"Mainstream media diversity has become one of the most significant victims of predatory capitalism, the same value system it so often champions in its own editorials." (David Salter, 'The Media We Deserve')
One of "democracy's" greatest problems stems from the fact that everybody gets to vote. Stupid people, extreme left and right-wingers, the ill informed and the thoughtful all vote - every now and then - for the rulers. After that, "democracy" only operates in the sense that the wronged or outraged may change their vote next time and vote for the other side. That is where the "media" fits in. The fourth estate is supposed to make the rulers aware of how the electors are reacting or feeling when the rulers make decisions.
An excellent way for powerful, rich and self-interested people to circumvent these problems in the service of their interests, is to be enabled in these endeavours by a media outlet which has the power to shape and dictate "popular" opinion. As Angie Riedel wrote recently in her piece for 'Information Clearing House':
"We can no longer make appropriate choices because we no longer have access to all of the information, to truth, or to all of the sides to any story. All we will ever hear again as long as the media laws stay the same is only what they want us to hear."
Seventy percent of Australia's newspapers are owned by News Ltd., a subsidiary of Newscorp, which is run by the American neo-conservative Rupert Murdoch. News Ltd. publications disseminated propaganda supporting the illegal invasion of Iraq, and up until last year denied climate change. A prevailing myth is that Murdoch holds no influence over the content of his newspapers and that he is merely a savvy businessman. In fact he constantly deals in politics.
In Hugh Lunn's book 'Working for Rupert', the Brisbane author (and former journalist) wrote about a function he attended at the Crest Hotel in 1972, prior to the Queensland election:
"...the short-haired, tight-suited executive came up to me: 'Rupert says he wants you to write a full run-down on each of the seventy-two Queensland seats. Rupert says he wants thumbnail sketches of all the candidates, their parties, their factions, the issues, who is likely to win, and by how much.'
'For the 'Oz'?' I said.
'No. For him. Just for him.'
'Because Rupert says. Because he's interested, see.'
So Rupert needed to know even more about Queensland politics than he could read in his newspapers. He was even more interesting than I thought."
Every day Murdoch's newspapers set the agenda for public debate around the nation, his editors and journalists don't need to be told not to waver from a neo-conservative agenda, and his personal endorsement of certain political candidates is viewed as "game over" by their opponents. Murdoch's newspapers do not speak truth to power; they represent the interests of his business associates, and are the mouthpieces of multinational corporations, big business and wealthy elites. In the introduction to his book 'The Murdoch Archipelago', Bruce Page points out:
"Whitlam was brought down by a scheme which succeeded - but which was illegitimate, because it was mounted in secret. Murdoch was aware of what was happening, and did nothing to break the secret, because the outcome was desirable to him. It may seem paradoxical that a media business should be feared - by politicians above all others - when it seriously lacks competence in the basic operations which justify the media's legal privileges and existence. But this is because its relationship with power is symbiotic and collaborative - contributing nothing to the dialectic of challenge and compensating response. And in many cases politicians find that such collaboration sits neatly enough with certain kinds of fear."
Over the past few decades, the capacity for Australians to hold their elected representatives to account has diminished as a result of News Ltd.'s ever-increasing stranglehold and manipulation of information. Our politicians at a federal, state and local level clamour for positive coverage in the pages of the News Ltd. press, rather than represent the interests of their constituents. This dangerous malaise is amplified in towns such as Brisbane, where the 'Courier-Mail' has been the sole paper since 1991.
In early 1987 Murdoch purchased Queensland Press, publishers of the 'Courier-Mail'. Murdoch's family company (Cruden Investments) borrowed A$600 million from the Commonwealth Bank to buy Queensland Press. When the Commonwealth Bank demanded repayment, Queensland Press borrowed money to secretly buy a parcel of Cruden's Newscorp shares at a 40% premium. As Bruce Page, and other writers such as Neil Chenoweth have previously stated: Murdoch had taken over Queensland Press by using Queensland Press's own resources.
Ironically, in April 1987 the 'Courier-Mail' suddenly discovered the corruption, which lead to the Fitzgerald Inquiry and the eventual ousting of the Bjelke-Petersen government. In 1988, Murdoch closed Brisbane's afternoon tabloid the 'Telegraph', and in December 1991 he closed 'The Sun'. Since then, Brisbane has been a one paper town - the 'Courier-Mail', 'City News' (and other Quest community papers) - are all owned by News Ltd., who also produce 'mX', the afternoon "throwaway" for city workers and commuters, which was launched last March - the same week Fairfax launched their on-line news site 'Brisbane Times'.
News Ltd.'s monopolistic hold on Brisbane - and to some extent Queensland - remains unchallenged. In July 2004, Jeff Waters from Radio National's 'AM' programme reported that:
"Brisbane-born Chief Executive Office of Global Intertrade, says the Queensland market could certainly sustain a new paper. But the Federal government won't let his company publish here, because Global Intertrade is owned by foreigners. Mr Samaras, and the Spanish family which owns his company, already has one publication in Australian - the monthly 'Adelaide Review'. The Foreign Investment Review Board recently granted permission for the Review to be published weekly, but it's still not allowed to contain any news items. That would put it in competition with another Murdoch monopoly paper 'The Adelaide Advertiser'."
On 12 December, 2006, 'The Age's' Matthew Ricketson reported that Fairfax Media CEO David Kirk said:
"We do not have plans in the short or even medium term to launch a new newspaper in South East Queensland...We would be going up against an established incumbent in a mature market."
Evidently, Fairfax Media registered the trade name 'The Brisbane Morning Herald' in the early 1990s as part of plans to establish a competing newspaper to the 'Courier-Mail'.
"At the end of the decade, the company held talks with Premier Peter Beattie's Labor Government in Queensland which was unhappy with how the 'Courier-Mail' covered it.
The plan faltered because the potential revenue was not enough to outweigh News Ltd.'s anticipated response."
Many of Brisbane's citizens have witnessed how the control of information in their town is having a deleterious effect on discourse relating to the public interest. In June 2006, a Brisbane freelance journalist reported on the Queensland State Labor conference "Fringe Festival" for 'Crikey!':
"Friday evening's 'Great Debate: What would they do without us?' was a raucous, love fest for anointed Prime Minister-in-waiting Kevin Rudd. Chris O'Brien (ABC), Steven Wardill (Courier-Mail) and Sean Parnell (Australian) debated Rudd, Di Reilly and Rod Welford about who needs who more - the fourth estate or the pollies? Innuendo and jokes about long, liquored lunches, dam indecision and Rudd's many media appearances aside, it seemed that the pollies and journos in this town are very cosy indeed. There was no clear winner, they need each other but neither of them need the citizenry."
The journalist had also submitted a piece about the 'Human Rights in the age of terror' discussion, where he reported that one of the panel members - Dr [*******] - had stated that torture is justified:
"Unfortunately most attendees at the seminar didn't agree with Dr [*******] and at one point, [*******] had to ask the audience to refrain from interrupting. As the delegates loudly cheered on Peter Beattie in the adjacent room following Cate Molloy's departure, true democracy was briefly evident as youngsters, oldsters, seasoned activists and academics at the seminar let their voices be heard. What had most attendees "gobsmacked" was the blind acceptance by the Labor alternative government of the acceptability of torture. [*******] and Dr [*******] appeared non-plussed that such a position could be even questioned in "the age of terror" but [*******] captured the true feeling in the room by questioning the very existence of the so-called war on terror."
'Crikey!' said it was "a bit too newsy", so the journalist submitted it to a local Brisbane news website. After the Editor was threatened with legal action, he took the story down. Later that day, the journalist received an email from a News Ltd. journalist:
"So why doesn't the media need the citizenry? Would have thought the [local Brisbane news website], among others, would need citizens as readers."
That a News Ltd. journalist could feel threatened by the reporting of the truth in a small, local publication was astonishing - and disconcerting.
Until Australia has laws to restrain the monopolistic control of media outlets, our democracy lies in the hands of the neo-conservatives and their handmaidens at News Ltd..
Chenoweth, N., 'Virtual Murdoch: Reality Wars on the Information Highway', (2001)
Lunn, H., 'Working for Rupert', (2001)
Page, B., 'The Murdoch Archipelago', (2003)
Ricketson, M., 'Fairfax rejects Brisbane paper talk', 'The Age', 12 December, 2006: http://www.theage.com.au/news/business/fairfax-rejects-brisbane-paper-talk/2006/12/11/1165685616150.html
Riedel, A., 'Intellectual Violence', 'Information Clearing House', 6 June, 2008: http://www.informationclearinghouse.info/article20052.htm
Salter, D., 'The Media We Deserve', (2007)
Waters, J., 'A Strange Anomaly: Media Ownership Laws in Australia' ABC AM,
17 July 2004: http://www.abc.net.au/am/content/2004/s1156139.htm