Aussie Press Under the Empire of Murdoch

Sydney, Australia

During last year’s Federal Election campaign, I ran the Counterspin blog on the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) and Melbourne Age websites. It was an instructive experience. The ABC was the only other mainstream news organisation to embrace the new technology. I quickly learnt that many readers were disillusioned and suspicious of the news they were being fed by the major media companies and wanted the media bosses to know it. They still wanted to marvel at the Murdoch minions working for a glorious Howard victory (mission accomplished) and the Fairfax troops offering a soft-left agenda and occasional critical editorial. The final leaders of the campaign gave the clearest indication yet of the true intentions, and indeed delusions, of our media players.

The Murdoch press all followed their master’s voice. He’d made it quite clear that Howard’s economic “success” and Iraqi “bravery” should be rewarded. During a visit to Australia in April 2004, Murdoch told 2GB’s Alan Jones that Australia “had to see the job through” in Iraq and urged changes to cross-media laws. “The old ideas of it [the media market] being too concentrated” were gone, he offered. Murdoch’s obedient editors know that crossing Rupert ensures a one-way ticket to media oblivion.

The Age, under then editor Michael Gawenda, spent years campaigning against some of Howard’s greatest excesses, especially the folly of the Iraq invasion, and draconian refugee policy, while campaigning for truth in government. And yet come election time, Howard was endorsed for a fourth term. Crikey! reported at the time that pressure had been exerted by management down to editorial for economic reasons. Fairfax’s editor-in-chief of metropolitan newspapers, Mark Scott, allegedly claimed that Mark Latham wouldn’t be good for business.

How, then, to explain the Sydney Morning Herald’s fence-sitting editorial? It’s impossible to accurately predict, but in all likelihood there was a tussle between management, who are actively campaigning for cross-media laws to be loosened, and many senior journalists and editors who argue that such a change would reduce editorial quality and increase reliance on advertising. It is quite clear that current Fairfax management is slowly but surely making the once-great media company as attractive a proposition as possible for a potential buyer once the media laws are inevitably changed some time after July 1 this year. More editorial staff are rumoured to be on the chopping block in 2005.

Former Prime Minister Paul Keating offered his own opinions on such matters in a column censored by the SMH in 2003. Deemed too touchy by senior management, including CEO Fred Hilmer, who had already expressed interest in expanding the Fairfax media empire, Keating wrote: “Fred, in advocating changes to the cross media rule thinks he is joining Kerry [Packer] and Rupert [Murdoch] in the media proprietors’ club. The difference is that each of them is long experienced and accomplished in the game of snatch and grab. Devouring a company or two before the main course has arrived. Fred would be still unfolding his napkin as the assets were swept off the table.”

And let us not forget that Eric Beecher, new owner of Crikey! and former editor of the SMH, also supports changes in the cross-media laws. Here’s Beecher in the SMH in June 2003: “Even if Rupert Murdoch emerged with a TV network (possible), or Kerry Packer acquired Fairfax (unlikely), does anyone really believe either of those enlarged groups would harness their television stations alongside their newspapers as serious political propaganda tools?” Is Beecher seriously suggesting that media moguls such as Murdoch don’t unite their empires to actively campaign on issues of choice, from Iraq to the dissolution of ABC Radio National or the UN?

The following day Mark Scott added his unsurprising views in the SMH. He argued that the myth of the media mogul “isn’t worth the paper it’s written on” and readers could take comfort in the fact that Fairfax’s “broad-based ownership structure is key to its ability to produce quality newspapers.” SMH editor Robert Whitehead, never one to avoid appeasing senior management, told Media Watch in 2003 that his paper would run Keating’s piece, but without the criticism of Hilmer. Suffice to say, we’re still waiting.

Fast forward to after the 2004 Federal Election and Mark Scott was speaking to Gerard Henderson’s status-quo enforcing think-tank, the Sydney Institute. He said that the SMH should maintain a non-partisan middle-ground and fight against media moguls who use their power to further a corporate agenda. Noble aims indeed, though far from reality at Fairfax. To even gain an entry-level job as a journalist with Fairfax requires experience in the corporate world, ideally a handful of university degrees, and vast amounts of world travel. I should know, I was a Fairfax trainee in 2003. How this is supposed to allow reporters to connect with any readers other than, as Scott boasts, “the educated and the affluent; the informed and the influential; the intellectual and cultural constituencies in Sydney”, is anyone’s guess. The majority is therefore ignoring the product. Scott sounds proud of his company’s elitism though increasing numbers of people are turning away – circulation of Fairfax papers is diving.

Despite the rhetoric suggesting otherwise, and some convincing arguments that current cross-media laws need improvement, impending changes would restrict access to voices deemed inappropriate or uncomfortable to the media masters on matters as far ranging as private defense contracting or multinational companies’ relationships with government.

One only has to look at countries such as America, Britain and Italy where media moguls have pressured government into easing ownership restrictions and the results are not, as claimed by our (mis)educated moguls, greater diversity. Quite the opposite, in fact. And this is exactly what they want. If you doubt the reality of media convergence, read Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman on the current struggles in the US.

How is all this relevant to alternative media in Australia? Understanding the incestuous web and collusion between the major media players, and witnessing the increasing emasculation of ABC and SBS, independent and online resources are more essential than ever.

The last years have seen a steady decline in the public trust towards the mainstream media. An increasing split is occurring between those, still in the majority, who rely predominantly on a handful of sources for information, often TV news or radio. A small but growing group picks and chooses from a wider selection, such as newspapers, blogs, online forums, TV current affairs and radio. Journalists long thought to be the last word on a particular topic may be nothing more than a starting-point for discussion. Their supremacy is being eroded, their agendas greatly scrutinised and challenged. A recent study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project in Washington reported that blog readership in the US was up 58 per cent in 2004, still only around one quarter of web users. 62 per cent still didn’t know what a blog was but this figure should dive in the coming years.

In Australia, blog penetration isn’t at the same level of the US, but already partisan point-scoring is becoming all-too-common. These are individuals, of the Left and Right, who blindly support John Howard or his opposite and spend their days throwing mud at opponents. It’s tiring, predictable and likely to lead to the situation in the US where bloggers are increasingly pressured to remain in one political corner, facing online retribution if they move away from the party line.

Blogger Kevin Drum of told The Australian in February that blogs might be going the way of tabloid journalism and talk radio. “It seems that the thing the blogosphere is becoming more famous for”, Drum said, “is figuring out new and better ways to hound people out of their job.” He may have a point. The strongest Australian bloggers aren’t officially or covertly tied to any particular political stripe, rather simply disseminating information and critiquing the foibles of Left and Right. After all, why read a blogger who sings the praises of John Howard without acknowledging his fundamental faults and then associating these problems with a Left conspiracy or campaign? Have we not reached a stage in our political development whereby commentators don’t imbue every comment or sentence with arguments for or against the ongoing culture wars?

Blogs are of course only one form of alternative media and many are increasingly far from independent. Last September a group of entrepreneurs launched a new publication in Adelaide, a city long captured by Murdoch’s The Advertiser. The Independent Weekly aims to provide a different approach to South Australia. It’s been a modest success thus far, proving that there are enough people in a city such as Adelaide who want to read news and views not filtered through the Murdoch perspective. Perhaps this newspaper’s example will inspire others around the country in believing that a media stranglehold on a city can be broken.

To be free of corporate or governmental restraints is difficult to achieve but we need to think of ways to bypass the established method of disseminating information. I once hoped that our local mainstream media would widen its gaze to the world outside (and recognise the existence of Africa and South America), or perform their duty of questioning institutionally accepted norms. No more. Newspapers like to see themselves as bastions of truth and fairness, passing through various filters to ensure truthfulness. Bloggers regularly self-publish. There is a middle ground. In South Korea, OhmyNews website claims 33,000 citizen reporters, many regularly writing news from their area, keeping tabs on ongoing stories and proving that individuals from all backgrounds can break the back of long-cherished journalistic ideals, many of which were designed to exclude the humble reader.

During the 2004 Federal Election campaign, the major political parties showed their general contempt for online media. Only the Greens utilised a blogger on its website and when I asked the ALP and Liberals why their online presence was so dismal, they responded that their policies were easily accessible, so what else did I possibly want?

The mainstream media is currently under attack from all sides. Nicholas Lemann wrote recently in The New Yorker “the danger of these ongoing assaults is a general public that ‘don’t believe in us [journalists], don’t want us, anymore’.” It’s hard to feel sympathy for this position, especially in Australia. Reliable and unfiltered news is essential in a functioning democracy and publications will always been needed to provide it. Views, however, are cheap and the online community now throws up literally millions. Experts in particular fields are what distinguish the trite from the terrific and insightful. The Australian media moguls and wannabes have clearly expressed their vision for the future and we should be aware of their Orwellian doublespeak when they talk about wanting alternative voices amongst the more established ones. These voices are already finding it difficult to break through the stranglehold of the mainstream’s reliance on the familial. I started my own blog to bypass the acceptable routes of publishing and I hope to build a regular readership keen to discover that there is a world beyond Tony Abbott’s love-child.

Andreas Whittam Smith founded the UK Independent newspaper. The notion of independence, he wrote, “doesn’t mean an absence of strong opinions, or the perfect balance of arguments for and against this or that. It’s doesn’t mean a particular system of ownership. It’s simply a promise to readers. That everything you find in the newspaper represents the editorial team’s own agenda and nobody else’s; neither the advertising department’s, nor the owner’s, nor any particular political party’s, nor any business interest.”

The only way to ensure this in Australia is to build alternative sources of news and views. The challenge has begun.

ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN is a freelance journalist, author and blogger. He writes for the Sydney Morning Herald online, Sydney’s Sun Herald, Znet, Counterpunch and many other publications. He can be reached at: