Media diversity inquiry hears about when Rupert 'pops in'

Rupert Murdoch doesn't tell Australian editors what to write, but many get opportunities to learn what he thinks, senators learned today.

The first sessions of the senate environment and communications references committee hearings into media diversity heard a range of opinions first from former prime minister Kevin Rudd and then News Corp Australia's Michael Miller and Campbell Reid.

If you're quick, you can listen to evidence as it is given live.

Following his petition call for a Royal Commission - to which senator Sarah Hanson-Young's inquiry is a response - much of the opening dialogue was predictable, and we'll get to that on another occasion.

The responses of executive chairman Michael Miller and corporate affairs, policy and government relations executive Campbell Reid were more intriguing, as they danced around questions on influence and the difference between information and opinion.

On the difference between print newspapers which had been closed, and mastheads - many of which are now digital-only - Miller asserted that News "hadn't closed 112 titles, 76 still exist" and that News even prints some of the 20-or-so independent print editions which have appeared since News shut its, as well as providing "assistance" to publishers. Kevin Rudd "misled you," Miller said.

In response to a question from Sarah Hanson-Young, he said the issue of monopoly was being looked at "through the prism of print only", and that with many choices for Australians, News Corp "by any definition does not have a monopoly".

And that there was "no comparison" between the Australian and UK markets "by way of behaviours", a reference to scrutiny following the UK phone-tapping scandal, on which News in Australia received a "clean sheet" from two judges.

There were also questions about news agency Australian Associated Press, which main shareholders News and Nine were about to close until public outcry and a philanthropist provided an alternative.

At News, "the traditional process" of journalists submitting copy to editors took the place of any formal quality control process, Campbell Reid said, adding that despite the "trigger point" of the move of advertising online, and reduced state government spending, News still had "boots on the ground" in regional centres. Even the Bunyip in Gawler got a mention, as well as News' cadet training schemes, although not necessarily in the same context.

Senator Nita Green asked about regional town "eco systems", in which content from the print paper was picked up and flowed through, "so print concentration brings flow-on to other areas", she added, localising a theme about the impact of print which had been raised by Kevin Rudd.

Asking about the impact of changed Facebook access on small publishers, she was told by Michael Miller that "the real impact is still to be understood".

Her question on what the government could do to help local media brought a swift, "I haven't come here to tell the government what they should do," from Miller, although he went on to raise the possibility of a market power issue for ACCC.

The News duo made it hard work for senators, earning a rebuke from Sarah Hanson-Young that they didn't seem to have prepared many answers, and had been brief in their written responses. On share of revenue, she added, "You've known you were invited for some time. I'm surprised you don't have figures."

"I find it incredible you can appear and try to talk down the immense influence, when you say on your website you're the number one source," she said.

Miller responded by musing whether Nine's Hugh Marks would agree with that, adding, "yes I'm proud that we're leaders in news, but don't construe that as a monopoly".

Nor were they happy to talk about the views of James Murdoch, who Miller said "hasn't worked in the Australian market, hasn't given me feedback, and (with whom) I don't agree".

Did News indulge in character assassination, senators asked, the questioning turning from Victorian premier Dan Andrews - as illustrated in a Telegraph front page headline 'Dan-made disaster' which Reid characterised as "tough scrutiny" - to Gillian Triggs, and later women such as ABC presenter Yassmin Abdel-Magied, with Miller adding, "Australians are smart, they make up their own minds".

And why are some people frightened of Rupert Murdoch? A long pause is followed by Reid's "That's a question for them" while Miller claimed he "rarely talked" to Murdoch and hadn't asked him about his political views.

To, "does Rupert like picking winners", Miller answered that while "we all" did, editors chose their own positions. He cited the campaign support of Australian of the Year Grace Tame, and more recently breaking the Brittany Higgins rape story as evidence News didn't have "an issue" with women.

Mehreen Faruqi wasn't so sure, asserting that Sky News "seems to have racism as a business model". Miller answered that News published "a range of opinions" - even Kevin Rudd's on China recently - and that they were "a cornerstone of our democracy. It's not the intent to hurt or harm".
She was critical that News contributors included supporters of racism and the 'great replacement' manifesto, while Kim Carr spoke of "a disturbing pattern of character assassination", involving several scientists, "villified by your publications". Sarah Hanson-Young asked for details of coverage of a number of topics on notice "split between news items and commentary".

And does it help to be a foreign-owned company? "We're an Australian company, Reid said, and although Miller a little grudgingly admitted the subsidiary was wholly-owned by US-based News Corp, it was "no less committed to Australia".

It was senator Sam McMahon who started the questioning on "direction to editors", getting a firm negative from Michael Miller, but the matter was returned to later.

The answers came slowly: Rupert Murdoch didn't always go into newsrooms when he visited Australia, and hadn't contacted editors this year. Reid admitted that "Yes, very occasionally, you'll get a call from him."

Would he support editors fronting this inquiry, or even attend himself: "I can't answer for him," Miller said.

Kim Carr returned to the topic later, learning that "all editors" were not invited to events held at Rupert Murdoch's Carmel ranch (which he sold in 2011). Miller said he had been to one such event, while Reid said there were "a range of occasions where editors might get together", some hosted by Murdoch, and others he might pop in to, "two or three times in my career of ten years".

"You might have to ask Rup(ert)," he started to say, then added... "usually it's a group of colleagues to talk about the business they're in."

If there were any in Queensland, Hanson-Young volunteered "everyone knows about it" to Miller's murmured, "Believe me."

He denied there was an increase of opinion on front pages, but wouldn't accept her assertion that News' newspapers had become "a blancmange of opinion bled from the opinion pages".

Breaking for lunch, it was somehow noticeable that the name of Col Allan hadn't been mentioned. Maybe the senators just weren't asking the right questions.

Peter Coleman

Pictured: Former prime minister Kevin Rudd opens the inquiry he prompted

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