The Oz is not a newspaper

I happened to look at the front page of The Australian today, something I don’t do very often. Of five front-page stories, one was a brief teaser for a business story about Channel 9. The other four were hit pieces on the Federal government. Even a piece on increasing inequality was presented as an attack on Wayne Swan. One (on asylum seekers) was accompanied by an “opinion” piece by Greg Sheridan, notable for the fact that it was more sober and balance than the “news” story on which Sheridan was commenting.

As I’ve said before, I don’t see this as a problem requiring a regulatory solution, as suggested by the Finkelstein Report. Rather, we simply need to recognise that 20th century assumptions about “the press” have ceased to be applicable. The Australian looks like a 20th century newspaper, just as Fox resembles a 20th century US TV network, but both are far more like political blogs in terms of their content and operating procedures.

An obvious implication is that, while Murdoch should be free to publish whatever he likes, his employees should not be accorded any of the special privileges that were routinely accorded to journalists in the 20th century, such as press passes, access to press conferences, special privileges shielding sources and so on. These should either be made available to everyone, or restricted to media organizations willing to commit to factual reporting, fair treatment of the issues in news stories and so on.

The most important asset of the traditional media is not a formal privilege but the assumption that journalists, unlike you and me, have a right to ask questions of perfect strangers on matters of all kinds, and to expect an answer. In a context where the answer is bound to be used dishonestly, this makes no sense.

If I were advising the government at this point, I would suggest a routine policy of “no comment” in response to any question from an employee of News Limited. Obama tried this with Fox News early on, but other news organizations threatened to boycott his press conferences in solidarity and he backed down. That was, I think, a mistake.

99 thoughts on “The Oz is not a newspaper

  1. And just now on Fairfax I see Rupert is demanding that the ABC apologise for its “lies”!!!

    Apart from the fact that Rupert DID refer to his phonehacked victims as “scumbags” (talking, as usual, straight out of his memory hole), that is utterly hilarious coming from Mr. “I promise there is no poison pill” Murdoch.

    And all this crap about ‘George Mega’ being a redeeming strength of ‘The (American Owned) Australian’ just makes my earlier point – anyone who works for him is an enabler.

  2. I think Will has nailed it.

    Up to about 5 -10 years ago, I used to be proud to get a letter published in The Oz, but then I started to feel sorry for my letters, because of the company they were having to keep on that page. And the quality of the other letters was getting worse, so that it no longer seemed an achievement to join them. Once I discovered that the puzzle page in The West Australian was better than that in The Oz, it was an easy decision to stop reading it.

  3. @John Brookes

    It isn’t some unlucky coincidence. There has been a very deliberate infestation of the ABC by News Ltd traceable to the highest levels of both organisations.

    Anybody from Brisbane remember when News Ltd’s Madonna King was surprisingly parachuted into the Brisbane ABC 612 morning radio slot? Anyone remember how she gave a gushing interview to David Fagan, the editor of the News Ltd ‘Courier-Mail’?

    Nobody at their ABC seemed to think it worth mentioning that the editor of the ‘Courier-Mail’ was her husband.

    What about all the News Ltd/IPA hacks given time on my ABC to ensure no corner of this country is left unsullied by their dishonest screed?

    It isn’t just a sad happenstance, it is a deliberate and brilliantly executed plan.

  4. @Megan

    Thanks for raising this hypothesis Megan and John. The changes in the ABC have been worrying me for a while. I had put in down to may tendency to ‘it was better in the good old days’ thought patterns but now you have made me wonder whether there is more going on.

    A case in point relevant to John’s blog is ABC mainstream economics reporting particularly ABC TV AM and PM. Rather than seeing incisive analysis in prime time as one might hope for one gets the Alan Kohler’s parrot like imitation of Tom Petrovski “the market went up and then went down” every evening. Then following lateline we get a parade of suits being serious but not terribly informative.

    This extremely poor reporting has seemed more inexplicable since the 2008 (near?) crash unless you adopt the view that the ABC is just going along with economic revisionism so well described in John’s recent book.

    There are of course still bastions of inquiry notably on Radio National but your thesis seems to fit with the reporting we see at prime hours and television.

  5. After reading the comments of TerjeP at 28 and 29, I can understand why the electors of Bennelong in 2010 gave him just 344 of the 92,504 primary votes cast.

  6. John Brookes :@Fran Barlow I had noticed the way the ABC seems to have caught whatever disease News Limited is suffering from. Very worrying.

    the other day in the fin an opinionator called the ABC left wing.
    i went What?

    the head of the board is an american evangelist who used to work for merde-OK.
    the board members are tied to the faceless coalition.
    the metroman who put out the dumdrnk&racist is a merde-OK apparatchic.

    (alright,alright.i’ll tone it down)

    the spiel seems to be that the ABC has no right to compete with commercial “legitimate” broadcasters.

    so we see programs like “the science show”,a program of religious scholarly debate,
    radio plays and other non commercial programs eliminated by the merde_OK board.
    the board that is in charge of public broadcasting.
    the public broadcaster that fills the many,many information gaps left by the market-share,for-profit,advertising-funded,ratings-driven commercial public broadcasting industry.

    is it possible that a current near monopolistic commercial public broadcaster wishes to see the introduction in Australia of the kind of voter representation that is currently in place for the governance of that broadcasters business?

    and with the elimination of the kind of programs that the commercial broadcasters wouldn’t touch with a bargepole,does that mean the reason for the ABC’s existence would no longer be valid?

    but of curse! poof.

  7. In the face of such profound perspicacity, ts, I can only timidly offer the observation that such abuse of the democratic process over, what, six years was, perpetrated by a corrupt right wing government that could not even be checked by their Liberal coalition partners or more importantly, by a boot-licking press.
    It took the (what was then an independent) ABC to expose the ministerial and police corruption.
    Some went to gaol, one escaped gaol claiming an imminent death and one escaped gaol by corrupting the judicial system.
    Which reminds me of a joke that went the rounds in the late 1980’s.
    One of the gentlemen , to whom I alluded above that escaped gaol, consults a doctor.
    On examination, the doctor discovers a cane toad growing out of the gentleman’s head.
    “Good god, man”, exclaimed the doctor, “how long have you had this?”
    To wich the toad says, “Dunno, it just started as a wart on me arse
    Keep yer chin up, mate: Turnbull may still be able to knock off Abbott before the next election.

  8. John, fortunately for this thread Leigh and Gans published “How Partisan is the Press? Multiple Measures of Media Slant” in THE ECONOMIC RECORD, MARCH, 2012, 127–147.

    They employed several different approaches to find that the Australian media are quite centrist, with very few outlets being statistically distinguishable from the middle of Australian politics. The minor exceptions were the ABC channel 2 and perhaps the Melbourne Age in its news slant in the 2004 election. These media slants were small.

    Australian newspapers tended to endorse the coalition in the federal elections from 1996 to 2007 although The Australian, right-wing rag that it is in your eyes, backed the ALP in 2007! I agree that this was a serious lapse of judgement.

    The editorial election endorsements data series should have been long because some newspapers back winners just before they win and oppose the re-election of tired and smelly governments that have being there too long no matter what the party. Murdoch makes making himself the new best friend of the next Prime Minister his business strategy.

  9. @JB Cairns
    ….er, sorry, JB …. must have been a senior moment .. forgot to write “fiasco”. “ill-conceived” and “dud” in inverted commas in my original comment, to reflect our hard-working press?
    Let’s say it was a crude attempt to lure TerjeP into responding to the bait (where are you, TerjeP?).
    So yes, JB, I’m aware that the rates of house fires and deaths during the laying of pink batts were the same during the government scheme as they were during the pre government scheme installations. So why wasn’t this reported in our free, hard-hitting, investigative press?
    Once this fact was known, why didn’t the government reintroduce the scheme?
    Why did they stop support for the installation of solar panels?
    Better still, why didn’t the government become a wholesaler of panels to be sold off at cost? Shit, sorry, sorry: that’s socialistic, isn’t it? (I keep forgetting: capitalism good; soliciasm worse – see? I can’t even SAY the word!)
    That aside and totally irrelevant, I note that Ergon, a power supplier in Queensland (the sunshine state for you southern tossers) has announced that 500 employees are to be laid off because “demand has dropped off”!!!!! (Note the shock & awe?)
    Hey, Tony baby, what a chance for a photo op, eh? You, in hard hat, outside an Ergon plant, backdrop of “sacked workers” with appropriate signs (why not start off with “You don’t turn ME on, Juliar”; and your grab is” .. the reckless spending (got it TerjeP?) on the pink batt fiasco and the ill-conceived solar panel scheme has caused the loss of jobs of these (here, dramatically point to to “workers”) poor workers”
    I will cover Julia’s “lie” and the BER if TerjeP has had time to respond.

  10. I just think the mainstream news is utterly useless right now. It consists of Murdoch and his loyal opposition. Bland, hopeless, most of it not newsworthy, and missing all the important stuff. Nothing against the bankers. No report on the bankster stealing spree. Playing down the economic disaster that this stealing spree has had in the US particularly. Big news seems to be captured news.

    One highlight is Russia Today. Probably run by the modern version of the KGB it shows how time can change everything. Moscow used to be “a place where people lie all the time” and yet now Russia today is about the only place you can get real news about the US on cable.

  11. @Jim Rose

    Jim have you really had a good look at that study? Here are some of the weird and wonderful bits in it I came across for starters which you failed to mention.

    – The biggest red ragger in the country is indicated to be …….. The Australian Financial Review??!!!
    – The Daily Telegraph is as balanced as Radio National ?????????????!!!!!!!!!!!! and both are near perfectly balanced by their criteria?! And the Tele makes 4 times more mentions of ‘Public Intellectuals’ as RN. What a powerhouse! Or maybe I should be wondering ‘so what?’.
    – Gerard Henderson was mentioned 32 times in parliament but 78% of the mentions were by Labor! Are we seriously supposed to consider this represents anything more than his name was mentioned in a debate – as against it showing anything about bias by Labor in his favour? I fear again this is a so what item.
    – Tables 4, 5 and 6 and a good number of the weighty Appendix tables are based on a stunningly crude 5 point value judgement laden scale completed by mere 5 mysterious ‘coders’ (yes 5 not the 10 dentists of toothbruth comparison fame) whose selection basis is not transparent. I managed to find one probably from a linkedin reference to someone who looks like a dreaded consultant – also known by Don Watson as plague rats. Now he may actually be a fine dinner party guest but if he is representative of the rest what you probably are seeing here this is a bunch of mature age MBA or business students – Certainly the senior author is one of these and where else do you get survey guinea pigs but from your students if you a normal time poor academic? These are not people I would trust to code in a pink fit. Sorry but this is very suspect. That it was not booted out by the referees says something I fear about the journal’s editorial system.
    – The survey appears to have been done around 2007 – a lot has changed in the wall since then including a massive rise in political acrimony and winner take all bias. A particularly big focus is the climate change debate. Up to 2007 the coalition was not especially into the denial and winner take all state they are now and Murdoch was not so embattled.
    – Some final gaps – many of the discussions on bias centre around journalists themselves. AND THEY ARE THE ONES WHO ARE SUPPOSED TO BE THE MOST OBJECTIVE. Yet none of our favorites were scoped with the exception of the honorable Philip Adams – no Alan Jones or Miranda etc. and there are no business luminaries like Rupert and Kerry who certainly have been just as noisy then as now. And there are no signs of the policy organisation wonks like Mitch from the Minerals council. They seem to have left all the fun stuff out where the bias actually appears.

    In conclusion there is more devil in the details of this paper than you have owned up to and methinks you have been a tad selective in your analysis – not that I’d trust the findings of ‘management science’ anyway. I’m afraid the social science method whereby you develop your narrative and then marshall statistics to support the narrative leaves me laughing out loud all the way to the paradigm shift.

  12. JohnL :
    After reading the comments of TerjeP at 28 and 29, I can understand why the electors of Bennelong in 2010 gave him just 344 of the 92,504 primary votes cast.

    That would be 344 votes more than you got. Yeah?

  13. @Newtownian
    I suggest you expand your thoughtful post as a comment and submit it to the economic record.

    measurement error is common in media bias tudies because bias itself is hard to define; and competing measures of bias abound in the field.

    the data they used was a bit dated. The working paper was 2009. don’t know if pulications lags such as this are common.

    The use of multiple methods that arrived at similar results to those overseas suggests that the paper deserves some credit.

    The media makes money by attracting audiences. The most marginal members of that audience will be women. Slightly more women and men vote to the centre-left. This would normally suggest that the media is biased slightly to the centre left. Leigh and Gans were a little light on whether they expected the media bias to be in one direction or the other.

    I think the best of the measures of media bias used endorsements of state-level initiatives and referendums to find that newspapers are located almost exactly at the median voter in their home states. Newspapers appear to be more liberal than voters on social and cultural issues such as gay marriage, but more conservative on economic issues.

  14. @Newtownian
    forgot to mention that I routinely blog elsewhere disputing that the media has a left-wing bias. Australia’s cities are not London. not big enough for product differentiation as follows – Hacker: Don’t tell me about the press. I know exactly who reads the papers:

    The Daily Mirror is read by people who think they run the country;
    The Guardian is read by people who think they ought to run the country;
    The Times is read by the people who actually do run the country;
    The Daily Mail is read by the wives of the people who run the country;
    The Financial Times is read by people who own the country;
    The Morning Star is read by people who think the country ought to be run by another country; And The Daily Telegraph is read by people who think it is.

    Sir Humphrey: Prime Minister, what about the people who read The Sun?

    Bernard: Sun readers don’t care who runs the country, as long as she’s got big tits.

  15. @Jim Rose
    Thanks for your very civilised response Jim.

    Your suggestion is tempting but I have a pile of evolving manuscripts in my own area I need to do first like the one I’m temporizing on at the moment.

  16. Brian Cathcart’s “” website commissioned a poll about the public’s view on a genuinely independent media regulator:

    “With weeks to go before the Leveson report is published, the poll is dramatic evidence of the isolation of the newspaper industry, and particularly of those editors and proprietors of national newspapers who continue to press for another round of press self-regulation.

    When people were asked whether they agreed that, after the hacking scandal, newspaper owners and editors should no longer control the press complaints system, 77 per cent agreed and only 5 per cent disagreed. Seventy-one per cent thought we could not trust editors to ensure their journalists acted in the public interest, and 68 per cent said the government should do more to correct inaccurate stories.

    The poll of 2,846 people was commissioned by Hacked Off and the Media Standards Trust and conducted by Yougov, a member of the British Polling Council which has polled for the Daily Telegraph and the Sunday Times, among other publications. It was carried out earlier this month.

    When compared with other surveys over the past year, the new poll suggests that public opinion is hardening against the editors and proprietors just as Leveson completes his work. And it showed high levels of faith in the judge, with twice as many people saying they trusted him to make fair and effective recommendations as didn’t, and 57 per cent saying the government should implement his recommendations – against just 6 per cent who said it shouldn’t.”

    A democracy cannot function without a decent press (ie: diversity of ownership/control; accountability for accuracy; adherence to standards – I would add “news” taking priority over “opinion”, etc…)

  17. I would query “democracy cannot function without a decent press” given the emergence of competing media (I take “press” to mean the print media). You could argue that democracy has been corrupted by the press and alternative forms of media have been more helpful towards democracy.

  18. @Megan
    How does a free press emerge? For much of the 19th century U.S. newspapers were public relations tools funded by politicians. Information hostile to a paper’s political views were ignored or dismissed as sophistry. Newspaper independence was rare. Fraud and corruption in 19th century America approached today’s more corrupt developing nations.

    The newspaper industry underwent fundamental changes between 1870 and 1920 as the press became more informative and less partisan.
    – 11 per cent of urban dailies were independent in 1870,
    – 62 percent were in 1920.

    The rise of the informative press was the result of increased scale and competitiveness in the newspaper industry caused by technological progress in the newsprint and newspaper industries.
    • From 1870 to 1920, when corruption appears to have declined significantly within the United States, the press became more informative, less partisan, and expanded circulation considerably.
    • By the 1920s, the partisan papers no longer coupled allegations of the corruption of their party members with condemnation of the character of the person making the charge.

    A reasonable hypothesis is rise of the informative press was one of the reasons why the corruption of the Gilded Age was sharply reduced during the Progressive Era.

    A supply-side model suggesting that newspapers weigh the rewards of bias—politicians’ bribes or personal pleasure—against the cost of bias—lost circulation from providing faulty news. The key predictions of the model are that, as the size of the market for newspapers rises, and as the marginal cost of producing a paper falls, newspapers will become less biased and invest more in gathering information.

    Corruption declined because media proprietors discovered that they could maintain and boost circulation by exposing it. An independent press which kept a watchful eye over government and business was a spontaneous order that was a by-product of rising incomes and literacy of readers.

    Politicians did not help the process along. Technological innovations and increased city populations caused a huge increase in scale.

    It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. Newspapers become big businesses; they increased readership and revenue by presenting factual and informative news. Following these incentives, newspapers changed from political tools to impartial reporting.

    HT: The Rise of the Fourth Estate: How Newspapers Became Informative and Why It Mattered by Matthew Gentzkow, Edward L. Glaeser, and Claudia Goldin. In Corruption and Reform: Lessons from America’s Economic History (2006)

  19. @rog

    Fair enough, but the problem is a bit more than just one of definition. I used “press” as a catch-all for “media”. But that must be further clarified/defined.

    Perhaps “mass media”? It is, in my opinion, a trap (deliberately encouraged by the controllers of our traditional ‘mass media’) to ignore the fact that several hundred thousand fellow Australians daily ingest only a handful of papers/TV/radio.

    The internet is wonderful but the vast majority of our population are either fragmented by it, or simply get most of their info from the various forms of “old” mass media.

    Anyway, a democracy cannot function without an honestly informed population. The quality of the information is as important as its general availability and ‘consumption’ (I hate that word used this way).

    If you’ve ever been the only person in a crowd of cheering fools to notice that the person whose clothes they are admiring is actually naked, you will know how lonely it can be. In the fairy tale everyone suddenly listened to the little voice and the emperor was shamed. I’m not sure we have any mechanism left for the little voice to speak truth anymore – at least not without being dragged away by ASIO and charged with terrrrsm or sedition or something.

  20. @Megan George Mega has admitted that the Gillard speech is important and it was the number of YouTube hits that convinced him (just google “Online sensation exposes Abbott’s gender card play to millions” to avoid Ruperts pay wall).

  21. Markus :
    I have read the Australian most days since issue #1. I cancelled my subscription about 6 months ago for exactly the same reasons you have listed here. Funny, one week ago I severed the umbilical cord – the daily email of 0Z headlines still being sent to my phone – giving my reason as “The oz is no longer a newspaper. Goodbye”. How coincidental!
    “The Heart of The Nation?”. No, more like total organ failure. what a shame. I feel sorry for the captives left working therefor what is essentially a Murdoch blog.

    Here in South Africa newspapers had to fight for freedom and take their role seriously, e.g., see Mail&Guardian. When I worked at University of Qld, I bought the Oz subscription availble at uni for $10 for half a year. I don’t know why: there’s nothing in it to appeal to the intellect, and I lack a bird cage to line.

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