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The politics of media power

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The newspaper industry is being replaced by social media and independent journals (Images via Flickr/www.afspc.af.mil)

Much has been said and will continue to be said about the power that Rupert Murdoch wields in our very concentrated media landscape. It is a landscape that continues to change and the ACCC just released the preliminary report on Digital Platforms.

New regulations may be needed, but the issues go to the core of our political discourse which no regulation will remedy.

A FEW DAYS AFTER LABOR won the Federal Election in December 1972, Rupert Murdoch asked his then general manager of The Australian, John Menadue, to convey to Gough Whitlam that he would like to be appointed Australia's High Commissioner to London. Murdoch regarded it as a suitable “thank you” for the support his papers had provided for the It's Time campaign.

Whitlam scoffed at the suggestion and Murdoch denies it, but others corroborated Menadue's version and it illustrates what mattered most to Murdoch — recognition by the establishment. He craved what his father had that he didn't, and where better to display it than in the halls of power and influence in the Empire's capital?

A few years later, Murdoch and his paper had switched their allegiance to Malcolm Fraser, including working behind the scenes leading up to the infamous Dismissal.

In his autobiography, John Menadue – who knew all three men well and eulogises none of them – asserts that apart from craving recognition, Murdoch is driven by a need to be seen as a winner and is adept at picking one, last displayed as he swung (albeit somewhat tentatively) behind the Kevin '07 campaign. As many others have noted, it may well be a pattern repeated as Bill Shorten and Labor is looking increasingly like the winners in 2019.

As Murdoch's News Corp has grown from an Australian newspaper proprietor to one of the world's largest media companies, his power and influence have grown to a level that many suggest is a threat to our democracy.

In Australia, its market reach has been augmented by News Corp's superior ability to adapt to new technologies. They, too, underestimated the power of the internet in the early days, but unlike Fairfax, they took their losses early (remember MySpace?) and led the way in changing subscriber and content distribution models, adapting to rapid changes in how people consume media.

But above all, Murdoch and his team understood the importance of entertainment as the linchpin of a financially successful media company. Again, in stark contrast to the once mighty Fairfax, now a mere shadow of its former glory as a subsidiary of Nine Entertainment Co.

The demise of Fairfax illustrates how the media landscape has changed. Newspapers once ruled the world of news and were the focal point for informed public debate. Radio came along and got a place at the same table, albeit never as glamorous and rewarding for its proprietors. TV had much more of an impact as a provider of entertainment, immersing itself into the living rooms of the world.

Both radio and TV heralded the end of the newspaper, predictions that never really came through. People still liked to read and the daily broadsheet carried a gravitas that radio and TV could never quite match. The internet changed all that. Not straight away and not in the ways originally foreseen, but it removed forever the traditional gatekeepers of information, some would say replacing them with Google, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and the plethora of lesser social media and search engine platforms.

News Limited, Fairfax and other mainstream media certainly think so. And as big businesses always do when finding themselves under threat by new entrants to their “free” market, they run to the Government for help. As they recently did in Australia, complaining to the ACCC that Google (and Facebook, among others) are media companies and should be regulated as such.

So far the ACCC is listening, but not rushing into proposing regulations that protect the media giants. It is, quite rightly, more focused on protecting consumers.

The assertion by the traditional media companies that Google, Facebook and so forth are, in effect, publishers, has some merit and reflects what is arguably the most fundamental shift in information dissemination since the Gutenberg press — social media.

The internet was the catalyst for change; social media was the real game-changer for traditional media companies.

When all we had was broadcast media (papers, magazines, radio and TV), the only alternative was people conversing and arguing — around the fireplace and the dinner table, at the pub, community halls or on a soapbox in the public square. Social media has taken those conversations beyond its physical limitations to the world square, for better and for worse.

But unlike the established trust of local communities, unregulated and borderless communication is a place of fear and distrust. Social media, despite its proliferation, has a Net Trust Score (NTS) of minus 42% in the recent Roy Morgan Media Net Trust Survey (the number of respondents that trust less those that don't). Television (-16%) and Newspapers (-13%) fare much better, but still significantly less than the internet (-7%), magazines (-4%) and radio (-2%).

The only media brands with a positive NTS score are the ABC, SBS and (by a whisker) Fairfax — a brand that won't be around for the next survey.

The trust in the mainstream media (MSM) is at an all-time low and, by many, blamed for the political malaise Australia finds itself in — blame placed, in particular, on Rupert Murdoch.

Respected economist Ross Garnaut recently said:

The crisis in Australia’s political system is less about the quality of individual politicians and more to do with the “majority media” and business lobby groups drowning out the independent centre for their own self-interest.’

The salient point is “self-interest”, on both sides of the argument.

On the one hand, the MSM is distrusted. On the other hand, short-sighted politicians focused on the next election and preoccupied with their own career pander to the media instead of setting the agenda. It's this toxic mix of media deference and distrust that puts democracy at risk.

The stories that emerged around the leadership spill in the Liberal Party is instructive. Depending on who you believe, both Rupert Murdoch and Seven Media Proprietor Kerry Stokes played a part in the ousting of Malcolm Turnbull. As did shock radio jock and self-appointed king-maker, Alan Jones.

Their influence is wielded not so much by what they do, but what they are perceived to be capable of doing. It is that fear that makes prime ministers take their call and subjugate to their interest. The fear of a negative editorial, the fear of a foul breakfast radio rant, the fear of someone else publicly (or surreptitiously) supported to take their place.

Somewhat contrary to popular belief, Murdoch's power is not exercised through direct instruction or demands for a particular outcome. There may have been a time when he instructed his editors what to write, as he did in 1975, when journalists rebelled. But those days are gone, his empire too large, his interests too diverse, the (financial) risks of being seen as directly interfering too severe.

Murdoch wields his influence through hiring and firing, through appointing like-minded people in key positions, through promotions within the ranks, the occasional nod and a wink. But above all, he exerts influence through the expectations of those that allow themselves to be influenced.

Kevin Rudd may well lament Murdoch's power and how he doesn't “own Australia”, but in his memoir, Making Headlines, former editor of The Australian, Chris Mitchell, reveals in much detail their close but, at times fractious, relationship. Mitchell tells of a clandestine dinner-for-two in the sauna of a five-star hotel with Rudd dishing dirt on Wayne Swan, in September 2010, after Rudd's ousting by Gillard. It shows how Rudd was happy to use Murdoch's power when it suited him. No doubt like every prime minister has before and after.

Chris Mitchell's book is also instructive in exposing how Murdoch editors not only see their role as reporters but become influencers. The temptation of power looms large, backed by their powerful proprietor (who also happens to be rich as Croesus, knowing how and when to cajole and entice through lavishing pricey trinkets, trips and the spoils of privilege upon his acolytes).

The perceived power of the media is a two-way street. As the Senate hearing into the ABC showed, politicians are also not shying away from trying to influence the national broadcaster in much the same way as media proprietors do — through appointments, intimidation, hiring and firing.

An ABC with an independent board, a strong CEO, and leadership group that maintains the highest level of journalistic standards is paramount to our functioning democracy. The day the ABC is not feared by the incumbent government is the day the ABC is not doing its job.

The ABC remains a stalwart of independent media and, with its high trust rating, it would also benefit from being much more active on social media than it is.

Despite the low trust in social media as such, it is an important platform, not only for the ABC but for the fast-growing independent media sector. There is a reason some senators went out of their way to attack the #auspol Twitter community recently and it is not to protect democracy as it pretends.

The ABC, social platforms and independent media play an increasingly important role in keeping our politicians honest. Politicians, for their part, need to stand up to the vested interest of the media proprietors or suffer the consequences.

It is all well and good to lament the power of the media, strong politicians must withstand it — through transparency, focus on policies instead of politics and not succumbing to their fear of missing out.

Rupert Murdoch may be a bully working to exert his power over politicians but, like all bullies, he requires not just a target, but an audience. Politicians do have the power to remove themselves as targets. Without a target, the audience walks, eventually replaced by voters with their trust restored.

Kim Wingerei is a former businessman turned writer and commentator. Passionate about free speech, human rights, democracy and the politics of change. Originally from Norway, he has lived in Australia for 30 years. Author of ‘Why Democracy is Broken - A Blueprint for Change’. Follow at @kwingerei or visit kimwingerei.com.  

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