Associate Professor in Political Science Dominic O’Sullivan in the Charles Sturt School
of Humanities and Social Sciences.
The former Prime Minister, Mr Kevin Rudd, has launched a petition calling for a Royal Commission into the ‘abuse of media monopoly in Australia in particular by the Murdoch media’.
Mr Rupert Murdoch’s company News Corp accounts for 70 per cent of newspaper sales in Australia.
These newspapers include The Daily Telegraph and The Australian which take strong political positions, more commonly aligned with parties on the right of the political spectrum. News Corp also owns Sky News which has an unapologetically reactionary conservative editorial line.
Within days of its launch the petition had attracted more than 100,000 signatures, and at the time of the publication of this commentary the petitioners number approximately a quarter of a million.
There is obviously significant public concern over the democratic implications of a near-monopoly crowding out perspectives from the left and, more importantly, crowding out neutral, informed and objective reporting.
But is a Royal Commission the best response?
In 2017, the Morrison government relented to pressure from the National Party, as well as opposition parties and various consumer lobby groups, to establish a Royal Commission of Inquiry into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry.
Inquiry upheld numerous claims that banks and other financial institutions were charging fees for services never provided. It also found that the hard selling of financial products to customers who did not actually need them was common.
In a speech in 2019, the Royal Commissioner, the former High Court judge Mr Kenneth Hayne AC QC, argued that Royal Commissions were being used too often to address policy problems that the political system found too hard.
Many of the banking Royal Commission’s recommendations required technically straightforward public policy measures. However, the competing claims and influences of vested interests meant that they were not always politically straightforward.
Similarly, vested interests in aged care bring political complexities to the matters currently before the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety. These go beyond the technicalities of legislating for a more effective regulatory framework.
Mr Rudd’s proposed Royal Commission would also deal with matters that are politically too hard. So much so that his own governments (2007-2010 and 2013) did not curb News Corp’s partisan anti-Labor influence.
There is an argument that there is no democratic problem because News Corp does not hide its opinion writers’ or Sky News presenters’ ideological intent. Its work cannot be confused for independent and informed journalism. People know the News Corp position. They can agree with it, or disagree, as they please.
Newspapers such as The Guardian take unapologetic perspectives from the left to provide a collective balance. Liberal democracy requires freedom of expression, so it is legitimate for News Corp to give partisan platforms to whichever political position it likes.
These arguments do not, however, address the presumption that there is also a democratic requirement for news media, on the public’s behalf, to provide an independent check on governments and other public institutions. This requires politically independent, objective and informed journalism. News Corp’s domination means that there is little space for this kind of journalism.
Regulations to limit the media voice of any one company, or any one political perspective, would instead require diversity in the ideas that inform public debate.
The political obstacle to regulatory reform is that the Coalition benefits from News Corp’s domination. The company offers little sustained scrutiny of Coalition governments across Australia.
A strong regulatory code to ensure that news media cover a wide range of political perspectives, assess them independently, and promote informed public debate would usefully complement restrictions on any one company being allowed to dominate the market.
Public policy itself does not need to be independent or objective. Policy is the outcome of democratic contest. But that contest requires a well-informed public, better able to critique the proposals of political parties and interest groups, and better able to raise their own alternatives.
Democracy is not well served by media ownership laws, or by the intellectual quality, that the news media generally contributes to public debate.
Rudd’s petition therefore raises an important matter of public interest. It asks people to think carefully about what the news media is actually for, and whether it should be required to help democracy work to its potential. The debate that the petition generates, or does not generate, will test just how much the public cares about these questions.
Public confidence in the political system is low. There is a deep cynicism about what motivates people who stand for public office. Mr Rudd’s petition presumes that this cynicism should be extended to the news media as the political system’s fourth estate.
Could a fourth estate regulated to properly serve its democratic potential challenge that cynicism?Could cynicism be challenged by imposing a higher standard of debate on public office holders, by ensuring that their ideas are independently tested and contested, and by ensuring that members of the public have access to the information that they need to form considered opinions on the public questions of the day?