Election 2013 media panel

Have rumours of Rupert Murdoch’s declining influence been greatly exaggerated?

The Media Panel’s co-chair, Professor Brian McNair, says the days of Rupert Murdoch’s influence on election results are gone, with the company weakened and today’s citizenry no longer passive consumers of everything they’re dished up. Perhaps; I’m not so sure. To re-phrase a line uttered by Woody Allen in Love and Death after Diane Keaton tells him “But Boris Grushenko, sex without love is an empty experience”, he replies: “Yes, but as empty experiences go it’s one of the best”.

Murdoch’s global media empire may have been shaken like never before in its long history thanks to the still unfolding News of the World phone hacking scandal and the crumbling of the business model that has long sustained print-based media companies, but it still wields substantial power and influence; it’s still “one of the best”. Witness not only the front page of the Daily Telegraph yesterday but also the response to it across the news media. In Australia, Murdoch controls 14 of the 21 metropolitan daily and Sunday newspapers.

Newspapers may be under threat as a medium but even after the unprecedented wave of redundancies last year at Fairfax Media, News Limited (now News Corporation Australia) and Network 10, newspapers’ newsrooms have many more journalists and photographers than their counterparts in radio and television. As Eric Beecher, head of Private Media Partners, has frequently commented, newspapers remain the engine room of reporting in the Australian media.

There is, though, an odd passivity, or at the least a disconnect, in the way many have reacted to what appears a coordinated campaign on the part of News Corp Australia to replace the Labor government with a Tony Abbott-led Coalition government.

Some commentators are outraged, others aren’t fussed but this pattern of media behaviour is long entrenched and the most recent effort to address these issues - at least in part - ended disastrously. I’m referring to the Independent Media Inquiry and the package of bills that flowed from it and from the Convergence Review Committee’s report, and died a horrible death in federal parliament earlier this year. (Full disclosure: I was appointed by the government to assist the chair of the inquiry, retired Federal Court judge Ray Finkelstein QC).

The merits or otherwise of the bills can be debated and the manner in which they were brought into parliament can be condemned (as almost every commentator did), but what I want to draw your attention to from the rushed senate inquiry into the bills was an exchange between Greens senator Scott Ludlam and Finkelstein in which Ludlam said “One of the most interesting responses, I guess, to the tabling of your report was that it provided a brilliant illumination of how we will not ever get any straight reporting of media reform proposals, which is ironic”. To which Finkelstein replied: “I had assumed that the reporting of my report was a warning to the parliament of what would come next,” before adding drily “that is a layperson’s view”. (From Hansard for the Senate Environment and Communications Committee, 19 March 2013).

This is also a view that was not reported in the mainstream news media even though Finkelstein’s appearance at the Senate inquiry marked his first public utterance on his controversial report.

That Australia has had highly concentrated ownership of the print media has been true for well over two decades. That little has been done about it during that period while its ill effects on the body politic have been increasingly well documented, not least in a 2012 book by Associate Professor David McKnight, is also true. If the concern expressed by many at the Daily Telegraph’s recent front page prompts public outrage well and good. Let’s see what, if any, media policies Labor and the Coalition present to voters.