As he cleared out his desk after resigning yesterday as chair of the Australian Press Council (APC), maybe it crossed Professor David Weisbrot’s crestfallen mind that he might now seek some solace by lodging a private complaint with the APC against The Australian for the way it has hounded him from his position. Few would blame him.
The media release announcing his departure quotes directly from Weisbrot’s letter of resignation. His disappointment is palpable, but he had the dignity not to name the newspaper or single out any of the obedient News Corp thugs who’d written the dozen or so stories that broke his spirit.
The professor said he was leaving because of “persistent personal attacks” and a campaign of “misinformation” over the council’s appointment of GetUp deputy chair Carla McGrath as a public member of the APC. He went on:
“For the record, the basis of these attacks is thoroughly misconceived, suggesting that the appointment of a public member to the Council is within the gift of the Chair, and that I have the authority unilaterally to ‘rescind’ that appointment. In fact, the whole appointment process was carried out with careful attention to good process and the requirements set down by the Council’s Constitution.”
But facts count for little at Holt Street when News Corp’s hounds smell blood. Weisbrot has now learned, the hard way, how brutally the Murdoch press can wield its power. The purported independence and authority of the self-regulation body they claim to support means nothing to the national broadsheet. It will repeatedly swing a sledgehammer to smash any gnat with the courage to confront its increasingly paranoid positions.
Let us be blunt. The Australian has run a vicious three-week campaign against Weisbrot and the McGrath appointment, and this morning the paper gloried in its kill. Too cunning to openly dance on the departing chairman’s grave, The Australian‘s news report tried to pretend his resignation had come in response to widespread media opposition to the McGrath appointment rather than its own series of beat-ups.
As usual, editor-in-chief Paul Whittaker had himself quoted in the Oz report. “Put simply, the wrong person is stepping down,” he said. “GetUp! Deputy chair Carla McGrath should never have been appointed as she does not fulfill the necessary criteria as a public member.” No doubt what remains of the APC will note that heavy hint that The Australian’s campaign won’t stop until McGrath is dumped.
Of course, this is not the first time The Australian has sicced its pit bulls onto a Press Council chair who felt compelled to hold News Corp to account. Just three years ago it was ripping into Weisbrot’s predecessor, Julian Disney, after a handful of mildly contrary adjudication findings.
In a remarkably personal attack, an Oz editorial in August 2014 deplored his “peculiar tastes and political predilections”, accused Disney of “poor stewardship”, “biases” and “ideological activism”. He was mocked as the “censor-in-chief” and “emperor of taste”. The council (of which News Corp is by far the largest single funder) was dismissed as “erratic in its rulings”, “ponderous”, “ineffective” and “unmoored from its foundations”. It had “lost the plot” and “run off the rails”.
That was then; now is no different.
And who would now be prepared to accept appointment to the APC chair knowing what The Australian has done to their two predecessors? What candidate of any quality would risk having their reputation destroyed by the thin-skinned News Corp bullies? The next press proprietors’ lapdog will likely be too cowed by recent history to even come out of their kennel.
Meanwhile, every day in its page 2 publisher’s box the Oz prints the same small announcement beside the APC logo. It begins with this sentence: “The Australian is bound by the standards of practice of the Australian Press Council.” How noble. As a reminder, here are two of those standards:
Accuracy and clarity Ensure that factual material in news reports and elsewhere is accurate and not misleading, and is distinguishable from other material such as opinion.
Fairness and balance Ensure that factual material is presented with reasonable fairness and balance, and that writers’ expressions of opinion are not based on significantly inaccurate factual material or omission of key facts.
As they high-fived each other on the news of Weisbrot’s resignation yesterday afternoon it’s unlikely that the editors at Holt Street had those principles in mind.
What this whole unpleasant episode demonstrates, yet again, is the fundamental hypocrisy that underpins the media self-regulation construct in Australia. If the APC’s processes and findings don’t suit a powerful member such as News Corp, the company will refuse to abide by the council’s rules and attack any councilor not to its liking.
Self-regulation, at least for the Murdoch mafiosi, is only a worthwhile system of media accountability as long as it doesn’t challenge their power to pursue vendettas.