NEWSPAPERS are a highly political business. The powerful and those with a cause to push seek out editors and journalists. They may even contact newspaper owners, seeking positive coverage.
If you believe Rupert Murdoch, the traffic involved here is all one way. Murdoch told the Leveson inquiry in Britain that he had never tried to trade his newspapers' support to gain advantages for his commercial interests. ''I never ever let commercial considerations enter into my thinking … Our approach is to take things issue by issue.''
No one of course knows what Murdoch lets enter his thinking except Murdoch himself. Nonetheless, the result of taking things, as he says, issue by issue has been the steady growth over many decades of a vast media empire, much of it with the active permission of governments. And governments - or oppositions seeking to become governments - are only too willing to talk to Murdoch to seek his support.
How willing is being revealed by the Leveson inquiry. It has uncovered close and clandestine links between newspaper organisations - News Corporation in particular - and elements of Britain's executive government, particularly the police. As for the politicians: as Murdoch was giving evidence to the inquiry, an aide to a minister in the Cameron government was resigning because of inappropriate communications with News, revealed at the inquiry, over the company's bid to take over the satellite broadcaster BSkyB. The minister himself is under pressure to resign. He is the latest in a long line of politicians from all sides eager to be volunteers in Murdoch's cause.
The most convincing analysis of Murdoch - because it fits the facts - has come, at second hand, from Paul Keating. Quoted in his published diaries by Alastair Campbell, the former chief-of-staff to Tony Blair, Keating said of Murdoch: ''You can do deals with him, without ever saying a deal is done. The only thing he cares about is his business and the only language he respects is strength.'' Presented with Keating's words at the Leveson inquiry, Murdoch rejected them. But then, he would, wouldn't he?
For Australians, in a country where Murdoch dominates the big-circulation capital city newspapers, as well as controlling other media outlets, Murdoch's influence has particular relevance. The government is expected soon to release the report of its inquiry into media convergence, having already released the Finkelstein report on the print media and its codes of practice, prompted in part by the scandal engulfing News Corporation in Britain. It is suggested that a new regulatory body of some kind should be set up to oversee media standards. Despite the British scandal, this would be an overreaction. Murdoch exercises control over politicians because politicians have allowed him to assume control over too much of the media. The solution to the Murdoch problem, if that is what it is, is media diversity - not another bureaucracy.
Shorten lances the HSU boil
THE federal government has moved to end the farce that the Health Services Union branch HSU East has become. The Workplace Relations Minister, Bill Shorten, has applied to have HSU East, which covers hospital workers in NSW and Victoria, placed in administration. The union, which represents some of the lowest paid workers in Australia, is embroiled in a long-running scandal involving present and past officials, including the federal member for Dobell, Craig Thomson, and a former national president of the ALP, Michael Williamson. So strong is the stench coming from HSU East that it has become an embarrassment to other branches of the union, other unions and to the ACTU and Unions NSW, which have all endorsed Shorten's move.
This, though, should be only the start. Questions remain. Of most immediate importance is: what happens to the inquiries which have yet to report on the past actions of its officials? The union had asked Ian Temby, QC, to investigate the actions of some officials. Fair Work Australia is yet to complete another report. Both should be delivered quickly to whatever administration takes over the union, and released to the public.
Members of other branches - and other unions - need also to be reassured that the practices which brought HSU East undone are not standard practice elsewhere - just more effectively buried. The factional brawl which brought the HSU East scandal to light should not be needed to ensure transparency and good management.
Last, there is the question of formal union links to the ALP. Unions have been the source of Labor's strength. But as they have dwindled in the wider workforce from a mass movement to a minority pressure group, their nature has changed. Fights for control of their diminished power have become by an odd inverse ratio more intense - as the HSU East battle shows. It has already been disastrous for the Gillard government. If Craig Thomson is forced to quit his seat, it will be fatal. Can the party really afford to maintain its union links?