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Rupert Murdoch as moral arbiter


In the wake of the News of the World scandal, the British Government media regulator Ofcom has deferred its decision on whether Rupert Murdoch and his executives are 'fit and proper' to increase their stake in the dominant Pay TV operator BSkyB, which is seen to be the country's most important media property.

Ofcom faces immense challenges in deciding because the law that sets out the requirement does not explain what is meant by 'fit and proper'. If it was about financial solvency there would be no doubt about Murdoch's suitability. More likely it's moral solvency, and that's where his credentials are questionable.

We might think our parents and teachers taught us how to separate right from wrong. But for many, these early influences have been supplanted by others, specifically media opinions and role models. 

The media is no doubt the most influential agent in forming the opinions of Australians on the morality of issues such as detaining asylum seekers or imposing a price on carbon. We may not be conscious of the fact that we take our moral cues from the media, and that media proprietors are the most powerful moral arbiters in western society. But if Murdoch has the largest share of media ownership, he is the dominant influence on our choice of right and wrong.

Recent research commissioned by Amnesty International has shown that it matters greatly what we are told, or not told, by the media. Essential Media, which did the polling, found that anti-asylum seeker sentiments are fuelled by misconceptions and a lack of facts rather than racism.

This demonstrates that our judgment of what is right and wrong is largely determined by the information and viewpoints that editors choose to present. For example media headlines and commentators frequently refer to asylum seekers as 'illegals'. Therefore many Australians believe refugees are violating our sovereignty when they arrive in Australia seeking asylum. Editors also decide how much prominence to give to the views of commentators like Piers Ackerman, relative to those of experts such as Julian Burnside. 

Obviously it is the task of editors to select which facts the public should be exposed to. But the community needs to be satisfied that editors and the proprietors who employ them are 'fit and proper', and that their selection is geared towards making the world a better place to live in for all. John Menadue of the Centre for Policy Development is one leading thinker who believes their performance does not measure up to this standard. 

He gave a presentation to the St James Ethics Centre on 30 June that discussed 'the misinformation and untruth which is a feature of the current debate' on asylum seekers. He said 'The media has largely gone missing. On asylum seekers the Coalition and some of the media have invented their own “facts”.' Earlier, in a commentary for Crikey, he referred to the view of a US columnist who believes we're moving into an age of 'post-truth politics' where facts have become a hindrance.

The consensus of public opinion in the UK is also emerging as a hindrance. This is gratifying in that it appears the public will not stand for media conduct that demeans human beings, and the regulator will be under pressure to act accordingly.

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street. 

Topic tags: Michael Mullins, Murdoch, ofcom, Amnesty, asylum seekers, media, Essential Research, John Menadue



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Existing comments

Who would ever consider a newspaper, of any variety, to be worthy of 'believing'? And given the incredible bias shown in The Australian, we in Australia don't have to look too far for bad reporting do we? I've long since stopped buying newspapers since here in Qld we have two NewsCorp rags to choose from, both really bad, and APN, which, frankly, is more of a comic book than the Courier Mail. Commmercial TV and radio are out, and so that leaves the ABC and SBS. Sadly, the ABC is becoming ever more NewsCorp-like. Solution? Have a rigourous sense of right and wrong, and use the Internet for your own research, for a start. Newspapers treat us all is if we were a bunch of Westies but unfortunately, far too many are.

Harry Wilson | 11 July 2011  

In the wake of scandals here involving asylum seekers killing themselves, Indonesian kids in adult maximum security prisons and now law breaking on behalf of the government trying to push refugees to some other place the Australian is still peddling the people smuggler crap. It is not people smuggling, it is a legal right.

Marilyn | 11 July 2011  

A good article, Michael and a good comment from Harry Wilson. I too am frustrated by mediocre and superficial mainstream media coverage of news, current affairs, politics, the economy, sport, the arts etc. The only Australian media which provides a good service is ABC Radio National, community radio stations such as 3CR, 3RRR and 3PBS in Melbourne and community TV station channel 31.In Melbourne, the local ABC radio station 774 has been 'dumbed down' to compete with the commercial talkback shockjock station 3AW.

The best news and current affairs programs are produced overseas and include those produced by Deutsche Welle, the US PB Newshour and the BBC World Service.

Mark Doyle | 11 July 2011  

"obviously it is the task of editors to select which facts the public should be exposed to."

Just as obviously it is the task of editors to help ensure that enough members of the public buy their publication so that staff can be paid and owners make a profit. This means having such a circulation as to entice advertising revenue.

I regret to say that I share Harry Wilon's jaundiced view of a newspaper similar to The Australian. It is called The Catholic Weekly.

Uncle Pat | 11 July 2011  

Piers Ackerman of course is a former News Ltd editor (Daily Telegraph). Too much of what Australians think as fact is drawn from the Murdoch press. The Brits are rethinking media plurality in an environment where Murdoch owns just 40% of print media as opposed to 70% here. Any wonder public discourse in Australia is skewed on a range of important public interest issues, including climate change and asylum seekers. His influence is malignant. In the US, Murdoch helps finance the Tea Party; his toxic FoxNews dumbs down discussion, with no care for facts or consequences and is blatantly a mouthpiece for the Republicans and their most extreme connections. I welcome the scrutiny he is now under in the UK but fear it will not impact here.

Kate | 14 July 2011  

I would like to ask Harry Wilson if he considers the Fairfax press publications are biased or not?During World Youth Day in 2008 the Sydney Morning Herald had hardly one good word to say about this event.

John Tobin | 21 July 2011  

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