Tomorrow’s fish n’ chips: Kim Williams leaves News Corp

Kim Williams’ departure from News Corp can be seen through the prism of him having ‘failed to civilise’ the media giant. AAP/Tracey Nearmy

Poor old Kim Williams. It was like putting celebrity chef Gabriel Gaté in charge of the abattoir. Red in tooth and claw is the News Corp style, especially during election campaigns, and now in the midst of its extraordinarily visceral anti-Labor campaign, he is gone.

It is unlikely to make any difference to how the News Corp newspapers – the tabloids in particular – cover the campaign. “Kick this mob out” was page 1 of the Sydney’s Daily Telegraph on the first day of the campaign; “Send in the clown” was how page 1 of how Brisbane’s Courier-Mail reported Peter Beattie’s recruitment as a Labor candidate on August 9: it is not as though the allegedly civilising influence of Williams was having any visible effect.

Col Allan, the Murdoch man from New York, will get the job done for Rupert. And the job at hand is to defeat Labor at the election. Allan is a man who knows the culture – we are not talking Musica Viva here – and so does the new CEO, Julian Clarke. At least the News Corp Australia media release announcing his appointment said he did, with just the faintest sigh of relief.

The relevant paragraph reads:

News Corp executive chairman Rupert Murdoch said, “I am so pleased to have Julian taking the helm at News Corp Australia. He is an experienced executive with a unique understanding of our company’s culture, and the immense energy and clarity of vision necessary to drive our properties forward at this challenging time.”

Note the word “properties”. In any discussion about the Murdoch press’ coverage of the election, it is a word not to lose sight of. The newspapers are Rupert’s property, just as the Fairfax newspapers are the property of that company’s shareholders, and all other media outlets in Australia, except the ABC and SBS, are someone’s property.

How they use them is simply a matter of property rights. Isn’t it? Well, no. C. P. Scott, the towering editor of the Manchester Guardian, put it this way:

A newspaper has two sides to it. It is a business like any other, and has to pay in the material sense in order to live. But it is much more than a business. It is an institution…it is in its way an instrument of government. It has, therefore, a moral as well as a material existence.

It is in recognition of this institutional role – this moral existence - that democratic societies confer on the media certain privileges, including legal privileges. In return, society expects newspapers to perform a few core functions, one of which is to provide reliable information on which people can base their choices at election time. It is an implicit compact between newspapers and society.

It has been recognised since at least the middle of the twentieth century that an essential part of meeting these obligations has been to separate news from comment. While the line has never been clear cut, it has long been considered correct ethical practice to strive for impartiality in news coverage, and reserve prejudices and preferences for the comment pages.

By contrast with this, the Murdoch tabloids’ coverage of the election so far is terribly nineteenth century: highly partisan, with comment woven into the fabric of news coverage. They don’t even pretend to be impartial, which is honest in its own way, but it robs their readers of that bedrock of reliable information, the provision of which has so long been considered a central function of the press – and a responsibility to be shouldered in return for those privileges.

The Australian Press Council is careful in its Statement of Principles not to trespass on the property rights of the newspaper proprietors or to be too prescriptive about this question of separating news from comment. Principle Six is headed “Transparent and fair presentation”. The relevant sentence says:

Publications are free to advocate their own views and publish the bylined opinions of others, as long as readers can recognise what is fact and what is opinion.

The difficulty with the Murdoch tabloids’ approach is that it is impossible to be sure whether their readers are able to untangle the facts from the opinion. And the facts are reported in such a partisan way that it might not make much difference to their understanding even if they could.

No-one denies that Murdoch is entitled by property rights to run his papers like this, but it means he is not keeping his side of the implicit compact that newspapers have with the society they are meant to serve.

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