Over 40 years in politics I have had the rare distinction of working at the lobbying game for three of the country’s major media figures. For Kerry Packer, being Canberra correspondent for The Bulletin meant wearing both the hats of my predecessor Alan Reid. Writing the weekly article was combined with efforts to preserve the proprietorial reputation within government from the attacks on the Goanna by the Costigan Royal Commission. Later for Rupert Murdoch’s News Limited, it was grappling with the early formulation of pay television policy, and then a brief spell for Kerry Stokes pretending to be about to use my campaigning skills against any political party contemplating changes to the law that disadvantaged the Seven Network.
Different companies, different men with different personalities but one thing in common. All three were playing a giant game of bluff to try and get their way with governments, but all three dreaded that their bluff would ever be called. They knew the worst thing that could happen was for their power to be put to the test and found wanting.
That was especially so for those in television. Instructing the likes of a Laurie Oakes what to do and say would not be any easy thing to keep secret and exposure would make the stakes very high indeed. Failure to topple a government, and the government’s subsequent revenge, would see a network end up without a licence. Far better to threaten occasionally but to sit on the fence when the election came. In all my time in the Labor Party campaign bunker I never detected a bias from commercial television.
The politicians I worked for, of course, worried about proprietors incessantly. Nothing short of a nightly eulogy would meet their definition of television fairness and they courted Messrs Packer and Stokes assiduously, not in the real hope such days would come but out of fear that the reverse of nightly attacks would.
This timidity of television barons and politicians makes for a strange courtship. Both have the power to potentially harm the other but are too scared to use it. The price of failure would be too high.
With News Corporation, things are different. Rupert Murdoch has made an art form of pretending to be powerful, whether in the making of Gough in 1972, the destruction of Gough in 1975, promoting Margaret Thatcher, anointing a New York Mayor or claiming the credit for a Tony Blair. The Murdoch press can appear horribly unpredictable to a losing politician without the politician realising that it was only because he was losing that the newspapers turned on him. The Murdoch way is not based on ideology. He simply backs winners and where one is not clearly identifiable his papers sit on the fence.
Fox News in the United States might be different, but I doubt it. During the Bush ascendancy there has been a shrill support for neo-con and other Republican views but a Democrat controlled Congress would open up television careers for a new raft of more moderate commentators.
As for the Fairfax press, well, in political terms they simply don’t count. Years of listening to focus groups told me any influence the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age have comes purely as a source of inspiration for ABC radio hosts. If swinging voters read them it is only on Saturdays for the classifieds.
With influences such as these on politicians it is little wonder that media policy has nothing to do with benefits for the public. For politicians it is all about minimising the opportunities to be attacked by an existing proprietor. Liberal, National and Labor are as timid as each other.