There is delusion. And then there is self-delusion. When both forces come together, what follows is an absence of reality. This is evident in much of the debate about the future of the print media.
First, the delusion. Politicians tend to overestimate the importance of the media and, in particular, media proprietors. Take Australia, for example. At most, there are two elections in the modern era when the media probably had an impact on results.
In 1961 Sir Warwick Fairfax threw the support of the Herald behind Labor and its leader Arthur Calwell. In the event Sir Robert Menzies narrowly held on to government. But the Coalition lost seats in NSW and Queensland. The Herald”s unexpected support for Labor would seem to have harmed the Coalition in NSW.
Rupert Murdoch”s strong support for Labor probably assisted Gough Whitlam in 1972 – due to the campaigning of The Australian nationally and The Daily Telegraph in NSW.
That”s about it. The evidence indicates that, over the years, Murdoch has been more a follower than an initiator of political change. The same is true of Murdoch”s political involvements in Britain and the US.
The problem is that many politicians became deluded about Murdoch”s power. The British commentator Melvyn Bragg made this point when interviewed by Lateline”s Emma Alberici in March. Lord Bragg”s position was that the likes of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown “should have stood up” to Murdoch. When Alberici suggested that Murdoch had the power, Bragg responded that it was stupid of Blair and Brown to think that he did. In response to Alberici”s reference to the claims by The Sun that it won the 1979 general election for Margaret Thatcher, Bragg made the logical retort: “Why should we believe them?” The Conservatives would have won in 1979 without Murdoch”s backing.
The truth is that media proprietors are just one of a number of players in the political landscape. Many politicians and journalists alike do not understand them. In April on ABC News Breakfast, shareholder activist Stephen Mayne described Murdoch as “the world”s most powerful guy”. This is a ludicrous exaggeration. If Murdoch was so powerful, he would not be appearing before the Leveson inquiry in Britain.
As to self-delusion, journalists frequently overestimate the significance of their own role. If the electorate followed the views of journalists, the republic referendum would have succeeded in 1999. I supported an Australian head of state but it seemed to me that the media”s campaigning was counterproductive.
It”s much the same at the moment. With some notable exceptions, journalists have led a cheer squad that urged Kevin Rudd and later Julia Gillard to introduce an emissions trading scheme or a carbon tax. The opinion polls indicate a significant disparity on this issue between majority journalistic opinion and the majority view in the suburbs and regional areas.
There is also a tendency for journalists to overestimate their role in facilitating the public debate. In recent times, ABC TV”s Q&A gives the impression of campaigning to have Tony Abbott come on the program. The truth is that he does not need to.
In this overcrowded media market, journalists need politicians more than politicians need journalists. I always held the view that John Howard did too much media. The same criticism can be levelled at Rudd and Gillard.
Over the past week, many journalists have become obsessed with the prospect that Gina Rinehart might obtain two or more board seats at Fairfax Media and might choose to influence the company”s editors. This is another example of proprietor-paranoia, while in the meantime there is little criticism of the recommendations by Ray Finkelstein, QC, to the Gillard government that editors who decline to abide by the arbitrary and incontestable decisions of his proposed News Media Council should be jailed.
This lack of self-awareness is perhaps greater within the ABC. Some ABC journalists express concern about the possibility of a lack of diversity within Fairfax Media under Rinehart”s possible influence without recognising that the ABC does not have one conservative presenter for any of its significant programs. It has one presenter who boasts about his support for the left and another on the left who declares that she is an activist. Yet no conservatives, activist or otherwise.
The ABC managing director, Mark Scott, talks about the commercial media”s “market failure”. However, for the ABC, market success amounts to going to Canberra and getting a bucket-load of taxpayers” money.
Meanwhile the ABC”s uninhibited move into online news and opinion projects a market distortion into attempts by Fairfax Media and News Limited to move more of their products online. Which suggests that the ABC is a much greater threat to the private sector media than Rinehart or any other potential investor.
Gerard Henderson is the executive director of the Sydney Institute.