Breaking the nexus

A lot has happened in a short time since Kevin Rudd has become Prime Minister. First we finally signed the Kyoto Protocol. Then a formal apology was given to the native peoples here for the wrongs done to them. The long process of winding back Work Choices has begun. And last week Rudd was in Iraq, promising to bring our troops home by mid-year.

There’s a temptation to try and do too much too soon, but I feel greatly encouraged by this burst of energy. I voted for Rudd as a neutral, feeling an indifference to the man but a willingness to believe he might do much. More than anything else I voted against the last, evil government. It is reassuring then to see some of the bad done by Howard so quickly undone, and I hope it continues – there is much to do.

One of the things I would like see done is a review of media ownership rules in this country. Over the years, and hastened by a Howard government looking to curry favour with those who influence, media ownership has become concentrated in fewer hands. That fewer independent voices, and increasing leverage in the hands of select media barons. Any way you look at it it’s bad, against democratic principles and dangerous for a country that holds true to free speech and equal rights. Dissent is an essential element in that, and it is the right to dissent that is one of the great touchstones of a free society.

No-one is saying that we have been denied that here, but fewer voices have been heard. The alternate opinion was muted through the Howard years. There were brave souls who spoke out, but by and large they were discredited, or at least derided as ‘elites’, out of touch with the rank and file of society that Howard so proudly proclaimed he represented. That was his way. If he could not legislate them out of existence then he would isolate them. As he was with so many of his corrupt schemes, this was largely successful.

It is tempting to call the Australian media pissweak throughout this era. There’s some truth in that: the government got away with things that once upon a time would not have been possible. They were not held to account as they should have been. There were too few voices speaking out against them, and no-one of moral authority declaiming the truth. And so the truth was lost, twisted, re-jigged and re-phrased.

Howard tilted the whole playing surface though: that was his genius. He made the unacceptable look acceptable. He changed our moral compass, turned us around in our thinking until what we once took as being moral truths now seemed like foolish whimsy.

In this he was aided by the media barons. 70% of Australian newspapers are owned by Rupert Murdoch. Murdoch is a genius too, cold and calculating, one could argue without a strong moral compass of his own – though I think him to be a man of ideas. In fact he is a fascinating character, a man of monumental energy and ambition. In ways he reminds of the titular character from Citizen Kane, but without the tragedy.

I believe that Rupert Murdoch could have been anything – what he chose to do was become the most powerful media proprietor in the world. I’m not going to argue the morality of that: good for him. You wonder though what authentic good a man like that might have done – and is even now in a great position to do.

He is a man of ideas, but outweighing all that he is a pragmatic man of ambition. He knows the angles, and plays politicians off like a puppeteer. They need him after all, need the power of his press on their side. The irony is they have given him more power over the years to buy his support, and in so doing have ensured that they must continue to do so. Having got into bed with him they now had to continue paying for the privilege.

And so in Oz media has been concentrated in the hands of News Corporation, and a lesser extent Fairfax. The checks and balances introduced by more sober governments were eroded and whittled back. The Howard government courted News Corporation and in turn they peddled the governments line. Any who stepped out of line, those few independent voices in the wilderness, were then decried, first by the Howard government as elites in ivory towers, and then by the right wing hacks working in the Murdoch press.

That nexus has been broken. While I expect Rudd to meet with and attempt to find a middle ground with Murdoch, he should not be beholden to him. The likely reality is that this government will be in power for two terms at least. That gives them some leeway to act and to do things which may be opposed and be unpopular. So be it. It’s the job of government to do what is right, not what is popular.

Given the start to his tenure as PM there is every reason to expect that Rudd will not shy from the tough proposition. I hope that the cross-media ownership laws are on his agenda. We need to break this power, and to return to a society where voices great and small can be heard once again.

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