There are rumbles in the jungle. The elephants are fighting.

Over the last few weeks it has become clear
that Rupert Murdoch, who was in town last week, doesn’t mind getting stuck in
to PBL, his business partner in Foxtel and other enterprises, and attacking
James Packer in particular.

The first public sign was Rupert saying
what everyone knows, but media moguls usually don’t say, which is that Australia’s
system of media regulation protects and cossets free to air television at the
expense of innovation and competition.
This is certainly true, but it has been so for years. Why is Rupert speaking out now? I don’t pretend to know.

In a week when the boss was in town, News
Ltd newspapers have also particularly played up the troubles at Channel
Nine. James Packer responds in a lengthy more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger
interview with Fairfax’s Australian Financial Review, published
today. Packer makes clear his
disappointment and puzzlement at the ferocity of the Murdoch attacks.

So what’s all this about? Why is the old bull taking on the young
one? We may never know the full story,
and the lack of information about what is really at stake is yet one more
symptom of the disease of Australia’s
media.

The company men and women at PBL and News
Ltd are fond of describing their employers as “the biggest small family
companies in the world”. The
rhetoric is that if you are on the inside, then it feels very much like a
family business with all the cosiness, loyalty, and care that implies.

The downside of this is that when the
elephants fight it is more like a dispute between neighbours all within a club than
between large public companies in an important business with accountabilities
to shareholders, not to mention the rest of us.

It may seem like a stupid thing to say when
these men are so powerful, but ultimately, does it matter? After all, Rupert Murdoch is an old man and
will be dead soon.

It’s part of the mythology of media that
this simple truism has the power to shock.
Murdoch may take after his mother, rather than his father, and thus have
some years yet to live, but there is a basic truth here that is too often
overlooked: old men die.) We are living at the end of the imperial age in
media, and the emperors are losing their clout.
We are entering a time when the outlets will be controlled by
broad-based public companies, who care only for the bottom line and are less
tolerant of the caprices of would-be dominant hereditary proprietors.

For all their faults, we should not forget
that one of the caprices of these hereditary proprietors has always been
journalism. No matter how mixed their
motives, both Kerry Packer and Murdoch have cared about content, and not only
about eyeballs and advertising dollars.

I wonder if we will miss the rumble of the
elephants.

As
the last few weeks have shown, there is always a frisson to the personality
politics of media. And yet when the
history of these times is written, it will not be mainly about people, but
about technological change.

Peter Fray

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