NPR

Murdoch's Unrivaled Hold On The Australian Press

Between 6 and 7 of every 10 copies of national and metro papers sold in Australia are owned by News Ltd., News Corp.'s Australian newspaper arm. The company owns The Australian and The Daily Telegraph; while The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald are owned by rival Fairfax Media. (AP)

Step up to any newsstand in Australia, like the one in Melbourne's Central Business District, and ask who Rupert Murdoch is, and you might get an appraisal like this one from Tom Baxter, an officer with a local disability foundation: "Long time in newspapers, ruthless; dedicated to their craft; a global citizen."

In the beachside community of Albert Park, Kate MacFadyen says feelings toward him are complicated. There is pride in the global success of a local boy, but cynicism, too: "In Australia, there are a lot of cities that only have Murdoch press as their newspaper," she says, "so it just feels like his organization dominates the media in this country."

In Sydney, I sat down in the living room of the author, blogger and media critic Paul Barry to ask why it matters how many titles the Murdochs and News Corp. own there.

"They have so much hold over the papers that we read, where they have such a large proportion of them, that's, I think, the problem," Barry says. "But ultimately it really comes down to the actual ownership. There's too many owned by Murdoch. Simple as that."

The piece of the pie is big — well, it's about two-thirds of the pie. Between 6 and 7 of every 10 copies of national and metro papers sold in Australia are owned by News Ltd., News Corp.'s Australian newspaper arm, according to government and trade figures. The papers are by no means monolithic in tone or scope. But to varying degrees, they tend to champion a smaller government with fewer regulatory powers, and they favor a strong military stance. The tabloids take on a more populist sheen than The Australian.

I think we do our readers – and that means 22 million Australians — I think we do them a disservice by suggesting that they are not discerning enough to be able to understand what it is they're reading and to be able to form a view.
Graeme Samuel, former chairman, Australian Competition and Consumer Commission

Barry has written periodically for the Sydney Daily Telegraph, a News Ltd. tabloid. He says the livelihoods of a large number of Australian journalists depend on the whim of a single media conglomerate and the sensibility of a single mogul.

"It's a massive, massive family company, but be under no illusions that people work for Rupert Murdoch," he says. "They know that they're working for him. They're not working for some, you know, organization with disparate power.

"Ultimately, he's the bloke they have to please," Barry says. And so, while they may not actually get an order coming down saying, 'You will run this headline, you will do this story, you will take this point of view,' they know what sort of things are going to play well."

The very fact of that concentration is a notable element of two separate government reviews in Australia, one ongoing and one just concluded.

In fact, News Corp. owns the dominant papers in nearly all the country's major cities, as well The Australian, the only national general interest paper, which has a modest circulation of approximately 130,000 but shapes opinions among elites; it's the paper that gets chewed over by talk radio, television programs and blogs. In addition, News Ltd. owns popular news websites and a controlling minority stake in Fox Tel, the nation's largest cable TV provider, in Fox Sports and the cable Sky News Australia service.

"It's a pretty clear stranglehold on the flow of information, which in itself might not be such a bad thing if you weren't open to claims that certain media organizations represent certain political interests," says Monica Attard, former foreign correspondent and media critic for the ABC. She's now the managing editor of the online Global Mail based in Sydney. "That's where the complicating issues arise. And I think it's very very difficult to overcome those barriers to arriving at a position where you're saying that the information that people are receiving is unfettered and pure."

Meanwhile, Murdoch's elder son, Lachlan, a former News Corp. executive, is a key investor in the ostensible rival broadcast Network Ten. He just became its chairman while still being a corporate director of News Corp. in New York.

Neither Murdoch would be interviewed by NPR for this series, nor would their executives, their aides, nor their journalists in Australia. Rupert Murdoch addressed the nature of media ownership in speaking with the BBC decades ago as he sought his first foothold in the U.K. by taking over the tabloid News of the World.

"I think the important thing is that there be plenty of newspapers, with plenty of different people controlling them, so that there are a variety of viewpoints, so there is a choice for the public," he said in that 1968 interview. "This is the freedom of the press that is needed."

Murdoch's Australian editors typically say that despite his stable of papers, the country does enjoy a diversity of views. They point to the nation's public broadcaster and rival Fairfax Media's papers in Sydney and Melbourne, as well as the business daily, the Australian Financial Review.

And one former media regulator says critics of News Corp. in Australia paint in blacks and whites — no nuances.

"News Ltd. is powerful, but is it vulnerable? Yes, I think it is," says Graeme Samuel, who recently stepped down as chairman of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission. "Like any traditional media organization, they're vulnerable to the whims and fancies of the reader."

Samuel says his greater fear is officials will push for tighter media regulation. He notes newspaper circulation is declining. People can read blogs and foreign newspapers online or tune in to talk radio. And ahead he sees the promise of Internet TV.

Samuel dismisses the idea that any one media company can control anything in Australia, even if its myriad publications generally share an outlook and tone.

"I think we do our readers — and that means 22 million Australians — I think we do them a disservice by suggesting that they are not discerning enough to be able to understand what it is they're reading and to be able to form a view," he says.

But Barry, the media critic and author, argues that misses the point.

"It's bad for a democracy when 70 percent of the newspapers in this country are pushing one line and pushing it so hard, whether it is right or whether it's wrong, frankly," he says.

Leaders of both major Australian political parties — those who have been favored by News Ltd. newspapers and those who have been punished by them — routinely pay their respects at News Corp.'s global headquarters in Midtown Manhattan when they visit New York City.

It doesn't pay for a politician to ignore Murdoch or his papers. They're everywhere.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. In London, Sky News admitted today that its reporters hacked private email accounts in pursuit of two stories. The ongoing scandals at the British news outlets of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp have led to the arrests of dozens of people linked to his papers. They've also led to criticism that the conglomerate led by Rupert Murdoch had simply acquired too much control over the news media there.

As part of a series on Murdoch's Australian roots, NPR's David Folkenflik reports that the media tycoon's empire has achieved greater dominance in his native land.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Walking around the beachside Melbourne community of Albert Park, I ducked into a store to buy a children's book as a gift.

Well, I guess you should ring me up.

KATE MACFADYEN: Oh, yes. So that's...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: It's 14.99.

FOLKENFLIK: I point out their store sells books from HarperCollins, an imprint of Murdoch's News Corp.

MACFADYEN: Australians have a really interesting attitude to him because he's – or he was Australian. In, especially, Melbourne, I suppose he's family. He's from here.

FOLKENFLIK: Kate MacFadyen says feelings toward him are complicated.

MACFADYEN: In Australia, there are a lot of cities that only have Murdoch Press as their newspaper and so it just feels like his organization dominates the media in this country. It really does.

FOLKENFLIK: Hundreds of miles north in Sydney, I later sit down in the living room of the author, blogger and media critic Paul Barry to ask, why does it matter how many titles the Murdochs and News Corp own there?

PAUL BARRY: They have so much hold over the papers that we read where they have such a, you know, large proportion of them. That's, I think, the problem. But, ultimately, it really comes down to the actual ownership. There's too many owned by Murdoch. Simple as that.

FOLKENFLIK: The piece of the pie is so big - well, it's about two-thirds of the pie. Between six and seven of every 10 copies of national and metro papers sold in Australia are owned by News Limited, News Corp's Aussie newspaper arm. The papers are by no means monolithic in tone or scope, but to varying degrees, they tend to champion a smaller government with fewer regulatory powers and they tend to favor a strong military stance.

Paul Barry has written periodically for the Sydney Daily Telegraph, a News Limited tabloid. He says the livelihoods of a large number of Australian journalists depend on the whim of a single media conglomerate and the sensibility of a single mogul.

BARRY: It's a massive, massive family company, but be under no illusions that people work for Rupert Murdoch. They know that they're working for him. They're not working for some, you know, organization with disparate power. Ultimately, he's the bloke they have to please. And so, while they may not actually get an order coming down saying you will run this headline, you will do this story, you will take this point of view, they know what sort of things are going to play well.

FOLKENFLIK: The very fact of that concentration is a notable element of two separate government inquiries there, one ongoing, one just concluded. In fact, News Corp owns the dominant papers in nearly all the country's major cities, as well as The Australian, the only national general interest paper, which has a modest circulation but shapes opinions among elites and what gets chewed over by other outlets.

In addition, News Limited has popular news websites, a controlling stake in the nation's largest cable TV provider, in Fox Sports and in the cable Sky News Australia.

Meanwhile, Murdoch's elder son, Lachlan, a former News Corp executive, is the key investor in the ostensible rival broadcast network Ten. He just became its chairman while still being a corporate director of News Corp in New York.

The Murdochs, their executives and their journalists in Australia declined to be interviewed by NPR. Rupert Murdoch addressed the nature of media ownership in 1968 in speaking with the BBC, as he sought a foothold in the UK by taking over the British tabloid the News of the World.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

RUPERT MURDOCH: I think the important thing is that there be plenty of newspapers with plenty of different people controlling them so that there's a variety of viewpoint and there's a choice for the public. This is the freedom of the press that is needed.

FOLKENFLIK: Murdoch's Australian editors typically say, despite his stable of papers, there is a diversity of views in Australia. They point to the nation's public broadcaster and rival Fairfax Media's papers in Sydney and Melbourne. And one former media regulator says the company's critic paint in blacks and whites, no nuances.

Graeme Samuel recently stepped down as chairman of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.

GRAEME SAMUEL: News Limited is powerful, but is it vulnerable? Yes. I think it is. Like any traditional media organization, they're vulnerable to the whims and fancies of the reader.

FOLKENFLIK: Samuel says his greater fear is officials will push for tighter media regulations, even as newspaper circulation is declining. He says people can read blogs and foreign newspapers online and tune in to talk radio. Ahead, there's the promise of Internet TV. Samuel says it's foolish to think any one media company can control anything there.

SAMUEL: I think we do our readers - and that means 22 million Australians - I think we do them a disservice by suggesting that they are not discerning enough to be able to understand what it is they're reading and to be able to form a view.

FOLKENFLIK: But the media critic and author Paul Barry argues that misses the point regardless of what stance Murdoch's Australian newspapers adopt.

BARRY: I'm not saying that their position was necessarily wrong. What I'm saying is that it's bad for a democracy when 70 percent of the newspapers in this country are pushing one line and pushing it so hard, whether it is right or whether it's wrong, frankly.

FOLKENFLIK: Leaders of both major Australian political parties, those that have been favored by News Limited newspapers and those that have been punished by them, nonetheless routinely pay their respects at News Corp's global headquarters when they visit New York City. It doesn't pay to ignore Rupert Murdoch or his papers. They're everywhere.

David Folkenflik, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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