At Large

Escalating the War on Murdoch

The Australian government fiddles with media control.

By 11.22.11

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Writing here on July 21, I drew attention to the attack on the Murdoch press by Australia's leftist Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, and the unprecedented threat to press freedom in this country which it posed.

Things have now progressed.

The Government  is holding an inquiry into the Australian media that will examine the business model of newspapers and regulatory oversight.

With characteristic hypocrisy, it was announced, not very prominently, that the inquiry would take "oral evidence" during sessions in Sydney and Melbourne only. Australia's cities, as a glance at the map indicates, are spreads out around the rim of the continent, and most other cities are hundreds, or thousands, of miles from Sydney or Melbourne. Plainly dissidents who lived in the other states will had little chance to make any personal appearance before the inquiry.

The first and most obvious target is the Murdoch press. Announcing the inquiry in Parliament, Communications Minister Senator Stephen Conroy stated: "I don't need an inquiry to establish that the Murdoch press owns 70 percent of newspapers in this country. We've all known that for 20 years. I don't need an inquiry to establish that some organs of the Murdoch Press are clearly running a campaign against this government" -- ominous enough words. In fact, some of Murdoch's journalists, such as Andrew Bolt and the Australian'sGreg Sheridan, are among the best in the country.

In July, Gillard said that News Ltd., the Australian arm of Murdoch's media empire, had some "hard questions" to answer in light of the UK phone hacking scandal. She declined, however, to say what those questions were, since none of these scandals had related to Australia.

Murdoch's British and Australian news organizations have completely different personnel. There has been no suggestion that News Ltd. or its personnel have been involved in any misconduct.

It is now suggested this be taken further, and the powers of a "press council" be extended to police private bloggers. It is proposed that the powers of the "Press Council" be expanded to allow it to impose fines of up to $30,000. Just to be sure there is to be no mistake as to where its power comes from, it is also proposed that it be further financed by the government.

The Press Council was set up by the newspaper industry in an attempt at self-regulation to forestall more thorough-going press control that had been threatened by the far-left Whitlam Labor Government in the 1970s (the electorate booted it out in the 1975 election).

The inquiry was demanded by the Greens, who like Greens elsewhere, have been captured by the extreme left to such an extent that their original platform of environmental conservation is hardly recognizable, and who have been treating Gillard as a sock-puppet in an attempt to force through a wide-ranging far leftist agenda -- abortion, euthanasia, homosexual marriage and the usual works.

Green leader Senator Brown said: "But how to get better diversity will be a challenging question for this inquiry. The public interest needs to be looked after." Does this mean Government intervention – i.e. press control -- to ensure "greater diversity"? If not, what can it mean? Behind this pronouncement is a typically leftist presumption that the public is not fit to look after its own interests and the task needs to be taken up by self-anointed guardians.

The inquiry is headed by a retired judge, Raymond Finkelstein. He is assisted by Matthew Ricketson, former writer for Murdoch's main media rival, Fairfax, publisher of the Sydney Morning Herald and the Melbourne Age.

Attacks on the Murdoch press from the left dwell on the fact that it has about 70 percent on the Australian market, its critics never admitting that the reason for this is simply that 70 percent of the media-consuming public prefers it.

Conroy claimed that "We need media that is independent, diverse and capable of putting the public interest above the interests of media owners." If in fact he is sincere in what he says, it suggests he has no understanding of how the media works. The big media are public companies and the "owners" tend to be widely dispersed shareholders. The left tends to have a mighty, superstitious awe of the power of the newspaper media and seems unable to understand that unlike public radio and television broadcasting, the press is dependent on the market (even to an unusual degree, given that it depends not only on readers but also, and primarily, on advertisers).

Conroy said the inquiry might also look at not-for-profit journalism initiatives such as those underway in the United States, whatever that means.

He said the review would look at applying the current "fit and proper person" test for broadcast media owners to newspaper proprietors, a suggestion with a distinctly sinister sound to it. Who shall decide who is "fit and proper"? The French Revolutionary Law of 22 Prairial, which sent people to the guillotine for a "bad moral character," has no place in Anglic jurisprudence. As a matter of fact, Murdoch has demonstrated a high concern for journalistic standards, whatever urban legends to the contrary exist. One of the last times he bought a thoroughly rotten paper, the West Australian Mirror, he promptly closed it down.

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, a former journalist, has said the media inquiry is an attempt to intimidate the industry.

Recently my e-mail has been deluged with literature from left-wing organizations claiming this is the chance of a lifetime to stop Murdoch, although when it comes to a question of exactly how, and why this is desirable, my correspondents tend to become a little vague.

While there is no evidence that the inquiry will not be objective within its terms of reference, this does not make the principle underlying it any better. Government should keep out of media control, apart from enforcing the normal laws against defamation. Even the appearance of press control should be avoided, and up till now has been. Since the days when Australia was a convict colony it has had a robustly free press. (One 19th-century politician was memorably described as "a bladder out of a sewer, which burst and left a nasty smell" -- perhaps it's a pity we don't still have that sort of gusto).

Since defamation is already covered by law, the obvious question is: What does the Government hope this inquiry will achieve? The equally obvious -- and only possible -- answer seems to be that it hopes to prepare the ground for political control and/or to frighten media owners and editors with the prospect of legislation or prosecutions. In other words, press control.

The Murdoch press is the principal forum in Australia for non-left commentators, apart for a few relatively small magazines like Quadrant and the IPA Review. The left is well entrenched in several of the other big-city dailies. And these broadly and predominantly support Gillard's crazy tax on carbon-dioxide emissions, which has emerged as the major issue in the next Federal election, and which Labor and the Greens hope to use (Obama-style) for a socialist transformation of the economy.

The chief critic of the carbon-dioxide tax has been, by some strange coincidence, the Murdoch press.

There is only one good thing to be said about this: The present Government's popularity is down in the sewer and by the time the committee reports in February, 2012, its days will be numbered.

Mr. Colebatch has contributed free-lance op-eds to the Murdoch-owned Australian and the Fairfax-owned Financial Review.

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About the Author
Hal G.P. Colebatch's "Immram," Counterstrike, is being published by Australian publisher Imaginites.