Another year, another disappointing effort from the nation’s media to
adequately cover the array of stories that emerged from the thousands
of political donations dumped on the AEC website at 9am yesterday
morning.

After yesterday’s spoon-fed scoop about the outrageous $1 million gift to the Liberals by dodgy tax haven based British Lord Michael Ashcroft, The Australian produced the best coverage today across all of page 4, although The AFR also did a reasonable job.

The Age was pathetic by comparison with just two stories on the
bottom of page 8 and not even a decent table or graphic to show who
gave what. Even worse was the Herald Sun which could manage just one story on the bottom of page 29, although at least they had a table.

Perhaps the Melbourne tabloid feels constrained by the fact that Rupert
Murdoch’s sister, Janet Calvert-Jones, is chairman of the Herald &
Weekly Times and her husband John Calvert-Jones replaced Malcolm
Turnbull as Federal Treasurer of the Liberal Party in 2003-04. Dame
Elisabeth Murdoch’s $25,000 donation to the Liberals in 2004-05 also
makes it a little difficult for the paper to start campaigning on this
issue, although they’re giving the ALP’s problems in Geelong a good
belt at the moment.

Across town, The Age now has to deal with having Ron Walker as
chairman of Fairfax, and he’s the most successful political bagman in
Australian history, having raised $170 million for the Liberal Party
over a decade. There’s something rotten in a system that sees the fourth estate,
supposedly fearlessly independent media companies, run by people inextricably linked to the funding of political parties.

We’ve commented before that media companies have the worst corporate
governance of any sector but they are also increasingly playing the
grubby political donations game.

No public company has given as much over the past 12 years as
Village
Roadshow, owner of the Austereo FM radio network. Despite continuing
appalling shareholder returns, the Village empire coughed up about
$500,000 in 2004-05. The Kirby family, which controls Village and is
supposedly worth $300 million, could at least spare their minority
shareholders the expense of it all.

Then you have the Packer empire which is famed for exerting political influence, although
Kerry’s relationship with John Howard and James’s hard work on
Peter Costello meant they didn’t even have to write out big cheques in 2004-05. All it
took was a public endorsement before the 2004 election. John and Peter, you look so cheap.

Network Ten was for a long time out of the political loop in Canberra
but the appointment of former PBL CEO Nick Falloon changed all that,
and he persuaded his tight-fisted Canadian bosses to give the major
parties $75,000 each last year.

Then you have the conservative forces at Rural Press. The company
itself doesn’t donate but controlling shareholders Tim and John B
Fairfax are happy to contribute to the Liberals which might explain the
conservative editorial line across its stable of publications. West
Australian Newspapers didn’t donate to the WA Liberals but their former
CEO Ian Law hailed from Rural Press and he allowed new editor Paul
Armstrong to take the paper aggressively to the right.

Whatever happened to the notion of a fearless and independent media
campaigning for transparency and accountability and calling political issues on their merits? Australia’s democratic
system has clearly degenerated to a system when the major media
companies are active participants in a grubby system of political
fundraising and back-scratching.

The first rule of a media company should be political neutrality,
yet even a mid-sized operation like APN News & Media decided to give
$75,000 to the Federal ALP in 2004-05.

Given all this activity, it is hard to believe the media doesn’t feel
constrained in campaigning for donations reform that would clearly be
in the public interest. John Howard is about to further weaken the
system with increased tax deductibility and a higher threshold for
disclosure, yet the media commentary has been muted to say the least.
As Kim Beazley said yesterday, the effect of the changes will be to
increase corruption.

However, it will also increase the amount available for spending by the
major parties, much of which benefits the very same media companies
which carry all the political advertising come election time.

Peter Fray

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