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Tuesday, 15 October 2002
Page: 7577

Mr LATHAM (4:09 PM) —I support media diversity—not just diversity in ownership, but, most importantly, diversity in media opinion. The Broadcasting Services Amendment (Media Ownership) Bill 2002 should be opposed for the way in which it would stifle diversity in Australia's media. It would put more power in the hands of the big media holdings and lead to a narrowing of media opinion across the country.

Indeed, this is a bill for the insiders—those who already hold power and influence in the Australian media. What we need is a government that is willing to empower the outsiders, to break down the centres of power in our society and democratise all aspects of our national life—in politics, in public culture, in the economy and in the media. This is the key test for the laws governing Australia's media ownership.

I believe it is possible to identify two distinctive political cultures in this country. The powerful centre of our society, concentrated in the international heart of the major cities, talks a different language from suburban communities; in lifestyle and political values, they are poles apart. At the social centre, people tend to take a tourist's view of the world. They travel extensively; they eat out; they buy in domestic help. This abstract lifestyle has produced an abstract style of politics and media commentary. Symbolic and ideological campaigns are given top priority. In the suburbs, by contrast, the value set is more pragmatic. People lack the power and resources to distance themselves from neighbourhood problems. This has given them a resident's view of society. Questions of social responsibility and service delivery are all important. What matters is what works.

Unfortunately, the Australian media are dominated by insiders, and this applies to both the Left and the Right of politics—the old and the new establishments. Let me give one example. Australia's best known, and perhaps longest standing, left-wing newspaper columnist is Phillip Adams. One of Australia's most prominent right-wing columnists is Piers Akerman. At face value, one might regard them as poles apart. But in fact they are soul brothers. They are both political insiders living in the inner city enclave of Paddington. As such, they have very little experience with suburban life and suburban values. They both practise an abstract and symbolic style of journalism; they are both out of touch.

Whether it is the Left or the Right in Australian media opinion, it is an insider's job. We do not have people who live and write from the great suburbs of this nation. We have a lack of media diversity. We have a lack of diverse media opinion. And this bill would make it much worse. It is bad enough as it is at the moment. This bill would make the problem even worse. We do have a lack of diversity in the Australian media, and it applies to most media outlets. We have a paucity of outsiders. The suburbs are badly underrepresented, both in the journalistic profession and among those who call themselves opinion leaders in the newspaper columns.

I can refer to my own experience. During my time on the backbench, I wrote a newspaper column for the Daily Telegraph between 1998 and 2001. That newspaper, to their credit, knew that they were hopelessly underrepresented by columnists and journalists from Western Sydney. To their credit, they tried to do something about this embarrassment. They were always promising to do something about it but they were never able to achieve a higher level of representation from Western Sydney.

When I came on board in 1998, they had Miranda Devine. She reckons she knows something about Western Sydney, but she is from the lower North Shore. They had Piers Akerman, who lives in Paddington and has a holiday house in Pittwater, a long way from the western suburbs that he purports to write for. And they had Michael Duffy from the eastern suburbs. Then there was me. I was from Campbelltown. I was the only Tele columnist who lived west of Annandale. With my departure, I must sadly report, they do not have anyone who lives west of Annandale writing for that paper and its Western Sydney audience. It is a paper of insiders trying to appeal to outsiders. That is one of the reasons why in recent times they have been struggling with their circulation.

This problem of narrow media opinion is reflected in news reporting and priorities. I recall the situation a few months ago when the Vinson report on school education threatened to close down selective high schools in Western Sydney, the very best of our educational institutions. Unhappily, it was seen by the Daily Telegraph as a non-issue. What did they put on their front page the day after this threatening Vinson report? The front page of the Telegraph was dominated by the theft of Hector the parrot. Of course, you need to ask where Hector came from. Was Hector a parrot from Blacktown, Liverpool, Bankstown or Fairfield?

Mr LATHAM —No. There were three or four pages of coverage about Hector. Hector was from Ryde on the lower North Shore. Hector came from the Prime Minister's electorate. Sadly enough, in the narrowness of media opinion in this country, even the parrots are insiders. Even the parrots are insiders in the extensive coverage in the Daily Telegraph.

There is a lack of diversity in media opinion. I know my colleague opposite, the member for Sturt, would have reservations about this legislation. I think he was just indicating some to the House by way of interjection, and I am sure that, along with other small `l' liberals, he would be opposing this bill in his heart, but he might not be able to bring himself to oppose it in a vote in the House. So we do have a problem, and the member for Sturt knows the problem full well. We have the same insiders and opinions that are recycled—

Mr Pyne —Mr Deputy Speaker, I raise a point of order. The member for Werriwa should get a wig and a gown if he is going to start verballing other members of the chamber in this way.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. I.R. Causley)—Order! There is no point of order.

Mr LATHAM —As you know, Mr Deputy Speaker, members who break the standing orders and interject do so at their own peril. I thought that is what he said, but if not I stand corrected. But we still have this problem in the Australian media: the same insiders, the same opinions recycled week after week. This problem is particularly acute on the conservative side. The same opinions are repeated endlessly.

I would suggest to the House that the best way to understand this phenomenon is to read a revealing new book by David Brock called Blinded by the Right. It lifts the lid on the corrupted networks and fraud of the neoconservative project in the United States media. The similarities with Australian columnists such as Piers Akerman are quite stunning. David Brock was one of the heavy hitters of the American media during the Clinton period. He led the attack on Anita Hill, he broke the Troopergate story and he discovered the notorious Paula Jones. He was a darling of the Republican Right. But behind the scenes the story was quite different. Over time, Brock came to see the futility and fraud of neoconservative journalism. This is the story he tells in Blinded by the Right. As a young man he got into politics and journalism as an act of rebellion against his family. He writes about this, and I quote extensively:

I had begun my career by suppressing my liberal social values to get ahead in the conservative movement; I then abandoned the conservative traditions of restraint and civility for Gingrich ends-justify-the-means radicalism. As a closeted gay man, I did the work of the right-wing lawyers of the Federalist Society, the Christian Coalition, and the worst bigots from Arkansas—racist, homophobic Clinton-haters. Through it all—the destructive partnership, the careerism, the personal aggrandisement—in my mind I managed to rationalise each of my actions.

He then goes on to write:

All the attacks, the hateful rhetoric, the dark alliances and strange conspiracies ... it all led right here: I lost my soul.

That is the story of David Brock in the United States, and the comparisons with Piers Akerman are indeed quite remarkable. Paddington Piers comes from a traditional left wing family with a deep concern for refugees and multiculturalism. His brother Kim is one of Australia's leading experts in Aboriginal culture, history and social justice. As a young man, Piers Akerman was a Maoist who signed up to the Association for International Cooperation and Disarmament and denounced the Vietnam War as `one of the most obscene crimes of the 20th century'. Today, of course, he is the ultimate chicken-hawk: someone who did not want to go to war himself but now urges war for young Australians in Iraq.

Akerman then turned on his family, his own flesh and blood, to seek the embrace and encouragement of the other side of politics. He wanted to prove himself by winning the support of those who are least likely to approve of someone called Akerman. In effect, however, this meant leading a double life. In his book, David Brock writes of the double standards of neoconservative journalists, preaching morality and family values in public yet leading a life of decadence and hypocrisy in private. So too with Akerman. I note the comments of my colleague the member for Wills in October 1997 in this place, when he said:

I too have been aware for some years of reliable reports that Piers Akerman was a cocaine user—and much more recently than the 1970s. The copy kids who worked at News Ltd in Sydney in the mid-1980s could hear him in the toilet at 9 p.m. snorting cocaine while he was working on the Australian and he used to reminisce at the local pub about his drug-hazed days in the US.

This makes an important point; it is a telling point. But I think we can be too harsh; indeed, I would congratulate News Ltd for giving a drug addict a second chance in life. It is not easy. We should all appreciate the lesson that is involved, but I would also urge Mr Akerman to give others the same second chance: to give minorities, the dispossessed, the disadvantaged and the poor in our society the same second chance in life, just as News Ltd have given him a chance to write columns for their newspaper.

The comparisons continue. In his book, David Brock describes neoconservative journalists as `an army of (political) operatives posing as commentators'. It is a very useful quote. That is the problem we have in Australia. It is the narrowness of media opinion; it is the insider's job that would be made much worse by this particular legislation passing through the parliament. In Akerman's case, I am indebted to my colleague the member for Griffith, who has provided some statistics about the narrowness of Akerman's opinion—indeed, the political bias that is involved. I quote from the member for Griffith's article in the DailyTelegraph on 9 September. He states that his office looked at:

... the 150 or so articles—

that Akerman had written—

since the beginning of last year ...

The member for Griffith goes on to state:

The score card goes something like this: on 88 occasions, you've directly attacked Labor for its various crimes against humanity.

On 31 occasions, you've told us what a fine bunch of chaps the Liberals are. And guess how many times you've had something nice to say about Labor?

Just for respectability's sake, I thought maybe you could have risen to the occasion once or twice by saying something positive. But no, the answer is a big, fat zero.

A telling piece of research that confirms the problem; it confirms the problem of the narrowness of media opinion in this country—a problem that would be made worse by this legislation. In fact, Akerman is not a commentator; he is a de facto press secretary for the Howard government. This problem is confirmed in Brock's book, where he talks not only of political bias but the wilful invention of stories to suit political purposes. At page 159, he writes of how he wrote articles that were:

... a mix of circumstantial observation and rumour—and no-one would ever be able to tell which parts of it may have been accurate and which parts were not.

So too with Piers Akerman. When I challenged him recently about one of his journalistic inventions, he responded that it is defensible for comments to be `wrong, even grossly exaggerated, based on prejudice or obstinacy'.

Piers must be really proud of himself today. His column in the Daily Telegraph starts as follows:

October 14, 2002 was Australia's 9/11.

On Sunday, he referred to an Indonesian terrorist organisation called `FI'. Enough said—accuracy and Akerman are obviously foreign worlds. Indeed, it is measure of the man's sickness that his column today uses the tragedy in Bali as an excuse to attack his fellow Australians, to continue his obsession with the ALP and to revive his prejudice against Muslim Australians. Why anyone would want to blame Australians who had absolutely no involvement in the Bali bombing is beyond belief. Akerman indeed is Australia's answer to David Brock. At one level, it is surprising that a prominent and professional media group like News Ltd would maintain such a partisan and incompetent fool but, as I mentioned earlier, their Second-chance Drug Rehabilitation program is to be commended. They are a socially responsible organisation. Other organisations are also quite tolerant. In his book, David Brock exposes the role on the congressional aides and right wing think tanks—

Mr Pyne —Mr Deputy Speaker, I raise a point of order. I am loath to interrupt the member for Werriwa, but I ask you to point out to him that he is supposed to be discussing the media ownership bill, not launching personal and vindictive attacks on particular journalists.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —The member for Werriwa has been tying in his comments to the media ownership bill. He has been keeping his comments very smartly to the bill.

Mr LATHAM —We have a problem of narrowness of media opinion in this country. As the Brock book exposes, in the United States it is fed by congressional aides and right wing think tanks in the United States, confirming what Hillary Clinton described as `a vast right-wing conspiracy'. In Sydney, the Centre for Independent Studies hosts a monthly lunch in Balmain of all places, where it coordinates the neoconservative approach to the culture war, feeding gossip and attack lines to journalists and other commentators. In Akerman's case, most of his material comes directly from the Prime Minister's press secretary, Tony O'Leary. Paddington Piers, for instance, was an integral part of the government's slur campaign against Justice Michael Kirby. He was constantly briefed about the Heffernan bucket-job and the Prime Minister's intentions, until the matter was exposed as a fraud and an embarrassment to the government.

As the Attorney-General would appreciate, none of this is good for the health of our democracy. The media should be impartial rather than partisan. It should commentate on the political process rather than participate in it. It should not be a freak show for neoconservative politics and its pursuit of the culture war. Traditional conservatives understand the point, as I am sure the members opposite would agree. In the United States, Republican strategist Lee Atwater ridiculed hard-core conservatives as `the extra chromosome crowd'. Towards the end of his book, David Brock laments how he had become a dancing bear for the far Right. In Australia, of course, we have this problem of media narrowness and, on the neoconservative side, they have a troupe of dancing bears. There is Akerman, Andrew Bolt and Janet Albrechtsen—Cokey, Nancy and Filthy—dancing the same step to Tony O'Leary's drum. I can understand why News Ltd employs Akerman—it is a socially responsible corporation—but does it really need three dancing bears when one would suffice?

In the last sitting week, I explained to the House how Bolt does not practise journalism but paranoia. Bolt was engaged in an act of journalistic fraud, emailing my office on 29 August with the false claim that he had `a very funny confrontation with Stephen Roach' and that he wanted to write `a very funny little item', even though he intended to do the opposite. It is difficult to understand how News Ltd can continue to employ someone who is regarded, even by his colleagues, as a fraudster. I have an email which further demonstrated this approach. It is an email that Andrew Bolt sent on 30 August to the aforementioned Stephen Roach. He wrote as follows:

Sorry Steve but I forgot the other questions. Did Latham have anything to do with your decision to approach me on Wednesday? Did he urge on you or ask you to go over to me? Can you tell me what connections you have with him?

Recently, Mr Bolt made himself notorious for saying that women should not be in the Australian parliament because they are irrational. How irrational is this? This is not journalism; it is paranoia. It is the work of an irrational and paranoid mind. In his recent comments, Mr Bolt said that we should not have more women in the Australian parliament because women are more likely than men to practise witchcraft. I suggest that what he calls journalism is a lot closer to witchcraft than any of utterances that you might hear from women around country.

In Albrechtsen's case it is even worse. She has a history of inaccurate and malicious journalism, having been found guilty in several defamation cases. In one of her pro-USA columns in February this year, she fabricated words by General Norman Schwarzkopf. Earlier this month, in her desperation to attack the union movement, she failed to disclose her personal financial interest in the collapse of Ansett. Then in a notorious exchange, Mediawatch exposed her attacks on the Muslim community in this country as being based on plagiarism and journalistic fraud. She is David Brock in a dress. Albrechtsen has not even attempted to refute these claims, preferring instead to launch a distinctly uncivil attack on Mediawatch itself. If an academic, a politician or any other public figure had such an appalling record of inaccuracy, fraud and incompetence, they would be sacked—no questions asked, just sacked. Albrechtsen's survival is a very bad reflection on the professional ethics and standards at News Ltd.

So we have these three dancing bears for the neoconservative cause in this country. It is a sign of the narrowness of media opinion. I am very concerned about these developments at News Ltd: not only have they not recruited journalists and columnists from Western Sydney to replace me; they have narrowed their base to the dancing bears and to neoconservative political partisanship on the pages of their newspapers. This bill, of course, would worsen the problem. This is a bill to narrow the ownership of Australian media. As you narrow ownership, inevitably you narrow opinion, you reduce the media in its standards and you reduce its diversity of coverage. You reduce its gene pool: the number of journalists it can call on to produce reporting and opinion for the nation. The bill should be rejected.

As I said at the beginning, we need a government that helps outsiders, a government that empowers people in the great suburbs and towns of this nation, to play a bigger role in the economy, in our society, in the political system and, most importantly, in the media. This is legislation for the insiders. It would give extra power to those who already have influence and a big say in the pages, the screens and the sounds of the Australian media. We do not need legislation for the insiders. We do not need a narrowing of ownership and opinion; we need a very different approach to this bill, which should be comprehensively rejected by the House.