What Would News Ltd Readers Know?

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“We won’t be getting a brand new Public Interest Media Advocate … so we’ll have to make do with the old one, Rupert Murdoch.” That’s what Bruce Guthrie, former editor of the Herald Sun, wrote in a recent op-ed.

Perhaps the British actor Hugh Grant would agree with Guthrie's tongue-in-cheek appraisal. He gave an interview in 2011 in which he reflected on a 1995 burglary of his flat in London. Even though it was a somewhat violent break-in involving the smashing of his front door, the thing that alarmed him most was reading in the days that followed “what the inside of my flat looked like and a few personal details”.

“It became clearer and clearer to me … and whoever else was in the public eye, that if you had a burglary, or you got mugged or your car was broken into, you had to think really hard about whether you were going to call the police – because the first person that came around was always a pap or a journalist, not a policeman.”

Questioned on whether fame had gone to his head, Grant replied:

“You don’t know how powerful they are, they’ve corrupted the police, and they’ve corrupted the government, successive governments, they’re completely in their pockets”.

By “they” Grant meant the tabloid British press, led by Rupert Murdoch, a man who in May 2012 was named in a British parliamentary committee report as “not a fit and proper person” to run an international corporation. The same report found that his son James displayed "willful blindness" to illegal phone hacking at News International newspapers, and found that News of the World "deliberately tried to thwart the police investigation”.

In 2002 Alec Owens, a senior investigating officer from the UK Information Commissioner’s Office, stumbled on the files of a private detective, Steve Whittamore. Whittamore had been supplying illicit data to a flourishing customer base that included Britain’s top selling newspapers and magazines. Many of his orders were for News of the World’s Rebekah Brooks. From 2001 to 2003 he supplied 17,482 data orders, for which he issued invoices in the magnitude of £1.8 million.

Alec Owens took the material he had collected to a meeting with his Commissioner, Richard Thomas, and Deputy Commissioner, Francis Aldhouse. Having set out the paper trail of evidence on how private detectives were using corrupt sources to supply illegal information to named newspapers, the penny dropped on the scale and gravity of the detection for Aldhouse who allegedly said: “We can’t take the press on, they are too big for us”.

Owens was alarmed at hearing that because it was his belief that taking them on is “what we are paid to do. If we do not do it, then who does?”

Owens was instructed not to speak to any journalists about the matter. Later that year the Commissioner recommended to the chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, Sir Christopher Meyer, that the code of practice on data protection be rewritten to avoid the pursuit of journalists in the courts.

It did not, however, prevent the charging and jailing of the royal reporter Clive Goodman who agreed, as long as he was “made rich” in doing so, to take the rap for News of the World as the single “rogue reporter” involved in illegal hacking. James Murdoch authorised a payment in the order of £700,000 to ensure Goodman stuck to his story. The story was, of course, false. James Murdoch could not recall the reason for the payment, informing the Leveson Inquiry straight-faced that he authorised it on the advice of his executives.

In time the scale of illegal data activity became publicly known through the UK parliamentary hearings and the Leveson Inquiry, and more is still coming to light with reports last month of another 600 or more hacking victims coming to light.

Even though Rupert Murdoch told the British parliamentary committee that his appearance before it was “the most humble day of my life”, his influence continues unabated in the US presidential election through Fox and the New York Post.

In Australia, there has been no attempt to hide the prodigious impact of his efforts to bring about regime change in Canberra. The method has been plain to see and involves orchestrated and repetitive daily retelling of a one-sided and single-minded narrative, the centerpiece of which is the incompetence, economic mismanagement and illegitimacy of the Gillard Government in a hung parliament.

On economic management, through spending initiatives taken by Rudd, Australia avoided the worst of the global financial crisis which continues to infect the economies of the US and Europe. As a consequence, Australia is now the enviable recipient of AAA credit ratings from the three big international ratings agencies: Standard & Poor’s, Moody’s and Fitch. The three million readers of Murdoch’s newspapers could be excused for knowing little or nothing about the high regard in which the Australian economy is held internationally.

They would know a great deal, however, about the contamination of the Gillard Government by a decadent Speaker of the House who was forced to resign and by a disgraced backbencher who profligately spent the money of his former employer, the Health Sector Union. The names of Peter Slipper and Craig Thomson are now associated with these narratives and have through the insistence of the News Limited press become bywords for unsavory, scandalous and criminal public behaviour, and are a blight on the Gillard Government.

In fact, neither Slipper nor Thomson has been convicted of any offence. Yet since 2011 the destruction of their reputations and livelihoods has been deemed necessary to threaten the slim majority of the Gillard Government and to attempt to force the calling of an early election.

The role of the press in this campaign needs no amplification. It has been unsubtle and relentless.

Peter Slipper, for example, has been presented pictorially to the Australian public as a pariah and a slimy rat in successive front-page splashes in Sydney’s Daily Telegraph. A person in the street whose reading is limited to the capital city tabloids could be excused for believing that Slipper is a sexual harasser, a closet homosexual and a man who spends lavishly on taxpayer-funded cars.

Not only has Slipper never been convicted on any of these matters, he has been exonerated by a finding in the federal court on the sexual harassment matter, the judge ruling that the allegation by James Ashby was without foundation and was advanced in the public arena by a group of people intent on damaging Slipper’s reputation and that of the Government he served by using the court process to conduct a malevolent public relations campaign.

The federal court ruling was dutifully reported in the press, but curiously given little prominence and not followed up.

Despite requests in writing, the Australian Federal Police has decided not to conduct an investigation into the conspiracy implications of that ruling until the outcome is known of an application by James Ashby to seek leave to appeal the finding against him. The appeal application will not be heard until late May. There is no legal bar preventing the initiation of a police investigation in the interim.

With the recent British parliamentary committee report on police inactivity during the Murdoch phone hacking scandal ringing in its ears, one might expect that our own police force would take steps to avoid the perception that it is choosing to take the path of “willful blindness”.

That is especially the case when consideration is given to the fact that the AFP is displaying no reluctance to investigate allegations by the same discredited James Ashby of an unrelated and petty matter of $900 worth of allegedly unauthorised taxi vouchers by Peter Slipper, a matter routinely dealt with by the Parliament on a pay-back basis, and for sums considerably greater than $900.

During the early afternoon following the day the Prime Minister announced the 14 September election, five members of the NSW Fraud Squad, accompanied by members of the Victorian police, raided the home of Craig Thomson MP and arrested him on a number of charges. Members of the press were seen at the appointed place from around 7am.

The police explanation for the arrest was that Thomson had refused to surrender himself to the Victorian police. Thomson denies the Victorian police had ever requested that he “surrender” himself but that they had requested merely an interview which he was happy to give.

One might wonder why the police from two states would conduct a showcase public arrest accompanied by media fanfare and attended by a posse of officers for the arrest of a man who was demonstrably not a fugitive from justice, nor likely to be, and who was given no warning that he might be arrested.

The exercise bore all the marks of an ambush for public relations purposes, the very thing about which the federal court judge Steven Rares found to be at work in the James Ashby sexual harassment allegation against Peter Slipper.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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