Observers of the federal government media inquiry hearings over the past couple of weeks were left in no doubt that inquiry head Ray Finkelstein is smart, but he is not lyrical, his questions being fairly convoluted and often triple barrelled. Which meant that ears pricked up during his questioning of News Limited’s departing CEO John Hartigan, because there was an unusually graceful turn of phrase.

Asking Hartigan whether he would agree that News Limited wielded considerable power, Finkelstein used the words: “You shape laws and change history?”

Hartigan prevaricated a little. Any power the company exercised, he said was “on behalf of our readers”, but he acknowledged that the newspapers “brought pressure to bear”. So where did those stirring words come from?

At the time no observers spotted that Finkelstein was putting to Hartigan the substance of this speech, which Hartigan made to the National Press Club in July 2009. On that occasion, Hartigan was less modest about the impact of News Limited’s work. The full quote was:

“Great press campaigns shape new laws and change history. They build a bridge between public opinion and public policy.”

He gave as examples The Australian’s work on the Australian Wheat Board scandal, the Children Overboard affair, the Haneef affair, and the tragedies on Palm Island and at Aurukun — all campaigns of which the newspaper is justly proud.

This was also the speech in which Hartigan criticised online news and comment sites, and bloggers, as not generating enough revenue to pay for good journalism, and specialising in “political extremism and personal vilification”. He mentioned that the Huffington Post was supported by philanthropy.

Hartigan was slightly more upbeat about online sites before the inquiry last week, when questioned by Finkelstein about their potential for providing media diversity. He mentioned the Huffington Post’s anticipated Australian launch as an example.

The direct quote from the speech tells us that Finkelstein is reading widely, and looking further than the submissions in front of him.

*Declaration: I made a submission to the inquiry (which should be online on the inquiry website soon) and gave evidence last Thursday