Meltdown at the Oz: Quiggin edition

The Oz has always been thin-skinned, and my piece in the Fin the week before last attacking the Murdoch press (I’ve reprinted it over the fold) was bound to elicit a reaction. It came in the form of a full-length hit piece, written by Michael Stutchbury and including a fair few quotations to this blog. The headline An economist who is good in theory but on the far left in practice gives the general line. It has a bit of a phoned-in feel, like an exercise in party solidarity rather than a sudden concern with my errors and obviously wasn’t a spontaneous outburst – Stutchbury told me had been directed to write it. That’s part of the price of working for the Empire these days (compare Caroline Overington’s part in the attack in Julie Posetti).

Mostly, the piece doesn’t misrepresent me – it’s quite true that I think Barack Obama is too centrist, and that Julia Gillard doesn’t care about equality. However, as I said to Stutchbury during our phone conversation, it’s a bit precious to complain about various pieces of colorful language on my part in a paper which referred to me as having a “totalitarian mindset”. At least, unlike the anonymous editorialist who penned that description, Stutchbury calls me out by name rather than coyly referring to “an opinion writer in a financial tabloid“.

More significantly, Stutchbury ducks the issue on climate change, saying

On climate change, Murdoch has backed giving the planet the benefit of the doubt. The Australian supports putting a price on carbon over Tony Abbott’s direct action. But the journalistic default should include some scepticism over whether scientists can accurately predict the climate decades ahead.

He must be reading a different paper to the one that has now racked up 60+ entries in Tim Lambert’s Australian War on Science series. And that’s without considering the truly appalling stuff put out by News International outlets like Fox and the Sunday Times.

Update Michael Stutchbury has called me to take issue with my statement that he told me he had been directed to write the piece. That was my recollection of our conversation, but he was very firm in rejecting it, and I’m not going to insist on my version of events, so I’ve struck out that part of the original post.

Only answer is to cut News’s reach

As recently as June, the imperial power of the Murdoch empire was at its full flower. The parts were impressive, but the whole was so much more than the sum. At the top end, the ownership of some of the world’s leading newspapers, such as The Times and the Wall Street Journal, gave the Murdochs a status and influence few press magnates have ever exceeded.

At the bottom end, tabloid papers provided both cash flow and a direct line of personal attack on any political or public figure foolish enough to cross the Murdoch interest. The picture was completed by electronic media interests like Sky and Fox, which not only amplified the power of the print media, but benefitted from an endless stream of political favours flowing from those eager to please the Murdochs or turn away their wrath.

Within a few short weeks, much of this edifice has collapsed, and much of the rest is in danger. The revelation that Murdoch’s News of the World had hacked the voicemail of a murdered schoolgirl, deleting messages in the hope of receiving more, opened the floodgates. A week later News of the World had been closed down, but by then the issue of illegal hacking was only a secondary part of the story.

After initially focusing on the ‘bad apples’ at the News of the World, members of the British political class, led by Ed Miliband of the Labour (one of the few figures not personally implicated in the process), revolted against decades of servitude to the Murdoch empire. That servitude had embroiled not only the leadership of both major political parties, but the Metropolitan police force which has now seen the resignation of its two most senior officers.

With leading Murdoch lieutenants Rebekah Brooks and Les Hinton having already resigned, and Brooks facing possible criminal charges, almost no-one in the UK elite can regard their position as safe. The Prime Minister, David Cameron is vulnerable, having displayed, at best, appallingly bad judgement.

The Murdochs themselves are at risk on many fronts, including possible civil and criminal prosecutions in both the UK and US, and challenges from the long-suffering shareholders of News Corporation. At a minimum, the litigation from the thousands of phone hacking victims will keep NewsCorp tied up in court for years to come.

Going beyond the press, the connections are now being drawn between the seemingly unchallengeable impunity of the Murdoch empire and that of the British elite as a whole, and most notably the banking sectors. Just as Murdoch seemed able to buy or bully his way out of any potential trouble, so the banks got off scot-free from the global financial crisis. Meanwhile, Cameron’s Conservative government is demanding that ordinary Britons pay the price of austerity to cover the debts run up in the rescue operations of 2008 and 2009. The crisis over Murdoch has re-energised resistance to the whole program of bank-backed austerity.

Such periods of political spring are inevitably short and business as usual will doubtless be restored in due course. By then, however, the revolt may have carried away not only much of Murdoch’s UK empire but the capacity of the government to push through a program based on a spurious premise of shared sacrifice.

What are the implications of all this for Australia? It seems unlikely that there has been any significant phone hacking here: that appears to be a UK-specific pathology. But in other respects, the power of News Corporation and the shamelessness with which that power is used to promote the political and commercial interests of the Murdoch empire is even greater here than in the UK.

The blatantly fact-free political campaigns run by News Corporation on issues such as climate change and fiscal stimulus have created huge difficulties for the Labor government (the Obama Administration in the US has had similar problems). Dealings between governments and the press are constrained by a set of conventions based on the presumption that the press is supposed to present a more or less accurate report of the events they cover and that governments are obligated to treat the press as a group seeking to find and report the truth. When that ceases to be the case, as it has done with News Corporation, it is hard to know how to respond.

We need a new set of institutions and assumptions to deal with the kind of openly partisan press represented by News Corporation. The first step must be to cut its power back to a more manageable level.

69 thoughts on “Meltdown at the Oz: Quiggin edition

  1. Fred, you’ll know the story Chomsky relates in ‘Manufacturing Consent’ where, in the UK, in the post-war period there were numerous titles such as ‘Daily Herald’, ‘News Chronicle’, ‘Sunday Citizen’ that openly opposed capitalism, but which all subsequently ‘failed’ and disappeared, leaving the Right, now extreme Right, monoculture of the mind that we see today. The Daily Herald is a salient example. In 1933 it had the largest certified readership in the world, and even when it folded in 1964 it was one of the twenty biggest circulating papers anywhere. But it was undermined by an advertising boycott, ostensibly on the grounds that its working class readership was of no interest to advertisers. Killing off a Leftist newspaper no doubt hardened business’s resolve. It re-emerged, in a hideous irony, as the detestable ‘Sun’ which shines out of Rupert’s fundamental orifice.

  2. I notice a growing trend for apologists of News Corp/News Limited to use the ‘you are seeking to suppress free speech’ defence in answering critics of the organisation’s editorial standards – as if ‘free speech’ only extends to them.

    Their sensitivity to criticism has always been evident, but the recent scandals have really led to a circling of the wagons. You see Janet Albrechtson out today ranting about some supposed attempts by “the politically correct left” to suppress the voice of the people on immigration etc;

    I’m not aware of any attempt to supress people expressing an opinion. I am aware of increasing alarm at the enchroachment of comment into news stories and the blurring between opinion and straight news. And I am aware of increasing concern at the outright distortion and deceit in supposed straight news reporting in Murdoch’s Australian papers, all of which push an ideological agenda.

  3. It is against the law for “anybody” like Murdoch (ie a foreigner) to start up a newspaper in Australia.

    Presumably you’re referring to the FIRB requirement that foreign entities get government approval to invest in the media sector in Australia. That’s not quite the same thing as it being “against the law”.

  4. Mulga
    Mr Denmore

    One of the few areas of mild optimism I allow myself is the potential for ‘citizen journalism’, internet blog sites, social media and so on to challenge the current censorship of the unfree media oligarchy in Australia.

    Sites like Crikey [despite its faults], New Matilda, JQ and similar offer some slight resemblance to a diversity of thought that is absent from the monolithic mass media [ABC included].

    But dollars, cold hard cash, is still the problem.
    I do not know how wide is the reach of Crikey, who I assume is the most successful site in terms of numbers of readers, but it is obvious that they are still reliant on advertising for a chunk of their revenue and the need for more subscribers is exemplified by the constant begging for such.
    And of course their reach is minimal when compared to the capitalist press.
    Positively relatively miniscule.

    So that is not a short term answer to the problem of our current oligopoly.

    I think its time to give serious consideration to the options to the current obviously unsatisfactory situation.

    Simply diversifying ownership will not be enough if the nature of the ownership continues as already exists.
    Exchanging a gorgon for a hydra is no progress.

    We need to explore real alternatives.

  5. Tim,

    By “against the law” I mean the following: It is against the law for a foreigner (other than Murdoch and his current holdings) to own a newspaper UNLESS they get permission from the Treasurer FIRST.

    Javier Moll tried but was refused – if he had gone ahead either before or after being refused permission to compete with Murdoch in Adelaide that would have been illegal.

    So we disagree, apparently, on whether that means that it is against the law.

  6. That’s a fascinating update about your differing recollections.

    I remember quite clearly what Justice Kaye found in relation to top News executives and editors recollections in the ‘Guthrie v News Ltd’ case.

    Luckily, those findings are now a matter of undeniable public record. No room to argue about which recollection was the right one (winky emoticon goes here)!

  7. Relevant current example.
    Ben Sandilands has an article up at Crikey about Fukushima and recent off-the-scale radioactivity readings and an impassioned speech by a nuclear expert Prof in the Japanese Diet telling them that the past and current situation is extremely serious and accusing them of negligence.
    There is more.
    Now maybe its a beat up by Ben, maybe its all hyperbole by some weirdo Prof [such people exist apparently].

    But despite the whatever above its a huge story … or should be ….its all over [sort of] the net but what coverage has it had in the Oz media????

    Because the prof appeared before the Diet a week ago.
    A week ago.

  8. “On climate change, Murdoch has backed giving the planet the benefit of the doubt…”

    The tragedy is that people like Stutchbury have no idea how ludicrous that statement is.

  9. When Murdoch was giving the Boyer lecture where he famously gave the planet “the benefit of the doubt”, he showed how thoroughly across the brief he was when he praised his (totally meaningless ‘1 Degree’) slogan.

    Even though it has since been changed on the official transcript, he pronounced the slogan for the campaign “Eye Degree”! Obviously a man of conviction when it comes to climate change.

  10. So we disagree, apparently, on whether that means that it is against the law.

    Not now that you’ve clarified what you meant.

  11. fred, Fukushima is the ‘greatest industrial accident in history’-I forget who I’m quoting, but it’s true. Far beyond even Chernobyl, and we now know that the Japanese authorities detected isotopes outside the plat on March 12, the day after the tsunami, that indicated a melt-down was already occurring. This disaster has disappeared from the MSM propaganda apparatus, while pro-nuke zealots, like Switkowski, who came out recently as what I would describe as a veritable Dunning-Kruger type of anthropogenic climate destabilisation denialist, continue to downplay the calamity.

  12. @Megan

    Murdoch giving the Boyer lecture was absolutely absurd. I really knew the ABC was finished as “our” ABC when that happened. Would any institution of repute, anywhere, invite him to give a ‘lecture’? I thought the lecture, itself, was so appalling, even ignoring the content, that he must have written it himself.

  13. From Bloomberg Monday

    Tokyo Electric Power Co., operator of Japan’s crippled Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant, said it detected the highest radiation to date at the site.

    Geiger counters, used to detect radioactivity, registered more than 10 sieverts an hour, the highest reading the devices are able to record, Junichi Matsumoto, a general manager at the utility, said today. The measurements were taken at the base of the main ventilation stack for reactors No. 1 and No. 2.

    The way I read that is that the radiation detected was actually off the scale! But apparently, if we support some sort of a Just Media hypothesis, with the notable exception of The World Today this is of little interest to anyone in Australia.

  14. Egad, another redplot, brought to you by the people who brought you NOtW and many, many others examples of “ethical” journalism. (yawns, returns to FB where he is in the middle of a stoush with a “right”
    ALP figure over recent events in SA).

  15. “An economist who is good in theory but on the far left in practice”

    I know this is a minor thing, but I’m fascinated by the headline. Did it start out as “right in theory but far left in practice” and then get changed?

  16. @Don

    Maybe it started out “right in theory but far left in practice, which is also to say, right in practice.” I suppose changing ‘right’ to ‘good’ and removing the bolshie irony (intended or otherwise) is what the editor could claim is ‘value adding’. I suppose then we are lucky that John’s blog is unedited. If Rupert gets to hear of the irony, and understands it, after it has been repeatedly explained to him, Stutchbury could be for the chop.

    Rupert, overheard in his bunker “Tell me, again. How is ‘right’ bad but ‘good’ good?”

  17. John did you notice an effect in page hit numbers? should you be thanking the Oz for the free promotional?

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