December 15th 2001

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Articles from this issue:

Editorial: The Advent of Christmas

TESTIMONIAL: News Weekly - a variety of ideas and points of view

Canberra Observed: After the election: new look for both sides

BIOETHICS: There is no scientific need to clone embryos

Adult stem cell breakthrough

National Day of Action over banks' job cuts

Straws in the Wind: Insiders, celebrities and Tic-Tac men

Western Australia: Gallop's drug 'compromise'

Media: Parliamentary press gallery poll predictions

Letter: Roots of terror

Letter: History repeats?

Letter: Reinvention

Letter: Patrol boats

Letter: Doing what's right - Mary Whitehouse CBE

United States: Torture, assassination and the Death of God

Comment: Economic policy: how they got it wrong

TRADE: After Qatar: Australia’s limited options

BOOKS: 'Gallipoli', by Les Carlyon

BOOKS: 'Language and the Internet', by David Crystal

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Straws in the Wind: Insiders, celebrities and Tic-Tac men

by Max Teichmann

News Weekly, December 15, 2001

Many readers would have taken a look at the ABC Sunday television show, The Insiders, hosted by Barrie Cassidy. Certainly some of my friends have drawn attention to a number of predictable features.

First, the people on show are journalists. In what sense are they Insiders? Most people consider government ministers, their key advisers, Party chiefs, and some Trade Union bosses, as Insiders. Then there are the senior bureaucrats - perhaps the true Insiders? - and, of course, the mega-rich, some of whom don’t even require lobbyists, but can enter the demesne of the PM or senior Minister, as of right - or ring the blighter up. And, state their demands. Certainly, this was normal under Hawke and Keating.

So for journos to consider themselves Insiders is a piece of vanity, which they unfortunately reproduce in so many other areas of their work. And Celebrities, which title they lavishly confer upon one another, via awards, endless cross-referencing - and actually interviewing one another. The effect is of a Third World army, with hundreds of generals, all heavily decorated; an intellectual demi-monde, constructed out of self-deception and deceit, interwoven with numerous pre-loved dogmatisms. The real Insiders, of course, are the proprietors, and their henchmen, quite few in number.

Which is why the revival, by Howard, of proposals to loosen or even abolish cross-media rules and foreign ownership limits are so worrying. Liberal leaders are saying, for example, that the regulation whereby the owner of a television station cannot own a newspaper in the same city is an outmoded restriction.

Well ... in Adelaide, for example, there were two main dailies, The Daily News, owned by Rupert Murdoch, and the famous Advertiser. Murdoch acquired the Advertiser, and closed down The Daily News - a favourite trick in the US by the way - so Adelaide now has but one daily, with the only dissident voice in the whole State being the monthly Adelaide Review. That paper is free in South Australia, and dependent upon advertising to survive, against a periodically unfriendly Murdoch monopoly. Its proprietors and friends have created a unique product, and we certainly cannot count on quality equivalents appearing under the new proposed régime of open slather for billionaires.

But what if the sole newspaper owner can also own a television station? Adelaide is not the only State capital in this situation.

And to digress only slightly, the system whereby radio licences are put up for auction by the Australian Broadcasting Control Board resulted, not so long ago, in a block of nine New South Wales radio licences being snapped up by a consortium headed by Barrie Unsworth and Neville Wran. At the same time as a very determined drive by the ABCB against NSW broadcasters John Laws and Alan Jones was under way. Interesting?

The effects of abandoning cross-media restrictions would certainly reduce, even further, the strikingly limited choice of alternative opinions, and would aggravate the paucity of authentic information, from which we are already suffering.

As to foreign ownership, those of us who know the English Press - once a thriving, multi-choice institution - understand how pernicious foreign intrusion has been. There has been a succession of overseas magnates, Beaverbrook, Roy Thomson, Robert Maxwell, Murdoch and Conrad Black, some of whom have obviously been lacking in sympathy for many of Britain’s institutions and much of its history. They have made good papers mediocre, and bad ones worse. While often blatantly interfering in another country’s politics, and ignoring its sensibilities, these foreigners have made it abundantly clear that it is the hunt for the dollar, or the power, which motivates the whole enterprise.

Not surprisingly, the cultural and moral tone of English society has been progressively lowered. Although one of the foreigners, Murdoch, was in 1998 made a papal knight, and a Jewish body in California adjudged him Humanitarian of the Year on account of his assistance to its activities, it was from the English that he gained, quite early on, the appellation of The Dirty Digger. And we should still remember that at the time when Hawke was preparing to make his bid to enter politics, it was The Australian, in 1977, which judged him Australia’s Father of the Year.

But the long-standing resolve to keep out big foreign influences over our media - a resolve so vital to the independence of our democracy - was virtually undermined when Malcolm Fraser had the ownership rules changed. As a consequence, a foreigner, Murdoch, who had exchanged his Australia citizenship for American, could continue operating without divesting himself of any of his holdings in Australia. Fraser was later to say that he had come to feel great regret at that decision. So, of course, 60 to 70 per cent of our print media is now controlled by News Corporation.

Allowing the Murdochs of this world to acquire electronic media outlets, and the Packers of this world to move into newspapers, seems a strange way of increasing diversity of choice or plurality of opinion. Between ourselves, none of us believes that it will.

The Ansett political vaudeville show is becoming a very squalid affair indeed - with a Federal Government struggling to defend the taxpayers, the travelling public, and our wounded tourist industry, from a strange cabal of Lindsay Fox and Solomon Lew, some out-of-control unions, the ACTU, the Bracks Government and Federal Labor.

Qantas and, now, Virgin Blue have been caught in the slipstream of this chaotic and totally politicised process. Both are suffering; Qantas, from a guerrilla campaign of snap stoppages, and criticisms from the ACCC for keeping fares too low, and then, for raising them too high; Virgin Blue, from what it is describing as restrictive practices on the part of Ansett, designed to discredit Virgin’s new start-up flights.


Qantas has been the only one of the 80 international carriers which still makes a profit, while other national airlines are going belly-up. But Qantas is now being harassed for still managing to make a profit. As was Telstra.

To go back some way: Ansett received great assistance in the past from Liberal Governments, for the publicly-owned carrier TAA was just too popular, too successful. Qantas, mercifully, was left alone - until Labor Government policies led to its privatisation, and its merger with a domestic carrier, to become the new Qantas. Since then, it has started to attract political interference, and union harassment - all to help prop up Ansett, so far as I can see.

Ansett’s problems date back a long way - though they worsened when Sir Peter Abeles and News Corp took the airline over.

The practice of cutting corners on aircraft maintenance, to save money, seems to have gone back many years; and the recent dénouement, when many of its aircraft were grounded, was inevitable. But that blow to its public credibility, along with a long pattern of union stoppages, probably exhausted the customers’ patience. They are choosing another - any other - airline. In essence, what appears to be happening is a concerted attempt by unions, Labor, and some well-known corporate figures, to force the public back to using Ansett, by discrediting, through union sabotage or restrictive practices, the preferred alternatives. Like making workers join a union.

We all used to criticise the two-airline oligopoly, and the bloated fare structure - so welcomed Virgin Blue, the new, cut-price competitor. Its success in forcing down fares did wonders for tourism, compelling the established airlines to follow its example. But the ramshackle foundations of Ansett collapsed in this new, competitive, atmosphere.

As Terry McCrann keeps insisting in his Herald-Sun column, a new, half-baked Ansett, no matter who ran it, is likely to fold within a couple of years. And who then will pick up the bits? Viz., the creditors, the staff entitlements, the holders of unused airline tickets, etc.?

If the crash occurred close to an election, then the Government would be bailed up, with new, familiar armies of louts disrupting the airports, and the streets. Do we really have to go through that again? In fact, Ansett, under the kind of people running it, or proposing to run it, could only survive by greatly weakening Qantas, or causing Virgin Blue to collapse. Do we want either of these things to happen?

While this is not the time to analyse the unions, corporate actors, Labor combinazioni who are causing the trouble - it looks remarkably like Jimmy Hoffa’s Teamster Union and friends, or Marlon Brando’s On The Waterfront. Or, come to think of it, the ACTU’s business link-ups under Hawke, with Bourke’s department store and Jetset Travel.

Are we watching the emergence of a new version of this?

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