What to do about Rupert?

There’s been a lot of discussion about the Finkelstein report on the media, nearly all of which (along with the report itself, from what I can infer, having not read it) misses the point. To start with, it’s clear that the central problem motivating the inquiry in the first place is that most Australian daily newspapers are owned by News Corporation, which routinely prints lies, uses its power to demand, and receive, politically favorable treatment and, at an international level, engages in systemic corruption including fraud, bribery of public officials, blackmail, and much more, not to mention the routine criminality of illegal spying on its targets.

It’s clear that Australia would be better in all sorts of ways if the Murdoch press was less powerful, or for that matter, if it was broken up and replaced by a genuinely competitive newspaper market, with at least some honest papers replacing the existing Murdoch rags. But there are lots of things that would make Australia better than cannot be brought about by government fiat. It would be better if we (well, most of us) didn’t engage in, and enjoy, malicious gossip, but lots of us do, and most of the time there’s no remedy except social disapproval when things get out of hand. Freedom of speech includes (within some very broad limits), freedom to talk irresponsibly and nastily, lie, spread silly rumors and so on.

The real problem not addressed (except in an incoherent way) is the concept that freedom of the press includes something more than the right to print whatever you like (again, subject to limitations like defamation and fraud) and to sell the resulting publication. That freedom should be available to everyone. And, as critics of the Finkelstein report have pointed out, thanks to the Internet it is available to everyone in quite a practical sense. This is quite unlike the conditions of the 20th century, when you needed to own a newspaper, or a chunk of tightly rationed spectrum to have any practical ability to reach a mass audience.

But News Limited and its defenders want something more than this. They want to keep a whole set of special privileges acquired in the special conditions of the 20th century[1], including press galleries, press clubs, press passes, special protections for officially recognised journalists and their sources and so on. They want to maintain social institutions where refusing to talk to a stranger who calls you asking questions about your business or private affairs carries a presumption that you have something to hide, as long as that stranger is an officially recognised journalist.

All of these privileges are now obsolete, and News Limited has done a lot to make them so. The 20th century privileges carried with them a set of presumptions about how media organizations should work, including a separation between news and opinion, and an even sharper separation between content and the commercial interests of proprietors and advertisers. News Limited has systematically trashed those presumptions, but is still trading on the privileges that went with them.

In the long run, it seems inevitable that we will return to something more like the situation prevailing in the early 19th century (and in many new democracies) where there was no pretense that journalists should be neutral “reporters”, and no general expectation that something printed in a newspaper should be true. In this world, everyone is a publisher, and those who want credibility need to establish it for themselves, rather than by flashing a press pass. There’s plenty of room in this world for an organization like News Limited, at least as long as it stays inside the law. Politicians who don’t like the lies such organizations tell should adopt a standard reply to their questions of the form “I don’t respond to questions from Rupert Murdoch and his employees”, and put up with the attacks these organizations dish out.

fn1. More precisely, these privileges can be dated back to the late 19th century. As CP Snow observed, nearly all ancient British traditions originated in this period.

18 thoughts on “What to do about Rupert?

  1. It’s interesting that with all the wailing, so few people appear to have actually read the report:

    Click to access Report-of-the-Independent-Inquiry-into-the-Media-and-Media-Regulation-web.pdf


    If you don’t have time to read the whole thing, just go through the summary and recommendations (covered in the first few pages), or read the general overview of how the proposed “News Media Council” would operate (about pg 290-299 of the pdf).

    In essence, the journalists current “Code of Ethics” would be actually enforced for a change and Rupert would no longer be the biggest funder of the body doing the enforcing and would no longer be able to take his bat and ball and go home if he didn’t like some ruling.

    Hardly end of the world stuff. The only role for the Government would be to fund it.

    The howling wailers seem to forget that nobody is proposing to tell them what they can and can’t publish. They will be able to carry on publishing the same outrageous lies they currently do. The only difference would be that, if they then refused to correct outright falsehoods they could be “forced” to do so.

    What reasonable person, including our host, would not want to correct a factual error in their public writings?

    Help! Help! The Godwins are coming!

  2. Nice piece. The problem though as I see it is as the Finkelstein report sees it, and my preferred remedy is similarly of like mind. As long as there is a large minority of the populace listening to powerful, privileged media voices the media must be held accountable for the truth and fairness of what they say. This hasn’t been happening; the market failure needs to be addressed. I think it’s an excellent report with a perfectly good proposed solution to the problem.

  3. I agree with JQ’s trenchant criticism of Murdoch empire.

    Does the fact that the traditional print media are collapsing impact on this situation for the better? US data shows print advertising revenue is plummeting. Australian data shows (I think) that circulation is plummeting. I think commercial TV is likewise declining.

    Perhaps what we really have to watch are the attempts to over-police, restrict and corporatise the internet and other distributed media. If this an accurate call?

  4. @frankis

    I’m not too optimistic on that. There are a few cases of regulatory capture in Australia such as the old accounting regulatory (I forgot the name) captured by the professionals in the industry. An industry so powerful such as media, the possibility of that is even greater, especially when they have the excuse (freedom of speech) to lie.

  5. If there are criminal activities e.g. Phone hacking, these should be addressed through the courts. People need to report and provide the evidence then governments can act. Press gallery should be kicked out of Parliament House. There is far too much back grounding ie leaking, of journalists and this game must be stopped. Journalists in Canberra think their DNA is exactly the same as the politicians they report on. This gets in the way of evidence-based policy making and journalism. Get off the Twitter feed and back into doing your jobs on both sides properly.

  6. Fink report or otherwise, I think the Murdoch press’ influence is declining, more than commensurate with the decline in influence of other print media.

    I’m routinely surprised (if that’s not too contradictory) at the way that politicians kowtow to the Oz, which after all, runs at a loss – that is to say, on the very same neoliberal grounds that the paper advocates as the ultimate arbiter of value and values, it fails.

    If Rupert Murdoch wants to spend his money trying to tug the political debate in Australia to the right, that’s his prerogative. But everyone can see that’s what’s going on, and it doesn’t do any favours for the credibility of either the paper or the parent company.

  7. I think that it is also importnat to think back to the time when the barriers for media aglomeration were eroded and broken. Remember the arguments that were used, and remember them in terms of the eventual outcome now being played out. Transpose that knowledge into all such similar pushes towards singular control of industries.

  8. the fact the only nationally available paper in OZ,except the fin,cannot pay for itself and must be propped up,begs the question of why.

    how come a corporation that makes so much money from broadcasting can’t cover costs?

    does this mean the paper itself is no more than a daily broadsheet funded by money originating from a foreign national,advertising a discrete corporate political ideology?

    if this is so,how come this kind of foreign interference is OK?

  9. Don’t know about the Murdoch press declining, Rupert’s latest rag the Sun has eclipsed his estimates. He is a very tough character and will use any trick to advance his business.

  10. Does anyone have data on The Australian’s print and digital circulation? Is it publicly available information?

  11. “In the long run, it seems inevitable that we will return to something more like the situation prevailing in the early 19th century (and in many new democracies) where there was no pretense that journalists should be neutral “reporters”, and no general expectation that something printed in a newspaper should be true. In this world, everyone is a publisher, and those who want credibility need to establish it for themselves”

    This is a dangerous presumption as in practice there will be no independent verification of credibility rather it will be who panders to my biases. Chile has one of the world’s most restrictive press regulation in the democratic and autocratic worlds. These were introduced by General Pinochet’s government to prevent any form of resistance. However when democracy was restored these laws were kept and there is little desire even by the press itself to remove these laws. When the period of atonement began one of the factors that led to the bloody coup was an inflammatory press where lies were published and compounded leading to the coup. Today the headlines and the articles on politics and social commentary are incredibly civilised and puts many Australian papers to shame (sadly the Chilean press does not extend this courtesy to other areas of reporting). Late in 2010 the Chilean parliament issued a warning to a tabloid that was straying from the norms by declaring that although no one had been prosecuted since the restoration of democracy it did not mean that the laws were obsolete.

    Another example is Fox News “fair and balanced” marketing logo which means that those who want to believe that services products will do so. credibility is not a requirement for these consumers.

    Finally the end of the 19th century was a rather bloody affair including the US Civil War in which the press had a rather infamous role.

  12. I thought you may have been too kind about Murdoch and his newspapers. I wonder if Finkelstein’s proposal on blogs was actually intended to allow them and their contributors access to the “special privileges acquired in the special conditions of the 20th century, including press galleries, press clubs, press passes, special protections for officially recognised journalists and their sources and so on”.

  13. Its been encouraging to read of a number of Murdoch shills in London again arrested, most of all the sinister Rebecca Wood.
    I cant understand why anyone would would oppose media reregulation, if it put an end to farces like Flint’s Kash for Komments debacle and now the goings on in Britain

  14. Yeah, her too!
    As one of the few likely better acquainted with the facts on matters economic, are you going to explicate for the benefit of the more benighted on what’s behind the Pacific FreeTrade negotiations, conducted in and then kept secret?
    Or does the wall of secrecy extend even to this site?

  15. Certainly no hagiography about Murdoch press, but does allow that it has a right to exist. And that newspapers are operating in a very different world. A world in which the printed media struggles to survive, or at least as it is now offered and funded.

    Pippa Norris sees the transition from newspaper partisanship to “objectivity” (in USA at least) as driven by funding. That with advances in technology and the emergence of more commercially oriented mass circulation tabloid newspapers with greater independence was because their priniciple source of revenue was sales rather than government subsidies. She saw the evolution towards the “objective” model kicking off in the 1920s. Then came competition, radio and television. And legislation, the 1934 ACT (US) requiring TV/Radio to provide equal opportunities for politicians. And buried at the bottom (of the garden) of this enquiry is “objectivity” and “fairness” for political speech.

    Leap forward, the internet and the myriad competition for the printed media and as an example of different thinking about journalism, (which seems to square with PQ’s perception of the reality of the media world), Jay Rosen

    “could be wrong, but I think we are in the midst of shift in the system by which trust is sustained in professional journalism. David Weinberger tried to capture it with his phrase: transparency is the new objectivity. My version of that: it’s easier to trust in “here’s where I’m coming from” than the View from Nowhere. These are two different ways of bidding for the confidence of the users.
    In the old way, one says: “I don’t have a horse in this race. I don’t have a view of the world that I’m defending. I’m just telling you the way it is, and you should accept it because I’ve done the work and I don’t have a stake in the outcome…”
    In the newer way, the logic is different. “Look, I’m not going to pretend that I have no view. Instead, I am going to level with you about where I’m coming from on this. So factor that in when you evaluate my report. Because I’ve done the work and this is what I’ve concluded…”
    If the View from Nowhere continues on, unchallenged, trust in the news media will probably continue to decline.”

    Is Finkelstein, and by implication academic journalism, revisiting a model of the printed media which simply won’t work, including back to government subsidies, for “quality” news. On a nostalgia trip.

    Not unreasonable to describe the media system and the printed media system as complex systems on the edge of chaos. And to respond by introducing further rigidities, increasing and strengthening the inherent contradictions, maybe rather than save “quality” news, Finkelstein’s approach might just bring about the implosion of the printed media in Australia. It seems that many understand that there are limits to our knowledge and our ability to engineer specific outcomes in complex systems. Despite this we are presented with just that by Finkelstein, with a dose of the good old days.

    Once again it is likely the market will determine what our future political news media looks like, despite attempts to control and direct it back to some mythical golden age.

  16. The point of The Australian is to get their columnists seen as experts on any topic and included on tv shows to provide “balance”. It is about framing discussions as can be increasingly seen on ABC news discussions. It is about influence well out of proportion to sales of papers.

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