Here’s the question for a News Corp inquiry: is it still a news company?

13 October 2020

If Kevin Rudd succeeds in getting up an inquiry into the Murdoch press, News Corp will have to prove it actually is still a news company.

Rupert Murdoch

News Corp is hunkered down in the “ignore” part of the ignore-laugh-fight continuum in resisting the over 180,000 signatures on the Kevin Rudd-inspired petition for a commission of inquiry into the Murdochs and their company’s operations.

Outside News Corp, there’s more chatter. And that may yet force Australia’s media to confront one big question: is News Corp even still a news company?

Or has it evolved into something new, something we don’t have a name for yet, more like a propaganda outlet camouflaged by journalistic practice, using the news ecosystem to hide out?

The company has good reason to resist an inquiry. Its long history is intertwined with court hearings, public inquiries and legal action — and it’s gone poorly in most.

Its corporate core competency hides below public view. It is manoeuvring in the muddy waters of the regulatory shape: persuading for self-interested interpretation; lobbying for regulatory change to its benefit; weaponising freedom of the press to defend the corporation.

There’s the 2012 UK House of Commons public inquiry into the hacking scandal (the one Rupert Murdoch described as the most humble day of his life) that found he was not a fit person to lead the company. Then, there’s the secretive $40 million, gifted paperwork free by the Coalition government to Foxtel for broadcasting women’s sport.

There’s the $1.6 billion that the public exposure of that hacking scandal has cost the company over the past decade. Or the Geoffrey Rush defamation case where hearings into its journalistic practices cost the company $2.9 million in damages plus undisclosed legal costs.

Like so many media buccaneers — from Hearst, to Northcliffe, Maxwell and now Zuckerberg — News Corp pushes the boundaries of journalistic behaviour. Now we need to ask: have they broken them altogether?

It’s why the company and its political allies only tolerate a public inquiry when forced, by overwhelming public opinion, or by the law. It’s why the Rudd petition is unlikely to be picked up by this government.

When governments fall short, it’s the job of journalists to ask the hard questions, uncomfortable as it is in Australia where News Corp dominates the local industry both financially and culturally. The big questions about the Murdochs are better avoided by hemming and hawing about the “good journalists” in the company. (Sure. There are some. A few.)

There’s a comfort in speaking up for the “good” journalists that goes beyond collegiality. We’re seeing it now as the ABC and Nine defend the journalists at the Herald Sun and The Australian (and even Sky) in the company’s campaign against state governments. It’s a natural solidarity built on a necessary distrust of government.

But it ignores the selective weaponisation of this distrust against the company’s enemies, currently Labor in Victoria and Queensland. That’s the heart of the community’s unease that sends #Thisisnotjournalism trending on Twitter after the daily Andrews’ press conferences.

It’s right for other journalists to cherry pick and call out misogyny and abuse on social media (as it would be right for News Corp journalists to call out the abuse particularly against women of colour in the company’s holy wars). And, yes, it’s important to point out that it’s the job of journalists to hold governments to account. But there seems a greater enthusiasm to complain of abuse of the media than by the media.

News Corp’s other major markets — the US and the UK — have long moved on. Early last year, The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan, speaking of News’ sister organisation Fox, spelled out what has since become the orthodoxy:

… everyone ought to see [Fox] for what it is: not a normal news organisation with inevitable screw-ups, flaws and commercial interests, which sometimes fail to serve the public interest. Instead, it’s a shameless propaganda outfit, which makes billions of dollars a year as it chips away at the core democratic values we ought to hold dear: truth, accountability and the rule of law.

Earlier this year, James Murdoch joined in, resigning from the News Corp board citing “disagreements over certain editorial content.” This past weekend, in an interview with The New York Times, he went further talking of hidden agendas and disinformation.

In the absence of an inquiry, James Murdoch’s views should become the starting point for Australian journalists reporting on News Corp.

Peter Fray

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