguls Get Away With It

Because there are so few media players in Australia, the big boys think they can get away with this sort of intimidation. Paul Keating and Bob Hawke let Rupert buy the Liberal-leaning Herald & Weekly Times in 1987 – a move that gave him 65 per cent of the national newspaper market. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Rupert was forced to sell off half his newspapers to allow a new competitor into the market. And what about if Kerry Packer was forced to sell his magazine empire to a new player. You then wouldn’t get the situation where Nine goes comparatively soft on the PM and then the Bulletin backs it up by alleging a Murdoch conspiracy for going in too hard. Packer is currently suing the Sydney Morning Herald and Fairfax chief executive Fred Hilmer personally. Whenever this happens a paper will usually be extra cautious about what is said about that litigant while the case runs. So don’t expect to see too many really tougb Packer pieces in the Fairfax press over the next little while.

Pathetic Media Regulation

The professional survival of Alan Jones and John Laws on 2UE is perhaps the best example of how weak Australia’s media watchdogs are. The same goes for the way Murdoch and Packer play the politicians. There is no independent body with any serious teeth that a politician or someone else could complain to if they were being treated extra harshly. And media consumers tend not to really care because there are not a lot of places to turn. In an ideal world the Murdoch tabloids would start losing serious sales and receive a torrent of abuse from their readers when they so overtly take an editorial line that reflects the group’s commercial interests. But the readers don’t really care and life goes on. At least these days there is a new medium known as the net. If any readers of the Murdoch press actually read this, try sending a letter to the paper complaining about this apparent about-face on the GST and the intrusive treatment of John Howard’s son. Remind them that they are a “news” paper and should treat news stories on their merits. In the case of the Prime Minister bailing out his brother’s firm, there is enough substance there for it to run for weeks without going to the extent of writing editorials in The Australian suggesting the PM could be perceived as corrupt. Maybe John Howard should abandon his long held and admirable policy of not suing just to let them know there is a line they should not cross.

Peter Fray

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