This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 29, 2023 as “Dominion over the animals”.
According to author Michael Wolff, on the night of the 2020 United States presidential election, when the Fox News Decision Desk was seeking Rupert Murdoch’s approval to call Arizona for Joe Biden, the mogul had a simple view of how to manage any fallout from Donald Trump: “Fuck him.”
Murdoch biographer Paddy Manning could not confirm that quote, but it certainly aligns with other assessments from Murdoch in the wake of the election that saw the world’s No. 1 narcissist vanquished, fairly and squarely, at the polls.
The sentiment is contained in dozens of internal Fox News and News Corp communications, unearthed during the discovery process and subsequent depositions as part of Dominion Voting Systems’ legal case against Fox News. Dominion was asking for $US1.6 billion in damages in what promised to be the defamation case of the century.
That was until the Murdochs, apparently fearful of what more their testimony in open court would reveal, retreated and settled for $US787.5 million – an eye-watering sum for normal people but a fleabite for the biggest and most influential media empire the democratic world has ever seen.
The same fear seems to have driven their retreat from the brink of Lachlan Murdoch’s defamation case against Crikey here in Australia, where he was the claimant.
In the US, Trump has been Murdoch’s red meat and potatoes for more than seven years – seven years that saw Fox News’s ratings, profit and influence soar due to slavish support for a man who did more damage to American democracy and public confidence than anyone since Jefferson Davis more than 150 years earlier.
Rupert clearly hoped that, having served his purpose for the Murdoch empire, Trump would fade away. That was wishful thinking. Just as soon as Trump lost office it became clear to the Murdochs that ending Fox News’s support for this narcissistic mouthpiece for false grievance and fake news was having a serious impact on the network’s ratings, revenue and influence.
“Carlson is the kind of influential, secular, televangelist demagogue that Sky News Australia’s Paul Murray and Rowan Dean aspire to be, with far less success. He was sacked this week by Fox News, the fall-guy sacrifice on the altar of Murdoch family reputation.”
So they changed tack. Four days after Trump lost, then leading host Tucker Carlson sent a text complaining about a Fox News reporter who had said there was no evidence of voter fraud. His motive was absolutely clear: “Please get her fired …. It needs to stop immediately, like tonight. It’s measurably hurting the company. The stock price is down. Not a joke.”
Stop it largely did. As recently as March 6, Carlson was telling his millions of Fox News viewers: “Taken as a whole, the whole video record does not support the claim that January 6th was an insurrection.”
Carlson is the kind of influential, secular, televangelist demagogue that Sky News Australia’s Paul Murray and Rowan Dean aspire to be, with far less success. He was sacked this week by Fox News, the fall-guy sacrifice on the altar of Murdoch family reputation, offered up to appease some of the disgruntled shareholders.
But if it wasn’t an insurrection, what was it?
This question has resonance in Australia, specifically in regards to the absurd finding of the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) that Sarah Ferguson’s description of the Capitol Hill rioters as a “mob” in her 2021 Four Corners report about Fox News was “emotive and strident”.
Four people in the crowd died that day. Some of the rioters set out to kill then house speaker Nancy Pelosi and vice president Mike Pence. How was this not a mob?
If anything demonstrates how out-of-date and failing the regulations surrounding Australia’s media are, this is it.
Australia is not immune from what is happening in the US. Our toothless, largely voluntary and, in the case of the Australian Press Council, predominantly Murdoch-funded “regulators” are not fit for purpose in an integrated media industry, with its immensely powerful players and their penchant for conspiracies that drive profit.
Our fourth estate is one of the cornerstones of our democracy. Our private media should be a public good, acting in the public interest. It needs to be profitable, of course, but not at the expense of trust and, more to the point, truth.
Attempts to update the public responsibilities of our media, notably the Finkelstein inquiry of 2012 and senate inquiries established by the Greens’ Sarah Hanson-Young, have foundered amid scare campaigns that the government should not regulate privately owned media, especially not print.
So we have a free-for-all, with something close to zero accountability.
The Ferguson example is just one that demonstrates the way in which ACMA is no longer up to the job. In fact, its effectiveness as a regulator of journalistic standards is a joke.
The Australian Press Council shows that self-regulation has become an oxymoron: Kerry Stokes’ Seven West Media is no longer a member; nor is Australian Community Media, which controls 140 rural and regional outlets; The Guardian has never been. The Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance, the union that represents journalists, has announced its withdrawal.
The press council’s complaints process is bureaucratic, painfully slow and so ineffective as to deny natural justice to complainants – as, for that matter, are similar structures at the public broadcasters.
So, if public regulation is off the table, what is to be done?
A more effective and universal form of self-regulation may be the answer.
There are examples from other democracies – Ireland and Finland spring to mind.
In Finland, the country’s major news outlets and the journalists union have been members of the Council for Mass Media since the 1960s.
It is 75 per cent funded by news companies and 25 per cent by the government, but the news industry controls it and there are no strings attached to the public funding.
It is entirely voluntary, but about 95 per cent of all Finnish journalists are members of the council and subject to its complaints processes – newspapers, websites, radio and television stations and the public broadcaster.
Decisions made by the council are not legally binding, but, according to former ABC editorial director Alan Sunderland, their rulings are universally respected and followed.
Notably, 69 per cent of Finns trust their news media, compared with just 41 per cent in Australia.
It is a somewhat similar story in Ireland.
The lessons for Australia are clear: if we have a chance of restoring public faith in our media, we need a system of accountability that readers and viewers can trust.
All this has implications for Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus’s overdue drive to update our privacy laws.
If there is to be a carve-out for public interest journalism, as media organisations are demanding, there must be an accepted standard to decide who is or is not a journalist and a respected body to make that determination.
Finland and Ireland are showing us the way.
As an independent MP on a crossbench that does not hold the balance of power, the question is: what can be done to advance a priority of profound importance to the community, for all those concerned about faith in democracy and the quality of our political culture?
The answer is persistent persuasion, engaging with ministers and MPs across parliament, as I have been doing assiduously for nearly a year now, with some small but significant success.
Labor backbenchers are uneasy about the current state of our media, but none of them was prepared to go as far as supporting my motion to establish an independent inquiry into media diversity, even as they acknowledged it to be a problem.
As another US president – John F. Kennedy – famously said: we choose to do things “not because they are easy, but because they are hard”.