Election 2013 media panel

News Corp: it’s not a conspiracy … it’s just business

The Australian, along with its News Corp sister tabloids, have been noted for their strong campaigning journalism. But what is their agenda? AAP/Dean Lewins

An editorial in yesterday’s Australian entitled Independent and Irrelevant was the latest in a trilogy where it has attacked just about every conceivable competitor to News Corp’s operations in Australia for being biased.

It follows an Oz story of “a private experiment” by a “technologist”, who found that:

…headlines for election stories on websites published by The Guardian’s Australian arm and Fairfax Media are more biased than those of News Corporation sites.

But the story fails to mention that the survey methodology is based on a self-selecting poll, where the researcher had to add a note to rectify a serious flaw:

Because IP addresses are recorded with rankings I’ve already noticed some interesting geographical trends. I’d also suggest if you work for a publisher you shouldn’t be submitting 187 rankings in a row with the same bias (but thanks for caring so much).

Would it be hazardous to guess which News organisation might be spamming the results?

Yesterday’s editorial made no mention of the poll, looking instead for the root causes of “bias”. It argued that news organisations that “depend on other people’s money”, with the ABC, SBS and now even The Conversation, call themselves “independent” but actually have no accountability to their audience.

Independent journalists are answerable only to themselves…private sector media companies are, ultimately answerable only to the paying customer.

And of these private sector media, The Guardian is pilloried as a parasite on its “loss-making UK parent”, whilst the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age are accused of having failed their customers as their “survival is perilous”. So who really is left standing out of all of this? Only the company that has dominated the newspaper landscape in this country for decades largely through the sales of its dog-whistle tabloids.

But there is more, the editorial lauds The Australian itself as being the only true source of independent journalism, because it identifies itself as the reverse of the self-proclaimed left-wing “independent journalist”, that “it is immune from group think” and “free of political prejudice”. Its obligation to its customers “prevents a paper like The Australian straying too far from centre ground” where the “true mark of its independence is the quality of (its) journalism”!

The work of a great many fine journalists at the Oz is betrayed by this editorial which does not even pass the most rudimentary analysis. One only has to look at the Australian’s own poor readership figures, the fact that it has been running at a loss for many years, has by its own admission been acting editorially as an unabashed megaphone for the Right, and which has been accused of excessive groupthink by former staffers.

This begs the question: why is it bothering with such editorials at all? Does the Oz feel it has to defend the entire News stable for its Col Allan-led political assassination of Labor? Does it sense that Abbott is already in The Lodge and with the LNP in its pocket, it can hit out at every news source capable of critical and objective journalism?

Of course, with a debt still to be called in, News might well be in the box seat for future media reforms. More aggressively than Fairfax, News continues to entice customers online, but with its news behind paywalls, its main competitors become independent but free news services - no matter how small - like The Conversation or the the ABC with its vast resources of multimedia news delivery become real competitors.

As Bernard Keane and Glenn Dyer have argued, we can expect to see The Australian ramp up its attacks on the ABC (and doubtless The Guardian and The Conversation) as being biased “group thinkers” who are dumping news that rips readers away from News Corp websites. Fairfax is also in the sights here, as it has made online-only newspaper forays into the Brisbane and Perth markets. So, in calling in that debt from Abbott, would a reform to speed up a takeover of Fairfax be too much to ask?

On the very first night of this election campaign, many might have overlooked an interesting exchange on Q&A. In a perfect display of “our enemies talking to our friends” as John Howard once described the ABC, host Tony Jones asked former Howard chief of staff Grahame Morris: what do you think Col Allan (who Jones also described as Murdoch’s “headkicker”) is out here to do?

I have heard all these conspiracies that he is out here to run election campaigns…I suspect Rupert has actually said (to Col Allan)…my long time enemy the Fairfax organisation is in trouble and I want make sure that the Telegraph and others are strong in this period in which The Age, the SMH and Financial Review may be in trouble…Col Allan is the man I would send out to have a fight like that.

Morris’ prediction about the trouble Fairfax is in were confirmed when its annual results were published on August 22, with revenue and profit both down from the previous year.

What might be construed as Morris’s feeble attempt to defend News Corp’s now notorious tabloid front pages may well have pointed to the real agenda behind Allan’s sabbatical in Australia.

Only two days after Q&A on August 7, the Oz ran an extraordinary editorial attack on The Age, which Nick Leys revealed was written by Chris Mitchell. It jumps to the defence of the Telegraph’s “Kick This Mob Out” edition by holding The Age in contempt for targeting a newspaper “to argue against the re-election of a Labor government”.

Well, the Tele didn’t really have an argument so much as a stunt, but The Age is castigated as having outdone Jehovah’s Witness publications that are much more “fair-minded, liberal delights”, because The Age (along with the Financial Review) itself ran a front page editorial against re-electing Labor, albeit with an argument running through it.

The Age is outdone by Watchtower - but also by the Tele, which “understands its readers, unlike The Age, which has long held the general public in contempt; its puritanical intolerance has turned it into an opponent of free speech”. It is no wonder that “The Age is a less substantial publication than it once was. Its shrinking dimensions, shrinking readership and shrinking relevance have taken their toll”.

So where could we find a News Corp-linked document that really calls in Abbott’s debt to Murdoch, and a way for Murdoch to do to Fairfax economically what the editorials are doing ideologically? Well, perhaps a good place to start is the Institute for Public Affairs wishlist for radical conservative reform. It’s not easy to find on their website, as it is titled Be Like Gough, an appeal to Abbott to be as radical a conservative as Gough Whitlam was radical on the Left.

It is not evident whether the majority owner of Fairfax, Gina Rinehart, who sat next to Murdoch at the 70th anniversary dinner to mark the co-founding of the IPA, had any input. But the 75 point list is a chocolate box for mining and media magnates alike.

Among the best picks are:

27) Eliminate media ownership restrictions

14) Abolish the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA)

15) Eliminate laws that require radio and television broadcasters to be “balanced”

43) Repeal the mining tax

50) Break up the ABC and put out to tender each individual function

51) Privatise SBS

There are many other reforms even more radical than these. But Abbott will doubtless need to listen to his own party and keep his distance from the IPA if he is to remain a paid up member. Even Big Oil companies like Shell and ExxonMobil have recently had to withdraw their support from the wealthy private think-tank, as it is only a matter of time before the IPA’s aggressive denial of climate change could damage their ability to one day defend themselves for their role in global warming.