Faustian Pact: no way back from public relations for News and Nine

by | Dec 31, 2020 | Business

Old media caps off annus horribilis 2020 with its traditional horrible week. Michael West, standing in for Michael Tanner, looks at the fall of Fairfax, PR masquerading as journalism, who guards the Guardian, Seven News’ calls for war with China and how Scott Morrison’s media team has the game sown up.

Independent. Always.

Ahem …

How about Independent. Sometimes.

As annus horribilis 2020 shudders to its Covid-ridden close, the once venerable Australian media properties, the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, have spruced up their advertising.

We refer not to their advertising for the Liberal Party, or even the heavy editorial influence of their beloved corporate sponsors, but rather the advertising of their own unseemly decline.

The shining example of the week was this Op-ed piece penned by a Liberal Party PR person and lobbyist Parnell Palme McGuinness.

Your humble essayist was once, long ago, a cadet at Fairfax – now Nine Entertainment. Reading this slavering panegyric to Gladys Berejiklian, which kicked off with a gratuitous swipe at Jacinda Adern, approximated the feeling one gets when scraping one’s fingernails across a blackboard.

It wasn’t just the tacky story. More the creepy incursion of political PR people into what purports to be independent journalism.

Since when is it de rigueur for a media organisation to run propaganda clickbait by Liberal lobbyists who benefit from limited-tender contracts from the Liberal Government? Answer: since Fairfax (now Nine newspapers) installed Liberal editorial management.

To be fair, the decline has been afoot for more than a decade – well before the Nine Entertainment takeover. And many fine journalists remain there – albeit cowed and interfered with – and feeble management and the global decline of a business model are largely to blame. Still …

Two days later, The Age sallied forth with a piece by a sociology professor who writes for The Australian and Quadrant claiming Dan Andrews was “heading the most incompetent Australian administration in living memory”.

Putting Betoota Advocate to the sword

This bloke must have a very short living memory. Incompetence is endemic to government and there are plenty worse than Dan Andrews.

Mainstream media train wreck

If the basic task of a media organisation is to hold both sides of politics to account, particularly the side in government, most of the mainstream media in this country has failed miserably.

Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp gave it up long ago. The Australian, the state tabloids and Sky News are little more than agitprop – their daily daggy a capellas to government merely the thing of a propaganda machine to further the power and financial interests of a US billionaire.

And although still insisting forlornly it is independent, still touting the “Independent. Always.” slogan on its mastheads, replete with emphatic full stops, Fairfax has now joined the choir; the shrill descants of the News Corp sopranos ringing above the melodic Fairfax bass, all perfectly complemented by the altos of talk-back radio and the reliable tenors of commercial TV – together as one – singing the praises of the most corrupt government in Australian history.

Independent. Always.? What a clear breach this is of Trade Practices law; truth in advertising, if anybody could be bothered to prosecute the case.

Forced molting

The ACCC recently fined an egg producer $300,000, finding it had falsely labelled eggs as free range. “The Federal Court agreed with the ACCC, finding as a matter of fact not all chickens were free to roam.”

Are News chairman Rupert Murdoch and Nine chairman Peter Costello’s chickens free to roam? Not on your nelly. They are well and truly caged, their raison d’etre is to give birth to government propaganda and, in so doing, to attract financial favours from the gamekeepers of the Morrison poultry farm.

And they do it with precision. Cluck, cluck.

Feeding the Chooks: Scott Morrison’s marketing triumph over mainstream media

So it is that the ACCC is busy kowtowing to the Government, fruitlessly compelling Google and Facebook to make “content” payments to News and Nine (when the digital giants actually provide free advertising already, drawing eyeballs to the paywalls of The Australian and the Sydney Morning Herald so consumers can subscribe to read the propaganda. And OK, to be fair, some journalism too, nicely arranged to suit the broader corporate and political agendas.

So it is that the chooks cluck and the favours are dispensed: licence free relief, reprieve from network transmission costs, government intervention against Google and Facebook, regulatory inertia, bullying the ABC into submission and self-censorship, untendered and unexplained cash payments to Foxtel, the large rural newspaper subsidy schemes followed by the closure and sale of same newspapers, laws changed to allow Nine to take out Fairfax and further concentrate the shallow pool that is Australian media.

By changing the law to allow Nine to take over Fairfax, former Minister for Communications Mitch Fifield did a big favour for his government, as well as News, Nine and Fairfax.

Now “Mitchell Peter Fifield is the Permanent Representative of Australia to the United Nations”. Thanks Mitch, job well done – for the Coalition, which relies on an obsequious and beaten Fourth Estate to stay in power.

It is a symbiotic relationship to be sure; a marriage counsellor would call it co-dependent. So tightly in the clutches of Murdoch is Mitch’s successor, Paul Fletcher, that he and his office can’t, or wont’, answer questions about where Rupert Murdoch has taken control of Foxtel.

Neither can his regulator ACMA, the Australian Communications and Media Authority. Undaunted, ACMA pinged Four Corners earlier this month for its investigation into the dodgy Murray Darling Basin Authority because government refused to be interviewed – and because they refused to be interviewed, the show was not balanced, according to ACMA.

Elsewhere, Fletcher was busy harassing anybody at ABC who would listen, even browbeating chairman Ita Buttrose over the Four Corners episode, which exposed a couple of ministers for engaging in the act of extra-marital canoodling.

All this punctilious intervention and regulatory fussing over nothing while Rupert, the world’s dominant media mogul, took his government grants and scurried off to Delaware with Foxtel. To the sound of crickets from Fletcher and ACMA.

Where will it all go this year? What will the Government do to protect its machinery of public relations? If the trend is any indication, mainstream media will get even closer to governments and their corporate sponsors. It will get worse.

The formula is simple: you tickle my feathers, I’ll tickle yours.

Who guards the Guardian?

The atrophy in editorial standards at Nine is not new. It was well under way 10 years ago, and made worse by strategic incompetence.

As they careened – like drunks at the country dance – from left to lefter then right, left again, then further right, Fairfax management handed an entire market to the Guardian. On a platter.

Guardian Australia, which started with little more than the backing of a $2 billion UK trust and a local billionaire, had a simple formula: do journalism.

So it poached a few top journos from Fairfax and, with a fraction of the staff, denuded the bumbling Fairfax of its large, wealthy and intelligent customer base, rusted-on over a century.

Guardian Australia

The Guardian’s Unessential Poll

Doing journalism was an old-fashioned formula that seemed to take Fairfax by surprise. As its new, even more hopeless and sycophantic, editorial leadership under Nine tripped over themselves firing journalists such as Michael Pascoe, Peter Martin and yours truly and replacing them with pro-business toadies from News Corp, devising new ways to kowtow to governments and corporations, the biggest winner has been The Guardian.

How could Fairfax management have possibly thought it was a good idea to jerk back to the right ideologically, leave its progressive readership to be devoured by the Guardian, and compete against the right-wing might of News Corp? There is only one logical explanation, and we are merely surmising here (incompetence and ideology are contenders), and that is they did it to solicit the attentions of the conservative government and the advertising revenues from its large corporate donors, sponsors and – as the Financial Review literally, we kid you not, calls it … “Team Australia”.

In any case, the Guardian had its hiccup this week on social media. It was nothing in the league of Seven News, whose 6pm bulletin warned we were going to be attacked by China. Not only did they cite Jim Molan as an “expert source” but also some guy from ASPI; that’s the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, an outfit funded by US weapons manufacturers, and the US and Australian governments. (It would be good to see the gun-shy ABC disclose ASPI’s massive conflicts of interest, too, given that it quotes ASPI so often.)

“Some experts” = Jim Molan

But to the Guardian and its maturing. Success has its own pitfalls and the rise of Guardian Australia has brought much praise and, lately, some condemnation from the left. It boiled over on Twitter this week when political correspondent Katharine Murphy ran a simple news item quoting in-house polling.

“But for mine, the real miracle happened in 2020, during one of the most difficult years that many of us have experienced. That miracle was the return of trust to Australia’s political system,” wrote Murphy of the latest Essential poll. It was a straight story, a boring report about a quintessentially unessential poll that presumably reported the findings in good faith.

Yet she was hammered on Twitter. It may well be the case that there was some polling uptick in trust compared with some previously nebulous metric dreamed up by a pollster. The fact is, however, that government has never been so corrupt in Australia, corrupted by corporate money. And the level of accountability of our elected representatives has never been so low.

Who did they poll? The PM’s communications team?

The pandemic has accelerated inequality and corporate domination, the federal government has accelerated its control of the media, and Guardian Australia, now making profits, is very much in the mainstream, very much on Scott Morrison’s “drops” list – the exclusive Canberra Bubble Club of mainstream media reporters who are briefed in advance on government announcements … before all the facts, with little time to write, think or call. 

Or even figure out if the exclusive announcement they are splashing across Page One has already been announced before. True story! Repackaging was a thing in 2020.

This is tricky turf now for the Guardian.

Do they tell the PM’s office, no, please don’t give us the scoop; we prefer to report it independently the next day – fully apprised of the detail of the latest policy? Or do they tread the ethical tightrope? Behind the scenes there are personal and business factors: assorted political relationships, political and corporate advertising to consider, perhaps an application for charitable status that has to navigate a Liberal-led ACNC charities commission.

What then does 2021 hold for media? Younger Australians have deserted mainstream media in droves. Commercial TV, newspapers, MSM websites; they simply don’t trust them. It’s mutual.

Research Report: mainstream media either ignores young Australians or castigates them

For its part, the mainstream operators have clearly picked sides; they have picked the side of governments and corporate advertisers, and in so doing, cannot improve the public interest value or the authority of their products. This is immensely frustrating for the real journalists among them, and although the management agendas will continue to be interspersed with bona fide stories by reporters doing the right thing, the cultural malaise cannot be reversed.

The Faustian Pact has been struck. There is no turning back. Credibility can only ebb further as they rely on fewer larger advertisers to survive. The government will continue to come up with schemes to subsidise friendly media such as the attack on the digital platforms. The bright news is that, where there is demand, there will be supply. There is demand for the truth, demand for courageous and uncontaminated journalism, and that will be supplied as new independent sources of media flourish.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Michael West

Michael West

Michael West established michaelwest.com.au to focus on journalism of high public interest, particularly the rising power of corporations over democracy. Formerly a journalist and editor at Fairfax newspapers and a columnist at News Corp, West was appointed Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of Sydney’s School of Social and Political Sciences. You can follow Michael on Twitter @MichaelWestBiz.

12 Comments

  1. Avatar

    A democracy cannot survive without a mechanism for shining a light in the dark corners, and identifying the roaches as they scurry away to hide behind whatever artifice they have constructed in order to avoid scrutiny.
    Meanwhile, the ‘ordinary Australians’ as we are regularly called by those currying favour around election time, are milked to pay for the piper, who already has the playlist given to him.
    Keep on shining the light Michael!!

  2. Avatar

    thanks for being the voice in the wilderness of sold-out Australian politics and money-grubbing media

    one positive note – I’m glad I haven’t heard of my old school football coach – Alan Jones – lately – silence is golden !

  3. Avatar

    Nine Entertainment’s podcast, Please Explain, isn’t worth listening to anymore, either. It isn’t just the newspapers or the television stations. The mind boggles at a country that permitted a political party to buy up such a large chunk of media for propaganda purposes, uncontested.

  4. Avatar

    What are we doing? Come on guys and girls; we need to drop our balls, get on the rag and sink the teeth in! Ankles, toes, knees, anywhere you can. Need more barking and biting.
    (Fantastic barking, as always, from you Mr West.)

  5. Avatar

    This could be “Off topic”, but as a daily reader of the print version of what used to be “The Age”, I think that it needs a change of name. I now call it “The Harvey Norman””, as the great bulk of thed paper is devoted to Harvey Norman (and Domayne) advertisements. I read those ads, as they’re becoming more interesting than the associated few pages of news. I’m wondering if Harvey Norman and Domayne are now what is keeping this once fine newspaper alive, as readers drop off.

  6. Avatar

    Much as it praises itself, I just don’t buy that sanctimonious and censorious Guardian is a huge improvement on the rest of the MSM. In another life, Kath Murphy could have been a Mother Superior.

    Sure, Guardian can be very good on certain topics. Environment (strictly excludes population), culture, politics, sport. But, for “non received” or indie views, I prefer MWM, MacroBusiness, P&I, OLO, IA, even Crikey.

    • Avatar

      Very relevant to political PR landscape and how Oz outlets are gamed and/or willingly promote LNP/IPA agit prop…

      I would agree to an extent on The Guardian but that is maybe a sympton of moving into the centre territory that Fairfax has departed from? Murphy yes, like all journalists, too much respect and/or clubbiness with PM, MPs etc. and they do very little about unions and employees in different sectors?

      Other outlets fine plus ABC RN and 3RRR (does some good politics) but…. OLO, like IPA/CIS, is part of Koch’s Atlas Network, though they do not hide their editorial line and sentiments, especially amongst below the line comments e.g. climate science denial… blame immigrants for any environmental degradation…..

      However, MacroBusiness is a different beast that, allegedly, emerged ten or so years ago via some Liberal Party members in Mosman who worked for a US bank, while the blog is based in Melbourne, presents as independent ‘right on centre’ and radical (even suggestive of the left, but seems to promote national socialism while Labor and Greens bad, therefore I guess LNP = good, especially with socialist policies for corporate sector?), with lots of real estate and economic news/analysis cut and pasted from other sources for a mostly middle class educated white guy audience of IT, engineer, trades and business types.

      Started off neutral, making an audience, then slowly lurched off to the right (or worse), while pretending not to, and dragging many readers along, although many were there already… Like a Brit immigrant friend ‘virtually signalling’ with membership of the Greens, obsessed about ‘population growth’ and the ‘great replacement theory’, blinded by his antipathy towards non white immigrants, complaining of ‘multiculturalism’ had subscribed to MB but complained that it was ‘conservative’, confusing?

      One of the key writers is Leith van Onselen (cousin of more famous Peter at C10) who regularly uses ‘research’ from Bob Birrell (‘Australia’s best demographer’ according to Sustainable Population Australia’s patron Bob Carr) and has indulged in regular -ve presentation of immigrants and/or population growth via data e.g. ‘population Ponzi’. Now, much of the past year similar regarding China from MB’s David Llewellyn Smith (turns up on ABC tv etc.); fits the LNP media talkings points and PR with much pejorative language directed at all ‘others’ from commenters especially? Meanwhile almost nothing about environmental regulation on emissions etc. while attacking superannuation, demographic experts, business and/or economics journalists of the centre right through left?

      Below the line comments are an amalgam of similar sentiments, underlaid with some latent white male angst. Examples of links dropped include StormFront (MB had to be asked to rmeove links), Zero Hedge (Trump good Obama bad/Putin good Merkel/EU bad), Breitbart (Steve Bannon’s influence), Sky After Dark, Rebel Media (Southern lady now on SAD), SpikedOnline (another Koch astro turfing creation by former British Revolutionary Communist Party inc Brendan O’Neill, astro turfing promoting Trump, Brexit and science denial?), Jordan Peterson et al.; coincidentally all part of the US led global alt right eco-system.

      There are frequent complaints from commenters that they cannot use derogatory terms re. immigrants, Moslems etc. anymore (due to filters quite rightly being implemented). Further, many data literate commenters who challenge the editorial, but especially sub-optimal data presentation on immigration/population etc., are blocked e.g. like all Oz media misrepresenting NOM data via graphs missing 2006 UNPD formula change spiking population….statistics 101, very basic error of which MB has been reminded of but continues…. across all media….

      However, some of the analysis, is actually quite good outside of immigration, population, China and superannuation e.g. healthy scepticism towards FIRE, especially the real estate ‘market’ (not) and data provided by the same sector, but still reliant upon CoreLogic, REIV etc. and SQM Research.

  7. Avatar

    Michael who are your funders ? What directions do they give to you ?

    • Avatar

      Hi John. I’m one. I think I told Michael once to give em hell. Thanks!

  8. Avatar

    Thank you Michael. I could not believe Katherines article. Sometimes she’s on another planet. It scares me as I trusted The G. Thanks for your excellent journalism.

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