There was a time when Rupert Murdoch was not all powerful in Australia. There was a time when politicians weren’t scared to speak up and journalists had some integrity. Hawke and Keating changed all that.
Back when truth still mattered, in the midst of the 1975 election, 109 Murdoch journalists went on strike.
Murdoch’s overt interference in the 1975 campaign was so bad that reporters on the Australian went on strike in protest and seventy-five of them wrote to their boss calling the newspaper ‘a propaganda sheet’ and saying it had become ‘a laughing stock’ (Wright 1995). ‘You literally could not get a favourable word about Whitlam in the paper. Copy would be cut, lines would be left out,’ one former Australian journalist told Wright’ (1995).
When Rupert Murdoch made his first takeover bid for the Herald and Weekly Times in 1979 it was strongly resisted with the Melbourne Herald stating “Mr Murdoch’s newspapers always respond in unison – as though to some divine wind – as they pursue their relentless campaigns in favour of current Murdoch objectives – particularly his political ones. Every journalist in Australia knows that.”
In 1981, Murdoch took control of the London Times and Sunday Times with the collusion of the UK prime minister, Margaret Thatcher. His bid was not referred to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission on the condition that he respected the newspapers’ editorial independence. Almost immediately, the condition was flagrantly breached and Murdoch threatened with a term in prison.
In his book Good Times, Bad Times, former Times editor Harry Evans tells how Murdoch’s buy-out of the Times and Sunday Times hurriedly led to a showdown. At issue was Murdoch’s constant interfering.
“[Murdoch] guaranteed that editors would have control of the political policy of their newspapers … that the editors would not be subject to instruction from the proprietor on selection and balance of news and opinion … that instructions to journalists would be given only by their editor. In my year as editor of The Times, Murdoch broke all these guarantees.”
Murdoch’s papers became standard-bearers for the Thatcher–Reagan radical-conservative revolutions that were undermining social democratic parties and progressive politics throughout the English-speaking world.
In 1986 Murdoch turned his attention again to Australia, announcing a second Herald and Weekly Times takeover bid, this time strongly supported by both Bob Hawke and Paul Keating who both despised the Fairfax press for their own reasons.
Keating was not merely a passive supporter of the Murdoch takeover. By secretly providing Murdoch with inside information about the government’s proposed new media laws – where the ownership of television and newspapers was to be separated – Keating actively sought to bury the Herald and Weekly Times, to thwart Fairfax’s ambitions and to facilitate News Corp’s domination of the Australian press.
As explained in The Monthly, there were several people who understood what the Murdoch takeover meant. Within the senior ranks of Labor, opposition came from Bill Hayden, the foreign minister. He was reduced to silence. Inside the Opposition, Ian Macphee advocated resistance. He was removed from John Howard’s shadow cabinet. A citizens’ group formed whose members included Malcolm Fraser, Patrick White, Hal Wootten, David Williamson, Veronica Brady, Dick Smith and David Penman. Their protest actions had no hope. The takeover was supported by both the Labor and the Liberal parties, and was opposed by none of the relevant gatekeepers – the Press Council, the Trade Practices Commission and the Foreign Investment Review Board.
“Effective control of the media is the first step on the road to controlling the values and the future direction of our society,” the Age warned on 17 January 1987. “It is the saddest reflection imaginable on this society that virtually no one in public life – a former Prime Minister (Malcolm Fraser); a promptly disciplined Foreign Minister (Hayden) and a gagged Opposition spokesman (Macphee) excepted – has dared to speak out against the growing concentration of ownership of the Australian press.”
When the dust settled on the takeover, Rupert Murdoch controlled the sole metropolitan tabloid newspaper in every Australian state except Western Australia and the only general national broadsheet, the Australian. His company controlled approximately two thirds of the circulation of state-wide Australian newspapers. Murdoch’s only press rival, Fairfax, controlled about a quarter. As a consequence of the takeover, Australia now had a concentration of newspaper ownership unknown anywhere in the developed world beyond the party-controlled papers of the communist bloc.
In the short term, Labor was rewarded with the support of the three most popular Australian newspapers, Sydney’s Daily Telegraph and Melbourne’s Herald and Sun, in the 1987 election. In the long term it had been instrumental in the birth of what was potentially the most anti-democratic force in national life and also the most powerful future enemy of Labor.
In the new year, we will see the Bernardi/Christensen government reintroduce its relaxation of media ownership laws which include abolishing the “two out of three rule” that restricts media companies from owning a TV network, newspaper and radio station in the same market coupled with abolishing the “reach rule”, which bans TV networks from broadcasting to more than 75 per cent of the population. The government is also said to be willing to make some changes to the sports anti-siphoning list, as well as reducing TV licensing fees.
Any move that lessens diversity or concentrates media ownership any further will be of great detriment to our democracy. Governments are already vulnerable to concentrated media attack as we saw particularly during the Gillard years where the Murdoch press sunk to new lows.
But even more importantly, Murdoch’s domination of the metropolitan press means mainstream debate about certain fundamental ideologically sensitive questions – how to respond adequately to the climate-change crisis; what levels and kinds of taxation are needed to develop the welfare state; the trajectory of foreign policy during the rise of China; Australia’s Middle Eastern policy; and, of course, media reform – is effectively ruled out in advance.
With the infiltration and evisceration of the ABC well and truly underway, it is in danger of becoming an infotainment outlet vainly searching for broad appeal whilst offering a platform for conservative opinion unchallenged by simpering milksop spokesmodels.
“Our ABC”? It used to be.