When I sold Crikey to Eric Beecher and Di Gribble in 2005, one of the clauses in the sales agreement limited the ability of each party to publicly criticise the other.

Seven years later, another feisty independent web publishing house has been sold, but this time the buyer is Rupert Murdoch, a proprietor with an unprecedented record of requiring and receiving loyalty and favourable editorial treatment from his employees.

So what does this mean for Alan Kohler, Robert Gottliebsen and Stephen Bartholomeusz — the crack “KGB” team of commentators and inquisitors at Business Spectator — who have all reportedly become instant millionaires courtesy of the generosity of News Corp’s $20 million-plus up-front cash payment for their business?

Will these doyens of business journalism, who deliberately named their business Australian Independent Business Media, now pull their punches on News Corp’s appalling corporate governance, nepotism, stacked board, Murdoch family gerrymander, abuses of corporate power and industrial-scale criminality in the UK?

The KBG will now be answerable to uber-Murdoch loyalist Chris Mitchell, who was quoted in The Australian today saying it was “great to have Alan and Gotty back at The Oz after so many years, and to welcome Steven to the paper. Being able to add them to the best columnist in the country, John Durie, has made my day.”

Alan Kohler is now the richest business journalist in Australia and in my view he and John Durie share top billing for quality, writing and insight. However, Durie has one substantial flaw: he covers corporate governance issues better than anyone but baulks at criticising News Corp. Sadly, this is the price you pay when you agree to take Rupert’s shilling.

Most News Ltd business commentators through the years — Durie, Matthew Stevens, Terry McCrann, Bryan Frith, Michael West and Mark Westfield — have voluntarily submitted themselves to the culture of blind loyalty. I did it during my five years as a News Ltd business editor on the tabloids in Sydney.

But in light of the unprecedented media ownership concentration in Australia and the enormous governance scandals that have engulfed News Corp over the past year, is this really an acceptable state of play in 2012? Will we even have a decent debate about the dominant newspaper group extending its dominance in pay TV as well, courtesy of the $2 billion Foxtel and Fox Sports bid?

News Ltd publications have recently been railing against any possible regulatory reforms arising from the Finkelstein report on the grounds that it infringes free speech. Truth be known, the greatest impingement on free speech in Australia is the cultural requirement that the dominant newspaper and pay-TV company in Australia does not brook any criticism from within.

Kohler was certainly out of the gates fast talking up News Ltd yesterday. No mention of the Melbourne Storm scandal when he spoke to ABC Radio’s PM program last night and said:

“Yeah, very happy. And very happy with News Limited, they’re a fantastic organisation and they’ve been really great to deal with.”

There were similar sentiments in his page-one column for The Australian today.

Such a gushing endorsement wouldn’t have been forthcoming without a News Ltd sale and employment contract that will deliver gross proceeds of more than $7 million to the ABC’s public face of business journalism.

It is easy for business pundits to take a cynical view on these matters. Unlike the vast majority of business journalists, Kohler tried his hand as an entrepreneur, laboured extremely hard for seven years and pulled off a much-deserved pay day.

He partnered up with canny operators such as Eric Beecher, Mark Carnegie and John Wylie to exploit the poor performance of former AFR CEO Michael Gill and then extracted a lofty premium from News Ltd at a time when the Murdoch empire was really keen to stick it up Australia’s only financial daily after its huge pay-TV piracy coverage. But don’t expect to ever hear the KGB calling for News Corp to belatedly respond to the hard questions that remain unanswered from the global NDS piracy scandal.

It would be great to be proved wrong on these matters, but don’t hold your breath. From the perspective of the ABC, the national broadcaster must insist on protocols that do not limit potential criticisms of News Corp as long as Kohler continues to present Inside Business on ABC1 each Sunday morning. Any ABC viewer who objects to Kohler being a Murdoch man does have alternatives at 10am on Sunday  — they can always switch over to the Lachlan Murdoch-chaired Network Ten where Andrew Bolt will probably be slamming Julia Gillard and talking up his favourite billionaire, Gina Rinehart.

Bolt’s main piece in the Herald Sun today was a perfect case study of the ideology, indulgences and excesses of News Ltd. Placed next to a huge picture of the $29 billion woman, the column was headlined: “Gina is not the real threat to free media” and it concluded that government-funded media and regulation was a far bigger worry.

The failure of News Ltd publications to seriously challenge the appropriateness of Rinehart controlling Fairfax Media shows how the Murdoch empire puts ideology and market dominance ahead of any genuine beliefs about free speech, media diversity and professional journalistic impartiality.

Kohler wrote a great column on Business Spectator slamming Rinehart this week. It would be great to see his News Ltd colleagues supporting such a view over the turbulent weeks and months ahead.

Peter Fray

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