Press Freedom For Whom?


Journalists love to believe in the notion of press freedom. I was no different when I began my career in 1969 as a starry-eyed copy boy dreaming of filing front-page leads from the other side of the world, perhaps from a war zone or even at the Olympic Games.

It took only a couple of years to learn that the press offered a lot more freedom to some people than others.

I had landed a job as a cadet reporter on the Melbourne Herald. It was 1972 — the McMahon Government was fighting a losing battle against the Whitlam juggernaut.

As usual each morning, I hurried through the front entrance of the Herald and Weekly Times building on Flinders Street, past the imposing bust of company father figure, Sir Keith Murdoch, and into the lift.

As I pressed the button for the third floor, I noticed I had company. My companion was a very tall, imperious-looking man with little interest in me, a spotty-faced kid in an ill-fitting suit and tie. I instantly recognised him as Malcolm Fraser, the education minister in the McMahon government.

As the lift arrived at the third floor, we stepped out together but were headed in different directions. I peeled off to the left and into the reporters’ room, while Fraser carried on through the glass doors to the most exclusive zone in the building — the offices of senior management we called mahogany row.

This was where the real decisions were made about the content in newspapers, not the editorial floor. Later, an article prominently appeared in The Herald, quoting Fraser about the wonderful achievements of the McMahon government on education policy in Australia.

It ruined for me the idealistic idea that the media, as opposition leader Tony Abbott said in parliament this week, “spoke truth to power”. Indeed, it was the first of many times that I saw first hand that powerful people had access and influence in the media that was often secretive, unfair, undemocratic and highly effective.

I remember asking myself how a newspaper that is an official sponsor of the AFL retain objectivity about the AFL — usually as I watched AFL CEO Andrew Demetriou head into the Herald Sun management offices at Southbank. The straight answer is that it can’t, but such conflicts have never worried News Ltd.

While the average reader has little or no real access to media decision-makers, politicans and CEOs are traditionally afforded a direct line to the inner sanctum.

It is mostly a convenient private club with a lot of mutual back-scratching. But sometimes, those media owners and politicians who don’t get their back scratched vent their spleens in extraordinary ways.

Murdoch’s record on using his media interests as pay-back against governments who fall from favour is unsurpassed. 

In 1987 PM Bob Hawke and treasurer Paul Keating gave Murdoch the right to buy the Herald and Weekly Times, creating for the News Ltd owner an astonishing 70 per cent ownership of the Australian written media.

And why did they push this undemocratic concentration of media into the hands of a man known for unashamedly wielding his power to achieve his business objectives? Mostly because they felt they were getting a bum rap from Fairfax newspapers and decided to make it pay by strengthening its only opposition.

I became aware of the way in which News Ltd can stifle rather than promote press freedom, when I was working for the Melbourne Herald Sun as a sports columnist. I had written a column in 2008 in which I strongly criticised the management of the News Ltd-owned Melbourne Storm rugby league team over attacks it had made on the NRL judiciary.

I filed the column and, as usual, spoke to the boss on the sports desk that evening, who informed me that it would definitely run the next day. When it didn’t appear, I rang the sports editor to be told it was held over because editor-in-chief Bruce Guthrie wanted managing director Peter Blunden to look at it.

It was highly unusual for a sports column to be looked at by the two most senior executives at the newspaper, but later I discovered a lot of articles critical of this team were vetted in this manner.

After it didn’t appear again, I was told by the sports boss in an email: “Bruce decided not to run it at all after consultation with Peter. So for the second day in a row we had it on the page and then took it off.”

I was told that Guthrie and Blunden felt the Storm had endured so much criticism in Sydney that doing it again in Melbourne  “would be like shooting the wounded”, even though the issue had received a lot less attention in Melbourne.

It was a weak excuse that failed to hide the obvious fact that there was little freedom for journalists to be critical of an entity owned by News Ltd.

It’s the memory of this episode that made me smirk when I saw the former CEO of News Ltd, John Hartigan, thump the lectern during the many speeches he made a few years ago in defence of freedom of the media.

It also made me burst into a belly laugh when Rupert Murdoch told the UK Leveson media inquiry last year after the phone-hacking scandal at his newspapers that he has never used his newspapers or TV stations to further his business interests.

As left-wing Canberra commentator Humphrey McQueen noted last week on Melbourne radio 3CR — Karl Marx hit the nail on the head all those years ago when he said that the media will never be free as long as it is a business.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.