Imagine that your nation's press was controlled by a foreign corporation, led by a ruthless businessman who traded political support for government handouts to his businesses. Then consider how you would feel if the electronic media alternative was being simultaneously muzzled!
That's the prospect Australia faced this week, as a direct result of media restructuring approved by by the radical right wing Howard government. In true Orwellian style, Australian government ministers praised the new media deal as offering the Australian public more media choices, even as media control narrowed. In practice, the new media legisation sparked a frenzy of de-regulated share trading as the really big media players moved to digest their smaller competitors.
The US based News Corporation already owned two thirds of Australia's major newspapers. Thanks to Rupert Murdoch's management, they sing from the same hymnbooks praising globalisation, privatisation, de-unionisation, and you may have guessed it, de-regulation. News Corporation took a share of the more liberal Fairfax newspaper group, which offers News competition in Sydney and Melbourne.
In spite of the internet, newspapers continue to provide most of Australia's informed reporting. They do so because they continue to employ the largest assemblies of journalists who still do most of the media's fact checking.
In Australia, the papers' only serious competition comes from the state owned, Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). ABC broadcasters have been struggling to maintain their independence as the Australian government progressively stacked the ABC Board with its partisans. These include Ron Brunton, a former employee of the mining company front group, the Institute of Public Affairs and Keith Windschuttle, a fringe historian who made his name by denying colonial massacres of aboriginal people.
But perhaps the most extreme of these appointments was News Corporation columnist, Janet Albrechtsen. Albrechtsen had previously attacked the ABC for what she called “left wing bias”, even claiming that the staff elected member of the Board was “a remnant of the Soviet-style workers' collective”. (Australian 26.5.2004)
Bias is in the sight of the beholder, and Albrechtsen is stridently and unashamedly one-eyed. Analysis of her newspaper columns showed that she was anti union, anti feminist, anti homosexual, pro-George Bush who she called "a man of action", and devotedly pro-Australian Prime Minister, John Howard. She saw international media coverage of torture at Iraq's Abu Graib prison as examples of media bias. “With photos in hand and under the seductive theme of the public’s right to know, many of the media showed the images again and again. …it is less enthused about addressing its own culpability for the violence that publishing these images may generate”. (Australian 19.5.2004) Albrechtsen said that eliminating what she percieved as bias at the ABC, would be her main priority on the ABC Board.
This week the ABC's new managing Director, Mark Scott, announced new Editorial policies which for the first time allowed the Board to intervene against general programs. "The revised editorial policies are the most significant statement of values the ABC has made in over twenty years, giving greater emphasis to the need for impartiality in the ABC’s coverage of contentious matters.", he said in a media release.
The new policies were announced to a cheering crowd at a dinner organised by the Sydney Institute, a right wing think tank run by veteran cold war warrior, Gerard Henderson. ABC staff subsequently went on strike, protesting against political interference.
Is News Corporation thinking of introducing similar editorial policies, to ensure that its columnists like Albrechtsen write impartially and fairly?
Strangely such an attempt at balance does not seem to be on the agenda.