With the election a week old, I thought it was time I re-read the Advisory Guideline on Reporting Elections from the Australian Press Council. But as much as I tried to take it seriously, I couldn’t help chuckling after reading the first section headline on “newspaper bias”, I immediately conjured up a vision of Rupert Murdoch or Col Allan snorting and enjoying a good belly-laugh in the unlikely event they ever read this section together. Murdoch brought Allan from New York to report this election in the way the owner wanted, not the way APC wanted.
Both men would agree with the first sentence in the advisory guideline. “The Council,” it began,”upholds the right of a newspaper to have its own political position, to accept certain beliefs and policies and to reject others; and to favour the election of one party and to oppose the election of another.” The sub-clauses were a bit unnecessary but it was a sentiment most owners would agree on however at odds with the codes of conduct for broadcasters.
The second sentence was more likely to attract guffaws from Murdoch and Allan, saying newspapers which claim to inform people on politics had an obligation “to present to the public a reasonably comprehensive and accurate account of public issues”. The News Ltd bosses would immediately tell you their newspapers are under no such obligation. Their only obligation is to their own survival in tough times. The spate of anti-Government front pages in the Murdoch tabloids since Rudd called the election serve political and commercial purposes. The political aim is to overthrow a government Murdoch does not like. The commercial one is to increase newspaper circulation by having their ideas front and centre in the supposed zeitgeist to bump an unpopular government.
In either purpose, the Australian Press Council is not a consideration. This is despite the fact News Ltd is a constituent body and accept their jurisdiction. They know the APC is a pale ombudsman. The complaints procedure attracts at most a mild censure, that is at the paper’s discretion to publicise widely. If all the APC wants is to keep the paper’s editorial viewpoints and advocacy separate from its news columns, News Ltd could simply claim their openly biased call to action front pages are easily identifiable as advocacy.
It is not just the front page that are calls to actions. The signs outside the newsagent saying Kick this Mob Out are neither an “an editorial viewpoint” nor a “news column” but simply a blatant ad for a political party. The open cynicism was probably too much for a corporate flak like Kim Williams, but when push came to shove, it was Williams that was shoved, not the campaign.
It shows the Press Council as a joke again, in a year when News successful fought against its reform. When it comes to the nitty gritty of what the council demanded when it comes to “unfairness and lack of balance”, News were abysmal failures. The APC calls for equal space for parties, equivalent photography, a selective right of reply and a “balancing response”, none of which the Government is getting in the election campaign. Yet breaches of these demands could all be easily be batted away by an experienced company lawyer who, in the worst of circumstances might simply advise to take the censure of a mild slap on the wrists.
The Murdoch campaign is rich irony for Labor. It was their idol Paul Keating who got them in this mess. His infamous “princes of print or queens of the screen” line which allowed Murdoch a 1987 Herald and Weekly Times takeover left Keating’s party horribly exposed should the princes of print decide to exercise their royal privileges against them. Whatever about his unimaginative failure not to predict media convergence, Keating had no excuse for not predicting likely bias given he saw first hand how Murdoch destroyed Gough Whitlam in 1975.
This supine acquiescence a quarter of a decade ago may be enough in 2013 to haunt his party into opposition in a tight election.