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Turnbull's bone for the News Corp behemoth


'Murdoch' by Chris Johnston shows Rupert Murdoch traversing the globe dragging small online news outlets behind himIn the closing decade of the 20th century, that distant era when intelligent people could still be heard arguing about whether newspapers would survive the rise of the internet, a departing editor of The Age sent me a handwritten note. After saying the usual things — thank you for your contribution to the paper, I've enjoyed working with you, etc. — he concluded with 'And I wish you the best of luck in these uncertain times'.

The line is etched in my memory because there hasn't been a day since when it didn't accurately characterise the plight of those who work in Australia's media.

The same editor also used to remind people that this age of uncertainty had not begun with the arrival of the internet, but with a short-sighted political decision.

In 1987 the Hawke Government allowed Rupert Murdoch's News Ltd to buy the Herald and Weekly Times, which then controlled most of the nation's daily newspapers outside Sydney. The consequence was that ownership of the metropolitan dailies, which had already been dangerously over-concentrated with three dominant players, was now, in all states except WA, in the hands of only two: the News Ltd behemoth, and an increasingly nervous Fairfax, proprietor of The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and the Australian Financial Review.

The nervousness soon turned to panic as Warwick Fairfax — 'young Warwick' — took on massive debt to buy back shares in the company, thus restoring it to his family and thereby hoping to protect it from the acquisitive Murdoch. The debt was to be repaid by earnings from Fairfax's flourishing and newly secured business. Or at least that was the plan. But it did not work as intended because 1987 was also the year of a global share market crash that slashed company valuations, making young Warwick's debt unsustainable.

The would-be saviour left the country, Fairfax was briefly placed in receivership, and since then has staggered and faltered under a revolving-door succession of managements. Like their counterparts vainly trying to save other newspaper empires around the world, none has found a way of replacing the classified-advertising revenues that have steadily been lost to stand-alone internet sites.

And so Fairfax, once the standard-bearer of quality journalism in Australia, now offers its readers ever-thinner papers and ever more dumbed-down websites, produced by ever-shrinking staffs. Meanwhile News Ltd wields ever-greater political influence through its dominance of the nation's media.

Why rehearse this history? Because the communications revolution wrought by the internet has been so dazzling that people too easily view all problems of media policy through the frame of that revolution.

Yes, the internet has destroyed the newspaper business model. Yes, the different delivery platforms that distinguish print from broadcast media merge in digital media. And yes, the interactivity of the internet, especially through social media, is transforming the relationship between journalists and their audience.

But while all that has been going on the excessive concentration of ownership created by the Hawke Government's stupidity has not gone away. And it matters that it hasn't gone away because most people — including the contributors and readers of digital sites such as Crikey, New Matilda, The Conversation, Inside Story and, indeed, Eureka Street — still depend on so-called 'legacy' media for most of their information.

Some of these sites sometimes break news. But on at least three days out of five, and in some weeks on five days out of five, they are essentially purveyors of commentary. That is no bad thing, of course, because together they offer a greater range and depth of commentary than is available in mainstream media. But they are not primarily bearers of news: apart from anything else, they do not have the staff or the budgets to conduct a news-gathering operation.

There are recently established digital sites, such as The New Daily and Guardian Australia, that do compete with mainstream news media, but they are lean operations that rely on other sources to supplement what they can offer readers from their own newsrooms: the Guardian draws from its UK parent and The New Daily, thus far at any rate, runs a lot of wire-service and contributed copy.

All this digital media activity has allowed savvy users of the internet to seek and sift information from multiple sources, thereby acquiring a kind of independence from the agendas of editorial decision-makers in mainstream media that was not possible in the pre-internet world. As Guardian columnist Katharine Murphy has pointed out, however, that is an elite usage of the 'net. Most consumers still depend on mainstream media, whether print, broadcast or digital, for news and usually for commentary on it too.

And because that is so, Australia's cross-media ownership laws, which at present prohibit a proprietor from owning more than two of three kinds of outlet — print, television and radio — in the same local market, are all that prevents another 1987-style upheaval, resulting in yet further concentration of ownership.

Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has indicated that the Government favours lifting these restrictions, citing the usual argument that the merging of delivery platforms in the digital age makes distinctions between print and broadcast media obsolete. Future media acquisitions, he says, should be regulated only by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, just like any other corporate merger or takeover.

If the argument were about technology alone, Turnbull's case would be incontestable. But it is not about technology alone. For, as Murphy, The Conversation's Michelle Grattan and others have also pointed out, we all know who would be most interested in acquiring the assets that would be up for grabs if the cross-media laws are repealed. It won't be the proprietors of the newer, digital-only sites. It will be the owners of the existing newspaper and broadcasting empires, and the quickest to pounce would be the behemoth itself, News Ltd.

Turnbull surely knows this. As anyone who has discussed the future of media with him can attest, he is unusual among Australian politicians in having a keen regard for the role of journalism in any democracy worthy of the name. That makes his blithe disregard of the prospect of handing Rupert Murdoch even greater influence over Australian politics all the more puzzling, and it is unsurprising that some observers see the foreshadowed law change as a pay-off for News Corp's support of the Coalition in the 2013 election.

Whatever the Governnent's motive may be, the vigour of Australia's democracy would be sapped by what it proposes to do.



Ray Cassin headshotRay Cassin is a contributing editor.

Topic tags: Ray Cassin, Rupert Murdoch, Fairfax, Malcolm Turnbull, Crikey, Bob Hawke



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Existing comments

Maybe the price the Liberal Party had to pay to get the backing of Murdoch in the last election, especially with the spiritual influence of Pell over Abbott....[plus being a Papal Knight donating millions to build a new Cathedral some where in the USA]; e's connected to, far removed from condoning shonky deals.

Lynne Newington | 23 March 2014  

People read Murdoch because they have a choice and choose to execute it . They dominate because people reject the left in Australia today . Just accept the will of the people who vote with their hard earned cash . Who in their right mind would read the Age , so negative rather shoot myself .

NameJohn crew | 24 March 2014  

Eureka is more and more like a political party. Please get out of politics and concentrate on religious matters.

Theo Verbeek | 24 March 2014  

Theo, back when Eureka Street first came out in hard copy, it covered a range of relevant issues, both political and religious. I never thought the mag was ever just about religion. In fact, a friend of mine at the time, a good atheist, commented he thought ES was the best social, political and religious commentary publication in the country. And if an article on the stranglehold on Australian media by one person is not ultimately about values, morality and challenging the reigning elites, then I don't know what is. I do recall Jesus throwing down the gauntlet a number of times in the Gospels about power, who's got it and how its used. I suspect if Jesus was wandering the earth these days, Rupert and others in the media temples, would be squarely in his sights!

Lawrence Wray | 24 March 2014  

Theo, in the Lord's Prayer we pray "thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven". Are we to do nothing about what we pray for?

Kim Chen | 24 March 2014  

Ray, thank you for your thoughts on this matter. I am also very concerned. I read the SMH each day, but it is clearly not the paper it once was, especially in the business section. So I read the Business Section of the Australian whenever I can, but not much of the rest of that paper, it is by far to one sided and lacks balance. The daily Telegraph is not worth reading at all, except maybe for sport. So any further media power to News Corp should, in my opinion, be a big concern for the nation. It gives too much power to one man.

Ron Hill | 24 March 2014  

I share Ray Cassin's concern but think he's a bit harsh on the SMH. It still has some very good journalists and it vigorously pursues important issues like asylum seekers. Yes, it also caters for those who wish to know about celebrities, etc. but it would cease to exist otherwise.

Zia | 24 March 2014  

I've just read some of the comments. May I remind those who call others 'lefties' that Jesus was political and was killed as a consequence. My beliefs come from Catholic values, such as compassion and caring about the common good but these days it seems that these Christian values make us 'lefties'!

Zia | 24 March 2014  

Theo, you are right, too much politics, Sadly, the authors and most and most of the correspondents, politically support the left wing ideology, and religiously support modernism. No wonder the vast majority of Catholics don't bother with Eureka Street.

Ron Cini | 24 March 2014  

The prospect of New Ltd owning any more of the Australian media is a deeply depressing one - not just because it's Rupert Murdoch, but any media monopoly or near-monopoly is unwelcome to people who value diversity of news sources.

Rodney Wetherell | 24 March 2014  

Turnbull can treat Murdoch as he sees fit as long as he cuts the ridiculously biassed ABC back to size.

Bill Barry | 24 March 2014  

In my opinion Mr Cassin makes the same mistake that the drafters of media ownership regulations did, and will no doubt continue to do. That is, to try to prevent or facilitate the takeover of existing news media by particular corporations or individuals. This tends to offend the principle of equality under the law and results in poor, short-lived legislation. As far as the politics of Eureka Street are concerned, to me it has, in the past, always shown a keen sense of social justice and intellectual rigour. It is the latter that seems to be changing under the current editorship rather than any particular veering to the left or right.

J Vernau | 24 March 2014  

Theo Verbeek and Ron Cini, If you really want to see how the Gospel challenges politics, economics and social doctrine, read the extensive social Gospel encyclical letters of the Popes especially from Leo XIII to the Apostolic Exhortation and speeches of Pope Francis. They will provide, one might hope, an education. If all that is in the too hard basket, go back to Sheridan and associated hacks at Murdoch Inc.

David Timbs | 24 March 2014  

Eureka Street is still an excellent newspaper because it does cover a wide range of political, religious and social justice issues. The editors and writers are brilliant and compassionate and deeply concerned about our future. They are continuing the good work of Jesus who was highly political in both his life and his philosophy. Jesus was also deeply concerned about the poor, and didn't have much good to say about the self interested cashed-up right wingers either!

Annabel | 25 March 2014  

Not sure which is scarier; media control in the hands of the state or in the hands of a power-hungry billionaire with his own corporate agenda. But readers must also bear part of the blame for the situation you describe for choosing to read the less mentally challenging option.

Jane Canaway | 06 January 2015  

Thank you. This is a very important piece. It's now clear from the many hints over a few months in 'The Australian' that the paper regards the Abbott-Hockey economic leadership as a dud. There are also hints that they'd like to see a change. As they spruik Murdoch's monstrous ruling philosophy - markets are not only the most efficient but the most moral of systems - they would certainly like to be given a free hand to capture virtually the whole of the print media. Is this what Turnbull has to deliver to get their full support?

Len Puglisi | 06 January 2015  

During the 1989 Airline Dispute a Melbourne Herald journalist told me that Rupert Murdoch had embargoed any reports that adversely affected Ansett's interest. Such as my situation as a pilot who never resigned, nor refused to fly, but was dismissed merely for claiming the continued right to freedom of association with the union.

Bob, Bundeena | 06 January 2015  

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