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News content is determined by journalists not proprietors

By David Flint - posted Thursday, 19 October 2006

It used to be said that while some generals were ready and well prepared to fight, this was to fight the last war, and not the present conflict.

There is a parallel today with the campaign of those who want to retain the law which gives effect to Paul Keating’s fatwa which, it should be recalled, was suddenly announced without any inquiry, consultation or public discussion. Expressed in curious terms for one so obsessively republican, it required that proprietors must choose between being a prince of print or a queen of the screen.

It is often forgotten that this law is a relatively recent intrusion - indeed newspaper proprietors were prominent in actually bringing commercial television to Australia. If it was safe for them to own TV then, what had they done to justify such rushed and draconian legislation?


In any event the law did not achieve its ostensible purpose, being followed by increased media concentration. It did not even achieve its political purpose of helping the then government’s media mates. Mateship in such circles is predictably and fortunately ephemeral; Paul Keating soon fell out - spectacularly - with Kerry Packer over a very sensible proposal which would have avoided the disastrous parallel roll out of cable TV in the nation’s capitals.

But even Paul Keating’s law is not enough for some. What they really want is a “mogul-specific” law. Some would have preferred one which forbad Kerry Packer from owning any media at all. Others would have wanted a law to stop Rupert Murdoch owning The Australian which, incidentally, he had founded.

Now some say the repeal of Paul Keating’s law will reduce employment for journalists. This is doubtful, but scant sympathy is shown in the media for farmers and others exposed to unfair international competition. So why should media workers live in a protected workshop? What is the public benefit in that?

Mike Burke (in Crikey!, October 12) criticised the “whingeing” of some journalists about how they are forced to write, or not write, “what their media proprietors dictate”. He said people in all walks of life, every day of their lives, face the problem of working for people they despise, and doing a job they obviously detest. Why shouldn’t journalists?

But it is said that there is a bigger issue. If the rationalisation everybody else has had to cope with were unleashed on the media, it is claimed the proprietors would be then able to manipulate any information going to the public.

Just in case it has escaped notice, it should be pointed out that manipulation, at times massive, already occurs. In 1999, Lord Deedes, who once edited the London Daily Telegraph, declared that he had never seen newspapers in a democracy display more “shameless bias” than in Australia. He was writing about the media juggernaut determined to change Australia into a republic. But this was entirely journalist driven. (The only proprietors who came out for a republic were Lachlan and Rupert Murdoch, and they hardly needed to encourage their journalists.)


Although the media campaign probably increased the Yes vote, the majority were less than impressed. Perhaps they rather liked Christopher Pearson’s counsel: “Annoy the media, vote No”, which they did in every state and 72 per cent of electorates.

In the debate on the new media law in Parliament, Senator Fielding went to the heart of this issue when he asked: “Where is the evidence that the key factor that determines ideas is ownership? In other words, that owners dictate ideas?”

His answer? In the real world “it's nothing like that”. He demonstrated this with a string of examples.

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About the Author

David Flint is a former chairman of the Australian Press Council and the Australian Broadcasting Authority, is author of The Twilight of the Elites, and Malice in Media Land, published by Freedom Publishing. His latest monograph is Her Majesty at 80: Impeccable Service in an Indispensable Office, Australians for Constitutional Monarchy, Sydney, 2006

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