Silly season reached a sort of climax this weekend, when The Australian announced Kevin Rudd was its Australian of the Year “because of the way he dealt with the global financial crisis.”

That was a bit odd, to put it mildly, to put it as blandly as possible.  The national broadsheet spent 2009 attacking the Government’s handling of the GFC, attacking the need for stimulus packages, attacking the actual spending within the packages – to the extent of soliciting and running every half-baked rumour from a P&C in blue-ribbon Liberal electorates – and airing every possible line critical of the Government, from complaining the Budget forecasts were too optimistic to, not long afterward, suggesting growth was so strong it was time to cancel the remaining stimulus components.

In other circumstances, the announcement wouldn’t have been that surprising.  As The Oz pointed out as a sort of pre-emptive defence against calls of bias – who amongst us doesn’t harbour the suspicion that The Oz has sold its soul to the ALP – it has nominated Prime Ministers as Australians of the Year before, even nominating Gough Whitlam, in the halcyon days minutes before it all went wrong.

But given the tirade of anti-Government sermonising and coverage throughout last year, it looks just a tad suspicious.

For the conspiracy-minded, and I know there are one or two of you out there, one might wonder whether News Ltd feels the need to get on the right side of the Prime Minister, having managed to get itself thoroughly offside with him since the 2007 election.  Now, media organisation should get themselves offside with governments, but it should be for the right reasons not, in The Oz’s case, the Right reasons. The now definitely ex-Rudd mate Chris Mitchell and his stridently anti-Labor editorial tone is the primary problem there, although it was the News tabloids, not The Oz, which ran fictional front-page emails at the height of the Godwin Grech business, a confection that made Rudd, to use the beloved phrase, incandescent with rage.

Just to show how relative media coverage can be, however, more than one Coalition source has subsequently complained to me that Steve Lewis has “bent over backwards” to appease the Government ever since the Grech stuff.  As a regular reader of Lewis – whom I rate highly as a journo – I haven’t been able to detect that bias, but there you go.

But a conspiracy theory needs a motive.  The motive would be that News Ltd’s commercial prospects are not, currently, particularly healthy in Australia.  Most of its assets are in the stagnant, if not persistent-vegetative-state newspaper market and subject of the vexed issue of how to charge for online content (parenthetically, it was amusing to see the reaction, or rather non-reaction, when the NYT announced last week it was revisiting online charging  – when the premier liberal media organ says it is establishing a paywall that’s seemingly fine; when Rupert says the same, it’s imperial overreach).

News’s subscription television assets have had a long period of success – sports channel provider Premier Media, which it half-owns with Consolidated Media, has along with Austar been the real success story of Australian subscription television through its control of key subscription sports content.  And Foxtel, 25% of which is owned by News, has now been making solid profit for several years and has completed an impressive digitization project that means it offers the most advanced suite of media products in the country. Kim Williams can rightly claim the mantle of most innovative major media CEO in Australia and, given Foxtel’s numbers when he started, one of the most successful.

Problematically, though, Foxtel’s growth prospects do not appear good.  Subscription growth rates have flattened in the last 18 months – although you can blame the GFC for that – half-owner Telstra is trialling its own IPTV/PVR set-top box and may exit Foxtel under government pressure anyway, and the commercial free-to-airs have stopped fighting multichannelling and discovered it can be successful for them.

Not to mention illegal downloading of a subscription staple, foreign drama, and a little thing called the NBN.  Oh, and the ABC’s free 24-hour news channel obviously has dire implications for Sky News, which News one-third owns.

The only growth opportunity in subscription television lies with deregulation of Australia’s anti-competitive, punitive anti-siphoning regime.  It would also most directly benefit News because of its half-stake in Premier Media Group, which will be the single-greatest beneficiary of any removal of sporting events from the list.

Read the full post at The Stump.

Peter Fray

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