Last night Rupert Murdoch faced a barrage of questions from British MPs amid concerns about a lack of media diversity in that country. Murdoch’s influence in the UK has grown without checks from regulators and watchdogs. What about Australia? Has it always been the case that News Limited has dominated the media here? Not quite — but News has strenuously opposed any efforts to regulate the media, often under the rubric of freedom of speech. Wendy Bacon reviews efforts to regulate the press in Australia — and the diligent counter-efforts of Rupert Murdoch.
Moves to establish an Australian Press Council were supported by the Australian Journalists’ Association (AJA) and Ranald Macdonald and Graham Perkin from David Syme and Co., which then owned The Age. Rupert Murdoch was opposed to establishing the Press Council on the grounds that conditions in Australia were different to the UK, where there was already a Council. Other media proprietors supported him.
The April 1975 issue of AJA’s The Journalist read: "The AJA hopes the industry will not be held back by those few who may cling to the shibboleth that the press should not be accountable the public."
Dr Moss Cass, Minister for the Media in the Whitlam government issued a press release setting out options for press review. He concluded that the establishment of an Australian Press Council is "desirable and practicable". He added five options for discussion ranging from newspaper licences to a research unit at a university to monitor press performance.
Cass was immediately attacked by media owners. Two days later he issued another press release:
"Events in the past 48 hours have convinced me that there is an urgent need for media reform in Australia. In the past two days my proposal for an Australian Press Council have been subjected to bizarre distortion and hysterical over reaction. I can’t quite believe it. I proposed a voluntary press council, with no government involvement of any kind, at any level. I expressly stated that I had not yet considered or looked at the five options. They are simply listed to demonstrate the range of ideas that are worth considering. If some proprietors … are incapable of reading or understanding that, then press freedom really is in danger."
On 6 November 1975, 5 days before the dismissal of the Whitlam government, Ranald Macdonald announced: "The Australian Newspapers’ Council has begun moves to establish a National Press Council. The ANC believes that the maintenance of a free press is essential for Australia. The public must be seen to be fairly treated by the press."
The first meeting was held in July 1976. News Ltd joined but Fairfax did not.
Journalists employed by Rupert Murdoch’s News Ltd in Sydney went on strike for 24 hours in protest at a "very deliberate and blatant bias" in the presentation of news during the election campaign following the dismissal of the Whitlam government.
Rupert Murdoch withdrew News Ltd from the Council because he was angry at a finding that News Ltd’s Adelaide paper had been biased in its coverage of the 1979 SA election.
Fairfax, which had declined to participate on the grounds that the Council would not be able to deliver on what it promised, joined the Australian Press Council.
The Norris Inquiry into the ownership and control of newspapers in Victoria recommended that a tribunal be established to prevent further concentration of press ownership. Australian Press Council representatives acknowledged at this time that it could not tackle press concentration because the majority of the Council were connected with the media industry. The issue was relegated to the too hard basket. The Victorian government did not act on Norris’s recommendations.
Media ownership remained a political issue in Australia. The Australian government had also allowed the press owners to become powerful owners of television licences. So, in 1987, when the Labor government introduced cross-media ownership laws, which limited the capacity of newspaper owners to own television stations in the same market, it seemed like a move in the right direction. As Keating said, media proprietors could be "princes of print or queens of screen". More information on the development of cross-media ownership laws can be found here.
However, these changes worked in a way which dramatically favoured Murdoch and Kerry Packer and disadvantaged the conservative Herald and Weekly Times, which was then the biggest newspaper company in Australia, owning the Sun and Herald in Melbourne as well as the Courier Mail and Adelaide Advertiser. It also made things difficult for John Fairfax and Sons which was then out of favour with the Labor government for its continual exposes of Labor’s business mates and corruption, particularly in the weekly National Times.
Murdoch, who by then was a US citizen, held private meetings with Labor leaders who gave him prior warning of their moves. He then launched a takeover bid for the Herald and Weekly Times. It was obvious that if he was successful, it would give him unprecedented control of Australia’s newspaper market and make him the largest publisher of newspapers in the English-speaking world.
The Chair of the Press Council Hal Wootten convened a meeting to consider the implications of the bid. Wooten explained:
"I have called the meeting… because of my own deep conviction that this Council cannot retain any credibility as a watchdog of the public interest in the press is it ignores or dodges the issues raised."
Wootten wanted the bid blocked by the Foreign Takeovers Act. He was supported by four members representing the public and two of three AJA representatives on the 14 member Council. Six of seven proprietors representatives opposed him and another abstained. It was seven all and Wooten declined to use his casting vote. In the end, a wishy-washy motion was passed which said the APC was concerned and would continue to monitor events. The result was the resignation of Wooten and the withdrawal of the Australian Journalists Association from the Council. News Ltd rejoined the Council. The Press Council was further discredited in the eyes of those who believed concentration of media ownership is a threat to democracy.
The Trade Practices Commission and the federal government both failed to block Murdoch’s bid although it was later revealed that the Foreign Investment Review Board did recommend that it be stopped. After a series of sham corporate manoevres, Murdoch closed competitor papers in Adelaide and Brisbane leaving him with more than 60 per cent of the newspaper market, the only newspapers in Brisbane, Adelaide, Hobart, Darwin, and the biggest newspapers in Melbourne and Sydney.
Keating received favourable coverage from News Ltd in his conflict with Prime Minister Bob Hawke.
The Australian Broadcasting Tribunal had found the businessman Alan Bond was not a "fit and proper" person to hold the Channel Nine television licence because of a defamation payout to Queensland Premier Jo Bjelke-Petersen which was essentially a payment in exchange for favours.
The Howard government abolished the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal and replaced it with the Australian Broadcasting Authority that later became the Australian Media and Communication Authority. This change abolished the "fit and proper" test for television owners and gave television and radio owners more power to develop and apply their own standards. Broadcasting complaints became a slow and cumbersome business.
Murdoch merged the Herald with the Sun.
The Victorian government set up another committee to look into media ownership with Race Matthews at the helm. He found that media concentration continued to be a threat to democracy partly because it debilitated journalistic culture causing self-censorship and lack of alternative employment.
Ongoing public concern about media ownership eventually led the House of Representatives Lee inquiry into the Australian print media with a focus on ownership and concentration. The Committee found that concentration was high in Australia and that the barriers to any new entrants were very high.
Some variation to Trade Practices merger tests were suggested but it was too late for these to impact on the high concentration that had resulted from Murdoch’s takeover of Herald and Weekly Times.
During the inquiry, News Ltd vigorously defended critics (including the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism and the Communications Law Centre) who argued that News Ltd coverage of issues which interfered with its corporate interests was biased. An ex News Ltd editor gave confidential evidence that independence of editors and therefore journalists was undermined by News’ company culture.
All members of the Committee agreed that the "concentration of ownership is potentially harmful to plurality of opinion and increase the potential risk that news may be distorted". A minority concluded that there was a connection between the "unexpectedly high concentration of media ownership and the lack of diversity of information and ideas in the Australian press and that the former is likely to be a significant cause of the latter."
The committee did consider divestiture but considered it "inherently unfair" and impractical as it was likely that some outlets would close. (This would be an even bigger threat today.)
Paul Chadwick, then the Director of the Communications Law Centre later wrote:
"Seven Labor ministers combined to produce the majority report. They stuck together after exhaustive negotiations between the members of the Right, Centre Left and Left faction, and their report reflects this compromise process. It lacked any serious analysis of what might be called the more interventionist options."
Chadwick argued at the time that only a Royal Commission which was independent of both politicians and media could have tackled the issues.
The Lee Committee recommended that there be an equal number of representatives from the public, journalists and publishers on the Australian Press Council but this recommendation was not acted upon.
The early 1990s represented the high point of concern about media regulation in Australia. Journalists attempted to institute charters which would give them professional independence from interference by owners, advertisers and even editors. This activity dropped away later in the 1990s.
At the same time as newspaper concentration increased, the fatality rate for newspapers increased. Between 1987 and 1996, 14 metropolitan newspapers closed. As Chadwick wrote: "this is contrary to the claim that concentration of media ownership actually assists free speech and diversity because the largest groups, if permitted to grow, will cross-subsidise weaker titles within their stables." Chadwick recommended a statutory right of reply which he argued was consistent with democratic theories of participation.
Independent print outlets also closed in the 1990s. With the advent of the internet, media owners predicted that new technologies would solve the problem.
2006 – 2011
The Howard government had long promised to get remove some of the restrictions imposed by the cross-media ownership rules but there was a lot of resistance to this and in fact it took until 2006 for changes to be passed through parliament. Relaxing of the rules led to a flurry of media ownership changes and made it easier newspapers owners to get back into radio and television.
Before long Lachlan Murdoch took over 50 per cent of radio company DMG which owns Nova and joined up with his old OneTel partner Jamie Packer to take a 10 per cent stake in Channel Ten where he recently cut costs by sacking journalists. The change had the result of increasing media concentration and the reach of News Corporation. Among Lachlan Murdoch’s co-owners is Australian mining magnate Gina Rinehart.
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