I think the power of the ranting media - News Corp in particular - is on the decline. The strongest argument against my opinion is the way politicians continue to line up to pay homage to those who control the media, and, in the case of ministers, hand over to media owners hundreds of millions of public money so as to buy, or at least, rent, their favour.
Surely the politicians are not fools. They must know something, more than us poor mortals, about the power of journalists and editors and owners to influence voters and sway votes? Surely governments are not handing over such money from the goodness of their hearts? And surely voters, and the politically aware, have seen ample occasions in which the media has used or abused its power to reward or punish political parties of whom it disapproves. And do not former prime ministers, on both sides of politics, take time out to attack the power of mainstream media, and to call for royal commissions and other action to clip their wings and hold them to account?
It is not to be thought they have pioneered this path. At different times, out-of-office prime ministers such as Gough Whitlam, Paul Keating and Malcolm Fraser have attacked Murdoch in particular, and other media moguls, including Kerry Packer and those in control of the old Fairfax network, for bias, excess of power, abuse of power, use of their media power to advance other business interests, invasion of privacy and even lowering of the national cultural tone.
These critics were people who assiduously cultivated media moguls while they were in power, including dancing attendance on Murdoch here and abroad, as well as making decisions, involving television licences, permissible audience reach, concentration of media and access to gambling licences, that seemed more focused on pleasing the moguls than on serving any obvious public interest.
This interest in a free and independent media and editorial independence sometimes seemed to extend to ringing editors to attack or seek the sacking of particular journalists, making threats about access to information in order to have particular stories suppressed and approaching owners and managers in efforts to get them to lean on editors.
Be all of that as it may, their experiences of the media while in power may have persuaded them of the power of the mainstream media and the need to keep the beast under control. Particularly when their own civilising hand is absent.
Certainly, some of the media in recent times have become far more openly propagandistic about particular causes, such as the apparent fundamental wickedness of Labor, and, in the case of News Corp, the need to drop pandemic lockdowns and reopen the economy.
Coverage on such causes - and other media panics such as the threat from African gangs, from refugees, Muslims, Chinese, and terrorists - has often been carefully orchestrated. Virtually everyone has been conscripted to the cause. There is no pretence of even-handedness, of a primacy of news values or the separation of news from opinion. As often as not, indeed, opinion has seemed to become the news.
During an election, a Murdoch tabloid seems a carefully crafted cruise missile aimed right at Labor, the Greens and anyone else representing a threat to the coalition. It often goes beyond misrepresenting leaders, candidates and policies, omitting material favourable to one side, and ignoring anything that undermines the cause. It often involves making stuff up. It also often consists of trawling the archives in search of embarrassing quotations from long ago, or statements by people who are complete outsiders to an election, but able to be associated with the party.
The jihads are often unashamedly over the top, a positive embarrassment to anyone who would call themselves a journalist. Campaigns go company-wide, and, as often as not, the efforts in one medium are amped up by being treated as news in its own right in another one. Likewise, if the Herald Sun is at war on some issue, one can be fairly sure that the same war is being waged, with shared copy, in Brisbane, Sydney, Hobart and Adelaide.
Recent stories about women being bullied in politics underline how the target is often more important than the issue. Albanese was hammered by News Corp (and, ultimately Nine and the ABC) over the "mean girls" bullying allegations; by contrast, Scott Morrison was dealt with mildly (for once) when he was accused of bullying.
A clear case of anti-Labor bias? By partisan operatives masquerading as journalists? By editors exploiting points of Labor vulnerability - amazingly, with a complete unanimity of opinion through the mastheads? Perhaps at the direction of sinister managers of News Corp? Perhaps all the above, with the pile-on a clear sign that this had suddenly become a loyalty-oath matter for News Corp commentators? Seasoned Murdoch-haters will see and allege any or all of the above.
Yet, even while Morrison was receiving less scrutiny than he deserved, one might note that even News Corp was doing him few favours. It could hardly ignore the open warfare in the NSW Liberal Party, the rage and anger in northern NSW as Morrison again fumbled with his response to a natural disaster or the apparent failure of the budget to turn the tide of falling support for the coalition.
Those who fear the worst for Labor from News Corp bias might recall that Labor was returned to office in both Queensland and Victoria in recent time and was restored to office in South Australia. In each case, there was textbook anti-Labor hysteria from the local News Corp tabloids, as well as from Sky and other News Corp ranters.
The Daily Telegraph, and its on-line partner, might be very anti-Labor, but despite its clear bias, its customers tend to prefer Labor, usually by a big margin. Perhaps that is because its sports coverage, though opinionated, is fairly straight.
It is not merely a matter of the incapacity of these mediums to persuade their audience on how they should vote. They often fail to set the agenda as well. It appeared, for example, that the moral panic about African gangs - supposed to have made every Melburnian afraid to go out at night - caused a backlash - making many voters disgusted at the thinly disguised racial basis of the campaign and swinging instead to Labor.
At the height of the "Dictator Dan" disturbances, with the Herald Sun (and The Australian) virtually inciting an uprising against Melbourne's lockdown, the popularity of the premier, Daniel Andrews, seemed to actually increase.
News Corp is never shy about claiming all of the power and influence that its mortal enemies fear it has. It has sometimes claimed that its support has turned particular elections.
It has then tried to parlay this assistance into easy entrée into the lobbies of new governments, to get obsequious attention from ministers and prime ministers, and its stock in trade - a constant and insatiable demand for favours, particularly in relation to licences and exemptions from monopoly legislation. It has also used this access to resist any form of regulation, control or accountability. It turns quickly and savagely on politicians who have wondered about its excesses and abuses of power.
News Corp does a lot of polling, and its editors are thus usually in an advantageous position to see political moods and trends, and sometimes to anticipate them. In Britain and the US, as much as Australia, it has sometimes shifted political allegiance once it is clear that a government is doomed. It then goes loudly over the top for the other side and attempts to claim the credit for a change of government.
Political parties have tended to respond - even as they are being savaged -- by punctilious attention to News Corp agenda items, regular obeisance to editors and regular drops of "exclusive" information - in the hope of better or fairer treatment. The fawning of some of the players as their party is being kicked earns even more contempt from those inside the culture.
Labor should know better. It must deal with the ranters and journalists of the News Corp media outlets, even if they are hostile. But it should abandon efforts to get matey with editors, or to anticipate the whims and needs of the corporation behind them. I have never seen an accurate accounting, but it is my guess that the dollar value to News Corp of policy changes, discretions, exemptions and licences granted by Australian Labor governments over the past 50 years would be the equal of those granted by coalition governments. Labor itself has never received much in the way of gratitude for this handover of taxpayer cash. Indeed, News Corp, like the National Party, is for short-term rent, not for sale.
But handouts and favours should not be for the purposes of advancing the cause of a Labor government. As coalition expenditure should be, it should be about advancing the public interest. Just how it has been served by pandering to competition-shy oligopolists is never clear. Naturally, the moguls like to pretend that they epitomise modern capitalism, not least in their resistance to over-regulation, and impatience with excessive process, transparency and accountability. In fact, many epitomise it in entirely the opposite way, as industries protected, cocooned and sheltered from the real world by a licensing system that holds off real competition.
MORE JACK WATERFORD:
In the modern media environment, one looks not only at the numbers of newspapers being produced and sold, the ratings of broadcast programs or the mere hits on stories appearing on the internet or social media.
Most customers consume the news and advertising online rather than on paper: advertisers are interested in the total reach of the organisations and what can be discovered about the customers including, these days, metrics on how much attention various stories and advertisements get and the demographic profile of classes of customer. Revenue is also coming from niche products, including podcasts and special presentations to classes of readers, including those wanting even more material on the Russia-Ukraine conflict than is on the ordinary menu.
Is the increasing bias of many of these products a necessary part of the service? Probably, even if it does not have to be dressed up as crude propaganda as on the News Corp tabloid model. Customers have access to more news than ever, and from more sources, particularly the internet. The big media companies provide a good measure of instant news, not least in sport. But what gets customers engaged is detail, extra material putting things in context, explaining its significance, profiling players, making intelligent guesses about what will happen next and so on.
And they also want and expect reaction to the news - and not only from usual suspects - whose interests and reactions are often predictable - but from experts, people with background and experience, as well as journalists or regular writers who are opinion-makers and opinion-formers.
Many of these are public personalities and name journalists, whose general views are known in advance. Some, including many in the stables of News Corp ranters are entirely predictable. They may know their key audiences and pander to their prejudices. By contrast, writers such as Ross Gittins and Niki Savva have huge followings in part because they are reliably unpredictable.
Am I biased? Of course, I am. One would expect that anyone who had been working in journalism for 50 years, mostly in matters involving government, would have developed views on a wide array of public policy issues, political and bureaucratic players and the region, the nation and the world in which we live.
Most of what I write these days is commentary - based, usually, on events that have already been reported by others. It is, in that sense, all opinion. I do my best to explain the facts and experience on which I base my views and try to acknowledge and deal with counterarguments.
One of my selling points, I hope, is that my experience and my reading often gives more history, background and experience on a topic than the expertise of some younger writers. That does not necessarily mean that I am wiser, or that I am bound to be right. What is on offer are my own thoughts, with some explanation of why.
Some think that the ideal journalist must be entirely objective. They must not indicate any opinion one way or another. But any decision about which facts are important and what can be discarded introduces a measure of subjectivity and (possibly unconscious) bias - affected by backgrounds, experience, education and what one had for breakfast.
Good journalists can do "ABC" without much in the way of slant. I think a good editor can manage his or her paper so that a wide range of alternative views are presented. The bias of one writer is countered by a bias in another direction by another writer. Information centres such as The Canberra Times tend to be forum-oriented, without trying to ram opinions down one's throat. Some other organisations want all, or nearly all, of their writers marching in step, and are, to my mind, more tiresome as a result.
The core of journalistic professionalism is fair-mindedness, not neutrality or strict objectivity. A good journalist will deal fairly with facts, not exaggerating those which support one side of the argument. They will not omit or misrepresent material which runs counter to it. A professional journalist will also be fair to the reader or listener - explaining any agenda or history to the issue, and matters that might invite questions about independence of mind. Particularly on any ethical matters - including how information was gathered - good faith should involve a maximum, not a minimum of disclosure to the customer. Over time, reputation, and the trust or respect accorded to one's columns, turns as much on such matters as the capacity to say something new, to be interesting, or to stand out of the ruck.
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