Former Liberal leader Dr John Hewson has joined calls for a formal investigation into media ownership and bias in Australia.
But he stopped short of endorsing former prime minister Kevin Rudd’s calls for a royal commission, instead saying an independent or judicial inquiry would be preferable.
“I think a broad-based review – I’m not sure it has to be a royal commission – into media ownership and influence is certainly a good idea,” Dr Hewson told The New Daily.
“A full independent inquiry is worth considering.”
Thank you Australians for supporting #MurdochRoyalCommission! And thank you all for persevering despite the Parliament House technology failures. They’ve said their system hasn’t been able to cope with the sheer volume of the public response.
— Kevin Rudd (@MrKRudd) October 12, 2020
As of Tuesday morning, 166905 people had backed Mr Rudd’s call for a royal commission into News Corp, with the Parliament House website unable to cope with a 500 per cent jump in traffic caused by his petition.
Mr Rudd claimed News Corp – which owns Sky News, the Daily Telegraph, Herald Sun, Courier Mail, The Advertiser and The Australian newspapers, and multiple radio stations – was a “cancer on democracy”.
Dr Hewson, who led the Liberal Party from 1990 to 1994, said he was concerned about the concentration of media ownership in Australia and “apologist” coverage of his own party.
“I’ve been very critical of the Murdoch media on climate. They’re massive apologists for the Australian government. They keep excusing Trump. It’s bizarre,” he said.
“But they’re not the only ones. Other networks and structures have influence … there are anomalies and favoured treatments in the way media ownership has been structured.”
Dr Hewson said news companies should be made accountable for their decisions, coverage and bias.
But he said a judicial or independent inquiry would be better placed to conduct a probe than a royal commission.
“It’s not just the political aspect, it influences the way people think,” he said.
“Media is great on calling for public accountability, for everyone but themselves. It’s a game you should play, but you can’t live in a glass house and only throw stones from one side.”
Dr Hewson added that any inquiry into the news ecosystem should also take into account social media.
“There’s a lot of people who don’t read Murdoch, who don’t listen to 2GB. A lot of young people don’t take any traditional media at all,” he said.
“If you want an inquiry, you have to go widely. Check out Facebook and social media, that’s worth thinking about. With the regulatory structures being put in, it’s probably worth having a broad-based, wider consideration.”
Dr Hewson admitted he had spent time with media moguls like Rupert Murdoch and former Nine boss Kerry Packer, but claimed he “didn’t do it for influence”.
“I know I’m a dumb politician,” he joked, “but I don’t try to do deals or buy influence.”
Labor unlikely to back royal commission call
The New Daily understands Labor is unlikely to take up the royal commission proposal formally in Parliament.
Several Labor sources, who would not speak on the record, said although some MPs supported an investigation into the issues raised by Mr Rudd, they did not want to publicly pick a fight with media organisations.
However, some Labor MPs are agitating behind the scenes for the party to take a stronger position on resisting News Corp’s dominance in a concentrated media market.
Member for Chifley Ed Husic recently claimed in an interview on Sky News that News Corp was “anti-regulation”.
Mr Husic claimed at the time the company had unduly influenced the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC)’s News Media Bargaining Code, which would compel Google and Facebook to pay news companies.
“I’m very concerned this is shaping up to be a News Corp bailout rather than a genuine attempt to level the playing field,” he said in the Sky interview.
“Now they’re trying to get the ACCC and the federal government, a compliant Coalition, to act on their behalf.”
In an interview with ABC News on Monday, Mr Rudd claimed politicians and journalists “fear the Murdoch empire”, hinting that he didn’t expect many in public life to support his call.
It appears his analysis was correct.
Despite the huge number of signatures, Mr Rudd has not received the public backing of his former colleagues.
Labor leader Anthony Albanese politely rebuffed a question about whether his party would back the proposed royal commission.
“I haven’t called for one. We’ll call for our own royal commissions at particular times. We called for a royal commission into aged care,” Mr Albanese said on Sunday.
“Kevin is doing that as a private citizen, a former prime minister. He’s entitled to put his views. I get to announce Labor Party policy.”
Shadow assistant treasurer Stephen Jones also refused to commit to backing Mr Rudd’s call.
“I always welcome my conversation with Kevin, and I welcome the fact that he is passionate about having a diverse media landscape here in Australia,” he said on Monday.