Last chance to rein in Murdoch

Created by George Bludger @GeorgeBludger via

Created by @GeorgeBludger via

By Margo Kingston
March 16, 2013

Here’s a history lesson on the long road to media dominance by Rupert Murdoch, aided by both big parties, via two chapters in my book. The Liberals said yes to Murdoch under Howard, and will keep saying yes. They are partners, or rather, Abbott is Murdoch’s puppet.

I also tell the story of how I lobbied minor parties to stop Murdoch’s law in the Senate in 2003, and describe Fairfax journalists’ long struggle to preserve our values of fearless independent journalism.

Murdoch papers’ incendiary reaction to Conroy’s reforms – led by Murdoch’s top executive in Australia Kim Williams – means Murdoch’s empire has something to lose. Two things, actually – less chance of even further dominating Australia’s MSM, and more chance of its journalism being just a little bit accountable to the ethics of journalism.

There is no chance the media reforms, weak as they are, will pass without strong action by citizens. Wilkie, Oakshott, Katter, Windsor and Thomson need to be convinced to negotiate with Labor to agree to a reform package they can sign up to and vote for quickly. They must understand that Labor has been crazy-brave to put up even this minimalist reform package, and that Labor must get this done quickly or bleed to death from Murdoch media’s relentless attacks.

Over to you. Apart from anything else, your NBN needs you.

UPDATE MARCH 17: Here are the key extracts from Conroy’s Insiders interview today:

Fixing Howard’s gift to Murdoch to become even more dominant

In 2007 the Howard government weakened our cross media laws that were introduced by Paul Keating. And we said from that day we would be campaigning to introduce a public interest test because we didn’t believe leaving the door open for further concentrations of media in this country were healthy.

I mean around the world: in the US, the top two newspaper groups cover about 14 per cent. Even in Canada, a country more akin to ourselves in terms of geography, 54 per cent coverage from the top two. In Australia it is 86 per cent coverage. We’ve already got one of the most concentrated media sectors in the world and we don’t believe it should be allowed to be shrunk any further.

Why self-regulation needs to be strengthened

I’ve been entertained by the claim that this is a solution looking for a problem. Well let me read you some quotes from evidence given publicly to the Finkelstein Inquiry. It may come as a surprise to you, Barrie, they didn’t get a lot of coverage in the mainstream media.

Let me read to you Professor Ken McKinnon who was a former chair of the Australian Press Council. He said: “I had an editor say to me if you promise not to uphold any complaints from my paper we will double our subscription, is that a deal?”

We have the current head, Julian Disney, he said: “The possibility of reduced funding remains a significant concern fuelled on occasion by the comments of publishers who dislike adverse adjudications or other council decisions. And the Council’s almost total reliance on funding from publishers, and especially from a few major publishers, is widely criticised as a crucial detraction from its real and apparent independence.”

And just finally, if I could, one more, another head chair of the Australian Press Council, Professor Dennis Pearce: “Indeed we had one period where The Australian newspaper did not like an adjudication we made and they withdrew from the council for a period of months”. And Mr Finkelstein asked: “Was that a direct consequence of the particular adjudication?” And he said: “It was indeed. They said our adjudication was wrong and they were not going to publish it, and they didn’t”.

So, people who want to argue …

BARRIE CASSIDY: The first example that you gave though, does that to your mind amount to corruption, talking about those sorts of deals being offered?

STEPHEN CONROY: It goes to the core of independence. One of the things that the news proprietors at the moment are strongly opposing is that we want to see a more independent process, more arm’s length from the owners of the newspapers. Because they get to pretty much appoint people on the press council. So they get to oversee the very body that is self-regulating.

They want the government to be arms length – not a problem…

BARRIE CASSIDY: So it is self regulation that you’re attacking here?


BARRIE CASSIDY: You want to move away from self-regulation.

STEPHEN CONROY: No, we want the process of appointments to be more independent from the proprietors. The Government’s got no involvement whatsoever. The advocate has no role, zero role in setting a single standard of the Press Council. No role, despite all of the claims currently.

BARRIE CASSIDY: He oversees privacy issues, he oversees fairness, he oversees accuracy. So of course he will apply his own standards when he’s making judgements about the Press Council.

STEPHEN CONROY: No, he will do a test, on whether or not privacy, journalism ethics, he says is the Press Council set up in a way that deals with those issues? He doesn’t make judgements on individual newspaper complaints. He doesn’t make judgement on individual journalists or individual newspapers. He says has the Press Council, is it upholding its own self regulatory standards?

BARRIE CASSIDY: According to his own judgement though.

STEPHEN CONROY: According to a list of issues which, like privacy. Does anyone think the Press Council shouldn’t have privacy standards? Well it does. Does it have standards for journalistic ethics? Yes, it does. But is it independent of the proprietors? No, probably not as independent as it could be and has been warned by the current head.

The current head says it is not independent enough or there’s a perception it is not independent enough. So those are the tests. This is about upholding the Press Council’s own standards. Ensuring it has the processes to uphold them.

BARRIE CASSIDY: It does seem to be the definition of a bureaucracy though that you regulate to ensure that self-regulation happens.

STEPHEN CONROY: Well, let’s be clear about this. I mean people keep talking about in the world. Ireland have just introduced one. And the head of the press council in Ireland has said it has not had any impact on the freedom of speech. And just by coincidence, one significant News Limited newspaper is a member of the press council in Ireland and abides by it.

So if you look at reporters without borders, they rank every country in press freedom around the world. We’re 26 at the moment. Finland is number one. It has a statutory regulations about the right for people to make responses to articles and it’s number one. Ireland has just set up one. So if you look through the world, there are countries that have done this and they are considered by Reporters Without Borders to be in the top of the freedom of speech category.

So this argument that you have somebody who will ensure that the Press Council actually keeps its own standards, doesn’t have its members jump out, and say we don’t like what the Press Council’s done. So we’ve found a way to ensure that the council has a proper procedure to keep its own self-regulation.

BARRIE CASSIDY: Let’s look as it will apply in the real world. If The Australian or other organisations continue to pursue the Prime Minister over the AWU (Australian Workers Union) story and the Government complains, does the advocate then need to make a judgement about that?

STEPHEN CONROY: Not at all. It has no role in the adjudication. None, zero role in the adjudication.

BARRIE CASSIDY: But the Press Council would, with the advocate looking over its shoulder?

STEPHEN CONROY: No, the advocate’s job is to say here is the systems that you operate under. Do you have a way of dealing with the privacy concerns of ordinary Australians? Do you have a way of dealing with complaints from ordinary Australians? Do you have a way of ensuring that there is independence? And those are the tests that the advocate does. It has no role, and it cannot under the legislation, it cannot have any role in any individual complaint whatsoever.

This claim that it’s overseeing, looking over the shoulder, is completely false.

BARRIE CASSIDY: What is Julian Disney doing wrong now that needs this extra oversight?

STEPHEN CONROY: Well as I said, in his own submission to the Finkelstein Inquiry, not that you would ever read a lot about it. If you want it look somewhere to see what evidence was given to the Finkelstein Inquiry, you should go to the Centre for Independent Journalism, they’ve done a fairly good analysis of the Finkelstein evidence.

And they have gone through it themselves and set out here is what people said, as opposed to the lack of mainstream coverage that there was on this. And what Julian Disney draws concerns to is the independence and the funding. So they’re in the Australian Press Council’s submission to the Finkelstein inquiry, pointed to by the chair.

So we’ve responded and those are the things that we still think there needs to be some improvement on: Independence from the proprietors and guaranteed funding for the Press Council so it can do its job.

Why the rush?

We have had the Convergence Review, a year, and the Convergence Review recommended a public interest test. A year, submissions all over the country, 300, 400 public submissions, hearings, the Finkelstein Inquiry – quite well publicised, not necessarily a balanced coverage. This has been a debate, the Caucus has been calling on me to bring forward these bills. The print industry has been calling for me to make a final decision and we have made it. And we have said that these issues are well canvassed. We’ve been on the record…

BARRIE CASSIDY: But through the house by Tuesday night and the Senate by Thursday…

STEPHEN CONROY: Five and a half years this has been on the agenda. To suggest that this suddenly has come out of nowhere when I’ve been campaigning for five and a half years on the public interest test is a nonsense. The Parliament knows it’s got a choice: if you want to ensure there is no further concentration in the media in this country, one of the already most concentrated, you vote for the bill. If you want to ensure that the Press Council upholds its own standards, you vote for the bill. Those are two very simple problems.

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  1. Ana Milosevic says

    I am only humble little new Aussie, naturalised 30 years ago. I must say that i find it PATETHIC how FILTY RICH & POWERFUL WANT MORE WEALTH, MORE POWER, MORE CONTROL over GOVERNMENTS (PEOPLE). When is ENOUGH for THEM???

  2. Sandra Searle (@SandraSearle) says

    We need to start to protest, long and loud against the control that Murdoch has with his 70% concentrated ownership of media in this country.
    The bill that Conroy is introducing isn’t about stopping freedom of speech. It is about stopping the Murdoch propaganda machine.

  3. On 13 March 2013 The Daily Telegraph’s front page equated Stephen Conroy to dictators such as Joseph Stalin, Robert Mugabe and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. That evening on ABC Lateline Tony Jones’s guest was Kim Williams the Chief Executive of News Limited. This is part of the transcript:

    TONY JONES: You called for Stephen Conroy’s media reforms to be examined in a “sober and disciplined way”. Is that what the Daily Telegraph was doing this morning?

    KIM WILLIAMS: I think the Daily Telegraph was making a characteristic tabloid point in comparing the actions of despots in a number of different jurisdictions who also have invoked the so-called public interest for restricting media activity.

    TONY JONES: Most likely because the Daily Telegraph was perceived to have stepped over the line, whereas they probably did run more sober and disciplined examinations of the policy, pretty much along the lines you were talking about. I mean, are you – as of News Limited – are you at all ashamed when that kind of front page appears?

    KIM WILLIAMS: Diversity of views and diversity of opinion is fundamentally the life stuff of news media. Particularly in terms of print and digital media. It is part of the DNA. .

    The next day, 14 March 2013, the Australian Financial Review’s published a cartoon by its cartoonist David Rowe who depicted Adolph Hitler in a bunker with a some of his generals eyeing the front page of The Telegraph as Hitler screams “Yes, yes, yes, but we must have something for the iPad”. This cartoon also created a disturbance within the MSM and within 24 hours it was missing from the AFR website and still is nowhere to be found.

    The MSM can dish it out, but it can’t take it

  4. Joy Cooper says

    Fair & reasonable balanced criticism of the Federal Labor government no longer exists. What has taken its place could almost be called sedition, Media are using their influence within the community, to constantly denigrate our PM & her government all the while holding up the LOTO as a paragon of virtue who has never put a foot wrong. Which we know is total crap.

    It is a sad day indeed when all the mainstream media no longer has any conscience & allows itself to be bullied into passing off LNP party propaganda lies as fact & ignoring the real stories such as AshbyGate. There is the odd beacon of light to give us hope but they tend to get switched off fairly quickly & are all too soon toeing the corporate line.

  5. My thoughts exactly, Ana. Please vote for at least some regulation, independents.

  6. eclectic eel says

    Margo, I’ve just read an article in today’s Guardian which says that a historic vote on press regulation will take place in Britain Monday night. PM Cameron looks like being rolled on his intransigence and the victims of phone hacking represented by “Hacked Off” look like getting a win. Labor’s Ed Milliband and the Lib Dem’s Nick Clegg are united in their
    determination for press regulation. In this article Milliband says he was threatened by
    Murdoch execs. when he called for Rebekkah Brooks resignation. This is a must read for your followers in the light of Conroy’s legislation. The timing may not be a coincidence.

    see link: p://

  7. If the ABC is the only media institution that guarantees balanced and fair journalism (as it’s forced to because it’s funded with taxpayers money) why don’t the same standards apply to all publications that want to comment on political, social and economic issues?
    This ability to determine journalism is as free from pecuniary interests as possible to distance the powerful proprietors that control the media concerned from exploiting or misleading the public should be of vital concern to journalists thenselves.
    So, in the name of the ‘public interest’ and ‘conflict of issues’ concerns, the Media/Press Council cannot afford to be seen as funded by the proprietors themselves, as this would be seen to be a conflict of interest.
    And since the regulations to be enforced are there specifically to be in the ‘public interest’ it is logical and fair that the taxpaying public are the main funding source of the regulatory body, in order to retain maximum independence from publisher/proprietors’ economic and political interests to determine conflict of interest matters.
    A respected journalist should head up the authority and have a section dedicated to writing up a monthly report on the behavior of all of the most popular journals, magazines and newspaper publications, to address any of the issues of concern regarding any journalism that has been perceived to violate the Code of Ethics of Journalism etc.
    This sort of ongoing scrutiny would go a long way in keeping the public informed of these matters of journalism violations and/or conflict of issue concerns in regards to publisher/proprietors.

  8. When I studied journalism at uni,they told us about a fabled old text called the Journalism Code of Ethics. Given the current state of mainstream media, I may as well believe in unicorns too…

  9. Tom Watson is on his way….