On a day when he perhaps should have been getting stuck into billionaire corporate loudmouth Gerry Harvey, Rupert Murdoch’s favourite Australian business commentator Terry McCrann was instead making demands of the Prime Minister. McCrann reckons Turnbull is a dead man walking, unless he personally rings his best mate Andrew Bolt “to ask for a full hour of his Sky News program” for a no-holds-barred exchange in which he would “lay out a comprehensive, cohesive, freedom-focused policy and political agenda”. As he ranted away over the rest of his column, McCrann again focused on the repeal of section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act as a vital reform, which must go ahead so we can all enjoy free speech. Meanwhile, inside the media empire that employs McCrann and Bolt, free speech remains sadly curtailed. Was Terry asleep at 10am last Friday morning when Rupert Murdoch opened the News Corp AGM at Fox Studios in Los Angeles and proved once again that he doesn’t really promote a culture of free speech? As Gerard Henderson would say, let’s go to the transcript:
Rupert Murdoch: As noted in the rules of procedures for the conduct of the meeting that were provided to you when you registered today, each person is limited to two questions which should each be no longer than a minute in length. We ask that you comply with the rules and procedures of the conduct of the meeting so we can conduct an orderly meeting. Stephen Mayne: Look, just as a procedural matter before hand, I’d like to propose an amendment to the meeting procedures. At point 7 where it says “each speaker is limited to a total of no more than two questions”, I’d like to formally propose to the meeting, and I’ll be seeking a seconder, that the word “two” be changed to “five” so that each speaker is limited to asking no more than five questions. Rupert Murdoch: You are out of order … you know the rules, you read the rules last year [I didn’t go last year] and again this year when you came, just ask a question. Stephen Mayne: OK, my first question. One of the newspapers displayed out the front here is The Australian and it has the front page headline "PM, Triggs in in open battle on 18c”. It goes to this long campaign that we have been running in Australia for free speech. You are arguing that the laws should be changed because of these limitations on free speech so my first question is how can a company which campaigns for lifting restrictions on free speech which would never allow its journalists to tolerate a politician saying you’ve got two questions, one minute each. How can this entire board of directors and you chairman, with your 60-year history in free speech, possibly continue to support this thoroughly undemocratic almost North Korean attempt to oppress minority shareholders from being able to express their views at the one meeting of the year where shareholders get a voice? So please, why are you not allowing shareholders to have a proper debate, rather than these 20- and 30-minute meetings? Why are you continuing to conduct AGMs which are designed to minimise attendance? Meeting in a parking lot! I mean, Disney gets 300 shareholders, Warren Buffett goes for eight hours with thousands. We have got five shareholders here today. We had six this morning. You are deliberately trying to make this a non-event and it goes against your full history and I just ask you chairman, why are you doing this? Rupert Murdoch: We have not changed our practices at all. If 300 people wanted to come they would be very welcome, we would love to see more people.
Truth be known, Rupert only introduced the written two-question limit at his AGMs in 2014, when he was 83. We’ve never quite been at McCrann’s demand of one hour, head to head, but back in the good old days of Adelaide in 1999, Rupert did allow 15 uninterrupted questions over 40 minutes and McCrann watched on approvingly that day. As 77-year-old Gerry Harvey demonstrated at his Harvey Norman AGM yesterday, billionaires do tend to get less and less tolerant as they age. Under extreme pressure over the accuracy of his accounts, Harvey at first refused to talk to journalists such as the AFR’s Neil Chenoweth in the lead-up to the AGM. When proceedings opened, he introduced the straw man of a dodgy short-seller, although his formal address still hasn’t been lodged with the ASX. When it came to the debate, he lashed out viciously at two representatives from the Australian Shareholders’ Association when they asked polite questions. “God, you're a pain in the arse," Gerry told ASA director Allan Goldin, while his colleague, former ASA director David Jackson copped: "Why don't you shut up and get out of here." At least Rupert just doesn’t let you speak at all, rather than getting into the insult business.