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Pollies, press and police …..too cosy here, too?

By Cheryl Kernot - posted Monday, 18 July 2011

"Over more than three decades, no one dared question the perversion of politics by and for Rupert Murdoch." So remarked Henry Porter in Sunday's Observer (10/7) in a discussion of the ethics and alleged criminality of journalists and editors of the high circulation tabloid Murdoch newspaper, News of the World.

Whether it has happened here or not the fact is that phone hacking is just part of the bigger ethical issue well summed-up by PM David Cameron: "the truth is, we have all been in this together – the press, politicians and leaders of all parties – and yes, that includes me."

And yes, that includes politicians in Australia who have been, and currently are, in thrall to the power of media proprietors and shock jocks; seeking to court support, in the belief that a newspaper's endorsement is one of the powerful keys to election success. The trade-off is timidity in the face of a newspaper's "policy line".


And it's all made worse here by the lack of print media diversity. Nowhere in the UK will you find the equivalent of the one paper city such as Brisbane. At least our shock jocks have competition and our public broadcaster comes close to the same audience size in many of the markets.

Beyond the confronting UK examples of alleged bribery and illegality we should be asking what systems we have in place to allow us to presume that it can't happen here. We have the same self-regulated system for adjudicating complaints about the print media. In the UK it is widely acknowledged that the Press Complaints Commission failed. There are no real sanctions here or there. Is our Press Council conflicted because of the source of its funding: the newspaper and magazine industries; and because, in its own words, 'its authority rests on the willingness of publishers and editors to respect the Council's views, to adhere voluntarily to ethical standards and to admit mistakes publicly." How do our tabloids stack up in the ethical standards department these days?

The Press Council is limited to print media. Nightly television programs masquerading as news and current affairs with their increasingly tabloid behaviour are also in need of heightened scrutiny and accountability. This is territory where many journalists are not formally required to subscribe to a code of ethics; where stalking, ambush, pursuit and cheque book journalism are common. What is their framework for interpreting the difference between "in the public interest" and "of prurient interest to the public" (as interpreted by them)? And where that interpretation has been condemned by public outcry where is the evidence of behaviour change? Sure, it goes quiet for a while, but we have no reason to be confident that the stalking and self righteous "outing" of a David Campbell equivalent will not be repeated.

The UK will have an enquiry into its systems' failure and a move to a new system of regulation which "must strike the balance between an individual's right to privacy and what is in the public interest."

While rules for transparency, sanctions for accountability, and registers of pecuniary interest help, when it's about tradeable power: favourable coverage for favourable decisions on media then we need something much more.

Many former and current Australian PMs and Opposition Leaders have publicly courted Rupert Murdoch with their ritual pilgrimage to worship at the Murdoch shrine on visits to the U.S. Media commentators have used this as a (perverted) measure of "success."


No Australian politician should continue this compromising practice. In NSW developers are now required to meet at government offices …no more cafes. Media proprietors should seek appointments and come to MPs' offices just like all other lobbyists. The O'Reillys always came to Parliament House to make their case. This transparency is vital for democracy.

Similarly politicians should accept that is inappropriate to cultivate personal relationships with media proprietors (and senior editors) as Tony Blair did in inviting Rupert Murdoch to spend weekends at Chequers with plenty of opportunity for private conversations away from witnesses. UK Freedom of Information requests reveal that Murdoch spoke to Blair three times in the 10 days that led up to the Iraq invasion in 2003. A coincidence of interest?

BSkyB ownership might now be lost but the issue of an extension of Murdoch's power in Australia is still a live one.Media Watch noted the extension in late June of the Australian Government's tender deadline for operation of the Australia Network? No convincing explanation was given. Equally interesting is why the power to make the decision has been taken away from Kevin Rudd and moved to the whole Cabinet? Is there any inference that collective decision-making is a greater protection against the courting of the one?

The other player in the UK scandal is the police. An Assistant Commissioner and other senior Metropolitan Police officers had regular meetings with News International staff over the last few years, including, according to FOI answers, when News International was being investigated. The same Assistant Commissioner took just a few hours to decide there was no additional evidence to justify a further investigation into phone hacking. Do they all need a lesson in conflicts of interest? It is alleged some police accepted money from media outlets for tip-offs and access to private information. I believe this happens in Australia and I made a visit to the Wood Royal Commission to outline my experience of it.

Press freedom does not mean that the press should be above the law. Politicians not media are elected to govern the country. It's so ironic that the blowtorch has been turned back onto those who have used it to destroy so many others without a second thought. Who can even imagine where the unravelling will end? But the power to inspire fear and timidity in politicians just might.

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This article was first published in The Drum on July 14, 2011.

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About the Author

Cheryl Kernot is Director of Social Business at the the Centre for Social Impact, UNSW Sydney. She was a Senator for Queensland and Leader of the Australian Democrats from 1993 to 1997 before joining the Australian Labour Party and becoming the Member for Dickson (Qld) in 1998.

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