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Oz news media bias exposed

August 11, 2013

By Barry Tucker                    11 August, 2013

Allegations of news media bias in Australia during the past several years are not new. The problem has been to accurately identify the reason or reasons for it. In this blog I will set out what I think is happening and why.

The players in this story are first and foremost Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp Australia, the Fairfax Media and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). In each case, the players are after a different goal. The initial aim is to replace the federal Labor government with a Liberal National Party Coalition government — which is a means to achieving the various goals.

News Corp

Rupert Murdoch

Rupert Murdoch

News Corp boss Rupert Murdoch sees himself as a king maker. He has a track record, is not always successful, but has put at least three Australian Prime Ministers into power (Gough Whitlam, Malcolm Fraser and Kevin Rudd) and subsequently had two of them removed.  Fraser was a Liberal, the other two Labor. Murdoch likes to play politics. He has also interfered in elections in the UK and the USA. While he plays politics, his goals involve the commercial advantage that comes from wielding political power. In 1985 he became a citizen of the USA in order to meet the legal requirements for owning US TV stations.

“Interfered” in the para above requires some explanation. The news media has the right to report and to comment on politics. It does not, in my opinion, have the right to distort reporting and commentary with a view to influencing voters. To demand or endorse this compromises the integrity of the journalism profession. Facts can be effectively exposed by unbiased reporting. To do otherwise is to interfere with the democratic process.

I am convinced that negative news reporting influences the voting public and this is reflected in the opinion polls, one of which, Newspoll, is half owned by News Corp. To test this opinion, ask yourself where people get the information on which they base their political opinions. If not mainly from the news media, then where?

What Murdoch wants

Primarily, Murdoch wants the National Broadband Network (NBN) now under construction crippled so that it does not threaten his dominance of cable TV in Australia. In addition, he will probably bid for ownership of the NBN when it is privatised, with financial support from mining magnate Gina Rinehart, who wants to be a player in Australian news media and already has a financial interest in Fairfax Media and Channel 10.

Murdoch supports the Liberal party Opposition Leader Anthony (Tony) Abbott, who will give him what he wants in exchange for his support (see below*). The Liberal party’s think tank, the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA), has as its agenda item No. 69: Immediately halt construction of the National Broadband Network and privatise any sections that have already been built.

Abbott on his knees behind Murdoch at the IPA dinner

*Abbott on his knees behind Murdoch at the IPA dinner

Murdoch’s father, Keith, who began building the family’s newspaper empire in Adelaide, was a founding member of the Liberal Party of Australia in 1945.

The IPA, formed two years earlier, was involved in formation of the Liberal party. The IPA is sponsored by big business and should be seen as the party’s policy unit and propaganda arm. It refuses to name big corporate sponsors because they have been threatened in the past. Its “Fellows” are regular commentators on ABC TV current affairs shows. Murdoch, Abbott and Rinehart were guests of the IPA at its 70th annual dinner in Melbourne on Thursday, 4 April, 2013. The IPA has a 100 item agenda for the re-shaping of Australia. Mr Abbott told the IPA’s dinner guests he would adopt 12 of the items on the list, including No. 69 (above). See: http://bit.ly/Z85iqP for that story.

Murdoch may also be seeking the contract to operate the Australia Network, which transmits television into Asia. The Chinese government has knocked him back on plans to transmit within China — a severe blow to Murdoch’s ambitions and his sense of self-importance and ability to wield power.

News Corp, via its interest in Sky, is believed to have been likely to win the contract to operate Australia Network when it was first put out to tender. But the process went awry amid allegations of leaks and two inquiries. Tendering was cancelled and the contract was given to the ABC by the Gillard Labor government. That alone in my view would be sufficient for a man with Murdoch’s TV coverage ambitions to campaign against Labor.

* How far will Abbott go? During negotiations with Independents after the 2010 drawn election he offered Andrew Wilkie (Tasmania) a new multi-million dollar hospital. He begged Tony Windsor (NSW) for his support, saying he “… would do anything, short of selling my arse, but I’d have to think about that”. Mr Windsor’s revelation is recorded in Hansard, Thursday, 7 March, 2013.

Cf for confirmation, News.com report and/or ABC report.

Soon after announcing the date of the federal election last Sunday, Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd openly accused News Corp and Murdoch in particular of being out to get him. He said News journalists had been told “to get Kevin Rudd”. He was encouraged or prompted by an article in Melbourne’s The Age by Paul Sheehan, who declared Murdoch wanted the NBN killed off. Mr Rudd called on Murdoch to confirm or deny. Murdoch replied that the NBN could “enhance” his Foxtel delivery and Opposition NBN spokesperson Malcolm Turnbull agreed.

These exchanges led to a debate in print and in social media about whether or not News Corp was in fact biased and whether news media bias could in fact determine the outcome of an election. Some say yes, some say no. The thought below occurred to me only this morning and crystallised my thinking for this blog:

If biased news reporting could not influence the outcome of an election, why the hell would you risk compromising your product?

Murdoch’s flagship broadsheet and Australia’s only national newspaper, The Australian, which has always run at a loss, is convinced the ABC’s political editorial is dominated by a Left-wing agenda. I watch and listen to the ABC closely enough to know this view is laughable and must be expressed for a purely political purpose. It is most likely related to the ABC’s ownership of the Australia Network contract and the IPA Agenda Items 50 and 51: Break up and sell off the ABC and SBS.

Update 3 October, 2013. According to The Australian Financial Review’s Media Editor, Dominic White, “News Corporation and Telstra have been in secret negotiations to launch a Foxtel-branded broadband service for more than a year but talks are stuck on the price Telstra would charge for access to its network.”

Gina Rinehart/Fairfax Media

"Gina" Rinehart

“Gina” Rinehart

Gina Rinehart has a substantial share in Ten Network Holdings (Ch10), also partly owned by Murdoch, and is the most likely sponsor of the extremely biased (supported by distortion) The Bolt Report, in which Andrew Bolt campaigns against the Labor government and its climate change policies.

Rinehart also has a share of Fairfax Media and has sought two seats on the board to magnify her influence on the company. She has also attempted to have the editorial department’s treasured charter of independence thrown out in a bid to control the editorial direction of the company’s newspapers. To their credit, the board, the editorial staff and others vehemently opposed her.

Rinehart’s purpose in seeking influence over Fairfax is pretty clear, as outlined in her public statements. The Labor government’s Resources Rent Tax (mining tax), carbon price mechanism (carbon tax), workplace regulations, environmental red tape and related issues have added to the cost of mining. On top of that, China is buying less as its economy changes gear. Rinehart would like to employ foreign workers for $2 an hour and thinks Australians drink and smoke too much. She seeks to use Fairfax Media and Ch10 to influence voters and undermine the Labor government.

Many Fairfax journos are not biased, but those who are may be dancing to the tune of the word’s wealthiest woman.

THE ABC

The ABC is financed principally by the federal government but has a much smaller income from the sale of some of its products through ABC Shops, and there may be other sources. IPA Agenda Item No. 50 Break up the ABC and put out to tender each individual function (and 51: Privatise SBS).

ABC MD Mark Scott

ABC MD Mark Scott

Mark Scott was appointed to the board of the ABC by the former Liberal Prime Minister John Howard shortly before he was knocked off by first-time Labor candidate Maxine McKew, sort of ironically a long-term ABC journo. Howard’s instructions to Scott were to “clean up” the supposed Left-wing bias of the ABC editorial departments (and they are legion). Subsequently, Scott was made Managing Director by the board, with direct authority over the editorial departments.

Earlier this year the Liberal federal Opposition Leader Anthony (Tony) Abbott said Scott “… still had some work to do …” in regard to perceptions of biased political news reporting by the ABC. I watch and listen to ABC TV and radio very closely day and night. News Corp editors and journalists, Abbott and his Liberal fan club are of the opinion that the ABC is biased AGAINST the Right. That fascinates me to such an extent that I was moved to Tweet the following yesterday:

abc bias

The first Tweet was someone else’s. I didn’t Retweet the original because I didn’t want to waste precious hours of my life in the pointless and ultimately insulting debate that would have ensued. There wasn’t much reaction at all; most of my Followers are well aware of the ABC’s anti-Left bias, except for non-Follower and assumed Liberal fan Mr “Hawcroft” (Haw Haw?) who apparently thinks the Right-wing bias is obvious to those who are observant.

Chris Uhlmann

Chris Uhlmann

The political editor of the ABC front-runner evening current affairs show The 7.30 Report, Chris Uhlmann, is one journalist who I am prepared to openly declare as being biased against the federal Labor government. He was particularly harsh and critical of former Prime Minister Julia Gillard. That’s complicated by the fact that he is married to the Labor MP for the federal seat of Canberra, Gai Brodtmann.

It should be noted that Mr Uhlmann was an Osborne Independent Group candidate for Mononglo in the ACT 1998 general election. The group was strongly pro-life on abortion and euthanasia. He didn’t win the seat and I am not certain that his political ambitions have ended. One way into the ranks of MPs today is via a posting as a political or media advisor to a sitting MP. Well before any election, State or federal, a handful of journalists will begin angling for a juicy Ministerial or departmental posting. Once they get it, they are tainted forever.

ABC radio’s political reporter Sabra Lane was also critical of Julia Gillard. It was blatant and obvious to me. I feel confident in saying Ms Lane’s interviewing style is somewhat less aggressive following Ms Gillard’s recent departure from the Prime Minister’s role.

I mention the examples above because it is hard to figure out exactly what is going on at the ABC. However, I am confident in saying that its huge editorial staff consists of some who exhibit no bias whatsoever and some who favour the Left over the Right. It seems that some personal bias is permitted regardless of a pile of paperwork designed to prevent it happening.

So much for ABC bias. Let’s look at what Mr Scott, not the ABC as such, wants. The IPA’s goal for the ABC is pretty scary. It horrifies me to think that such a fabulous national asset might be sold to the (not necessarily) highest bidder. I’m sure the world’s wealthiest woman would snap it up and then deal with its Charter, which demands impartiality.

It’s pretty clear to me that Mark Scott has done a good job of installing or encouraging critics of the government, but also of taking the ABC to new levels in terms of product and technology. It should be remembered that Mr Scott held two positions under Liberal Ministers in a former NSW Liberal government, as a chief-of-staff and a senior advisor. He was then the conservative editorial director of the conservative The Sydney Morning Herald. It’s an example of a journalist moving in and out of the parliamentary political realm. According to speeches I’ve read, he does not think news organisations can successfully charge for content they have been providing for free. He does not agree with Liberal theory that publicly funded news organisations should be sold because they are unfair competition to the failing business model of print journalism or commercial television. That could be relevant to any plans for the privatisation of the ABC.

But what does he want? Based on the detailed speeches that he delivers a few times each year I would say he wants what’s best for the ABC — and I’m not sure that would encompass privatisation. In any case, Mr Scott can’t deliver that; it’s entirely up to a federal government, most likely a Liberal one and possibly one led by Anthony (Tony) Abbott.

Mr Scott has brought about some of the correction that PM Howard seemed to think was necessary but Anthony (Tony) Abbott still thinks is lacking. My best guess is that by allowing some overt Right-wing criticism and commentary Mr Scott is seeking to appease the ABC’s critics and save its bacon. I hope I’m right and only the aftermath of the 7 September election will give us the answer.

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