Labor swaps media barons

Issue 

Labor swaps media barons

What lies behind Prime Minister Keating's recent outburst against Labor's former favourite media magnate, Kerry Packer? In describing the rejected Optus-Packer plan for a regional pay TV duopoly (with Murdoch-Telecom) as the biggest "scam" since former NSW chief magistrate Murray Farquahar's plan to relieve the Philippine National Bank of its gold reserves, Keating put his minders into a blind funk. Was libelling Australia's richest man wise political behaviour?

In the 1980s Packer's Consolidated Press was regarded as a fully paid up branch of the NSW ALP. According to former NSW ALP official Malcolm McGregor, "prominent Labor identities soaked up Packer's largesse, especially cosy sojourns to the Australian Consolidated Press ski lodge in the Snowy Mountains ... the prevailing view was that it would be a fine thing indeed if 'KP' secured control of the Fairfax newspapers. After all, Packer was a 'mate' and was thought to be the type of hands-on proprietor who would silence troublesome critics, such as Brian Toohey, Wendy Bacon and Colleen Ryan."

Now, however, yesteryear's expendable and troublesome Fairfax empire has become a pearl in the country's "media diversity" (i.e., oligopoly) and Packer's demands for an easing of the cross-media ownership rules to allow him to take on majority shareholder Conrad Black are (for the time being) scorned.

Quite a contrast from 1987, when the very same rules, devised by Keating, allowed Packer to sell the entire Nine Network to Alan Bond for $1 billion and later buy it back for $220 million!

But while Keating may be giving a good impression of a frenzied late Roman emperor, he's not going mad. Labor hasn't jilted its friendliest media mogul without preparing another marriage beforehand. And the new bride is Rupert Murdoch's News Ltd.

The judgment of Keating and communications minister Michael Lee is that News Ltd, with its media holdings in the UK and the US and its plans to expand satellite and other media coverage into Asian markets, is the preferred model for an Australian multinational media outfit. A "Murdoch amendment" of the media ownership laws, allowing US citizen Murdoch to increase his stake in Fairfax, is in the wind.

According to this new Keating Doctrine, no longer will media proprietors be assigned protected slices of the domestic market in exchange for granting parties political support. That was the essence of Menzies politics, which produced the two-airline policy and which, if Keating is to be believed, John Howard would revive. In 1995 Keatingspeak, Howard and Packer are names to be mentioned in the same sound-bite.

In the new scenario erstwhile mate "KP" is being cast as the slothful monopolist, ever watchful for a trough into which to poke the snout, the polar opposite of a News Ltd that's mobile, global and unafraid to take on the world's best.

The hypocrisy of it all! Rupert Murdoch is no more a "free competitor" than Packer or any other media magnate. Keating and Co have already favoured News Ltd by:

  • reneging on the agreement to allow Air New Zealand into the Australian domestic market (ostensibly to protect the float price of a privatised Qantas, but really to defend the market share of Ansett, half-owned by News Ltd);

  • allowing Telecom to link up with News Ltd for cable TV on terms where Telecom bears the billion dollar cost of installation while News Ltd gets a guaranteed share of the profits.

And when the Labor government reviews its media ownership rules, it will have the power to tilt the playing field at Fairfax in favour of Black, Murdoch or Packer, or whichever combination of the three will offer greatest political advantage.

Keating may well be scheming to go into the next election as the people's champion of media diversity against the Great Satan Packer, but only those who came down in the last shower will be fooled.

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