In theory, media and governments should be natural antagonists: anarchists versus control freaks. But in practice each side has something that the other wants, so they develop a love-hate relationship which frequently has absolutely nothing to do with the real public interest.

From the time when Sir Robert Menzies handed out the first commercial television licences to his media cronies to the present, it has been all about self interest, and more often than not the politicians have been the losers.

Even the ultra-establishment Fairfax family turned briefly against Menzies in the 1960s, largely, according to rumour, because Sir Warwick Fairfax had belatedly discovered that the prime minister had been having an affair with his first wife. And the doyen of media conservatives, Sir Frank Packer (“Dear old Sir Frank,” as Menzies described him on his retirement) ratted on Billy McMahon, whom the media baron called “Our Man in Canberra”.

Shortly before the 1972 election, Packer sold his flagship paper, the Sydney Daily Telegraph, to Rupert Murdoch. When he informed the Prime Minister, McMahon’s wail of despair resounded over the phone line. Murdoch promised McMahon fair treatment; Packer interposed: “if you do that you’ll murder him,” which the Murdoch press duly did.

Gough Whitlam egotistically mistook Murdoch’s trashing of McMahon for endorsement of himself; then Murdoch demanded a reward in the form of his appointment as High Commissioner to London while retaining his active role in the media. Whitlam indignantly refused, and went on to legislate against Murdoch’s mining interests in Western Australia. Murdoch turned ferociously and ran a vendetta against Whitlam until he left politics.

Given the fragility – indeed perfidy – of such relationships, John Howard’s longstanding reluctance to do anything about the media which risks offending anyone of note is understandable. It is all the more surprising that he has allowed his Minister for Communications, Helen Coonan, to put forward proposals which have been rejected by two of the big players (Murdoch and Fairfax) and even by a large section of his own coalition.

It will be little short of astonishing if he does not move swiftly into appeasement mode.

Peter Fray

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