Environment and Communications References Committee
Monday 12 April 2021
Media diversity in Australia
TURNBULL, the Hon Malcolm, AC, Private capacity [by video link]
Committee met at 09:02
CHAIR ( Senator Hanson-Young ): I declare open this public hearing of the Senate Environment and Communications References Committee inquiry into media diversity in Australia. I begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land upon which we meet and pay respect to elders past and present. On behalf of the committee, I welcome everybody here today. Today the committee will be conducting its hearing in person and via video conference. This is a public hearing and a transcript of the proceedings is being made. The hearing will also be broadcast via the Australian Parliament House website.
Before the committee starts taking evidence, I remind all witnesses that, in giving evidence to the committee, they are protected by parliamentary privilege. It is unlawful for anyone to threaten or disadvantage a witness on account of evidence being given to a committee, and any such action may be treated by the Senate as contempt. It is also contempt to give false or misleading evidence to a committee. The committee generally prefers evidence to be given in public but, under the Senate's resolutions, witnesses have the right to request to be heard in a private session. If a witness objects to answering a question, the witness should state the ground upon which the objection is taken and the committee will determine whether it insists on an answer, having regard to the ground on which it is claimed. If the committee determines to insist on an answer, a witness may request the answer be given in camera. Such a request may of course be made at any other time.
On behalf of the committee, I would like to thank all those who made submissions and are participating in the hearing. I now welcome the Hon. Malcolm Turnbull AC, the 29th Prime Minister of Australia, appearing via video conference. I understand information on parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses has been provided to you. For the Hansard record, Mr Turnbull, could you please state the capacity in which you appear today?
Mr Turnbull : I'm appearing in my capacity as an Australian citizen speaking about the media and the subjects of your inquiry.
CHAIR: Wonderful. I now invite you to make an opening statement and then we will go to some questions.
Mr Turnbull : Thank you very much. I'm delighted to be appearing before the committee and I want to thank you for the initiative you've shown in holding this inquiry. I've been involved, one way or another, with the media for most of my life. In the mid-seventies I was a young political correspondent in the New South Wales parliamentary press gallery. I worked as a journalist here and in the UK. I've been involved in the business side of the media industry as an executive with Kerry Packer, as a lawyer with him, but have also been involved with a lot of very big media transactions over the years. And, of course, if you're in politics you're involved with the media, as you all know, inherently. So, over my life, I've seen a lot of changes. You've had some evidence about the changes to the media because of the rise of the internet, because of social media, because of what that's done to the advertising base of traditional media outlets, particularly newspapers. I'm very happy to discuss that, but I don't want to delay that in these opening remarks.
What I want to speak to is the way in which one media organisation in Australia, News Corp, belonging to Rupert Murdoch and his family, has profoundly changed in the way it works in our democracy. Media outlets—from time immemorial, really—always sought to achieve a broad audience. When The Sydney Morning Herald was founded, around 1840, it had on its front page the lines from Alexander Pope:
In moderation placing all my glory, while Tories call me Whig, and Whigs a Tory.
I don't think the old Fairfaxes were especially broad-minded, politically, but they knew that they needed to get the widest range of opinions, the widest range of readers, because that maximised their advertising. So mainstream media—a term that's often thrown around—generally sought to be in the mainstream, and narrowcasting was pretty limited, particularly in Australia, and largely confined to the magazine business, where you could have specialist publications.
What's happened is that the internet has enabled people to narrowcast and build very substantial commercial businesses on a relatively narrow part of the audience. This first happened in radio, then you saw it with cable subscription television and now we have got to the point where many people can effectively live in a news silo, an echo chamber, where their own views—or prejudices, more often—are simply being recycled and confirmed. This becomes an ecosystem, and there is now a market for crazy.
If you doubt the significance of this, just reflect on the damage that Murdoch's publications and outlets, particularly in the United States, have done to democracy. The 6 January sacking of the US Capitol was one of the most terrible events in American history. The last time there had been people, armed, sacking the Capitol was during the war of 1812, so this is an extraordinary thing. It underlines the divisions in America that have been, in large part, fomented and promoted by right-wing media narrowcasting to a section of the population, and in the lead of that has been Fox News. You had a large percentage—a minority, thankfully—of Americans, but, perhaps, the majority of Republican voters, who believed that Biden had stolen the election. That was a lie, as we know, but it was one that was pushed and promoted by Murdoch's media.
In Australia, a different context, we also see the impact of the way in which News Corp has evolved from being a traditional news organisation, or journalistic organisation, to one that is essentially like a political party but it's a party with only one member. You see the way in which it is used in an aggressive, partisan way to drive particular agendas, whether it is fermenting antagonism and animosity towards Muslims—something I've written about in my book—whether it is the campaign against effective action on climate change, which has been where Murdoch is the principal amplifier and promoter of that in the English speaking world, at a huge cost to all of us, and to the planet—the whole world. I know Michael Mann is talking to you later and he's literally written a book on this. He can give you chapter and verse better than I can.
You see this kind of pressure that is brought to bear again and again and again. I'm telling a roomful of politicians what you live with. You know how intimidated politicians and governments are by the way in which that political power is wielded. Only last week you will have seen the New South Wales government asked me to chair a government committee, which I agreed to do as a good citizen—it wasn't something I was busting my neck to do, but I was happy to do it—to advise on net zero emissions. A ferocious campaign was launched by the Murdoch media, particularly The Daily Telegraph, and the government crumpled. They could not take the heat. They acknowledged that. The Premier and the minister said, 'Malcolm was the best person for the job' and so forth, and we're all still friends. But the saddest thing of it all was the way Matt Kean—the minister, a good man, very committed to taking action—had to then go to The Daily Telegraph and be quoted in it saying, 'Oh, News Corp had nothing to do with this this decision'. This is like somebody who is taken down to the police station and beaten over the head until they finally sign a fake confession, the last line of which says, 'I confirm that I did so of my own free will'. This is the profound problem.
This is what I would like to discuss with you—I hope you find it interesting—I think we face a real threat to our democracy. For example, look at the way News pressured the government to then pressure Facebook and Google to hand large amounts of money to News and, of course, to other media organisations. It did look like a shakedown. Does anybody know how much those media organisations were paid? Has this committee found out? I don't think so. The reality is when the power of the Australian parliament is used to raise money in taxes, or levies or whatever, we know about it. It's in the budget papers. It's trawled through at Senate estimates. The power of you, that you represent, your parliament, our parliament, has been used to shakedown two big tech platforms, Google and Facebook, to give money to media companies, the leading protagonist of which was News Corp. We don't know what they were paid, that's apparently confidential—perhaps it's too shameful to be revealed.
So we're dealing with a very different proposition. I will summarise it like this: I grew up with newspapers, some of them leant more to the left than to the right, or more to the right than the left, but by and large they reported the news as it happened. They had opinion writers that were across the spectrum, some leaning more one way than the other. That has all changed. News Corp now is like a political party but with just one member or one family of members. That is an absolute threat to our democracy—the Americans saw it on 6 January—and nobody is holding them to account.
Rudyard Kipling once described the power of the press barons as exercising the prerogative of the harlot—power without responsibility—a bit tough on harlots, I would think. But the reality is that power has to be held accountable. This is the fundamental problem that we're facing. The most powerful political actor in Australia is not the Liberal Party or the National Party or the Labor Party; it is News Corporation, and it's utterly unaccountable, it's controlled by an American family, and their interests are no longer—if they ever were—co-extensive with our own.
CHAIR: Thank you, Mr Turnbull. I might go to Senator Fawcett first, then there are questions I have as chair, and then I will go to other senators.
Senator FAWCETT: I'm happy for you to lead off, Chair.
CHAIR: Okay. Mr Turnbull, you've talked about the immense influence the Murdoch press has had over issues such as climate change. You mentioned the example only a week or so ago in relation to the Hunter by-election and the climate committee that you were asked to be on. I thought some of the headlines on the front page of the Daily Tele were worth referencing: 'Mal's coal shoulder'—
Mr Turnbull : It was a classic hit, wasn't it!
CHAIR: 'Malcolm's Coal War', and it goes on. I was reading the editorial in the Daily Tele on one of those days that said 'not the right job for a nimby' in reference to putting you as chair of that New South Wales committee. That was a week of relentless media coverage. Is that what you experienced as Prime Minister?
Mr Turnbull : Well, yes, I did—it wasn't like that every day, but I've absolutely experienced bullying and standover tactics from News Corp. You could fill a library with examples of it. And everyone on this committee knows what I'm saying is true, because you've all lived through it. David Fawcett, my old colleague, has seen it over the years, as well as you. It's a way to intimidate politicians and get them to do what News or its proprietors want. I don't want to go on about my removal as Prime Minister, but I think, as everyone knows, as the record shows, News Corp were part of that conspiracy that put the coup in action. Murdoch solicited Kerry Stokes's support for it, as Kerry told me. You've just got to read the newspapers, right?And, indeed, from what Murdoch said to me directly. So the bottom line is they are very, very substantial players, but it's a very targeted political operation nowadays, and the partisanship of it is extraordinary. We haven't had a 6 January episode in Australia, thank heavens, but think about the damage that has done to America. I ask you this question: what does Vladimir Putin want to do with his operations in America? He wants to divide America and turn Americans against each other, and he wants to undermine faith in their democratic institutions. That's his agenda. That's absolutely established in the intelligence community; that's what he's been seeking to do. That is exactly what Murdoch has done—divided Americans against each other and so undermined their faith in their political institutions that a mob of thousands of people, many of them armed, stormed the Capitol, and, thank heavens, it didn't result in legislators being killed or hung or lynched, as some of them were proposing to do. We can't get away from the reality that this is enormous damage being done to our democracy. The challenge is: what do you do about it?
CHAIR: Do you believe News Corp here in Australia aims to divide the country?
Mr Turnbull : Well, it certainly does, yes. Again, we're a different country to the United States, and there are a whole lot of reasons for that—we probably don't have time. If you look at the way the News Corp tabloids, for example, regularly seek to incite animosity towards minorities, particularly Muslims. It was a huge issue while I was Prime Minister because everything I was doing was obviously designed to reinforce our success as a multicultural society. What is so frustrating is that these voices on the populist Right, particularly from Murdoch's organisation, are essentially doing the work of the terrorists. What a terrorist says to a young Muslim is: 'They hate you, they don't want you, you're not one of them. You can never be an Australian.' That's the message. The counterargument to that—this is obvious—is to say: 'You are one of us, you are an Australian, we're a multicultural society, we love you and respect you. All faiths, all races, all religions are welcome here and part of our multicultural society.'
Ultimately you've got to judge people's policies and programs by their consequences. I'm saying that it is self-evident that the way the Murdoch press has operated both here and in the US has been absolutely adverse to our national interest. In the US their agenda appears to be effectively the same—I'm not saying it's co-ordinated or motivated—as that of America's most trenchant adversaries.
CHAIR: Can I ask you about your engagement with News Corp and Murdoch when you were Prime Minister? Did you ever receive phone calls or requests for meetings to discourage you from following through on a particular policy agenda? What was your engagement with News Corp like as Prime Minister?
Mr Turnbull : I'm probably in a slightly different situation to most Australian politicians because I've known Rupert Murdoch and his family for a very, very long time. I first met Rupert—I think it would have been around 1976 or something like that, I've known him for a very long time; well over 45 years plus. Basically, they have an agenda—
CHAIR: What is their agenda, Mr Turnbull?
Mr Turnbull : Their agenda is obviously that they are opposed to effective action on climate change—that's a hot button for them. They are obviously very supportive of the kind of right-wing agenda in the United States. Trump was, to some extent, a creation of Rupert Murdoch. I've hung around billionaire media proprietors for a long time—I've hung around them; I mean I've known them. I have never seen a politician as deferential to a media proprietor as Trump was to Murdoch—never, in any country. Murdoch's media in the US had a sort of symbiotic relationship with Trump. Was Fox News like state owned media in an authoritarian country, always apologising for, not holding to account its favoured government—in this case, Trump's—or was the media in control of Trump? I know they fell out at the very end, but it's a very, very peculiar relationship.
In Australia, again, it's somewhat different. But look at the way the Murdoch press do not hold the Morrison government to account in the way they've held previous governments to account. That's self-evident. The government therefore feels that it is less accountable. The good question Leigh Sales asked Josh [Frydenberg] the other day was: 'What do you have to do to get sacked as a minister in this government?' Josh struggled to find an answer. I can understand why.
If I could just make one other point though. I've talked before about an ecosystem. The Liberals and Nationals on this committee would understand very keenly what I'm talking about. Because of the way in which we've got into these information silos or news/opinion silos, you get a situation where many of the branch members in the LNP and rusted on supporters rely heavily on Sky News, 2GB if they're in New South Wales and the Murdoch tabloids for their news, so it becomes like an echo chamber and one is feeding and driving the other.
There was a very good revelation from Ted O'Brien, a guy who's actually quite progressive. He's a republican. He was the chairman of the Republican Movement at one point. He explained to me why as a Queensland member he had to support Dutton's coup attempt. He said, 'It's as though my branch members are having a meeting with Alan Jones and Peta Credlin every night.' The influence of this very political media organisation is vastly greater on the coalition than it is on the community at large.
Again you see the same pattern in the United States. It's where right-wing media, particularly Murdoch's, has pulled the Republican Party to the right. John Boehner, the former Speaker, has just written a book that deals with this. Again, I'm not telling you anything you don't know. It has a very big impact on our democracy. The challenge is: what do you do about it?
CHAIR: When you were Prime Minister, Mr Turnbull, did you often think, 'Should I do this? Should I do that? Should I discipline this member? Should I push forward on this policy?' based on what was going to be printed on the front page of The Daily Telegraph or The Australian the next day?
Mr Turnbull : Of course. You have to take all those things into account. For example, people will say, 'The New South Wales government—Matt Kean and Gladys—were very weak to give in to the bullying from The Daily Telegraph last week.' That's a fair comment, and privately I don't think they'd argue with it. But, on the other hand, they're dealing with reality. Is a government 'weak' because it makes concessions to the crossbench and the Senate in order to get legislation passed? Of course it's not weak. If it wants to get the legislation passed, it has to do a deal. We all understand that. The point is that Murdoch's media do not operate here in the way other media organisations do. They are highly political, highly partisan. It's not like a newspaper—
CHAIR: Highly political and highly partisan, yet totally unelected.
Mr Turnbull : Correct, and that's the point. If any of you say something or do something, you can be held to account for it. If the electorate really find what you're doing objectionable, they can tip you out at the next election. Murdoch is completely unaccountable.
CHAIR: I know other people have questions, so this is the last question from me. Mr Turnbull, do you have to leave politics before you can speak out on these issues?
Mr Turnbull : If you want to stay in politics on the coalition side, yes. Of all the coalition leaders in at least the last 30-odd years, I was by far the least deferential to Murdoch, and I think he always resented that. I'm not a very deferential person. I hope I'm courteous, but I'm not very good at sucking up. Effectively, you now have, as you had with Abbott, a sort of symbiotic relationship between News Corp and the Prime Minister and his office. It is almost a coalition government. These are really uncomfortable things to confront, but we have to recognise that the way News operates is very different to the way Fairfax operates, the ABC operates or The Guardian operates. It is highly partisan and highly targeted, and its operations are politically very instrumental in the sense that they're designed to achieve outcomes, whether that is protecting their mates, getting rid of people they don't like, or whatever—and sort of stopping action on climate.
I will give you one example on climate which is a good one—and Michael Mann will give you a lot more. At the beginning of last year when the bushfires were at their worst, in Sydney, Matt Kean gave a speech about climate policy. It was a conventional speech. It was a good speech but there was nothing revolutionary, radical or anything like that. He basically said that the fires demonstrate that the climate is getting hotter with global warming and hotter and drier means more fires—true. The attack on him in the Telegraph following that was bitter, vicious and personal. It was designed to not just punish him but also send the message—and this is how it operates like a Mafia gang—that, if you step out of line, you will cop some of this too. That's the threat. So other politicians look at that and they say, 'Oh, gosh, I don't want to go there.' That is the reality. We can criticise politicians for giving into this but the fact is that they've got to live with it. It's a force and it needs to be called out more.
CHAIR: Thank you.
Senator KIM CARR: Thank you, Mr Turnbull for appearing today. I want to follow up the question that the Chair just asked you—and I think a similar question was asked of Kevin Rudd. Is it the case that you only discover your courage on this issue when you are actually removed from office?
Mr Turnbull : I don't think that's right, Senator. Kevin, as you know—you are a member of the Labor Party and was a member of his government—had a very different relationship with News Corp than I did. At different times he was very close to them. That has ever been the case in my case. But certainly being as candid as I have been today is something that you would do at your peril if you were a Prime Minister or a minister or wanting to keep staying in parliament, because the retribution would be very intense. Even if you were prepared to take the heat, your colleagues definitely wouldn't.
Senator KIM CARR: So the point that you make is that News Limited operates as a political party—and you've said this—with one family of members and they are effectively unaccountable for their use of that power. Can you enlarge on that proposition in terms of any evidence that you can point to—specifically, perhaps in relation to the clean energy board case in recent times?
Mr Turnbull : To be honest, by News's standards, that was minor. That is just an example of how they operate. It is hardly the worst thing they've done. Unless you've got to the point where you lose sight of the wood for the trees, you all know exactly what I'm talking about. You see the campaigns. To his credit, Kevin Rudd has done a good job, I think, in showing the way in which the News tabloids have flayed Labor state governments for their failings on the management of the pandemic but been very gentle in its treatment of Liberal ones. That is another example. This is an area that you are actually living in. You are living in this environment. The problem is: are you and other politicians—and I'm not directing this particularly to you, Senator—or perhaps Australians generally, with this problem that we face with News Corp, a bit like the frog who gets into the saucepan and the water seems nice and warm for a while but, by the time he realises it's boiling, it's too late? Has this crept up on us?
Senator KIM CARR: A question arises, however, in terms of what we do about this. There has been some debate and evidence provided to the committee—an Institute of Public Affairs and Press Council type of argument—that says we've really got the highest level of media diversity we've ever had. It has been suggested to us that despite the argument—which I must say I personally have presented—that we have one of the highest levels of media concentration in the world in this country, this is not really a problem in the eyes of some people. The IPA, for instance, says there are much greater levels of diversity now.
A recently published report by associate professor of communications Benedetta Brevini and PhD candidate Michael Ward has found that News now has a 59 per cent share of the metro and national print media markets measured by readership. By comparison, it had a 25 per cent share in 1984. Nine, on the other hand, the owners of the old Fairfax papers, has a combined readership of some 23 per cent. Could you comment on that. Specifically, given the media reforms that you introduced in 2017, could you comment on whether the question of media diversity is something that we should have attended to over some time, given your frog analogy.
Mr Turnbull : It's a good question. The internet and associated technologies have made it cheaper than ever to both make and distribute news content—news and information—whether it's straight news, opinion or a mixture of both. So at one level there are certainly more channels available than ever. However, the argument about concentration is absolutely right. Particularly with newspapers the concentration is at a level I would think without precedent in any comparable country, and particularly in Queensland. I have read some of the excellent submissions made to your committee—and there are plenty of statistics there, so I won't go over them. But I do think that biggest problem is that the News Corp outlets in particular are being used in a highly politicised way, a highly partisan way, akin to political parties. It's not a case any longer of a newspaper that does a fairly straight job consistent with its format but then leans one way or another at election time; it is now full on propaganda, complete with targeting individuals—vendettas—and ideological campaigns like the whole campaign against action on global warming. Of course, there are counterparts—some of the shock jocks, particularly in Sydney, have been examples of that too.
Again, the thing we've got to have our eyes open to is the end of this. Where does this end? Well, we saw that on 6 January. We've seen that in the way of effective action on climate has been frustrated again and again and again in Australia and, frankly, in the United States. Let's hope Joe Biden has a better run at it. These are very real consequences. I am not a big fan of royal commissions, as you know, but this is why I think a thoroughgoing royal commission, with all of its powers of investigation, is very worthwhile.
Senator KIM CARR: I want to come back to the issue of previous attempts at media diversity. The 2017 reforms that you championed were actually about removing the two-out-of-three cross-media control rules. Do you think, in retrospect, there is any cause for regret about that given that there has been an increase in media concentration since that period?
Mr Turnbull : No, I don't regret it. I'm not suggesting we shouldn't review all these things regularly—because things change. But I'd just say this. The biggest opponent to removing the two-out-of-three rule was in fact Murdoch. If you go back a few years, Murdoch actually attacked me personally over that in some tweets. He said, 'This is simply to enable Turnbull's friends at Nine to buy Fairfax, to merge with Fairfax,' which Murdoch did not want to happen, because he wanted Fairfax to wither. I think that the merger of Nine, the television company, and Fairfax has resulted in a stronger rival to News Corp.
All of this is sort of a retrospective review. I think the single biggest mistake that was made, by far, was the decision in '87 by the Hawke government, principally at Paul Keating's behest, to allow Murdoch to buy the Herald and Weekly Times, because that gave him the domination of metropolitan daily newspapers, and that was just a massive mistake.
Senator KIM CARR: Can I press you on this issue about how we actually improve the level of media diversity. Others have argued that there needs to be a greater emphasis on philanthropic assistance to improve the level of investment given the changes that have occurred through the digitalisation of the industry. I'm wondering if you could comment on that and perhaps reflect upon the proposition that's been advanced by the Public Interest Journalism Initiative, which has suggested that an R&D tax type of incentive arrangement be used for the taxation system. Do you think there is any merit in finding alternative means to encourage investment to actually rebuild media diversity in the country?
Mr Turnbull : I think philanthropists, whether it's Judith Neilson or others—such as Graeme Wood, of course, who supported The Guardian when it was starting in Australia—are very, very important contributors. Is American democracy enhanced by Jeff Bezos's support of The Washington Post? Clearly it is, whatever you may think of Amazon or Jeff Bezos in other contexts. Yes, I think we've got to address it. We're going to have to think imaginatively and laterally here, because we do have a problem. I'd commend to you an essay about this issue by Emily Bazelon that was in The New York Times Magazine last year. She makes the point there that the whole concept of freedom of speech in the US, the First Amendment, is premised on the proposition that, in the conflict of ideas, the truth will prevail; in the battle of ideas, the truth will prevail. Regrettably, increasingly, we're seeing we are drowning in lies, and part of that is due to the ability to narrowcast that I was talking about earlier. A good example, where I really learnt my lesson on that, was in 2016, when the Labor Party's audaciously outrageous 'Mediscare' lie, that we were going to sell Medicare, which was laughed out of every television studio in the country, nonetheless got enormous traction and was very, very potent and damaging to us in a number of electorates, because it was being channelled directly through social media and digital—text messages and so forth.
So the bottom line is that the idea and proposition that the truth prevails in the battle of ideas is really being tested at the moment. For example, some media—the old Fairfax newspapers are a good example of this—are very reluctant to publish anything critical of News Corp. There's a sort of KOG there. The truth is that the media have to hold each other to account. Obviously, News Corp never holds back in its attacks on the ABC, which are like an obsession. But we're just going to have to stop media proprietors exercising that power without responsibility. I wish I had a single one-line answer for you; I don't. But we cannot blind ourselves to the problem we're facing.
Senator KIM CARR: Fair enough. The government's mandatory code has been given particular attention. What's your view on that? Is that an answer to the question of media diversity?
Mr Turnbull : Well, no, I think it's really problematic. It looks and feels like a shakedown. I'm not sort of trying to defend Google and Facebook at all. I think it's actually pretty outrageous. We would have been better off having a digital services or digital advertising tax which cut across the board, then rebate that to organisations who employed a lot of journalists, and then have the balance—the bulk of which would come from Google and Facebook and similar platforms—distributed in a manner to actually support journalism. We are going to have to start being prepared to make subjective decisions about quality of journalism and news, as we used to under the Broadcasting Act. When I was a young broadcasting lawyer, we had triennial licence renewals. You had to be a fit and proper person and you had to demonstrate that your news services were balanced. People were accountable. But nowadays that's out of fashion, and I think that was a mistake.
Senator KIM CARR: There have been other proposals such as that by a group of ex-editors of the major mastheads who have made a submission to this inquiry. They have suggested that there should be direct grants allocated by a statutory body at arm's length from government to support new and smaller publishers. What's your view on that proposal?
Mr Turnbull : That could be very worthwhile. I think we all have a vested interest in greater diversity, but we cannot pretend that there isn't an issue about quality. I'll give you a good example: take the News Corp newspapers and The Guardian. Now, The Guardian is one of the great newspapers in the English language, obviously, but it undoubtedly leans to the left. It is a small-l liberal, leftish newspaper, very unlikely to recommend a vote for the Centre-Right parties in any election. But they don't make stuff up, they don't run vendettas and they do check facts. It is a professional operation. That is no longer the case with News Corp. The decline of The Australian—so many experienced newspaper people from News Corp, and indeed privately within News Corp, make the same observation. There has been a step from being publications and media outlets that tend to lean one way in terms of their philosophy to full-blown propaganda. People like Paul Kelly—and I quoted them in my book—would blame that on social media. Well, that may have contributed to it, but we're living with the consequences.
Senator KIM CARR: Several witnesses have put to us in terms of accountability and complaint mechanisms that there is very limited opportunity for individuals and for groups to be able to get a response to adverse treatment by the media. The Press Council is often cited. There has been very strong criticism of the Press Council by a number of submitters—that it's not resourced, that it's not actually able to deal with complaints, that it's actually dominated by the proprietors. I'm wondering if you could give us a view on whether there are better remedies to provide assistance to people to give a counter view when they have been mistreated rather than the woefully expensive libel and defamation procedures, which are not available to organisations in any event?
Mr Turnbull : It's a good point. I used to be a defamation lawyer, but it was a very long time ago. I've always felt that a good reform would be something like this: if a person—call them the plaintiff—who feels they have been defamed brings their complaint to a publisher and the publisher, within a reasonable time, whether it is a week or two weeks, publishes a correction and apology in an equally prominent position, then they should not be able to get damages other than actual pecuniary damages—say, if their business revenues were halved, they could be compensated for that. In other words, it provides an incentive for media outlets to get the facts straight, quickly. We look at defamation, often, as a battle between the individual's right to his or her reputation and the publisher's right of free speech. But there's also a third interest, which is the public's interest, to timely and accurate information on matters of public and other affairs.
That was an approach I canvassed many years ago, probably for good reason—I couldn't get a lot of traction or support for it. You're absolutely right, journalists are very fond of complaining about how tough defamation laws are, but the resources of an individual faced with the might of a media company are just so minuscule. It's fine for billionaires and, maybe, politicians who can get the resources to sue, but the average person is completely outmatched. So I think we do have to think about how people can get their reputations restored and how publishers have a real incentive to get their facts straight. In my experience, most defamations are the result of mistakes—particularly in this environment, where journalists are having to write copy instantly and there are no longer hours or days of a deadline. You're, basically, having to write it instantly. It is much easier and, perhaps, more inevitable to make mistakes.
Senator KIM CARR: And organisations don't have defamation actions or are not able to. A union, for instance, cannot get any support or take legal action and defend their reputation if they're challenged, particularly when they're faced with a campaign of vilification. Would you agree with that?
Mr Turnbull : I think the right area is not defamation law but something analogous to the action that corporations can bring, under section 52, or they can, effectively, bring a claim against a publisher for having published misleading or deceptive material about them and recover damages in that way. The days when I was very knowledgeable about this, I'm afraid, are decades in the past.
Senator FAWCETT: You expressed some concerns about the effects of media concentration on our democracy. At one of our previous hearings we canvassed the fact that in Queensland, where there was statistical evidence to say that the News Corp had bought a number of mastheads and dominated the print media, the Labor Party had won the vast majority of elections. I wonder if you'd like to comment on how that concentration of media hasn't affected the outcomes in a way that some people were expressing concern that it would?
Mr Turnbull : This is a point that Kevin Rudd has made, and I think it's a fair point but I don't think it's the whole picture. The reality is—and you'd understand this very well as a member of the Liberal Party—that the Murdoch media are much more influential within the coalition than they are in the electorate at large, just like Fox News in the States is much more influential among Republican voters than it is in the electorate at large. Trump would have won the election if it was that influential. What Murdoch's media has done in the States and here is pull the coalition in our case and the Republicans in the US further to the right. It's not the only force doing that, but it's a very big part of it.
In terms of Queensland, there is no question that the inaction on climate that you see across the political divide is connected to the influence of the Murdoch media. Don't let yourselves be like Matt Kean and have the indignity of having to say, 'Oh, Murdoch's media are completely balanced and fair, don't bully governments or don't deny climate action.' We've got to be honest about it and recognise that we have this challenge. It doesn't always result in Liberal governments being elected or supported at all, because the influence of that right-wing media ecosystem is most significant in the context of the coalition base itself. You're still in the business, but I'm not so long out of it that I don't remember very keenly how that ecosystem operates.
Senator FAWCETT: You've mentioned a couple of times the concept of personal vendettas over the last decade in Australian politics. I've heard Fairfax accused of running vendettas, you've accused News Corp of running vendettas and there are people currently accusing the ABC of running vendettas in the media, depending on where people come from. In September 2015 the ABC did an analysis of some of the claims about the impact of media on our leadership stability. They quoted Bruce Hawker, who said, 'Leaking is probably more of a concern than what Alan Jones or Andrew Bolt might say,' in terms of the impact on our democracy, the stability of governments and leadership. Would you like to comment on his observation?
Mr Turnbull : I haven't seen the context in which he said it, but the reality is: what the Sky News commentators after dark say, what the Murdoch tabloids say and what the shock jocks at 2GB say is vastly more influential on the coalition side of politics. That's the reality. If Senator Hanson-Young or Senator Carr get slammed every night on Sky News, it isn't going to affect their preselections and it's probably not going to affect whether anyone votes for them. But if there was a full-tilt campaign against you, you would feel that in your preselection in South Australia, and you know that.
Senator FAWCETT: Thank you.
CHAIR: Mr Turnbull, either prior to being Prime Minister, during that time or since that time, have you had any conversations with Mr Murdoch about climate change and climate science?
Mr Turnbull : Yes. We're talking about Rupert Murdoch now; it's a long time since I've discussed anything much with Lachlan Murdoch, to be honest. Rupert, in my experience, tends to sidestep conversations like that. I regularly said to him, before I was PM but particularly while I was PM: 'Why are you allowing this campaign against me and my government to continue? The only winner of this is going to be our opponents, the Labor Party.' There was this crazy agenda that Rupert acknowledged to me that was being pushed by Paul Whittaker, and apparently with Lachlan's support, which was that my leadership should be overthrown or damaged to an extent that, one way or another, we would lose the 2019 election and Tony Abbott could come back as opposition leader and then return us to glorious victory in 2022. This sounds completely unhinged, and it may well be so, but there is no doubt that that was being undertaken. I had a direct conversation with Rupert about it—Clive Mathieson, my chief of staff, was the witness and took very good notes—and I know what he said to Stokes. And, of course, we saw what they were doing.
There's a lot of crazy stuff here, but, equally, look at the United States. Could you really have credited that a major cable news network would have supported the proposition that Joe Biden had stolen the election, even though it was clearly untrue, and with consequences that resulted in the American Capitol, their parliament, being sacked by a mob of thousands of people who believed what they'd seen on Fox News? If you don't think that isn't a threat to American democracy and undermines the strength and capability of our most important ally, then you are kidding yourself.
CHAIR: One of the things that we've consistently heard from other witnesses in a variety of submissions has been in the context of the influence and the concentration of the Murdoch press here in Australia. When we had Michael Miller present to our hearing a number of sessions ago, he was very keen to downplay the media concentration, arguing, 'We've got newspapers, but there are all these radio stations and television stations and online media that we don't have anything to do with.' However, the evidence that we keep being presented with is that what is on the front page of those newspapers every morning sets the tone and the agenda for the rest of the media for the rest of the day. So, if there's a front-page article on The Daily Telegraph criticising you as being a nimby, that then gets picked up by morning radio, morning television and, before you know it, the evening news that day is all about whether you're going to be sacked. Is that a fair assessment, that these newspapers run the agenda for everybody else?
Mr Turnbull : I think the papers still set the agenda—not as much as they did when I was a reporter in the 1970s, but there's no doubt that what you say is largely correct. I think the other thing is that they are utterly liberated from the truth—again, Trump embodied this most incredibly as president. They don't care about lying; they don't care about making stuff up.
Again, I don't want to talk about myself and this incident last week, but it's current and it's a nice little case study. Apart from representing me as an anti-coal activist nimby for daring to object to the extension of a massive open-cut coalmine close to our grazing property in the Hunter Valley—and bear in mind what that is. That sends a message to anybody else that dares to object to the expansion of the coal industry: 'If you dare to do that, you too can be scarified on the front page of the Telegraph.' And while I've got a thick hide, as I'm sure all members of this committee do, for the average person that is literally mind-blowing and terrifying, that prospect.
In one of the editorials the Telegraph wrote about my shortcomings they said, 'Mr Turnbull wants to shut down the whole coal industry.' That is actually quite the reverse of what I was saying. What I was saying was that export demand is declining for reasons we all understand; there is more than sufficient capacity in existing mines; and the willy-nilly expansion of coalmining there, in addition to all the environmental negatives, both local and global, is actually putting the jobs in existing mines as risk. But that's a detail—the facts don't matter. They will make stuff up, and that's where you get that same culture. It is propaganda—it's not news any more; it's propaganda—and they have a purpose, and that is to pursue their agenda: political, environmental or whatever.
CHAIR: Obviously we have this propaganda machine that has huge political influence. I think it's interesting and important to note here that we've had you, a former Liberal Prime Minister, and Kevin Rudd, a former Labor Prime Minister. In many ways this cuts across the traditional partisan divide. If there's a problem with media diversity, do we simply have to boost the ability for alternatives to participate in daily public interest journalism, whether that's the ABC, and encourage more independent and smaller outfits, or does there need to be specific dismantling of the power of News Corp?
Mr Turnbull : I think it would probably be all of the above. The ABC is more important than ever, because it is bound by its act to present accurate news and balanced commentary. I can't remember the exact words in section 8, but it's there. One point I as the comms minister or the PM used to make to the ABC was: 'You can't go down the same sort of opinionated propagandistic rabbit hole as the other media, because you're not like the other media. You've a statutory obligation they don't have.' My criticisms of the ABC were not of it being politically biased but actually of what I thought was in some cases a decline in journalistic standards, like not checking facts. I felt there could have been at times more and better editorial leadership. That's where I give Lenore Taylor at The Guardian great credit. Whatever you think of The Guardian's leanings—if you think it's too far to the Left, not Left enough or whatever—Lenore is a tough, disciplined editor. It's important to get the facts straight and not make stuff up.
Yes, I think alternatives should be encouraged. The extent of daily newspaper ownership, particularly in Queensland, is right out of control now. I'm not a Queenslander obviously, but I think the points that Kevin made are very powerful. More diversity would have to be a good thing. I think that AAP also needs to be supported. I'm glad the government gave it five million bucks. Murdoch of course, as you all know, was trying to put it out of business and replace it with a news wire service controlled by News Corp. I think the survival of AAP as an independent news wire service is really important because it's providing the bulk of the news copy for a lot of smaller publishers, whether they're broadcast, print or just online.
Senator KIM CARR: Mr Turnbull, I raised with you before the 2017 reforms. You said that you thought that the proposals you advanced were opposed by Murdoch. It has been brought to my attention that Lachlan Murdoch had a bid in at the time for Ten and that was dependent upon those 2017 measures—that is, repeal of the two-out-of-three rule. That was critical for his bid, which is a point that Tim Worner, who was then CEO of Seven, pointed out. The ACCC approval had been organised before the law was actually passed. Lachlan had misjudged the situation because the CBS bid had come in and essentially outmanoeuvred him. The claim that Murdoch opposed this was, in fact, not quite right in the light of the events at the time. I say that in the sense that, if we're looking at the development of media regulation here, no-one comes to this with clean hands. Is that—
Mr Turnbull : These issues have been around for a long time. I can assure you that for quite a while the only media group that strongly supported or supported at all changing the two-out-of-three rule was Fairfax and Nine, because there was the option of a merger. It absolutely was opposed by Murdoch. Eventually, everybody got onboard and that's why it happened. Murdoch had effective control of Ten—until Lachlan managed to bungle the whole insolvency and, as we know, CBS got control of it—and would have preferred that Fairfax did not get controlled by Nine or merge with Nine.
It would have been in 2014 or 2015 that I'd advocated this reform, and there was quite a stinging tweet from Murdoch about it, having a go at me—I could find it for you, probably. Eventually, everybody got onboard and there were all sorts of arrangements and amendments made to try to keep everyone satisfied. Media policy is diabolical. Your side's had the same problem, because, as Sam Chisolm used to say, 'These proprietors are all founder members of the "We Want the World Society", so keeping them happy is pretty hard.'
Senator KIM CARR: I want to come back to another point you raised. You said you had spoken directly to Murdoch, in regard to some of these issues on climate change, but there had been some sidestepping of the issues. What's the nature of your conversation, with executive leadership of News Corp in Australia, about the way in which Australian outlets have treated the climate change issue that, you say, should be an issue of physics as an issue of values and identity?
Mr Turnbull : I can't recall any specific conversations with local leadership about it. I'll find this for you now. The best, the frankest, discussion I had with anyone from News about this was with Paul Kelly. I refer to this in my book. I say, in 2017, I had a chat with Paul Kelly:
… “and we agreed that what has happened is that the mainstream media has become disaggregated and marginalised by social media and an infinite range of additional channels on the internet.
These new channels are invariably hysterical, extreme, often fact free and in order to maintain attention the mainstream media has gone the same way, so that now even a broadsheet like The Australian is full of prejudiced, extreme opinion because that is what drives traffic—clickbait—Fairfax and even the ABC have been equally infected.
This, of course, is what Paul is saying. It continues:
So the media 'discourse' is now extreme and destructive—everywhere and we see the consequence—Trump, Le Pen, Brexit etc.
Kelly observed that at News and especially on Sky the view is that I have to be destroyed because I am too left wing—no better than Shorten—despite all the evidence to the contrary.
on Sky they have lost all interest in Australian politics as a struggle between Labor and the Coalition, rather their fascination is between Turnbull the soft centrist and Tony Abbott the muscular conservative (who let them down again and again). Crazy times.”
That's a note I made at the time. It's in my book. There's quite a bit more of that in my book. Who's got a better insight into what's changed at News Corp than Paul? But he's a captive too. He wouldn't be in a position to say that publicly, because he'd be writing for The Conversation, I guess, if he did that.
CHAIR: Mr Turnbull, we've talked a bit about News Corp's agenda and response in relation to climate change and how they've derailed action.
Mr Turnbull : Yes.
CHAIR: I want to ask, from your perspective, what News Corp's treatment of women has been in Australia. Obviously, you would have seen the way Julia Gillard was treated as Prime Minister.
Mr Turnbull : Mm.
CHAIR: There are plenty of other examples of the way news coverage has dealt with other women in public life. Gillian Triggs comes to mind, specifically, as somebody who has been referenced by other submitters to us. How have you witnessed their engagement of women, and do you think that perhaps there is a difference between your prime ministership and Julia Gillard's prime ministership in terms of how News Corp and even other media covered and responded?
Mr Turnbull : The treatment of Gillard was shameful, and it was pushed very strongly by the News Corp tabloids and, of course, most notoriously by Alan Jones who—while in his radio job he works with the Macquarie Group, or used to—also works with Sky. Yes, it's this sort of deep misogyny that you see in the right-wing political ecosystem. Again, I'm not telling any of you something you don't know, but has there ever been a male politician whose body shape has been commented on the way Gillard's was? There was constant criticism of the way she dressed. There is a deep misogyny in our political system, and I sought to address that as Prime Minister. In fact I did seek to address it. I'm not saying I resolved it—not at all—but I did seek to address it. But it's a fundamental problem.
I have to say, with all due respect to Scott Morrison, that, when he said the other day, 'Oh, other workplaces are like this too', that is completely and utterly untrue. I give him credit that he basically hasn't had much experience outside of politics, so maybe he just wasn't aware, but the standards that you put up with in parliament, which you're all too familiar with, are completely at odds with modern Australia, whether it's in the Public Service environment or the corporate world or whatever. Again, you could find plenty of examples of this, but the pursuit of Gillard was really one of the most shameful episodes. But, to give her credit, her misogyny speech was one of the most powerful counterpunches I've ever seen in politics.
CHAIR: How about the way the media, and particularly News Corp, represents the opposition to those who they support? I guess I'm thinking here in particular of how News Corp covered Bill Shorten as opposition leader. You talk about an agenda, about News Corp being effectively a political party in their own right now, working in coalition with the Morrison government. If it's that members on your side of parliament would be afraid to stand up or take on, by virtue of what that would mean for the base—could you give some reflection of how the opposition is treated?
Mr Turnbull : I think it's probably better for someone from the Labor side to address that, but I think that News Corp supports the coalition much more than the Labor Party—although they did support Kevin Rudd years ago. Kevin certainly had a close relationship for many years—again, one that I didn't have and nor did I seek one. I think they've got mates who they do not hold accountable and they protect. They target their friends' opponents. They bully people. In terms of running a vendetta against somebody, they're basically sending a message to everybody else, right? One of the selling points that Dutton's people were making in August 2018 was, 'We've got News Corp supporting us'. They were citing discussions with senior people at News Corp. It was obvious. You didn't need to have that whispered to you in a corridor. You could see it.
The point is they are, I think, the single most influential political player in Australia but they are unelected and they are utterly unaccountable. That is what we're talking about. They do not hold themselves to traditional journalistic standards of accuracy and balance and so forth. They would say, 'Oh look, it's a business model. We've got a percentage of the population who love being told this stuff and they like the extreme political views and so that's what we're going to do.' Fox News in the States is commercially very successful. But that is not a justification that we can tolerate if the consequences are so much damage to our democracy. Again, you can't get around from that. Would 6 January have occurred, would America be as divided—and therefore weaker—as it is today, without the efforts of Murdoch? He has done so much damage to the United States that people are scared to hold him to account, because of the consequences, because they don't want to be the next person on the vendetta list—that's the truth.
CHAIR: Thank you, Mr Turnbull. Thank you so much for your time today.
Mr Turnbull : Thank you. It's been good to see you all again.
CHAIR: This inquiry is continuing for some time so if there is anything else that comes to mind that you think we should be aware of, please don't hesitate to get in contact with the secretariat.
Mr Turnbull : Ditto, Senator, if there are other matters you want to raise with me I'm happy to reappear or answer questions in writing as you see fit.
CHAIR: Sorry. Senator Carr has a question.
Senator KIM CARR: Mr Turnbull, I asked you a series of questions about what actions can be taken with regard to improving diversity. If you have any further thoughts on that, particularly around the use of the taxation system, I'd appreciate any supplementary advice that you would like to tender. I'm specifically interested in models that perhaps would use the existing R&D tax concession administered by the Taxation Office, with setting out a particular framework, but for specific public interest journalism with the standards issue addressed that you refer to, or other measures you can contemplate.
Mr Turnbull : Sure. Thank you very much. I will reflect on that.
CHAIR: Thank you, Mr Turnbull.
Proceedings suspended from 10:24 to 10:40