February 23rd 2002

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: New Zealand's Economic U-Turn

Reality finally bites Democrats' leader

Family First rises, Democrats fall, in South Australia poll

2002 NCC National Conference - Building the Movement

Straws in the Wind: Andersen's Fairy Tales / Flying / Out of Africa

New Zealand to vote on new Constitution?

Bioethics: Cloning concerns must be addressed

Letters: "Booming" economy?

Letters: Politics to blame

Letters: Hot air

Letters: True ALP position

Media: Cross-media ownership laws / Negative coverage?

United States: Is the terrorist threat being politicised?

Economics: Privatisation - essential component of globalisation

Law: Abortion link to breast cancer victory

Books promotion page

Media: Cross-media ownership laws / Negative coverage?

by John Styles

News Weekly, February 23, 2002

On 11 February, The Australian reported on aspects of the Howard Government’s plans to liberalise media ownership. According to the report, the government is considering removing barriers to cross-media ownership subject to certain conditions. One idea would involve legislation requiring cross-media owners to maintain separate editorial departments for each media entity in their possession.

Also, according to The Australian, they "would be required to maintain the station’s existing commitment to news and current affairs after the station changed hands."

This speculation purports to answer a question put by Laurie Oakes to Prime Minister Howard on Channel Nine’s Sunday program a day earlier:

OAKES: But, just pinning you down, you would legislate to guarantee editorial independence?

HOWARD: That is one of the goals, yes.

OAKES: How do you do that?

HOWARD: Well, we’re still working through the details of that.

At that point, the station went to a commercial. But Oakes’ question resonates: How do you legislate to guarantee editorial independence?

It leads automatically to another question: should the Government even try? The answer, of course, is no.

As well-meaning as the reported proposal might be, there would always be the implicit understanding that what a government gives, it can also take away. Job security for a substantial number of journalists could be in the hands of the government of the day.

The newspaper report aroused an uneasy feeling of déjà vu. Almost 10 years ago, Fairfax, under Conrad Black, was looking to cut costs by eliminating the duplication in the Canberra bureaux of the Age, Sydney Morning Herald and Australian Financial Review. The plan was to feed all three papers from a single source.

On that occasion, the then prime minister Paul Keating intervened on the journalists’ behalf, He was reported to have argued, somewhat tenuously you might think, that significant cultural differences between Melbourne and Sydney made it essential that correspondents for each city be maintained. Fairfax management caved in and abandoned their proposal.

Padraic McGuinness, now writing for the SMH, was a columnist with The Australian at the time. He commented that even if Keating had intervened on his own initiative, "[I]t would be perfectly justifiable to read any report and comment emanating from these three bureaux with some scepticism henceforth. They are the beneficiaries of Keating’s favours and intervention on their behalf."

In a similar way, rather than guaranteeing editorial independence, the plan the Howard Government is said to be considering could appear to be interfering with it.

When ABC TV’s Insiders program returned on Sunday 10 February, the presenter Barrie Cassidy declared, "The fact is, most of the media’s negative interpretations have been aimed not at John Howard but the new Labor leader, Simon Crean. Despite his impressive political CV, there is a lack of enthusiasm for his leadership. But then there never was enthusiasm for John Howard until recently. So, is Simon Crean unelectable or underestimated?" This was delivered, mind you, while Simon Crean sat in the background preparing for a Cassidy interview.

It is interesting that "lack of enthusiasm" means "negative interpretations" in the Cassidy lexicon. Apparently, nothing less than fawning media adulation is demanded for Labor leaders.

The timing of Cassidy’s comment was interesting. The weekend press had carried two substantial articles on the new Labor leader.

The Weekend Australian Magazine for February 9 -10 devoted its cover story to a sympathetic Crean profile by press gallery journalist Matt Price. The story drew largely from conversations with Crean’s mother, Mary, and wife, Carole. It even carried a cover shot from an a 1991 issue of the magazine that hailed "Simon Crean’s Dream Run". This is negative press?

While Matt Price was penning his piece at The Australian, Sean Carney was preparing a Crean-boosting article for the new-look, same-old-tone Melbourne Age. Carney’s assessment: Crean has all the right credentials, and a daunting task ahead of him - internally and externally. But The Age journalist was, predictably, optimistic. As the headline writer expressed it, this was all about "Citizen Crean to the rescue". If this is negative coverage, Crean would probably take all he can get.

When four Liberal MPs raised questions in the federal party room about the government’s policy on the detention of illegal arrivals, they gave the government’s media critics a gift.

Eleanor Hall, presenting the AM radio program on 12 February, was quick to beat up division within the Government and play down Labor’s shambolic debate on the issue. "[T]he problem of asylum seekers is dividing his [Howard’s] party as well as the Labor Party," she announced. "While Simon Crean seems to have contained the Labor division on the issue for now, four moderate Liberals have spoken out against the Prime Minister in a party room meeting."

The report failed to mention something that even the Sydney Morning Herald was prepared to concede. The arguments that the four Liberals presented "were flatly rejected by the Immigration Minister, Phillip Ruddock, to strong applause," the paper reported.

As for Crean’s "containment", AM’s own package contradicted that piece of wishful thinking with a soundbite from Duncan Kerr: "Clearly the door is open for further substantial change, and certainly I’m going to keep pressure on for that, and I’m sure many others will."

  • jdstyles@optushome.com.au

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