On ABC Radio, 702 presenter Deborah Cameron described the appearance of Rupert Murdoch and his son James before a House of Commons parliamentary committee as “the biggest story in the world”. She was particularly taken by Wendi Deng’s physical defence of her 80-year-old husband, who had been attacked by a “pie-thrower” in the British comedy tradition.
Well, the entire story was certainly newsy. But was it really bigger than the fact that some 10 million Somalis are facing death by famine, or that the disastrous Greek economy could undermine the euro currency, or that the United States might default on its debt obligations? Not in the view of many non-journalists, I suspect.
Writing on The Drum website before the House of Commons event, former Age editor Michael Gawenda made the point that the fallout from the News of the World phone-hacking story involves “journalists reporting on journalists”. He added that much of the reportage involves editors, executive producers and journalists who work for “non-Murdoch companies” along with quite a few commentators who are intent on “sticking it up Murdoch”.
Geoffrey Robertson, QC, qualifies as someone who fits into this latter category. In a lengthy – and soft – interview on ABC News Breakfast last week, the London-based barrister confidently declared that “before the week is out” Murdoch “may find himself under arrest or at least assisting the police with their inquiries”. Robertson added that such an eventuality “will have a profound impact in Australia and in America”. It may have. But it didn’t happen.
On Late Night Live on Wednesday, Robertson fantasised about Murdoch ending up in the “Old Bailey dock”.
It is impossible to predict where the scandal will end up. However, on the available evidence, it involves only one of News International’s British papers. Namely, the News of the World – which has been closed. Despite rumours to the contrary, there is no evidence that the practice was evident at The Sun in London or in News Corporation’s New York Post or any of News Limited’s Australian titles.
Julia Gillard, apparently under pressure from the Greens, attempted to use News International’s problems in London to suggest that News Limited may have questions to answer about its performance in Australia. The Prime Minister did not suggest what the queries may be and now seems to have withdrawn the imputation.
It’s understandable that Labor is aggrieved by the criticism of its carbon tax and national broadband network in such News Limited papers as The Australian and The Daily Telegraph. Before the 2007 election, the Coalition felt aggrieved by criticism over the AWB food-for-oil scandal and the “children overboard” controversy.
It’s easy for journalists and commentators to exaggerate the influence of the press and electronic media. John Howard would have been in trouble in 2007 irrespective of any campaigns in the News Limited or Fairfax Media press. It’s much the same with Kevin Rudd in 2010 and Gillard today.
Last week Robertson claimed that Murdoch “put Whitlam up” in 1972 and “he pulled Whitlam down” in 1975. Certainly Murdoch’s papers backed Gough Whitlam and Labor in 1972 before switching their support to Malcolm Fraser and the Coalition in 1975.
But a strong case can be made that, in both instances, Murdoch followed rather than set public opinion. It’s much the same with Murdoch’s political advocacy in Britain and the US.
The legitimate criticism of the operations of News of the Worldshould not detract from the positive contribution made by Murdoch and News Corporation to journalism in Australia, Britain, the US and within Asia.
He is one of the few surviving proprietors who believes in newspapers. The establishment of The Australian in 1964 created the competition that led to improvement in rival broadsheets the Herald and The Age. Likewise, the influence of News Limited in Sky News has encouraged ABC TV to lift its game.
Certainly Fox News in the US runs a political agenda. Yet Fox is primarily successful because it is entertaining. The same can be said of BSkyB in Britain, which does not advocate causes. In any event, diverse views can be found within Fox. The Fox News Watch program contains both right-of-centre and left-of-centre commentators.
In Australia, however, the ABC’s Media Watch program has had a succession of left-of-centre presenters for more than a quarter of a century and continues to broadcast only the perspective of a single presenter.
Sure, Murdoch is unfashionable in certain quarters and some resent him because he successfully confronted the print unions in the ’80s. However, his contribution to journalism has been a positive one. On the present evidence, the reaction to the News of the World scandal is over the top.
Gerard Henderson is executive director of the Sydney Institute.