Murdoch's corporate home invasion

Friday, July 20, 2007

Below is an abridged speech given by Lawrence Gibbons, editor of the City Hub, a part of the Alternative Media Group, to a benefit for the South Sydney Herald on July 8.

On April Fools' Day Rupert Murdoch spent $360 million buying up the FPC Courier chain of seven Sydney weekly newspapers with a combined circulation of nearly 400,000. News Corp now reaches 90% of all Australian households with a free newspaper. Call it corporate home invasion.

One of Murdoch's new publications is the Wentworth Courier, the eastern suburbs' real estate bible. When Murdoch bought the WC, he also purchased a whole lot of real estate advertising contracts. Under those contracts, almost every real estate agent in the eastern suburbs has agreed to run 75% of their advertising exclusively in the WC in exchange for an old-fashioned kickback.

Despite the fact that real estate ads are paid for by the homeowner, the money goes into the real estate agent's wallet. With News Corp using such nefarious tactics, is it any wonder that Australia is the most anti-competitive media market in the world?

On July 14 the Bondi View, published by the Alternative Media Group, reported that the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) opened an investigation into News Corp's monopolistic dealings with eastern suburbs real estate agents.

Not that the ACCC can, or will, do much to reign in what is effectively a newspaper duopoly with Murdoch owning the largest slice of the pie and John B Fairfax (JB) effectively owning everything else. No one person has benefitted more from PM Howard's recent changes to media ownership laws than Fairfax, whose forefathers acquired the Sydney Morning Herald in the 19th century.

This year, Fairfax regained control of his family's long lost media empire by merging his own company, Rural Press, with John Fairfax and Sons, becoming the largest single shareholder in the newly-expanded $10 billion publishing powerhouse.

Back in the recession that had to happen, JB's cousin, Warwick, lost control of the family-owned print principality. As part of his buy-out at the time, JB took over a group of regional newspaper assets which he built into Rural Press, Australia's largest group of regional newspaper interests. Under JB's ownership, the Canberra Times went from a quality newspaper into a second-rate small town rag. By applying the same cost cutting formula to every other small town paper, JB killed local regional content throughout the bush.

As the largest shareholder in the now expanded Fairfax Media Group, JB has appointed his own bully-boy bean counters to take over Fairfax's director roles and his hired henchmen are about to cut the news, literally. Early next year, the page size of the Herald and the Age will both shrink by 16%, journalists jobs will be cut, news coverage will be lost and you will know even less.

With two old-fashioned media moguls controlling the majority of daily, community and regional newspapers, this is far and away the least competitive media market in the world.

Twelve years ago, I moved from San Francisco to Sydney to start the City Hub on the basis that there was less competition here than in my home town. Independent newspapers have flourished in San Francisco because interested citizens can find local newspapers in free-standing newspaper racks.

In Sydney, the city council has entered into an exclusive $500,000 distribution contract with Murdoch, allowing News Corp to circulate its entertainment daily mX and its newly-acquired commuter titles 9to5 and City Weekly on public footways to the exclusion of all other publishers.

As part of the arrangement to lease publicly-owned space to News Corp, the City of Sydney Council proposes to ban news racks because such structures apparently add to the city's visual clutter. Council's proposal to ban news racks is under review right now.

The Alternative Media Group has joined forces with the few other independent publishers that remain in Sydney, including the South Sydney Herald to encourage the city council to allow newspaper racks on city footpaths.

Some of Sydney's well-meaning councillors have expressed concerns that news racks are messy, to which I say: free speech can be a messy business at times, but the alternative is unthinkable.

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