National media inquiry: what a waste of time!
Dr Nick Economou looks at the relevance of the national media inquiry
Australian politics keeps providing instances of how superficial its parliamentary practitioners can be. The Gillard government's recent announcement of its intention to conduct an inquiry into the Australian media is just such an example.
Consider the following: after years of British tabloid press behaviour in which almost anything seemed to go in the pursuit of salacious tales about celebrities and public figures, revelations that journalists (with the assistance of police) hacked in to the telephone system of a murder victim ends up being a bridge too far as far as acceptable press behaviour is concerned.
The public is outraged, and British parliamentarians seek to be seen to be doing something as a result. From this come the very satisfactory spectacle of two of the leading executives of News International (the organisation that owns the newspaper in whose name these outrages were committed) being hauled before a parliamentary inquiry. The executives are none other than Rupert Murdoch (who has been giving life to Orson Welles' Citizen Kane character) and one of his sons, James. Here is a turn up for the books: after years of being at the head of an organisation that likes to throw its political weight around, the two Murdochs are required to be contrite before a panel of parliamentary nobodies in the full glare of television coverage.
The sense of politicians being in a position to experience the joy of having the boot on the other foot has been palpable in Britain, and represents a temptation that a government as feckless and shallow as Julia Gillard's Labor administration clearly can't resist. For years, Australian politicians generally, and left-wing politicians, in particular have reviled Rupert Murdoch and some of his newspapers. At last the opportunity to get even seems to have arisen, and the Gillard government has indicated an inclination to try and seize it in the form of an inquiry of its own.
The problem is that, when asked about exactly what it is about the media that the government intends to inquire in to, Ms Gillard and others have nothing to say other than make some oblique reference to the need to protect privacy (a spurious argument, this, because extensive state laws already do just that). Into the void have stepped the Australian Greens, who feel that these days it is they who are being treated unfairly especially by News Limited newspapers.
The Greens would like an inquiry into bias, concentration of press ownership, and what regulatory future might be needed in an era of internet-based political discourse. Because the Greens have a much better developed sense of grievance than Ms Gillard and her Labor colleagues, the government once again appears to be doing the bidding of the junior left-of-centre party in the current national Labor-Green alliance.
Gillard has been advised to try and get away from the perception that it is Senator Bob Brown, rather than her good self, who is running the country but, on this matter like so many others, the shallowness of her government's approach has only reinforced the notion that the Greens are driving the national political debate. And what will a national inquiry into the media achieve in Australia? Presumably, about as much as the last inquiry, which was really two thirds of nothing. Politicians are in a no-win situation when they tackle the media in this way.
The first thing to note is that governments have precious little power to exercise over the print media without running the risk of appearing authoritarian and sinister. Even if there are powers to be used, a politician who seeks to use them will inevitably be portrayed as enemies of press freedom and, by logical extension, as a threat to democracy itself. Julia Gillard's lack of political acumen, already a feature of her leadership, has been exposed yet again by this matter. Her government's decision to pursue this matter was clearly driven by a desire to exploit events occurring in another country.
The lack of governmental certainty about what the inquiry should be about exposes its superficiality on this matter. Meanwhile, the track record of past inquiries suggests that the exercise will be a waste of time. The Norris Inquiry into the media held in 1981 found that concentrated media ownership was a major problem in the political economy of Australian media.
Five years later, News Corporation purchased the Herald and Weekly Times, concentrating media ownership even further. Meanwhile, one wonders about the political wisdom of Julia Gillard being seen to align herself with the Greens' on the matter of the performance of the press just ahead of a period in which the government is going to try and sell a message about one of its key policies (the carbon tax) and when a general election could be called at any moment. With her party at less than 30 per cent in the opinion polls, Gillard's strategy of antagonising News Corporation represents either extraordinary political courage or mind blowing political naivety.
Dr Nick Economou is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Political and Social Inquiry at Monash University.
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