Hard questions for those who ask hard questions

Julia Gillard’s claim that News Limited has “hard questions” to answer because of the phone-hacking scandal is disingenuous. Rather, it has a very simple question to answer: have its journalists hacked any phones or paid off any police in Australia? Like whether her colleagues are happy with her performance as Prime Minister, it’s a straightforward question whose answer is almost certainly no.

Given the prominence of this story, the lack of Australian allegations suggests that News Limited’s journos are blameless. Surely if its local hacks had become hackers, they would have taken a wander through the juicy message banks of tabloid mainstays like Shane Warne, Wayne Carey and Lara Bingle, who would now be realising how certain embarrassing stories had made their way into the Murdoch press and kicking up a stink. And even if there were allegations, News’ local journalists are as entitled to the presumption of innocence as anybody else, even if they don’t always extend it to others.

That said, I’m unable to muster the high dudgeon with which certain News journos have reacted to the suggestion that it be investigated. It certainly isn’t a “smear”, as Tony Abbott has suggested. Given the extensive circulation of News personnel its News outlets in the UK, US and Australia, it’s perfectly reasonable to ask whether a technique that was used against 4000 public figures in Britain made it to the Antipodes. If it wasn’t, News’ CEO John Hartigan wouldn’t have felt the need to open an internal inquiry.

But the Prime Minister has sought to go well beyond this factual question. In concert with her new BFFs the Greens, she has been making ominous sounds about a media inquiry looking at ownership and concentration, while Christine Milne has explicitly called for licensing. The latter idea is not only unjustified, but dangerous.

Licensing would actively prevent accountability by encouraging proprietors not to antagonise the politicians who controlled the licenses. It’s no more appropriate to regulate who can operate a newspaper in a democratic society than it is to license who can run for Parliament. Although Milne’s comments have made me wonder about licensing for Greens Senate candidates.

Her view also draws precisely the wrong conclusion from what has occurred in Britain. The News of the World scandal was broken by the Guardian, showing the benefit not of regulation, but of a robust, open print media – the very thing that would be restricted by a licensing regime. Furthermore, it’s hard to imagine how a licensing process or a fit-and-proper-person test could place more onerous sanctions on the News of the World than closing the whole thing down and sacking everyone who worked for it.

Labor and the Greens’ enthusiasm about bloodying the nose of News Limited seems self-serving in the current political climate. The Australian has explicitly declared war on the Greens, and News columnists’ antagonism towards the Gillard carbon tax has been pronounced and prolonged. But when those in power dislike what what a news outlet writes, that is all the more reason why its editorial voice must not be interfered with. Yes, even when it’s Andrew Bolt’s.

Despite the dubious motivations of politicians who’d like to make News genuinely Limited, some of the concerns they’ve been raising are valid nevertheless. Even Tony Abbott agrees that current privacy laws should be broadened. This is not a new insight – the Australian Law Reform Commission recommended that a few years back, and the Government had already intended to implement 90% of its findings.

But Julia Gillard and the Greens are also correct to ask questions about the concentration of media ownership – a problem in Britain, but more so here where Murdoch owns 70% of the newspapers. Furthermore, we have no newspapers that are set up on a public-interest, non-profit basis like the Guardian, which is owned by a trust. Although to be fair to Fairfax, its newspapers have often operated on a non-profit basis in recent years.

Here’s the thing, though: nothing’s stopping anybody from setting up another newspaper in Australia besides the near-certainty that they’d lose money. (A licensing scheme, ironically, would provide another barrier.) It’s hard to imagine what a parliamentary inquiry into newspaper ownership would conclude other than that it would be lovely if there were more of them, but won’t be.

The most important questions raised by the News International scandal for Australia, though, are not ones that our politicians are likely to want to delve into, because they concern political leaders who become too close to the media that ought to be holding them accountable. The appointment of former NOTW editor Andy Coulson as David Cameron’s communications chief is extraordinary when the Guardian warned his aides that there were some rather pungent skeletons in the Coulson closet.

But even if there were no phone-hacking scandal, the British PM’s eagerness to hire an ex-News editor raises questions. Was the appointment an attempt to secure positive coverage by having Coulson lobby his former colleagues? Was any deal cut, and why Murdoch was invited to tea after Cameron’s victory? The whole Coulson situation is as problematic as a job with Elle Macpherson.

Until the phone-hacking story made it politically untenable, the UK Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, was poised to rubber-stamp News’ purchase of BSkyB. How could such a decision be made independently and in the public interest by a government which – like Labour’s before it – felt that its survival depended on the support of Murdoch’s newspapers? In the US, Fox News is often described as the propaganda wing of the Republican Party, and employs many high-profile GOP figures as commentators. How can such politicians ever feasibly regulate media ownership? There is not enough distance between the fourth estate and those it’s supposed to report on.

Closer to home, Julia Gillard might like to answer “hard questions” about her own meetings with Rupert Murdoch. Kevin Rudd courted Rupert Murdoch before he was elected in 2007 – what was on the agenda when they met in New York? Did they discuss the Australia Network, or cross-media ownership laws, or Foxtel’s recently-denied buyout of Austar, and were any undertakings made? And while Tony Abbott has spoken impressively about the need for newspapers to keep politicians honest, is he willing to assist this by detailing the substance of his own conversations with media proprietors?

We should already be worried about the relationship between our politicians and media owners in light of the progressive dilution of cross-media ownership laws by governments on both sides. It would probably be better if media regulation was handled by an independent body whose members haven’t so much to gain from positive coverage. Whereas introducing a licensing system, of course, would only give our political leaders more chips to bargain with.

So by all means let’s have this media inquiry. It’s sensible to try to learn from the mistakes of others, and our system should be as clean as we can make it. In the famous words of Justice Brandeis, sunlight is the best disinfectant. But the inquiry’s terms of reference should reflect the fact that the scandal in the UK raises questions not only for media proprietors, but for politicians.

Dominic Knight was one of the founders of Australia’s least profitable newspaper, The Chaser. He was a columnist for an obscure News Limited organ called The Glebe, but was sacked shortly before the whole thing closed down. He has voicemail, but no-one ever leaves him messages.

This piece was originally published at The Drum.

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