Is there something interesting happening at News Limited? Something the federal government should be paying attention to?

local satrap, John Hartigan, gave a noteworthy speech before the boss at
the Keith Murdoch Awards dinner in Adelaide last week, and there have
been a handful of fascinating articles – and one editorial – in The Australian of late.

First, the stuff from the Oz. Yesterday’s Media section carried a yarn on suppression orders and another on the sedition measures. We’ve already referred to the Weekend Australian’seditorial from Saturday declaring “Censorship is wrong.”

On November 10, Mark Day
had a go at “mushroom man” Costello for his views on freedom of
information – telling the Treasurer he doesn’t understand why we have
FOI laws and slamming the way he has used them to frustrate The Australian’s efforts to decipher what’s behind his tax policies.

it’s Hartigan’s speech – not online, alas – that’s most noteworthy.
That and the fact that such an experienced operator as Day was chosen
to write the report.

The title itself was a warning: “The fight for a free press will get ugly.” Look at the opening:

The head of Australia’s largest newspaper publisher has
warned that the battle for press freedom would be fought with
increasing animosity.

Speaking at the inaugural News Awards in
Adelaide, John Hartigan, the executive chairman of News Limited,
publisher of The Australian, vowed to defend press freedom – and
freedom of speech – at a time when “orchestrated and sophisticated”
attempts were being made to restrict media activities.

Hartigan’s comments are seen as a warning that News intends to
vigorously oppose government attempts to roll back press freedoms, such
as the controversial sedition legislation contained in the government’s
anti-terror bill now before the Senate.

Then there were a few more items to discuss:

In his keynote address at the awards dinner, Mr Hartigan
said Australians were living in times when press freedoms were more
restricted than ever. “And it is getting worse,” he said.

year we have been bombarded with a record 1000-plus suppression orders
in the courts, often imposed on the flimsiest grounds.

Freedom of Information legislation is becoming an oxymoron, with our
applications consistently delayed or denied. Again, the grounds are
invariably spurious.

“Too often the broader public interest is sacrificed to protect just a few.

and the judiciary are increasingly secretive and self-serving in their
attempts to gag the media and rule in and out of bounds, on their
terms, what is fit to print.

“This is not a philosophical debate. It is a battle being fought with increasing animosity.”

Hartigan said that defamation laws remained “one of the best guarantors
that the corrupt and villainous can remain unexposed.”

admitted the expense of fighting defamation actions through the courts
was now so crippling that it occasionally led to publishers taking the
path to settlement for commercial reasons…

Limited – unlike Fairfax – is still largely run by journos for journos.
Look at the two different boards. They know content matters.

outlined a wish list – FOI, suppression orders, defamation and sedition
laws that trap terrorists, not journalists. Plenty for pols to mull
over. But there’s more. There are other two areas the Feds need to

It’s clear Communications Minister Helen Coonan is a
dud and that the changes to media laws will protect the current vested
interests, particularly in free to air TV. That stuffs Rupert.

But there’s also the question of Rupert’s customers. Telegraph and Hun readers are their people. They want to protect their interests. That way News gets these people to consume their products.

sells well – but has a limited appeal. It’s actually a distressing and
disconcerting subject – one people would probably prefer, in the long
run, to ignore. On the other hand Holt Street, will no doubt be keeping
a very close eye on how IR pans out. Now there’s a cause.

remembers what happened in the UK in 1992, when John Major’s Tories
were re-elected against all expectations – and the “It was the Sun wot
won it” response that was way out of line with public opinion. That was
very bad for business. Nobody wants to make the same surprise twice.

The Howard Government’s poll figures are dropping. Holt Street don’t want that to happen to their circulations.

Disclosure: Christian Kerr contributes to News’ Adelaide suburban papers and has acted as a commentator with Sky News Australia.