Rupert Murdoch has pushed the boundaries
for 50 years, but yesterday’s effort at the US Chamber of Commerce
dinner with John Howard was one of the most appalling of his career. On
the very day when some world leaders started talking about civil war in
Iraq as the death toll mounts inexorably, Rupert was hailing John
Howard as a strong visionary and then completely distorted history when
describing the Australia-US alliance.

“Tonight we honour a man
who rose to meet all these challenges and met them wonderfully. When he
came to power, the relationship was at its lowest level since the
Battle of the Coral Sea. Under John Howard’s leadership, the
relationship is deeper and stronger than ever.”

Naturally, it is completely inappropriate for a media mogul to express such partisan views but Rupert and his outlets such as The Sun
and Fox News don’t even pretend to be balanced in their coverage. The
Iraq invasion arguably wouldn’t have happened without Rupert being
there as the unofficial fourth member of the Coalition of the willing,
using his various media outlets as pro-war propaganda machines in
Australia, the US and the UK.

As if to demonstrate the absurdity
of the situation, the Murdoch press in Australia downplayed the glowing
endorsement of John Howard and completely ignored the historical
inaccuracies their boss spouted about the US alliance. Where is The Australian’s Greg Sheridan when you need him most?

Tony Walker got it absolutely right in The AFR
today when he pointed out that Paul Keating and Bill Clinton had good
relations in 1996 and relations were also just fine during the battle
of the Coral Sea. Surely Rupert must have known that relations were at
their worst during the Whitlam years. Michael Gawenda was also on the
money with this piece in The Smage.

Murdoch and Packer families have made much of their combined $18
billion fortune by leveraging their media power into favourable deals
with politicians and regulators. Witness the Packer deal with the Bracks Government over Crown Casino yesterday and its current dealings with the Tasmanian government over Betfair.

is no other industry where the prime minister goes to the media moguls
and asks for their approval before changing the regulatory framework
and Packer mate John Singleton openly said as much on Inside Business earlier this year:

There’s sure to be no decisions made that are going to in
any way affect the chances of John Howard being re-elected as prime
minister in the next term… the changes to the media cross-ownership
laws will be only those that don’t make any existing media owners,
doesn’t disadvantage them… It means life’s a rort and it’s only a
rort if you’re not in it, that’s what it means. And John Howard likes
being prime minister so he’s not going to set out to upset the existing
media owners.

This was the sub-text of Rupert’s
effusive praise of John Howard yesterday. Not only was Rupert happy
that the Howard Government let him scamper off to Delaware while
retaining and expanding News Corp’s Australian newspaper business,
Rupert was making his very public bid to be allowed to buy a
free-to-air television network as well.

Given that it looks like
Kerry Packer may want to sell Nine, our two most powerful families
could well have done a deal and now just need to praise John Howard
enough to ensure he will deliver.

What Paul Keating thinks of
all this is anyone’s guess because he and Bob Hawke did similar deals
with Murdoch and Packer in the 1980s, giving us one of the world’s most
concentrated media sectors. Hasn’t that bitten the Labor Party where it
hurts? Media moguls are pragmatic and will profit from deals with any
politicians that come along. For now, John Howard is flavour of the
month but is Australia better off from having spent billions in Iraq
and how will ever further media concentration help our society?

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey