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Jul 15, 2011

The difference between need for News inquiries in UK v Oz

There are inconsistencies in the many and varied calls for inquiries into Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation.


There are inconsistencies in the many and varied calls for inquiries into Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation. In Britain, it’s all about the way the company has behaved in a competitive environment. In Australia it’s about the way News abuses its near monopoly power.

In the US, the situation is slightly different again. The concern there centres on whether the company has broken laws banning corrupt practices by US companies abroad.

The common thread, of course, is the allegation of bad behavior — and in this regard News Corp is the company that just keeps on giving.

As the Greens leapt yesterday to capitalise on News Limited’s woes, we saw an attempt to ensure that News doesn’t get away with this idea that seems to be bubbling around — that it is above reproach in Australia and would never stoop to the depths of its sister organisation in Britain.

While it is probably true that the culture in Australia has prevented the gutter tactics of the News of The World, it just doesn’t follow that the company here is blameless.

The Greens, backed by many in the ALP and at least some of the independents, firmly believe that News has been behaving like a bully and that its coverage of key national debates borders on hysterical at times. This is their moment to make that point loudly, if not actually do something about it.

In defending his newspapers on the ABC’s 7.30 last night, News Limited CEO John Hartigan revealed much about the “aggressive” strategy of his most controversial mastheads, The Australian and The Daily Telegraph.

“I don’t believe that we ever overstep. Yes, it’s a love-hate relationship and sometimes it’s loving and sometimes it’s very hateful, but I don’t think, generally speaking, that we exceed our authority.”

Strangely, in a back-handed way, he also seemed to confirm widespread criticism of The Australian when he said:

The Australian “really is very strident in the way that it covers politics and I’d argue it’s really the only newspaper in Australia that properly covers politics, national politics.”

And this was a defence of the paper? What would he have said if he was unhappy with it?

Since when has strident had a positive connotation? Strident is usually synonymous with words such as over-bearing or hectoring or biased. It is not normally associated with words such as forthright and fearless — the ideas he surely meant to invoke.

No wonder former prime minister Paul Keating last night said on Lateline that the News Limited papers are at war with the government.

“I think it’s beyond doubt,” he said.

He also lambasted the idea that newspapers, through the Press Council, can regulate themselves.

“Well there’s one thing that’s clear for sure out of this and that is self-regulation by the media is a joke.”

Pretty well everyone agrees that News Limited’s internal inquiry in Australia won’t find much. Maybe the odd isolated case of corruption but certainly nothing systemic or systematic. Despite phone hacking being one of the terms of reference for Bob Brown’s suggested inquiry, I suspect his real motivations are elsewhere. He wants to shine a light on the ideologically skewed coverage in Murdoch’s Aussie papers and he wants to re-open the whole debate of cross media ownership.

He has a point. The UK inquiries are keen to talk about cross-media ownership rules and the high concentration of media ownership in Britain. And yet Murdoch’s dominance of the British press is paltry compared to Australia. Here he owns about 70% of the nation’s newspapers. In some cities he controls virtually every paper. So this is a rich topic and many in the Parliament are still quietly enraged by the Howard government reforms that allowed media moguls to gain interests in two of the tree main media types of print, TV and radio.

Not least among these is Communications Minister Stephen Conroy. He has waged the battle against News Limited’s anti-government coverage almost single-handedly for most of the past year. Now he has two ways to exact revenge — by stymying Sky’s current bid for the Australia Network. Although politically risky, it has obvious parallels with Britain as Sky is part owned by BSkyB. It is also chaired by Hartigan. In addition, Conroy might just back a parliamentary inquiry into media ownership generally and News Limited in particular.

Malcolm Turnbull has said this morning that the coalition sees no need for a review here. In Britain there is bipartisan support for an investigation into the Murdoch press. Looks like that’s not happening here anytime soon.


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