6 Sep 2013

This Is Why We Need Truly Democratic Media

By Wendy Bacon

From Roger Corbett's appearance on Lateline to News Ltd's bias, a politicised media has been a prominent feature of this election - but media policy has barely rated a mention, writes Wendy Bacon

Finally, the media panels, interviews, buses, scrums and minute by minute blogs wind their way towards tomorrow’s night talkfest, in which politicians and celebrity journalists will tell us what they think of the results. No matter which party forms government, and it looks like it will be the Coalition, we will be left with a big political issue: the media itself.

Not since journalists walked out of News Corp in 1975 in protest against being told to advocate for a Coalition victory, has media been such a big issue in an election — although these days mainstream journalists themselves are more likely to defend their embattled employers than protest against them. 

Yet almost nothing has been said about media policy by the mainstream media during this campaign, including about how our media could become more accountable and democratic, although that topic has been a major issue over the last three years. The issue fell off the agenda after former Minister for Communications Stephen Conroy’s botched attempt at reform. He bungled the process so badly that people were left wondering if it was a desperate attempt to force it through or a deliberate derailing of the process

Two incidents in the final weeks of the campaign have highlighted the problems with our media. The dominance of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp was again highlighted by the political censorship of a GetUp ad that mocked the mogul’s hysterical campaign to install a Coalition government. The crowdfunded ad responded to weeks of bias splendidly chronicled by ABC Media Watch. Both Channel Seven and Lachlan Murdoch’s Channel 10 refused to play the ad. Channel Nine did too, blaming an administrative error for playing it a few times last weekend. 

By this morning, the Get Up ad had over 500,000 plays on YouTube. In the battle to get some diversity into the debate, social media can play a role, but can do little to counter the power of the Murdoch media empire, which like Abbott himself has used sexism, scaremongering about refugees, and climate scepticism to campaign against Labor, at least since the minority Gillard government was elected in 2010.

The second incident is Lateline’s interview with the Chair of the Fairfax Board, Roger Corbett. Corbett is a former head of Woolworths and a member of the Reserve Bank of Australia. Given his membership of the Liberal Party, there was nothing extraordinary about Corbett’s attack on Rudd. It's a sign of the times that Alberici and her producers thought Corbett was just the talent they needed for a key interview in the days before the election.

These days, ABC programs like Lateline and Q and A generate newsbreaks for other ABC journalists who are often insufficiently resourced to go out and get their own stories. Corbett’s attack on Rudd was vehement but his statements about Rudd’s “stalking of Julia” have all been news before and have been the subject of a best selling book. But once made, they were quickly repackaged as big news. Corbett’s scathing analysis of Rudd was edited and reported in text and video on almost every media site in Australia. This made Rudd’s response the big news story of the following day.

Meanwhile the most newsworthy part of the interview went unreported: The Chair of Fairfax signalled where he will stand in a future debate under a Coalition government about preventing the ABC from competing with a fragile corporate media.

Corbett told Alberici that that the ABC might be getting too big. He was rather coy but did suggest that three radio stations might be too many. This will concern many Australians, especially those in the regions where ABC supplies almost the only local news. Corbett’s views line up with those of Murdoch family attacks on BBC and its "free state sponsored" news. They are nowhere near as extreme as the Institute of Public Affairs (whose members are frequent guests on Q and A and the Drum) which wants to privatise the ABC

Emma Alberici has said since the interview that she did not know Corbett was a member of the Liberal Party. Personally, I don’t think you can expect interviewers to ask people their party membership, but there is no excuse for not knowing that Corbett is a strong supporter of the Coalition. For example, last year Corbett told Alberici that Gillard should backtrack on Labor’s workplace reforms and that he was a great believer in a two party system.

Even if she hadn’t interviewed him, Alberici said on Twitter that she tried for days to get Corbett to come on the program. Unlike viewers, journalists have access to basic news databases and their own files. Five minutes research would establish that Corbett would be hanging out for a Coalition government. 

When it comes to working out what his stake might be in who runs Australia, Roger Corbett wears several hats. As well as being Chair of Fairfax Media, he is also Chair of Prime Ag, currently in the process of selling rural properties to offshore interests, and is on the board of pharmaceutical company Mayne Pharma. He is a board member of giant US retailer Wal Mart and an open admirer of its "low cost" business model.

He has also previously had connections with the Salvation Army, a favoured contractor of both major parties. He is a member of the Foundation for exclusive private school Shore on Sydney’s North Shore.

Corbett was CEO of Woolworths until the end of 2006. It was during his watch that it became the biggest poker machine operator and liquor outlet in Australia. He has been reported to be a continuing consultant for  Woolworths since 2006. He was heavily involved in the deregulation of the dairy industry which was described by Mark Westfield, then a reporter at The Australian, as "a breathtaking display of market power” through which Woolworths “took 500 million out of the pockets of its suppliers the milk processors and farmers. It passed some onto its customers and pocketed the rest for its shareholders”. In an ABC interview, Corbett described these developments in the dairy industry as taking “advantage of the marketplace ... that's what free enterprise is all about.”

Corbett has made no secret about his preference for the Liberal Party. In March 2004, he was one of a select group invited to the Lodge, the home of PM John Howard for dinner. In May, he joined a much bigger group of what Fairfax media described as "party faithful", who attended a dinner to celebrate 30 years of John Howard's parliamentary career, which doubled as a $300.000 fundraiser. He was reported by Crikey to have loudly told guests that Howard’s industrial relations policies had helped Woolworths.

He was also reported by Crikey to be one of the Fairfax Board members who, in 2004, was in favour of then-Fairfax CEO Mark Scott’s pro-Coalition Age election editorial. (Read Crikey’s report on the inside discussions on the editorial, which involved overruling some unhappy senior editors who wanted to stay neutral or back Labor). 

This may be why Corbett was invited for Christmas drinks to Howard’s home for Christmas in December 2004, along with Kerry Packer and Lachlan Murdoch. Corbett personally donated $2500 to the Liberal party in 2006. He was also at the Westin Hotel for another dinner of party supporters chaired by 2GB Talkback host Alan Jones to celebrate 10 years of Howard government in 2006. It was scarcely a surprise that he was going to be part of the standing ovation for Abbott at this week’s Liberal Party fundraiser.  

He was a member of the Howard government’s Community Business Partnership that was dissolved after Rudd was elected. He was appointed by the then-Coalition government to the team managing the Federal Intervention into the Northern Territory.

In July 2006, he told ABC interviewer Julia Baird that Australia had enjoyed great leadership, “particularly the John Howard Government ... has been outstanding and Australia's results economically and socially have been extraordinary.” Nor is this the first time Corbett has publicly lashed Rudd. He In April 2010, as Chairman of the Westpac Hospital Board he called his hospital reforms "bizarre" and a "recipe for disaster".

Fairfax is a large, profit-making corporation. This does influence the overall shape of its journalism but not in a day to day way. (I wrote more about working for Fairfax in a chapter in Left Turn last year). The Board chooses the CEO, the CEO chooses the editors and the editors choose the journalists. If you’re a journalist you can test the limits. You can do strong journalism so long as you learn how to play the game. The more kudos and fame you have, the more independent your voice can be.

Fairfax has recently launched a marketing campaign which emphasises its "independence". It's still more independent than the bullying Murdoch papers. When, for example, the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism researched the coverage of the Gillard government’s carbon policy, we found that the negative and positive coverage was roughly balanced. The Herald Sun and Daily Telegraph were so overwhelmingly negative and aggressive that the coverage amounted to propaganda.

The Fairfax Editorial Charter of Independence is still in place but journalists spruik and defend the company in a way that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. In the last week, the SMH and The Age came out in favour of the Coalition - as they have mostly done over more than 100 years. You shouldn’t expect too much from corporate media in this regard.

Over the last few years, independent journalists and academics have campaigned for public tax deductible support for independent investigative journalism. Just a tiny measure to support independence. Fairfax Media opposed this as a form of state interference with the media.The Labor government too rejected the idea. Only the Greens took up the idea.

While it has not been well publicised in recent weeks, News Corp said that after the 2010 elections it aimed to destroy the Greens at the ballot box. This is unsurprising; the Greens are the only party who have a policy that might deliver a more democratic media. The Greens were the first party to criticise New Corp sexism and its abuse of power. This is why, while Corbett and Fairfax Media are supporting an Abbott victory, as a journalist and a citizen, I’m voting for the Greens.

You can’t have a democracy without a democratic media.

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Posted Friday, September 6, 2013 - 14:04

Your own bias is showing, Wendy. You spend most of this article playing the man rather than the ball – IE: attacking Corbett’s own personal political views rather than engaging with the real issue, which is media accountability.  What a shame The Age has disappointed you today by actually supporting the ALP in its election eve editorial! Media reform would have been much assisted if people like you had actually deigned to engage with the process and support steps towards reform when Conroy was giving it a shot, rather than sniping from the sidelines and refusing to countenance anything other than the Greens’ completely unworkable and far too radical proposals.  Without people of intelligence and ability such as you being willing to compromise and support incremental steps, Australia will never see reform in this critically important area.  It’s all too easy to criticise and maintain moral purity; it’s far harder to actually try to effect meaningful change.

This user is a New Matilda supporter. vporzsolt
Posted Friday, September 6, 2013 - 15:57

A very comporehensive informative backgrounder, Wendy. To Emma Dawson, I suggest this is not 'playing the man'. All these interests of Corbett and background frame his views which shld have been challenged or at least probed by Ms Alberici. All Wendy's backgrounding demonstrates that Corbett wld say what he said abt Rudd, wldn't he? Tho' that being said, I do think Corbett was right on the money in his personal observations of Rudd.

wendy bacon
Posted Friday, September 6, 2013 - 16:19

One addition: This piece was mostly written before this morning when The Age came out with support for Labor whereas the Sunday Age is supporting the Coalition. But I don't think this alters my argument as corporate media editorials have occasionally supported Labor, although this year The Age appears to be the only one. 

The Age does not support Labor's or the Coalition's refugee policies which I am pleased to see. 

This piece is deliberately focussed on the election coverage. After the election we must continue to try to build a democratic media - hope of reform has gone for now.

Emma I can only conclude your know nothing about the debate that has gone on in recent years or my role in it.  I have been very aware of the need to engage in this debate for many years because I was a Fairfax journalist when partly out of anger about our coverage of ALP corruption, Keating allowed Murdoch to buy the Herald and Weekly Times in 1987. This was a lethal blow to any hope for diversity. It was a huge issue at the time - partly covered in other New Matilda articles.

Through New Matilda and other forums, we have fully engaged in the discussion about reform.

The truth is that it was then Greens Leader Bob Brown who raised the issue of the appalling sexism directed against Julia Gillard. The Greens also took up the issue of Murdoch's influence in Australia when the phone hacking scandal broke. The implications for Australia were of course swepted under the table as we covered in New Matilda and The Conversation. ( http://theconversation.com/news-of-the-world-scandal-a-litmus-test-for-independent-journalism-in-australia-2545) 

There wouldn't have been a Finkelstein Media inquiry if the Greens hadn't pushed for it. It is scarcely asking for 'purity' to want the key issue of ownership to be on the table. The Labor government refused to include it but Finkelstein included it under other terms of reference and updated research on concentration of media ownership. This showed we had the most concentrated media reform in the Western World. 

A small thing that Conroy could have done was to take on board the suggestion of a tax deductible system for investigative journalism. This would have been so easy to do. To argue that Conroy's failure to take up this isue was disappointing was disappointing to me as a journalist and journalism educator is scarcely to be a 'purist' Anyway, that is just another slur designed to turn people off supporting the things that they believe in. 

I am quite open at the end of the article that it is partly because of all of this that as a journalist I support the Greens. ( There are many other reasons as well including their climate policy, their refugee policies and their feminist policies.)

The Greens have stood up for Wikileaks, whistleblowers, shield laws for bloggers and  action on ownership. I also support these issues. 

After the 2010 election, News Corp vowed to wipe out the Greens because they were 'bad for the nation'. I heard no Labor voices raised in their defence. At the end of the day, Labor wll only govern again with the preferences of the Greens who take up more progressive positions. 

Emma Alberici has pointed out to me that Corbett did support the mining tax. This is true although that needs to be seen in the context of his role in the retail industry which understandably would like to see the mining industry pay more tax.

He also told Emma Alberici in an interview that Howard had gone too far with work choices. As far as I am aware, this was in the context of speaking about Gillard needing to cut back on some of Labor's changes. Corbett is solidly on the record in favour of workplace changes that will reduce costs. 

My point remains. How could you look at Corbett's well documented role in the Howard government and support for the Liberal Party and not see that he could scarcely be put forward by the ABC as any sort of detached observer of the election. Even if Alberici herself was not aware of any of this material, why didn't someone else point it out to her. This was an influential move in the electoral coverage of the campaign which is so focussed on commentary on leaders that the interests underlying opinions on leaders' characters are ignored. Surely Lateline considered all this before broadcasting an interview with Corbett. 

Here are some links that will fill you in on New Matilda's coverage of the media reform issue.  












This user is a New Matilda supporter. Miska
Posted Friday, September 6, 2013 - 16:31


"Without people of intelligence and ability such as you being willing to compromise and support incremental steps, Australia will never see reform in this critically important area."

If Wendy Bacon is someone whos "intelligence and ability" in the field of journalism you admire, wouln't it be worhtwhile taking her stance as the oppinion of an expert and not as a biased refusal of extreme compromise (because it can only be described as extreme - the distance between reform views of journalists like Bacon and CEOs like Corbertt, is wide indeed).

You also say it's too easy to criticise and maintain moral purity. If this is the case, sholdn't we have a lot more critically engaged mainstream media and a lot less amorality amongst polititians and CEOs?

Posted Friday, September 6, 2013 - 16:35

Excellent article by Wendy Bacon. All decent Australians  should follow her example  and vote 1 Green.

Indeed the support of the Murdoch and Fairfax Mainstream media - and the 3 TV channels that banned the GetUp advertisement - for the Coalition and hence for putting the Greens last is a powerful argument for decent Australians doing the reverse i.e. vote 1 Green and put the Coalition last.

Australia is a Murdochracy, Lobbyocracy and Corporatocracy in which Big Money buys people, politicians, parties, policies, public perception of reality , VOTES and political power. Decent Australians can fight back by boycotting these media  and the extreme right-wing, neoliberal,  corporatist politcians they support (see “Boycott Murdoch Media”: https://sites.google.com/site/boycottmurdochmedia/).

For details of media-derived  censorship  by the global Murdoch media empire, Australian Fairfax media, the Australian ABC, the UK BBC,  and the Australian universities-backed web magazine The Conversation in Neocon American- and Zionist Imperialist-perverted and subverted Murdochracy, Lobbyocracy and Corporatocracy Australia and elsewhere in the West see “Boycott Murdoch media”: https://sites.google.com/site/boycottmurdochmedia/  ; “Censorship by the BBC”: https://sites.google.com/site/censorshipbythebbc/  ; “Censorship by The Conversation”: https://sites.google.com/site/mainstreammediacensorship/censorship-by  ; “Mainstream media censorship”: https://sites.google.com/site/mainstreammediacensorship/home  ; “Mainstream media lying”: https://sites.google.com/site/mainstreammedialying/  ; “Censorship by The Age”: https://sites.google.com/site/mainstreammediacensorship/censorship-by-the-age ; “Censorship by ABC Late Night Live”: https://sites.google.com/site/censorshipbyabclatenightlive/  , "Censorship by ABC Saturday Extra": https://sites.google.com/site/censorshipbyabclatenightlive/censorship-by-abc-sat and “ABC fact-checking unit & incorrect reportage by the ABC (Australia’s BBC)”: https://sites.google.com/site/mainstreammediacensorship/abc-fact-checking-unit .

Posted Saturday, September 7, 2013 - 00:17

What is going on here?

How could anyone with a political bias make such public statements and remain a member of the Reserve Bank Board??? where are you Getup!

Posted Sunday, September 8, 2013 - 20:24

DrGideon looks like the majority of Australians were smart enough not to vote Greens, Greens primary vote was way down.

Posted Monday, September 9, 2013 - 08:36

Hurrah to both Wendy Bacon and Emma Dawson.

And yes Emma, given the condition in which we find our Media Industry it is indeed difficult to restrain emotion and to bring to the task sufficient measures of objectivity to play the ball and not the player.

Additional evidence of this can be found in your own criticism of Wendy, which, although very easy to agree with the form of you criticism, is itself nuanced with bias.


@ Aaron, when those who first presented to the world the theory of a spherical planet, let me assure you, the majority of mankind would have been "smart enough" to vote in accordance with the mistaken belief the world was in fact flat.

Group think, Aaron, is not a good yardstick to deploy in any assessment of "smart".

Posted Monday, September 9, 2013 - 08:40

This is especially so when "group think" is formed and moulded by a dysfunctional press media

Posted Thursday, September 12, 2013 - 12:59

Hi Wendy.

Perhaps you and I should make contact offline to discuss an issue about which we are both passionate. There is so much I would like to say but cannot.

I assure you I know your work very well, and also that of New Matilda in this space.  I was, in fact, the New Matilda policy convener on media issues for a while, until I went to work for Senator Conroy in 2008.  I'm no longer working for him, obviously, but while I was, I was his principle adviser on these issues, and was the responsible adviser for both the Convergence Review and Finkelstein Inquiry (as it has come to be known). I worked closely with him to draft the final terms of reference for each and to try to negotiate the resulting legislation through the Parliament (although I left, for family reasons, before the Bills were presented earlier this year, which I will always regret). I do not expect you to know who I am, as it is proper that policy advisers remain unknown, so I am trying very hard not to be offended by the accusation that I "know nothing about the debate that has gone on in recent years" or your role and your views - unfortunately, like many with strongly held views, you seem to have assumed that, because I don't agree with you entirely, I must be ignorant. 

I won't discuss all that went on, of which you genuinely ARE ignorant (as is only expected and right - you were not privy to the internal processes of policy development, cabinet submissions and negotiations in the Parliament, as I was), but I can say with some authority that your own understanding of how the Finkelstein Inquiry came about, and who was responsible for what went into the ultimate terms of reference, let alone what Stephen Conroy was able to get through Parliament and why, is flawed.  You should not state things about the process as facts when you do not know. You are wrong in some key assertions in your comments above - just plain wrong. I was in the room, Wendy, and I don't recall you being there.

I fully acknowledge that many people who are passionate about this issue, most of whom I greatly admire and with whom I spoke and whose work I read carefully while working on this, were disappointed by the TOR and also by the ultimate result.  However, politics - particularly in a hung Parliament, even more particularly when it comes to such a fraught issue as taking on the media while in Government - is a system of compromise and incremental steps.  It is frustrating for those who are working inside the system when the people one has regarded as leaders in the field refuse to engage with the reality of the situation and compromise their own desires to support incremental change. One day I am sure the truth will come out about exactly who supported what inside the Parliament, what was possible, and why certain elements did not survive the negotiations of Parliament.  It won't come from me, but I am comfortable with the role I played and, in fact, very proud to have worked for the only Minister - and let us try to remember that it is necessary for Governments, not just minor parties, to support policies to make these changes - who has attempted to address these long standing problems during my lifetime.


Posted Tuesday, September 17, 2013 - 22:19

Not hard to work out what's going on.Without independent media democracy is for sale. Monopolies help monopolisers. Monopolisers don't like fair playing ground.