Two weeks ago, former PM Kevin Rudd launched a petition on Parliament’s website calling for a public inquiry into Rupert Murdoch’s media empire in Australia.
Murdoch is the Australian-born but naturalised-US octogenarian owner of News Corp. His company is behind almost 70% of the daily print media read in this country which leverages its power and influence to set the political and social agenda.
Rudd criticised the growing monopoly of Newscorp on print news, digital publications, and television channels, saying that these are “routinely used to attack opponents in business and politics by blending editorial opinion with news reporting”. Within days, over 200,000 people had signed the petition, so many that the website itself crashed. Now, that petition is pushing 360,000, meaning a sizeable chunk of us agree.
But even with all these signatures and so much obvious support from the public, will a royal commission into the influence of the Murdoch press actually happen? And if so, what will it actually change?
What is a royal commission?
A royal commission is basically a kind of special independent public inquiry into some issue that cannot be solved by other means. A commission is created using legislation to grant it powers of inquiry and the ability to call upon people to give evidence and that kind of thing. They are called “royal” because they are formally established by the Governor-General on behalf of the crown.
The government of the day sets the terms of the inquiry and decides who will be in charge of running it. Back in the day they were used all the time to sort out issues ranging from television to grain handling but they’ve declined in usage as they generally have the effect of digging up embarrassing stuff that governments don’t like. The past few years however has seen a bit of an uptick in them although they have had more of a political slant.
A good example is the current royal commission into the bushfires last summer which is looking at how to keep Australians safe given the changing climate and not how can we stop climate change to keep Australians safe.
Are we likely to get a government inquiry into the power of the Murdoch press?
Given the weight of public support behind the inquiry and the number of people who have signed it, you might think the government would have to address it. However, the petition has not received broad coverage in Murdoch owned papers for obvious reasons and if it has they have been overwhelmingly negative takes. Therefore the petition is likely to be viewed as political or non legitimate and the government will probably not address it in any serious capacity. They could very well claim, as many already are, that Rudd is simply jealous or playing politics with the media.
What would happen if we do?
In the unlikely event that a royal commission is declared, it will be the government that sets the scope, selects the commissioners, and funds the whole shebang. They are unlikely to choose candidates with a proven record of independence and critique of the organisation. With the deck stacked like this, the commission’s findings are unlikely to be very robust or critical.
Even if, somehow, a royal commission is established, with independent people at the helm who really dig into the impacts of a press monopoly on our nation and it returns a searing critique of the Murdoch empire – and by association, the Liberal government – the government is not legally required to do anything about it.
We need a proper royal commission
A 2016 Oxford University study found that out of 26 countries surveyed, Australia had the most concentrated, monopolised media landscape of them all. That was back before we changed the laws about monopoly ownership which will arguably make things worse.
Having a free and independent press is essential to a functioning democracy. Without the ability to critique power, explore alternative viewpoints, and have our voices heard, we descend quickly into authoritarianism. Some would argue we are already there.
The power of the Murdoch press is so entrenched in our society that it’s difficult to imagine it any other way. They effectively decide who gets to run the country and for how long in an endless cycle of outrage and attack. Play by the rules and you’ll get an easy ride. Try and pursue policies that are counter to the wishes of the Murdoch group, like, say, climate policy, and you’ll find yourself shredded in the papers.
This works both ways too, as the present administration goes to great lengths to keep Newscorp happy by cutting funding to competitive public broadcasters and flat out handing them millions in taxpayer money. The recent spat with Google and Facebook was, some argue, constructed to benefit Murdoch as it will mean more of that sweet, sweet ad revenue making its way into their coffers. The tech giants themselves are only too happy to continue to serve up the polarising, enraging opinions that Newscorp churns out in place of news as we all know anger garners the most clicks.
One only has to look at the recent attack on Jacinda Ardern, or the continuing assault on anyone who suggests digging up and selling coal is not a sustainable economic or environmental model, to see how divorced from reality the Murdoch ideology has become. The direction this is all going is not a pleasant one and we should all do our best to try and force this government to do the right thing and correct the massively distorted representations we are constantly fed. For all of our sakes.