Despite being in the business of controlling public debate, Murdoch newspaper editors often remain in the bunker, preferring to let their newspapers do the talking, rather than engaging with external parties. The likes of Chris Mitchell (The Australian) and Paul Whittaker (The Daily Telegraph) rarely do radio interviews, appear at conferences or provide written replies to questions from rival journalists. Indeed, some News Corp editors take a similar approach to Media Watch, simply ignoring written inquiries. This bunker mentality also explains why so few Murdoch editors have the courage to take their chances on Twitter. It therefore came as quite a surprise when Herald Sun editor Damon Johnston was lured out of his bunker this week when I submitted the following letter for publication on Monday morning:
Stop bagging councils Enough with the endless negativity from the Herald Sun on anything to do with local government. Saturday’s editorial (“Our ratepayer rip-off”) demanded lower pay for council CEOs. Why don’t you point out that public company shareholders pay your proprietor, Rupert Murdoch, more money in salary each year than all 79 Victorian council CEOs combined? Such hypocrisy from the Herald Sun! Monday’s editorial (“Put the clamp on fine quotas”) then demeaned City of Melbourne’s hard working parking officers as “grey ghosts” and lamented the fact we have some in-house output transparency on their important work. Since when has measuring staff outputs constituted “workplace bullying and harassment”? And when we spend modest sums on staff morale initiatives such as the recent “I hold the line” video featuring parking officers, you bag that too. The Herald Sun’s constantly negative coverage of local government in Victoria is closer to bullying and harassment than anything happening at Town Hall. Would you prefer our parking officers sit around playing cards all day, meaning rates would have to go up? Stephen Mayne Chair of Finance and Governance committee City of Melbourne
It has become a bit of a game over the years to submit letters to News Corp publications that contain embarrassing comments about the Murdoch family. You know they will never be published under Rupert’s authoritarian anti-free speech culture and the amusing bit is listening to the strange excuses that get offered up, if there is any engagement at all. However, after sending a polite follow-up text to the Herald Sun editor a few minutes after the letter was emailed through, it was surprising to read this thunderous reply, which came back within minutes under the bolded headline “ON THE RECORD”:
Stephen, Six months ago, you accused the Herald Sun of exploiting seriously ill children to further the commercial interests of the Murdoch family. It was a shameful allegation to make. You should have spoken to the doctors and families involved before so recklessly embarking on another conspiracy theory. Now you expect me to publish your letter because you feel we’ve been unfair on a bunch of over paid local govt bureaucrats and parking inspectors. Stick your letter in your tin foil hat. Regards Damon
It’s obviously not quite up there with this famous 6000-word spray launched by Terry McCrann in 2004, but the Murdoch editor has clearly been stewing silently over this Crikey piece for six months. We all want governments to cough up taxpayer cash to solve every ill in the world, but I completely stand by that Crikey piece criticising the Herald Sun for demanding, on its front page, that the next Victorian government borrow even more money to back a Murdoch family charity. Indeed, a director of one of the medical institutions involved told me he felt “a bit dirty” being part of the Murdoch family’s demands for taxpayer cash just days before a knife-edge election. Given the way the world’s most powerful family regularly stands over governments in Western democracies, there should be a lot more scrutiny of their rent-seeking actions. And daring to criticise the practice should in no way lead to an elected politician being blackballed from having their political views heard in the Herald Sun. It’s straight-out abuse of market power, which might very well be worth testing through the Australian Press Council.