When the Senate debate about Australia’s cross-media ownership laws was going down to the wire in June 2003, The Sydney Morning Herald refused to run a Paul Keating opinion piece which criticised Fairfax but Crikey was there to ensure it got a run, even if it was only the Senate hansard.

From the sealed section on June 25, 2003

Just when we thought diversity of opinion was alive and well at Fairfax, it appears that Fred Hilmer is refusing to run an opinion piece from Paul Keating that criticises the Fairfax CEO.

Word has seeped out of the Keating camp that the former PM is livid that Hilmer has refused to ventilate his take on events.

Given that Keating was the architect of the last great changes to media ownership laws in Australia, you’d think his views would be valued.

Crikey can bring you a sneak preview from what is a wonderful piece that Herald editors will hopefully develop some spine over and run in tomorrow’s paper. SMH opinion editor Julia Baird should stand up and be counted.

Keating writes: “And poor old Fred Hilmer is helping their (Murdoch and Packer) case. For all of Fairfax’s primacy in news and advertising, Fred thinks it has no future unless is owns a free to air television station. No new media for Fred, he would prefer to own a declining free to air television. Just like the clutch of newspapers he recently overpaid for in New Zealand.”

Crikey called the Keating office this morning and was emailed the following comment from the great man when we asked what he thought about Hilmer’s apparent censorship:

“I do not approve of material of this kind being handed to third parties, but that said, the very fact that this article has struck difficulty in being published proves the very point the article makes. That is, that a point of view which differs from the commercial interests of the three major commercial media players often won’t see the light of day and as the number of players gets smaller, the prospect of publication of views of this kind commensurately diminishes.”

The explosive response in the Senate later that day

Senator BROWN (Tasmania) (5.33 p.m.) —The Greens support the amendment because we are fearful that the bill will pass and that a constriction will be brought upon the ownership of the media through that process. The Greens would not concede anything from the existing legislation that would allow a concentration of media ownership. If we were confident that this bill was not going to pass—and we will be voting against it even if it is amended—we would not be supporting this amendment. But this amendment allows for a further concentration of media ownership. Let us make no mistake about that. It is not a freeing-up; it is a clamping-down. It does mean that, whereas previously in the big cities in particular you could not have a newspaper and a TV station, you could not have a TV station and a radio station, or you could not have a radio station and a newspaper, you now can have two of the three provided one of them is a radio station. That is what this amendment means. That is a very considerable concession to the enormous pressure to allow further aggregation of media ownership and, therefore, editorial narrowing. Therefore, it is a fearful amendment to me and to the Greens. The only greater fear is that the bill may pass without that amendment.

Well, how do you weigh up those things? The real crux of the debate is the aggregation and the constriction of media ownership in this country. It is worse than in almost any other comparable country. Therefore, Australians are not getting the variety of opinion and diversity of news, opinion and, I think, entertainment that we would get if there were a bigger diversity of ownership. That just stands to reason. In particular, control of the media by Mr Packer and Mr Murdoch is stultifying. Senator Murphy has just read the objects of the legislation again but last night the committee voted to remove the prohibition on foreign media ownership. That was an enormous breach of the objects of the legislation as it stands, which is to protect and extol the things that make us as Australians special in our own eyes, as all peoples everywhere do, and give us a sense of celebration about ourselves and our culture.

The argument against the legislation passing is very compelling indeed and there has been a lot of media comment about it. I think that it has even split media organisations but I have seen nothing but a preponderance of opinion coming from those who work in the media, particularly the news media, against this legislation. So I was interested today to indirectly read on Crikey.com, under the heading `Hilmer censors Paul Keating’:

Given that Keating was the architect of the last great changes to media ownership laws in Australia, you’d think his views would be valued.

Senator Mackay —You have just got free membership.

Senator BROWN —I will need some assistance with that, Senator. I would not accept it. It says: “Crikey can bring you a sneak preview from what is a wonderful piece that Sydney Morning Herald editors will hopefully develop some spine over and run in tomorrow’s paper. SMH opinion editor Julia Baird should stand up and be counted.”

It has a quote from what is said to be Mr Keating’s piece, and then it says:

“Crikey called the Keating office this morning and was emailed the following comment from the great man when we asked what he thought about Hilmer’s apparent censorship: `I do not approve of material of this kind being handed to third parties, but that said, the very fact that this article has struck difficulty in being published proves the very point the article makes. That is, that a point of view which differs from the commercial interests of the three major commercial media players often won’t see the light of day and as the number of players gets smaller, the prospect of publication of views of this kind commensurately diminishes’.”

We are genuinely dealing with an authority here and he is speaking about a very specific issue – that is, the ability to get opinion and, in his case, the opinion of a very recent and very highly regarded Prime Minister on an issue like this —

Senator Alston interjecting—

Senator BROWN —By your interjections, sadly for you—I do not think you know this—you are proving the point, which is that we have a right to a diversity of opinion in this country. You disagree with him and I did on many issues, but I absolutely agree with his point of view that he should be able to put his point of view out to the wider public where there are millions of Keating supporters in this country of ours. I have what is, I think, a copy of what Mr Keating wanted to say and, because it is very important to this debate, I will acquaint the committee with it. It says:

The censored Keating column in full

Eric Beecher is incorrect in arguing that a change to the cross media rules will simply make the media companies larger and more commercial and less focussed on editorial content.

This does not square even with the recent history of News Limited, where the mastheads of that organisation fell slavishly into line with the Group’s editorial view on the invasion of Iraq. The Fox news channel on Foxtel had the same line as the Sydney Daily Telegraph and The Australian. Ownership does matter.

Beecher asked `does anyone really believe either of the enlarged groups would harness its television stations alongside its newspapers as serious political propaganda tools?’ The real question is how could you not believe this? And how could you have been in the media as long as Beecher has, yet have such a wide-eyed view of what proprietors get up to?

An enlarged media company will align its television and its print whenever it suits it. Not every day but when it really counts. Look how Rupert Murdoch’s organisation cracked the whip in support of George Bush’s campaign against Iraq.

All News Corporation’s media outlets went flat out for it. And no reflection now about those missing weapons of mass destruction. Not a bit of it.

How naive would you need to be to believe that in the event that the Packer organisation acquired Fairfax, that John Alexander wouldn’t swoop, falcon-like, from Park Street to Darling Park to do to The Sydney Morning Herald that which he has recently done at Channel Nine. Including, where and when it was judged appropriate, decide the editorial line of the paper.

Anyone who believes that lines of editorial policy can be set separately for particular mastheads within a commonly owned group must believe in fairies at the bottom of the garden.

And all the nonsense about convergence is just that; nonsense. Everything is going digital so everything must go together. What claptrap. The Productivity Commission report of a couple of years ago put paid to that argument.

The crunch point is this. If Senator Alston succeeds in getting the Senate to agree to break the cross media rule and the television groups acquire Fairfax or News Corporation acquires free to air television, the diversity of our media goes backwards. Pretty simple. They get bigger; our range of news and opinion gets smaller.

If you live in Sydney would you really want John Alexander, or anyone in his position, deciding what The Sydney Morning Herald and Channel Nine should do conjointly. And if you didn’t like what they served up you could turn to The Daily Telegraph as the major alternative. Talk about Hobson’s choice.

Or in Melbourne; the Packer organisation could decide the editorial line of The Age and GTV 9; a one size fits all policy when it suits. `Give ’em what’s good for ’em’.

There is nothing draconian about the cross media rule. What it says is that the holder of a major television licence cannot own and control print in the same city. In other words, the public interest in diversity should prevail over pure commercial aggregation.

All the current campaign is about, is the government doing the bidding of PBL and News Limited. These companies wish to own things. Own more things. The rest of us are meant to roll over while they can more comprehensively tell us what we should think.

And poor old Fred Hilmer is helping their case. For all of Fairfax’s primacy in news and advertising, Fred thinks it has no future unless it owns a free to air television station. No new media for Fred; he would prefer to own a declining free to air television station. Just like the clutch of newspapers he recently overpaid for in New Zealand.

Fred, in advocating changes to the cross media rule thinks he is joining Kerry and Rupert in the media proprietors’ club. The difference is that each of them is long experienced and accomplished in the game of snatch and grab. Devouring a company or two before the main course has arrived. Fred would be still unfolding his napkin as the assets were swept off the table.

Senator Brown – I cannot vouch that this is actually Mr Keating’s piece, but it has the wit and acerbity there, and I congratulate the author if I am wrong. To get back to the piece—and I am nearly finished—it continues:

And while his mate Eric would be waiting expectantly in the foyer for news of what the other two let Fred have. It wouldn’t be a game it would be a shame.

A democracy functions by the formation of informed opinion; more particularly, by resort to diversity of opinion. A nation that crimps the diversity of its own news and comment, has a poor regard for its own rights and interests.

Australia is a continuing story of takeovers and amalgamations. In this country, the number of institutions shrink rather than expand. This should not be allowed to happen with the major media companies and their respective organs. If Fairfax were not independently owned this article would not be published by the other major media outlets.

We will wait to see in the morning whether this article got a run at all. I take some risk in reading out such an article because I have not checked my sources. But I thought it put such a lyrical, pertinent and compelling argument that I was only too willing to contribute it to the debate at this particular juncture. I think it is a very salient argument.

Stephen Conroy’s contribution

The Labor Senator also joined the debate and mentioned Crikey in the following passage:

Senator Conroy – But what changes have there been in the media landscape since the cross-media laws came into force in 1992? According to the government, pay TV and the Internet have opened up a whole new layer of media diversity. But our own pay TV industry is now dominated by Foxtel, which is partly owned by two of our largest media companies, News Corporation and PBL, and Telstra. In terms of the Internet the only large-scale local news services comparable with our mainstream media are coming from the existing news organisations such as News Limited, PBL, Fairfax and the ABC. There are specialist sites such as Crikey.com.au, which are well read in the corridors of power up here, but these are in a very early stage. While the Internet does have the possibility to provide for greater media diversity, that stage has not yet been reached and may never been reached. We cannot legislate on the basis that somehow giant Australian media companies capable of competing with News Limited, PBL and Fairfax will soon emerge on the Internet. We just do not know whether that is going to happen. It may never happen. It is just as likely that existing media companies will use their market power and expertise to dominate the Internet in the same way that they dominate more established forms of media.