All politics is local, goes the maxim. It’s a quaint notion in our globalised world, and yet it’s still substantially true. Here’s a case study to illustrate the point. In Britain, after the phone hacking scandal and the Leveson inquiry, politicians from across the spectrum have tiptoed away from Rupert Murdoch. There has been collective self-criticism about how the political class should have been tougher, should have asserted more independence.
But if we look locally, we find a political leader moving in the opposite direction. ”Rupert Murdoch is one of the most influential Australians of all time. I think he’s made an extraordinary contribution to the media and I think he’s been a very great Australian. So, I make no apologies whatsoever for meeting with Rupert Murdoch.”
That affirmation was from the Leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott, last week.
And again, in The Spectator, just after meeting the mogul in the United States: ”Rupert Murdoch is the media proprietor so many people love to hate because his papers broadly support market economics and social conservatism. Murdoch does matter, for good reasons, not bad, because he hasn’t succumbed to political correctness in his judgments of people and events.”
A couple of weeks ago the Opposition Leader delivered a significant speech called The Freedom Wars in which he implied that the Gillard government was, via the Finkelstein inquiry, trying to ”warn off News Ltd from pursuing anti-government stories”.
Abbott supplied the speech in advance to The Australian, Murdoch’s flagship broadsheet. The paper, and News across the board, has campaigned strenuously against the central recommendations of the Finkelstein inquiry on the grounds that stronger regulation curbs legitimate press freedom. (News is certainly not alone in this view, but it is the loudest opponent.)
While we’re recounting facts and joining dots, let’s also note the recent arrival of Creina Chapman – one of the most respected and connected media insiders around – to Abbott’s political team. Her most recent past gig? News Ltd government relations.
If Abbott had been a politician in Britain, given all the recent history, the trend of these events and affirmations and connections would have been big mainstream media news and chat-show fodder.
Not here. Local context shapes the narrative. News Ltd in Australia is distant from the tumult in London; and the Abbott speech was of course not only a public genuflection to News Ltd on a single topic, it was also a wide-ranging liberal defence of free expression.
The Australian media have been much more preoccupied with the other relationship: the persistent fractiousness between Prime Minister Julia Gillard and the Murdoch media. But there are two big stories in the Australian media/politics sphere: Gillard fulminating and fighting, and Abbott incrementally investing in what he hopes will be a fruitful relationship with the dominant media player.
Both developments require some telling. The odium in Britain has taught us this lesson: apply some transparency to the relationships on which power rests. It might save tears and recriminations afterwards, although I doubt it.
Media moguls and politicians are substantially similar creatures. Their shared currency is accumulated power. Many politicians are control freaks. They like certainty. Many lack the courage to rely on pluralism and media diversity as their best shot at self-directed longevity.
And in Australia, truth is, they’ve got precious little diversity to rely on anyway.
Australian politics believes News Ltd can make or break governments. So we have these pernicious cycles of courtship and rejection. The best hope for permanent disruption, unless someone actually gets serious about policies promoting diversity of old-media ownership, is a post-mogul world wrought by the technological revolution that is killing newspapers.
It’s a funny old tango right now between Australian politics and Australia’s media owners. Soon, the Gillard government will respond to the Finkelstein inquiry. Hence Abbott’s pre-emptive intervention – I won’t go there, he’s saying; I won’t do it. Nobody knows precisely what the government will do, or how far it will push. Fair to say, there’s a degree of anticipation beginning to build.
Some Labor folks saw last week’s events, with News Ltd choosing to lead-prosecute the Slater & Gordon story about Gillard’s professional conduct 17 years ago, as a deliberate shot across cabinet’s bows before the media regulation discussion.
My on-balance judgment is this is over-thinking. And even if this were true, last week’s case study is not hugely material.
Those inside Labor who believe after two years of at times punishing coverage that News Ltd is on a wilful crusade of regime change have believed it for a long time – they didn’t need last week to spell it out for them. That jury was already in. And those inside the government who believe it would be a mistake to overreach with media regulation think that way because pragmatism is their pre-existing disposition, not because they copped a few tough page ones on the Slaters story.
So, attitudes are fixed. The presses are substantially set. We only await the deliberation of the page-one conference, and the final headline.
Katharine Murphy is The Age’s national affairs correspondent and writes the live politics blog The Pulse for Fairfax Media online. She is a senior federal political reporter based in Canberra.
This post originally appeared in The Age and is reproduced with permission and thanks