They’ve a funny approach to consistency at News Ltd. Should the Prime Minister have accepted an invitation to meet with News Ltd executives and editors last night when federal cabinet is yet to decide on the contentious Australia Network contract tussle between Sky News and the ABC? It’s not so long since The Australian
, via ageing hitman Dennis Shanahan, conveyed the empire’s displeasure that Mark Scott and Michael Millett lobbied cabinet ministers over the contract. Behind-the-scenes influencing of politicians is the Murdoch modus operandi
, thanks very much. Just ask Rebekah Brooks. So hands off, Aunty.
Was the Australia Network mentioned at all last night? Was it explicitly ruled out beforehand? Why did the meeting happen at all?
This isn’t the first time Julia Gillard has had a chat with the powers-that-be in the Murdochcracy. She met with Chris Mitchell during the election campaign, apparently to ask for something approaching fair coverage from The Oz
, which anyone could have told her was a fool’s errand, particularly given the misogynist drivel then appearing in its pages over her earlobes and other apparently unsatisfactory policy failures.
Under pressure from the phone-hacking scandal and the Conservatives’ extensive links with News International, the Cameron government recently announced it was revealing all meetings with media proprietors and executives to date and would do so from now on. The virtual revolving door at 10 Downing Street for News International executives and editors was promptly revealed.
But Cameron’s commitment to transparency wasn’t as unusual as it first appeared. Since 2009, when a parliamentary committee recommended an overhaul of the regulation of lobbying, British cabinet ministers have been required to publish details of meetings with "interest groups" as well as hospitality received by ministers and some senior civil servants. Some of the meetings on Cameron’s list had already been revealed via the website set up to pull together all data
on whom ministers are meeting.
It’s time for a similar website for Australian ministers and a similar commitment that all meetings be revealed by ministers, not merely with interest groups in their portfolio but anyone lobbying them other than constituents, and any social engagements at which more than polite chit-chat is exchanged with representatives of people outside government. Currently the only requirement is for all parliamentarians to reveal gifts via a register of pecuniary interests. It could be made a requirement of the ministerial code of conduct.
If all meetings are too much for starters, it could be immediately established in relation to meetings with media executives, especially given there's a convergence review, a privacy discussion paper and possibly a wider media inquiry currently on the table and policy is up for grabs.
It should also be extended to the Opposition Leader, but that's outside the government's control.
This would have caught the ABC’s lobbying of cabinet ministers, as well as the Prime Minister’s meetings with News Ltd executives, as well as Stephen Conroy’s on-piste discussions with Kerry Stokes and, for that matter, when James Packer politely guided Conroy outside for a chat about the Ten Network at Foxtel’s birthday last year.
At the moment, such meetings and social engagements rarely emerge, unless there’s another agenda at work, such as the strange incident in which Mitchell was relaxing with Kevin Rudd before the latter took a phone call from George W. Bush, and the "what’s the G20" story emerged a couple of days later from a gallery journalist at The Australian
If it’s good enough for Julia Gillard to declare that News Ltd has "serious questions to answer" like News International in the UK, it’s good enough for her to commit to greater transparency about whom she and her cabinet ministers meet, just like her British counterpart.