ABC Radio National: On Media Diversity and the Need for a Murdoch Royal Commission

RADIO INTERVIEW
ABC RADIO
RADIO NATIONAL
WITH STEVE CANNANE
19 FEBRUARY 2021

Steve Cannane
Well, the shockwaves from Facebook’s decision to block Australian’s access to news are reverberating at home and overseas. Small media publishers and millions of Australians on Facebook are caught in a battle over who should pay for news. Facebook’s actions were a response to the media bargaining code which is currently going through the parliament. It’s designed to make Google and Facebook pay news publishers for displaying their content. It’s legislation which has been backed by the major parties and the major news organizations including Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, which is also the subject of a senate inquiry on media diversity, which is starting today. The former Labour Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has been campaigning for a royal commission into the Murdoch media, and will appear at that senate inquiry into media diversity this morning, Kevin Rudd, thanks very much for joining us.

Kevin Rudd
Thanks for having me on the program.

Steve Cannane
As someone who’s currently arguing the case for taking on powerful media monopolies. Are you backing the Morison government in this fight to make big tech companies pay for news?

Kevin Rudd
No, I don’t agree with the current legislative formula, which the Morrison government, I think has developed largely in collaboration with the Murdoch media monopoly, to deal with what is, however, a continuing challenge to diversity in this country, which is also the monopoly powers of the new digital platforms. Right now we’ve got a conflict between two major sets of media monopolies one traditional one, that’s called the Murdoch media monopoly, and the emerging media monopolies, dominated by the digital platforms, Facebook in particular. So that’s one of the reasons why we’ve called for a royal commission because this is a highly complex matter. Instead, what the Morrison government has done in effect is side with one monopoly against the other. I don’t think that is good for the future of democracy in this country.

Steve Cannane
Okay. You just said that this legislation was developed in collaboration with the Murdoch media. What’s your evidence of that? Wasn’t it designed in collaboration with the ACCC?

Kevin Rudd
Well the ACCC on the question, media diversity in this country has its own chequered record. Remember, it’s a competition watchdog, it is not designed to be a media regulator. I simply make one point, the ACCC approved Murdoch’s takeover of Australian provincial newspapers in 2016-17. The result? Murdoch on the cover of COVID darkness shut down 126 regional local newspapers right across the country last year. So frankly, I don’t trust the ACCC in terms of the model to produces, either on, as it were, the diversity of opinion in traditional print media, or in the formula that’s recommended for the future either. This is more complex than simply, as it were, using the powers of the Parliament to side with one traditional media monopoly against a new and emerging monopoly. Australia deserves better than this.

Steve Cannane
So you must be disappointed then that your party the Labor Party has voted for it to pass through the House of Representatives.

Kevin Rudd
Let’s see what happens in the Senate. I understand the debates associated with this are highly complex, but you asked me a bald-faced question, which was, Do I support Morrison’s approach? And my answer is no.

Steve Cannane
And so, therefore, surely, you’re disappointed that your party is passing is through the house of reps?

Kevin Rudd
Our party is not in government. At the moment, this government has initiated this legislation, it is sought Rod Sims’ advice in putting together the digital media bargaining code. I do not diminish the significance of the potential abuse of monopoly powers by the big digital platforms. It’s one of the reasons why in the terms of reference as suggested for the royal commission that I have put forward and which has now been signed as a petition by more than half a million Australians, we ask the Royal Commission to examine both the traditional media monopoly in Murdoch’s hands, plus the emerging monopolies. Because monopoly as a matter of principle is bad for an economy. It’s bad for politics, and it’s bad for media diversity.

Steve Cannane
So talking of monopolies. Facebook, do you classify the actions of Facebook in the last 24 hours as a form of bullying, in the same way that you’ve labelled the Murdoch media bullies?

Kevin Rudd
Absolutely. I think both these actions by bullying enterprises, whether they are on the new digital platforms or in the traditional media platforms are unacceptable. Let’s be clear about the fact when we look, however, the coverage of this today, look at The Daily Telegraph five pages of coverage today on Facebook’s actions yesterday, two lines of which actually deal with Facebook’s response to the position being put by News Corp. And so what you have classically today, in the coverage provided by The Daily Telegraph, is them, that is News Corp, merging news with opinion in the five pages of its newspaper to advance that media monopoly’s commercial and political interests in this country. That goes to the heart of the problem that I seek to explore through my own submission to the senate inquiry, which is one of the grave dangers in the abuse of the current media monopoly by Murdoch, is this fusing of editorial opinion with what’s supposed to be balanced news coverage, this has become one and the same thing in the Murdoch universe. And we see it writ large and the first five pages The Telegraph today,

Steve Cannane
It’s 20 to eight on RN Breakfast. We’re talking to former prime minister Kevin Rudd, we just heard the treasurer, Josh Frydenberg on AM he saying the media code has been successful so far. That money has been raised from Google, even though they haven’t got it from Facebook. But that money raised from Google will be invested back into the public interest journalism, including, for example, with the Nine Media Group, $30 million a year for them each year, over the next five years. Isn’t that a sign it’s working?

Kevin Rudd
Well, here’s a little challenge for Josh, the treasurer. What about the future of the Australian Associated Press, which the Nine media and Murdoch have effectively done everything they can to shut down? This is a source of Independent News around the country, which has existed since the 1930s, where they’ve just sought to undermine the funding model for AAP to continue and instead substituted in the case of News with its own news agency or wire service around the country. So my challenge to Frydenberg is what are you going to do about the future of AAP? I think, many, many Australians, particularly those in a very limited number of surviving local newspapers around the country, including the national broadcaster, we’d be all ears to hear the answer to that.

Steve Cannane
Okay. Well, let’s talk about this media diversity issue that’s before the Senate today. It’s looking into, amongst other things, the Murdoch media’s dominance in Australia. Do you think that money that’s meant to be raised from this new media bargaining code from Google and potentially Facebook, if they play ball. Could it help enhance media diversity?

Kevin Rudd
The question is, how do you enhance public, as it were, journalism in the broadest and traditional sense of the term. And that is independent news reporting, investigative reporting by multiple news organizations over time, for which there may not be sufficient funding base at present, given the pressures on the industry. That I think is the policy objective here. But when I see a large slab of cash being delivered off the back of Frydenberg reforms in a very Murdoch friendly package. A bucket of cash now being delivered out of Google, for example, to Murdoch. Murdoch’s approach to, as it were, public-interest journalism is zero. Murdoch’s approach to public-interest journalism is to prosecute, you know, the viciously biased form of reporting that he engages in and has done so for at least the last decade. For your listeners, it’s just important to understand this, 70% of the print readership of this country is currently owned by Murdoch, in my state of Queensland 100%, virtually the print readership is controlled by Murdoch. Sky News is now beginning to dominate the online space. This is unhealthy for our democracy.

Steve Cannane
All right, you’re criticizing Josh Frydenberg’s model. What model would you be pursuing if you were a Prime Minister?

Kevin Rudd
Why I have called for a royal commission is that these are massively complex matters. Where both monopolies, the current traditional monopoly held by Murdoch, which has been used in the last 19 federal and state elections to campaign viciously in support of one side of politics and viciously against the other. To deal with that simultaneously with all the issues which arise from the emerging monopolies of both Google and Facebook. What instead you have with the Morrison response, has been to side with one monopoly against the other. And frankly, I don’t think that provides us with any solution for the future. It compounds the problem.

Kevin Rudd
Okay, I want to move on to another very important issue. There’s been awful news this week of the alleged rape of a former Liberal staffer, Brittany Higgins in Parliament House. When you were Prime Minister, did you have processes in place that if so that if something as serious as this occurred, that you would have heard about it?

Kevin Rudd
In my period, as prime minister, I certainly don’t recall any report to me of an act of sexual violence against any government staffer or associated with any government minister that I can recall, we’re talking about events of more than 10 years ago.

Steve Cannane
But I’m talking about the processes in place.

Kevin Rudd
I’m coming to that, my friend. So that’s the first point because it relates to the second, which is the processes that I would see would be normally in place is that immediately if that’s such an event occurred in the government, which I led, then the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff, as the chief staffer of the entire operation would have been mandatorily advised.

Steve Cannane
So what do you think it says about the processes in place in the current government, that Prime Minister Scott Morrison wasn’t told about these allegations.

Kevin Rudd
Well, I was in question time yesterday for the first time in a year or so and listening to the series of the question posed by Anthony Albanese and by Tanya Plibersek, to the Prime Minister on this. I’ve got to say I found the Prime Minister’s response is less than persuasive. For me, it’s a bit like what Malcolm Turnbull has said earlier, it doesn’t ring true, then when you have a case of such gravity, involving this young woman, who is alleging rape in a ministerial office, that this would not have immediately been informed, or provided as a report to the Prime Minister’s chief of staff.

Steve Cannane
So just finally, we’ve heard complaints about the culture in Parliament House for years now. How does it need to change?

Kevin Rudd
There has been an important submission put together by a number of staffers and former staffers which I’ve been copied, which goes to the particular needs of young women in the building. What we need, frankly, is not just a code of conduct, but a new culture in the Parliament House building, which takes the side of young women who, unfortunately, it seems to have been the subject of predatory behaviour. That I think would go a long way towards turning the corner on this. What apparently goes down in Parliament House today would not be acceptable in any other professional workforce or workplace in the country today. It seems to have got to a stage over the last decade whereby the culture in Parliament House has seen itself as a culture apart. I think that is unacceptable. Young women in particular who occupy a number of staffing positions right across the building for all political parties, frankly, need to be properly respected. And in terms of codes of conduct and the culture of the building. properly protected as well.

Steve Cannane
Kevin Rudd will have to leave it there. Thanks very much for joining us this morning.

Kevin Rudd
Good to be with you.