This Is Why We Need Truly Democratic Media


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.

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.