October 26, 2020

The view from Billinudgel

The Corp’s bride

By Mungo MacCallum

Image via Twitter

Despite a widely supported petition, the government is too scared to take on the Murdoch empire

The news that more than 350,000 Australians have signed a petition calling for a royal commission into media ownership is encouraging – not because their requests are ever likely to be delivered, but simply because their concerns have been expressed publicly and with passion.

Many people have just about given up on the mainstream media, believing that it has been superseded by the twitterers of the internet, irresponsible and unreliable as they might be.

Print, radio and free-to-air television are regarded as old-fashioned, and they lack the instant gratification afforded by social media. If the news media is to survive at all, it has to be on its own terms, with no government intervention and definitely no taxpayer money.

So from that perspective, a royal commission – indeed, any form of inquiry – is simply a waste of time and effort. And in one important – if cynical – sense, that perspective is quite right, because even if 10 times as many signatories could be found, no prime minister in office would consider seriously investigating the corporate media giants, far less reforming them.

The last person who gave it a try was Paul Keating, who established the cross-media ownership regime with his edict that the moguls could be princes of print or queens of the screen, but not both. His targets were the Packer and Fairfax conglomerates, and ironically (in hindsight) he provided aid and comfort to the competing Murdochracy.

Successive governments have unravelled Keating’s changes, and now the Nine Network has re-spread its tentacles across what remains of the media landscape, while the Murdoch empire is now the arch monopolist. Its current alpha antagonist is another former Labor prime minister, Kevin Rudd, who initiated the petition.

And, as we have seen, impressive numbers of signatories have followed. But neither Scott Morrison nor Anthony Albanese is among them (though former PM Malcolm Turnbull is). It may be argued that the influence of the media on public opinion has always been greatly overrated, even in its best days (which these are most definitely not). Despite their diluted dotage, the media proprietors have the politicians well and truly spooked.

And this has become a bipartisan position. For Labor, there is no point in getting into a fight it will never win. The Murdoch myrmidons will always be its enemy, and since News Corp has become invulnerable (like the banks, it is too big to fail), Labor simply has to accommodate it. The myrmidons cannot be placated, but being conciliatory may limit their malevolence.

For the Coalition, meanwhile, it is a no-brainer. Rudd calls News Corp not a media organisation but a propaganda vehicle to promote the Tories and denigrate their opponents. This may be an exaggeration, but it is not a big one. The Libs and the Nats know perfectly well just who’s in this together.

This may be a reason, incidentally, why the Coalition is so ferocious in its attacks on the ABC. For Murdoch, the national broadcaster is not just an ideological foe, it is also a commercial rival. And in theory, at least, it is accountable to the government, which appoints its board and provides the vast bulk of its funding.

Bashing Aunty is so much easier than responding to a petition from fractious citizens. So, sorry, all you petitioners. Your pleas will go straight to the shredder. But thanks for your concern. It’s good to know you’re thinking of us.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum was a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Much of his work can be found here: The View from Billinudgel.

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