One of the biggest criticisms of Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s Peta Credlin-led private office has been the regular leaks undermining cabinet ministers. This is no way to build a cohesive Team Abbott government.
Anonymous predatory leaks are disastrous for any institution because they cause public conflict and completely undermine internal trust, ultimately leading to dysfunction.
If you believe David Crowe’s front-page story in The Australian today, Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull is the victim of a leak from the Prime Minister’s office, which found its way to the paper’s media reporter Darren Davidson, who produced this web-only story outlining Turnbull’s media reform options paper on Friday afternoon.
However, as Joe Aston again asserted in his Australian Financial Review Rear Window column today, Davidson is the go-to man for News Corp co-chairman Lachlan Murdoch and his favourite lieutenants in Australia, such as Network Ten executive chairman Hamish McLennan.
Given Rupert Murdoch’s preparedness to publicly sound off at Turnbull on Twitter yesterday, you have to wonder whether Abbott or his office leaked Turnbull’s paper to the Murdoch camp and they, in turn, passed it on to Davidson.
Using David Crowe in The Australian today, Turnbull has powerfully taken the governance high ground in terms of the process, as the pro-Abbott newspaper baldly stated on its front page that these policy ideas “were leaked against him [Turnbull] before they were hammered out by cabinet”.
This could very well prove to be another disastrous captain’s call by the PM or an example of aggressive Credlin overreach designed to damage internal competitors to the PM.
Whatever the case, it is a sure-fire way to bleed ministerial support on the leadership question because if it can be done to Malcolm Turnbull, who else will be leaked against?
Fairfax Media chairman Roger Corbett was spot on when he told Lateline last night that the leaks were a major problem.
“The perception is, for one reason or another, that that team is not working as effectively as it might together, and this leak is another example really of that,” Corbett said.
Abbott has been privately complaining that his vulnerability has led to all sorts of backbench demands for policy compromises, but he now has to make key decisions that effectively pit all the non-Murdoch interests in the media industry against News Corp. It’s an exquisite wedge.
Abbott asked Turnbull to produce an options paper after they met on November 26 last year. This was duly done and then leaked.
Bemused cabinet ministers will now sit back and wait to see which policy position comes to cabinet. What if anti-Murdoch Turnbull can’t agree with his pro-Murdoch Prime Minister?
Does Abbott have an effective veto to never list the issue as a cabinet item? Or does it become a numbers game in cabinet, and a proxy vote on the leadership?
Ironically, it was former News Limited executive chairman John Hartigan who led the charge, urging Turnbull to get on with reforms in this interview he did with Darren Davidson last Wednesday, two days before the reform package was leaked.
There is no other area of regulatory reform where those regulated get to agree on any changes before a government will act, but the media industry has long been a special case of powerful vested interests in Australia.
However, it appears that consensus is impossible because Foxtel and the free-to-air networks will never agree on the anti-siphoning list.
Turnbull appears to favour pushing on with reform of the other major issues while leaving the sports rights issue untouched, as he explained to the AFR this morning.
Given that Rupert Murdoch’s family is worth about $15 billion and sits atop a New York-based, US-listed public company empire capitalised at about $108 billion today, it is pretty cheeky for this US citizen to demand that the relative tiddlers he competes against in Australia should not be allowed to merge.
So what if Seven West Media, today capitalised at $1.44 billion, spends a piddling $320 million buying Prime Media Group? And who cares if Network Ten recreates old alliances with Southern Cross Media to create a bigger, stronger competitor capitalised at just $1.4 billion? These deals are currently illegal, yet it was perfectly fine for Foxtel to spend $4 billion in recent years taking out both Austar and the Packer family’s media rump, Consolidated Media Holdings.
Given that The Australian’s media editor, Sharri Markson, has been joking that Fairfax Media should be covered in the “small business section” of Rupert’s Australian flagship, who are they to deny it the opportunity to achieve some scale through a merger with Nine Entertainment Company?
If the Abbott government is generally about reducing red tape and fostering competition, the 75% reach rule should be abolished for free-to-air networks and the two-out-of-three rule — which prevents a single company controlling more than two media platforms in a given geographic market, covering radio, newspapers and free-to-air television — should also be repealed in favour of a conventional Australian Competition and Consumer Commission regime. For starters, this bizarre two-out-of-three policy excludes the pay-TV industry, which former Labor communications minister Stephen Conroy allowed to become a Murdoch-managed monopoly, and the magazine industry, which is now a three-way contest between Seven West Media, News Corp and new entrant Bauer Media from Germany.
Then you have the requirement for five competitors in metro markets and four in the regions. This should also be given the flick, considering the vast array of choice the internet and social media platforms has thrown up, not to mention the opportunities that will come with the NBN and streaming-video-on-demand services.