Melbourne Press Club president Mark Baker was perfectly within his rights to sound off after last Wednesday’s Crikey piece about News Corp’s pay-TV piracy. The Fairfax veteran was specifically peeved that I connected it to supposed Fairfax-News Ltd cosiness at the Quill awards 10 days ago, but he also labelled the entire story a “bizarre thesis about some kind of conspiracy between Fairfax and News”.

When you consider all that has happened since the Milly Dowler story broke on July 4 last year, it really is time that Fairfax had a fundamental re-appraisal about its approach to News Corp and the Murdoch family.

For instance, is it really wise for Fairfax to stand shoulder to shoulder with News Ltd in resisting the recommendations of the Finkelstein inquiry when the past nine months of revelations would suggest News Corp’s dodgy culture warrants regulatory sanction?

The AFR’s editorial last Friday was headlined with the bleeding obvious: “Governance concerns at News Corp”.

After dutifully defending its star News Corp expert Neil Chenoweth and chronicling the amazing shopping list of allegations he has uncovered, the editorial concluded with the following:

“This episode underscores the crucial role of independent journalism, and the importance of allowing the media to play its role without government or regulatory control or interference. The Financial Review believes the media should remain unfettered to pursue, in the public interest, the right to know. To that end, we have posted thousands of emails related to our report on and welcome further investigation into the story they tell.”

What The AFR didn’t reveal until today is that News Corp successfully threatened litigation against the US company hosting the treasure trove of 14,400 NDS emails. The risk for independent journalism is not government interference, but rather traditional News Corp bullying.

In the twisted logic of The AFR, it has revealed the world’s most powerful and aggressive journalistic multinational to be a bunch of cowboys — yet because it is a media company, News Ltd in Australia must somehow remain free of all government and regulatory control.

For goodness sake, The AFR is still yet to state the bleeding obvious: that with 70% of the newspaper market, it would be unwise to also give the buccaneering Murdochs management control over the entire Australian pay-TV industry courtesy of Foxtel’s $2 billion Austar takeover proposal.

It was David Cameron who blew the whistle on the Murdoch standover racket when he made the following declaration last July, shortly after meeting the Dowler family:

“Over the decades, on the watch of both Labour leaders and Conservative leaders, politicians and the press have spent time courting support, not confronting the problems. Well, it’s on my watch that the music has stopped and I’m saying, loud and clear — things have got to change.

“In future, politicians have got to stop trying to curry favour with the media, but instead regulate properly.

“We were all in this world of wanting the support of newspaper groups and, yes, broadcasting organisations and when we are doing that do we spend enough time asking questions about how these organisations are regulated, the malpractices and the rest of it? No, we did not. We have to.”

The honourable media companies in Britain are largely on board with the view that News Corp’s dominance and unethical culture has damaged British democracy and society to the point where the strong regulatory, legal and government response is appropriate.

Similarly, Fairfax should not have partnered with News Ltd in the John Hartigan-inspired Newspaper Works industry venture. This oligarchic endeavour — which even contemplated usurping independent readership auditing — should be abandoned, saving the major publishers far more than they spend on the Australian Press Council each year.

Even worse, Fairfax and News Ltd should not be collaborating in a five-minutes-to-midnight attempt to boost the Australian Press Council in order to fend off Ray Finkelstein’s call for a statutory regulator of online and newspaper content, similar to what radio and television already happily live with.

Fairfax CEO Greg Hywood is making a rare public appearance in Melbourne tomorrow at a corporate governance conference debating Gideon Haigh, Alan Kohler and former RBA governor Ian Macfarlane on the topic: “Is the business media failing investors?”

Given an opportunity, I’ll be asking Hywood whether Fairfax could have done more over the years to curtail the evolution of the brutal Murdoch empire, which is protected by appalling governance structures that demean basic democratic principles.

With a majority market share in Australia, the sad reality is that far too many Fairfax and Murdoch  newspaper journalists turn a blind eye to News Ltd’s bullying and unethical culture. For instance, The Australian’s John Durie is easily Australia’s best business commentator on governance issues, yet he’s barely written a word about News Corp over the past nine months.

The best you can say about the past week is that few credible News Ltd journalists have stepped up to publicly defend the company.

In the face of an avalanche of new direct evidence about unethical conduct, The Australian has unleashed Darren Davidson, a recent recruit from Adnews. With no business experience and less than a month in newspapers, Davidson produced a cover story for The Weekend Australian’s Inquirer section on Saturday, which read like the rantings of a junior PR flack.

Chris Mitchell was no doubt pulling the strings behind the scenes and it was most illuminating when this appeared under Davidson’s byline: “It must also be noted that relations between AFR publisher Fairfax Media and News, while never cordial, are strained to breaking point. Talks over a shared printing facility broke down this year.”

Indeed, having come this far, Fairfax would be wise to bite the bullet once and for all by withdrawing from all collaborative arrangements with News Ltd and campaigning for appropriate regulatory action against the broader Murdoch empire.

Instead, we had The AFR’s editor-in-chief Michael Stutchbury penning a polite opinion piece in today’s paper, which included half a column saying how great News Corp was and how much he admired various News Ltd heavies.

This sort of toadyism is simply not supported by the facts.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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