With News Corporation’s BSkyB bid abandoned ahead of what would have been a unanimous vote in the UK Parliament, Rupert Murdoch is clearly vulnerable. Even Conrad Black is savaging the Sun King in this unprecedented feeding frenzy.

So why is it only Australian journalists, not politicians, joining in?

It certainly is business as usual for News Limited as it rips into the Gillard government’s carbon tax package, especially the Green elements. But what if Labor, the Greens and the independents suddenly developed some spine and took up the fight, British-style?

There has been some discussion about the Australia Networkcontract, but the more obvious starting point would be to focus on Foxtel’s $2 billion bid for Austar, which will create a pay-TV monopoly in Australia under the management control of News Corp.

Outgoing Austar CEO John Porter made some very pointed comments during this interview with The Australian in May when he slammed our national political debate for being “locked into this pro-Murdoch and anti-Murdoch paradigm”. Porter pointed out that current Austar controlling shareholder John Malone “does not impose his personality and his personal value system on the media assets that he owns”.

He contrasts this with Australian media mogul paternalism, dominated by Rupert Murdoch but with James Packer and Kerry Stokes also in the mix, saying it “stifles growth and opportunity” and “creates a polarity” that is “very aggressive, competitive and personal”.

Surely such a culture is unhealthy and government policy should attempt to promote media plurality.

Bernard Keane ran an odd argument in Crikey yesterday, suggesting phone hacking should have nothing to do with the Australia Network deliberations and that News Corp was no worse than any other publisher in Britain. Where’s the evidence for that claim?

Leaving aside the specific journalistic tactics, the bigger problem with News Corp is its thuggish standover tactics and abuse of power. Witness the childish Caroline Overington spray at Crikey this week as just the latest of many examples.

The Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger summarised the problem with News Corp well on 7.30 last night when he told Leigh Sales:

“There was a sort of pall of intimidation because people felt, rightly or wrongly, that if you got on the wrong side of this organisation then it could very aggressively come after you, if not destroy you. And that accusation turns out to be pretty well founded because it turns out there were a lot of very unpleasant people, including criminals, working for them who had very sophisticated methods of digging up dirt.”

The Australian has gone the knuckle on the ABC today over the Australia Network contract, suggesting it is an important issue for News Ltd. Yet Keane put it this way in Crikey yesterday: “Poor Sky, less than 15% owned by News Ltd but now popularly associated with the Murdoch empire, must be wondering what it did wrong.”

News Ltd is the Australian arm of News Corp and is not the 33% shareholder in Sky News. That honour lies with BSkyB, which, for the time being will remain 39% owned by News International, the British arm of News Corp.

But any attempt to distance the Murdochs from Sky News is disingenuous. Influence above and beyond economic interest is the story of the Murdoch gerrymander at News Corp.

For starters, News Ltd executive chairman John Hartigan is chairman of Sky News, as Media Watch pointed out this week. The Sky News studios in Sydney are co-located with Foxtel at Macquarie Park in Sydney and News Ltd has explicit management control of Foxtel through its entitlement to appoint the CEO. Just last night Sky News and The Courier-Mail ran a co-branded carbon tax community forum in Brisbane with Julia Gillard.

The obvious condition to impose on Foxtel’s Austar bid is that News Corp, which only owns 25% of Foxtel, surrender its management control of the company. This could be enforced by a requirement that Foxtel be floated and that News Corp only be entitled to a couple of board seats.

Even The Australian reported this week that Austar shares are trading a discount to the $1.52 offer price “due to concerns the ACCC will block the deal or impose conditions that force Foxtel to make its content available to other parties at regulated prices”.

Finally, it is worth noting the pervasive influence News Ltd has over the Australian newspaper and advertising industry. News Ltd executives currently chair the following bodies:

  • AANA (Australian Association of National Advertisers — Joe Talcott)
  • ABC (Audit Bureau of Circulations — Stephen Hollings)
  • PANPA (Pacific Area Newspaper Publishers Association — Joe Talcott)
  • IAB (Interactive Advertising Bureau — Tony Prentice).

You’ve also seen the ridiculous situation of Lachlan Murdoch being acting CEO of Ten Network Holdings, where he is butchering sport and news content in a move that benefits Foxtel, Fox Sport and Sky News. And what did News Corp director and heir Lachlan do after announcing the latest round of Ten redundancies? Fly off to be with his dad at the big media conference in Sun Valley.

At some point, the creeping and insidious influence of the Murdochs over Australian media needs to be wound back and there is no better time to start than now. If the Pommy politicians can belatedly develop some spine with some US Democrats following suit, why not their jelly-backed equivalents in Australia?

Peter Fray

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