Thursday, 2 January 2014

Keating made sure Murdoch dominated Australia's media

In yesterday's Guardian story about the media ownership changes introduced by the Hawke government in 1986, journalist Paul Chadwick writes that:
The Hawke government’s media policy was both interventionist and protectionist, in contrast to the general deregulatory thrust of its economic and industry reforms. In media the Hawke-Keating legacy is consistent with Australian governments throughout the 20th century: conscious of the potential for media to influence voters, successive governments attempt to please perceived media friends and harm perceived media enemies. It rarely works as they hope.
Chadwick goes on to say that the ownership rules that were being discussed by cabinet at the time were not specifically intended to help Rupert Murdoch in his bid for the Herald and Weekly Times company (and also Queensland Press, which owned the Courier-Mail in Brisbane). Although the timing was not intentional, Chadwick neglects to reveal what Colleen Ryan in her 2013 book on Fairfax, Fairfax: The Rise and Fall, tells us about how Treasurer Paul Keating helped Murdoch in his quest to own the company.

Ryan writes:
[Fairfax weekend newspaper] The National Times [which was established in 1971 to compete with Murdoch's The Sunday Australian] may have folded but, nonetheless, by 1986 Fairfax's strident journalism had built up a potent range of enemies - [Kerry] Packer over the Goanna story; Sir Peter Abeles over the coverage of his business and political connections; Neville Wran over the Street Royal Commission and the pursuit of his business alliances; and, along with Wran, the NSW right and Paul Keating.
To help Hawke's mates return a favour to Fairfax for the unpleasant experience of being the subject of its journalism, Keating during a visit to the US in late August or early September 1986 "took time out to visit Rupert Murdoch, taking the opportunity to give the magnate the heads-up on changes he was considering making to Australia's media ownership rules."
This was critical information for Murdoch and would lead to him establishing an unassaible position in the national media. When he returned to Australia, Keating also gave Kerry Packer a briefing on his media law changes. Packer, too, was now well positioned, like Murdoch, to pull off the deal of a lifetime.
Fairfax, as Ryan notes, "was completely oblivious to these massive changes" to media ownership laws. "Within three months, Murdoch would, through a takeover of the HWT and Queensland Press, control two-thirds of metropolitan newspaper circulation in the country." Not only was it wrong-footed, but Fairfax also had too much debt to move quickly, Ryan notes.

If the ALP complains about Murdoch's aggressive campaigning journalism today then it should remember what actually happened to allow Murdoch's stake in the national media to grow to a point where campaigning became viable across Australia's capital cities, where the majority of people live. It was ALP people, and specifically Keating, who let it happen and, in fact, promoted it. The irony is that the investigative journalism that characterised The National Times - the newspaper at the centre of the ALP's disillusionment with Fairfax - had come at the expense of interventionist proprietors, in this case Sir Warwick Fairfax, the conservative board member at Fairfax who had such a heavy hand in editorial matters. Standing behind the journalists who were going after Hawkie's mates was James Fairfax, Sir Warwick's nephew, who is quoted by Ryan:
I did respect the rights of editors. My father regarded it as the family's right to override editors - they all knew I didn't subscribe to that view.
The irony is keen. The type of journalism that we all prize today, where editors are free to follow stories regardless of whose feelings might be hurt, led to the establishment of a type of journalism that depends for its direction on a single proprietor's tastes. Keating was played for a complete sucker. Blinded by anger over an adverse story in a Fairfax paper, and wanting to exact revenge on behalf of a number of friends, he gave immense power to a man who would go on to become his political party's enemy, and who believes proprietorial influence in newspaper journalism is normal. A new Sir Warwick, to be exact. Chadwick is right to say that government interventionism in the media rarely works as it hopes.

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