One of the fascinating things about watching News Corp is to observe how the different parts of the empire cover Rupert Murdoch and his family’s commercial interests.

Today’s printed offering in Australia was an interesting case study. Mark Day produced this column — Murdoch bashers should stop and think — which is being heavily promoted on The Australian’s home page.

Day’s opening tactic was to quite rightly focus on 7.30’s original choice for analysis of the English riots — former Ken Livingstone police adviser Lee Jasper — who attempted to inappropriately link the civil unrest to the phone-hacking scandal, among a range of other issues.

Day then extrapolated Jasper’s over-reach into his own, which turned up as this break out quote in his printed column: “It has become too easy … to blame Murdoch for all the ills of society.”

Truth be known, Murdoch has done a lot of good and a lot of bad over his 58 years running News Corp and other corporate arms. It’s not black and white.

Most issues in society are extremely complex and with 24 hours news and the internet, there is an absolute smorgasbord of commentary to latch onto.

We all tend to handpick the snippets that confirm our prejudices and downplay opposing views. For instance, some within News Corp are livid over this Neil Chenoweth news feature in the AFR last Friday, which attempted to drag Tom Mockridge, the replacement for Rebekah Brooks as CEO of News International, into the hacking scandal based on some litigation in Italy involving attempts to tackle widespread pay-TV piracy.

The argument goes that Mockridge, a former SMH economics correspondent and adviser to Paul Keating, is one of the ethical good guys at News Corp and if you really want to see cultural change and less support for rogues such as Brooks and Fox News chief Roger Ailes, then he should be supported.

As one close Murdoch watcher explained:

Pay-TV is an industry rife with scoundrels hacking anything for a buck. Reverse engineering of cards is standard and acceptable practice. Hacking them and selling pirate cards is, of course, not. The Chenoweth  article concedes News Corp’s NDS arm has an extremely good track record of winning lawsuits. He suggests that’s just because of a big legal bill. NDS was the big growth company and competitors all wanted to bring them down. Law suits was one way.

There was no evidence at all in the story linking Mockridge to anything — just innuendo. Tom showed up in a new business, in a foreign country where piracy was killing pay TV. He helped clean it up with a quite public and deliberate strategy. It worked fabulously. Now, Chenoweth is trying to insinuate Tom was somehow linked to the piracy.

Faced with an avalanche of criticism over the past six weeks, it is interesting to see which pieces get a public reaction out of News Corp, whether through public statements or back channels such as the quotes above.

The most obvious in Australia has been the visceral reaction to Bob Brown’s suggestion that we have a wide-ranging parliamentary media inquiry.

The likes of Andrew Bolt, Terry McCrann and Miranda Devine have invoked fears of some sort of totalitarian crack down on free speech and former Wapping strike breaker Alan Howe backed it up today in the Herald Sun with this column, which linked Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon to Stalinism and Hitler’s hate campaigns.

Veteran News Ltd Canberra lobbyist Malcolm Colless also vehemently opposed an inquiry of any sort in The Australian today, although his effort was little more than abuse of the political class as a whole.

As for single facts being used to argue against overwhelming propositions, even Mark Day claimed today that Murdoch’s ability to influence politicians was over-hyped, as he cited examples where government regulation did not assist News Corp’s commercial interests.

Indeed, for quite a while Kerry Packer out-foxed Murdoch by backing the likes of Neville Wran, Graham Richardson and John Howard. But this doesn’t make the quaint Australian political trait of kowtowing to media billionaires any more defensible and Rupert is still the world leader in terms of standing over politicians in democracies.

The ability to resist a parliamentary inquiry in Australia will be an interesting test of Rupert’s famed political power. In this context, no inquiry equals confirmation of Murdoch’s traditional power. If we get a sweeping inquiry, it will demonstrate a British-style shift away from political grovelling.

There are many things that a parliamentary inquiry should look at, but the two most obvious are diversity of ownership and a corrupt culture that sees actual and potential media coverage subtlety traded for commercial gain.

News Ltd today attempted to make itself a smaller target for any inquiry by admitting in The Australian’s Media section that the 70% newspaper market share claim touted by its advertising sales force was in fact an exaggeration.

What next? Rupert admitting Fox News isn’t “fair and balanced”.

Whatever the actual figure as measured by readers, paid sales, circulation or advertising, the fact remains that News Ltd has an unhealthy dominance over Australia’s newspaper industry, which extends to control of various industry bodies as explained in this recent Crikey story.

If News Ltd really wants to head off an inquiry, it should voluntarily commit to sell or spin off enough titles to get itself back below 50% of the Australian newspaper industry.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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