Media Opinion

Two chances inquiry into Murdoch media will float: Fat and slim

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(Cartoon by Mark David | @MDavidCartoons)

Last week, the Greens introduced a Bill to the Senate to establish a parliamentary commission of inquiry into the Murdoch media empire. While many people will want to support such a move, Dr Martin Hirst says he’s not convinced — yet.

FOR SOME TIME, I’ve been sceptical of calls for a royal commission into the Murdoch media despite efforts by former PM Kevin Rudd – and now Malcolm Turnbull – to get one established.

There’s always a danger of governmental overreach when it comes to press regulation and legal sanction. I would not be in favour of governments establishing too much legal control over news content. However, now that the Greens have tabled legislation, it’s time for a sober assessment of any proposed commission of inquiry.

Nothing is going to happen quickly. The legislation, the Murdoch Media Inquiry Bill 2023, has already been shunted off to a Senate committee that’s not due to report until October. So we have time to digest the information and consider the implications of such a commission. But first, a short digression.

Press freedom and press perfidy

Despite its very obvious legion limitations, bourgeois press freedom is of some importance to progressives and the Left today. If we are to have any success in combatting the evils of late Anthropocene capitalism, our rights to organise, protest and propagandise are important. These things are also under attack and the last vestiges of media freedom offer a modicum of protection.

I concede this only grudgingly, secure in the knowledge that the door is closing on us. The mainstream media is a constant disappointment to many people. But I’m not disappointed; I’ve seen this moment coming and written about it extensively.

The media system is broken beyond redemption. Along with the remains of capitalist democracy (partial, imperfect, full of loopholes and a tool of ruling class oppression), news media and journalism are completely captured by the heavily-invested interests of neoliberalism.

Fossil fuel giants smash up Indigenous sacred sites with impunity; the Labor Government gives its blessing to more coal mines, gas fracking and the extraction of carbon fuels from the ocean floor.

The bankers are laughing at us when they hike interest rates to shore up their profit margins. The big supermarket chains lie to us about lowering prices when they’re actually gouging us every day.

The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry howls with fake anguish every time any workers fight for even a small increase in wages above the skyrocketing cost of living. The head of the Reserve Bank treats us like children and tells us fairy stories about how we might solve the housing crisis.

And, what do the journalists do? They form a dribbling and rabid pack to chase down victims of rape, their supporters and female members of the government to ask questions that should rightly be asked of Scott Morrison and his gang of disgruntled thieves.

Journalists bay for blood – the blood of rape victims and their supporters – while turning a blind eye to the obvious crimes being committed by powerful men standing in the shadows. Why? Because these same shadowy figures are hand-feeding them juicy and addictive morsels of info-smack, and the poorly-trained, ill-mannered and borderline idiotic press pack, gobble it down like puppies snorting sugary treats.

If I thought that a royal commission into Murdoch’s influence over the Australian news media would get to the bottom of this overflowing barrel of muck, I’d be the first one to demand the Albanese Government set it up and give it full powers to investigate, to compel witnesses and to trawl through all the trash bins in News Corp HQ.

Commission powers

The reason I’m so cynical about these types of inquiries is that, to a certain extent, we’ve seen it all before. We’ve had four similar inquiries in Australia since 2011: Ray Finkelstein’s Inquiry and subsequent report (2012), the Convergence Review (2012), an abandoned Senate inquiry (2017), and another pointless Senate talk-fest in 2020.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a single reform coming out of these previous inquiries that in any way curtailed the power of the Murdoch machine. In fact, successive governments have gone out of their way to subsidise News Corp’s profits through regional media grants, special considerations for supposedly increasing coverage of women’s sport and a mysterious – and as yet unexplained – handout from the Morrison Government before the last election.

But, for the sake of argument, let’s put this failure to one side and look at what the Greens’ proposal brings that might make the Murdoch Media Inquiry Bill 2023 more useful (and by useful, I mean putting a painfully large boot up the butt of the Murdoch machine).

Firstly, the "terms of reference" are worth noting. Much of it is boilerplate for such an inquiry — looking at ethics (and their failure); the concentration of ownership; the power of platforms; the role of the regulator, etcetera.

However, two stand out as a bit more interesting and perhaps having a bit more bite:

'(d) the relationship between the media and government in Australia and whether fear of retribution in the press has hampered the creation of public policy.'

The simple answer, of course, is “hell yeah”.

Every major political party and party leader kowtows before the court of Murdoch. This has been the case for decades in Australia. As I wrote on IA a couple of weeks ago, driving fear and demanding loyalty is the News Corp business model — and it is in Murdoch’s DNA.

The other reference of note is:

'(h) the targeting of marginalised communities by the media, including people of colour, people with disabilities, the LGBTQIA+ community and people on income support.'

“About effing time!” is all I can say to this. The list of media targets now also includes – to the eternal shame of the press pack – rape victims and anybody who tries to support their fight for justice.

The toxic culture of journalists joining in a "stacks on the mill"-style scrum of hate is dictated by the Murdoch goon squad, but it is very well assisted by the radio shock jocks, tabloid television and even by the more (allegedly) respected and respectful outlets.

We see examples of this thuggish behaviour from journalists every day. This is how newcomers are trained and socialised into becoming brutes. The rot is deep and the toxic culture is led from the top. Almost all senior journalists in Australia today have done their time in the News Corp bunkers. They set the tone and some lead by disgraceful example. 

While the Greens’ Bill establishes this Inquiry as a commission that will report back to Parliament, it is good to see that it will have the coercive powers of a royal commission. Witnesses can be compelled to give evidence, search warrants can be executed and penalties will apply if people obstruct the commission or act towards it with contempt.

This is a good sign. I can honestly report that I will cackle with delight if Murdoch’s local body snatchers are forced to explain their actions to the commission. They won’t be able to hide behind the defence so cringingly deployed by “Chris Lorax” on the ABC's Mad as Hell. “Just a bit of fun, Shaun” is unlikely to satisfy the commissioner or counsel assisting.

A change of mind?

So, have I changed my mind about the value of a commission of inquiry into the Murdoch media? Well, let’s just say I’m less opposed to it now than before I read the detail of this Greens’ Bill.

I am pleased to see the inclusion of some useful and new terms of reference; I am happy that the commission would have powers to compel evidence, and I’m hopeful that it could uncover some criminal wrongdoing on the part of Murdoch operatives in Australia.

However, I think there’s almost no chance of the commission getting off the ground.

Murdoch’s army of loyal thugs will try to bash the idea to death in the pages and on the airwaves under its control. And it's fair to imagine that well-paid lobbyists working on behalf of Kerry Stokes, Peter Costello and others will snake through the corridors of Canberra to quietly kill it off.

More insidiously, politicians will daily be reminded in subtle and not-so-subtle ways who their real sugar daddies are; this will incline them to let this proposal die quietly behind closed doors in the committee stage.

So, no. I’m still sceptical.

Dr Martin Hirst is a journalist, author and academic. You can follow him on Twitter @ethicalmartini.

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