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why Kevin Rudd’s call for a royal commission on News Corp could lead nowhere




Kevin Rudds petition in parliament because a royal commission on Murdoch media dominance in Australia has a right to be seen as more than a bitter desire of former politicians for revenge.

The fact is that in the three mature English-speaking democracies where Rupert Murdochs News Corporation has a dominant presence, the policies of the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia are deeply polarized and developed with a toxicity and dishonesty that is detrimental to the good of public.

Of course there are changes in scale. Australia has not elected a reactionary extremist like US President Donald Trump, nor has it found itself broken by political divisions of the kind shown by the Brexit referendum. Nor has Australian political discourse descended into the depths of racism that have plagued politics in these two countries.

Australia has not seen its national leader double the whites’ lead, and Trump did after the Charlottesville protests of 2017. Has not seen a political immigration campaign poster modeled on a Nazi poster on the same topic as the UK Independence Party (UKIP) produced during the Brexit referendum campaign.

However, there is a fundamental similarity between the three countries that reflects the anti-democratic influence of Murdoch media: in each country, political leaders see Murdoch as a crucial factor in electoral success.

He controls about two-thirds of the capital’s daily turnover in Australia, owns The Times, The Sunday Times and The Sun in England and Fox News, the most-watched cable TV service in the US

A procession of Australian prime ministers or future prime ministers from Bob Hawke onwards, including Rudd, have openly and publicly paid tribute to Murdoch, occasionally traveling to the other side of the world to do so.

Successive leaders have sued Rupert Murdoch, including Kevin Rudd when he was prime minister.
Dean Lewins / AAP

In the UK, Tony Blair traveled to Hayman Island to receive Murdochs blessing at the head of the 1997 election. He won the blessing and won the election.

In episode three of the latest TV documentary, Murdoch Dynasty, Nigel Farage, who led UKIP in the Brexit referendum, said Murdoch’s support was essential to the success of the Leave campaign.

In the same documentary, a Trump campaign insider from 2016 said Murdochs Fox News was essential to Trumps success in those years of the U.S. presidential election.

Read more: James Murdoch’s resignation is a result of News Corp’s growing change to the right not just in climate

The benefit of a royal commission would be the removal of the nature of interactions between elected politicians and unelected Rupert Murdoch.

The details of the prayers, threats, agreements, promises, attitudes and motives that are part of these interactions would shed extremely valuable light on a highly influential aspect of how Australian democracy works.

This would enable the public to appreciate how widespread Murdochs influence is, and what effect it has on public policy and election results.

It’s very unlikely to lead to greater diversity in media ownership. If it creates a public outcry high enough to make politicians think there are votes in it, then it may be possible for one of the leading parties to adopt media diversity as a policy and propose ways to achieve it.

News Corporate support was vital to the Leave campaign in the Brexit vote.
AAP / EPA / Neil Hall

However, history tells us that this is extremely difficult.

A royal commission in England in 1947-49 avoid the issue; another in 1961-62 it turned out that substantial mergers were referred to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. However, this was overlooked by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1981, when it postponed the acquisition of Murdochs of The Times and The Sunday Times.

In Australia, the two main parties have been collaborators in creating the current state of affairs.

Hawke-Keating Government created the conditions which allowed Murdoch to take over the Herald and Weekly Times group, giving the Melbourne the Herald Sun and daily newspaper monopolies in Brisbane, Adelaide and Hobart.

The Turnbull government exacerbated the situation in 2017 by repeal of the rules about cross-ownership, market dominance and audience reach.

Read more: Why media reform in Australia has been so difficult to achieve

For another thing, the Australian public has shown astonishing complacency and lack of interest in the health of the media. This has remained the case even after media freedom has been directly attacked by a number of laws since 2001 criminalizing journalism in the name of national security.

Perhaps the rush to sign Rudd’s petition, which deserves to cause the parliament’s website to crash, indicates a change of attitude, or it may simply be clichédism.

Finally, Australian parliaments have shown less interest and less appetite for fixing the problem.

In 1980, the Victorian government of Rupert Hamer was formed an investigative committee chaired by Sir John Norris, a retired Supreme Court judge, for the ownership and control of newspapers in Victoria.

The Norris report was introduced in September 1981. It recommended the establishment of an independent legal authority to control proposed newspaper purchases, to ensure that unfair ownership concentration does not result.

It sparked outrage from newspaper companies and went nowhere.

In 1992, the Federal House of Representatives established a Select the Press Commission to examine many of the same issues. He produced a report called Fair News and Facts, a working pun on Fairfax. She too disappeared without a trace.

Even if Rudd gets his royal commission, his report risks going the same way, unless he investigates deep enough to tell us something important about how Australian democracy works.

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