Hackgate Down Under

The News International scandal, or ‘Hackgate’, set the Australian public imagination alight this week. For proof, we need only be reminded that every single television network, other than SBS, beamed the appearance of Rupert and James Murdoch before a parliamentary inquiry live into our living rooms late Tuesday night. Other than royal weddings and the 9/11 attack, there are few precedents for this kind of coverage. That it was a parliamentary inquiry into an affair that remains - at least for now - confined only to the UK adds to the extraordinary nature of the story. Is it a reflection of the strong cultural ties between Australia and the United Kingdom? Is it because the Murdochs are, at least in part, still an Australian clan? Is it because the story reflects some kind of malaise in the local media landscape? Or is it because of its tragic dimensions, in the full Shakespearean sense of the word? Perhaps a little of all of the above.

The story reached its dramatic apex on Tuesday night. It’s hard to imagine better drama than Rupert Murdoch announcing that it was the most humble day of his life, or that the term ‘collective amnesia’ was a euphemism for lying, or James Murdoch claiming to be unfamiliar with the legal term ‘wilful blindness’, or a celebrity-starved comedian copping a savage right hook from Mrs Murdoch. If only News of the World were still around to report on it all. This was where tabloid and broadsheet journalism came together in the perfect Murdoch moment, the kind of drama his empire was built on.

But the circus moves on, and how - too quickly for many of the key players. Already, the local reaction has shifted at least twice. The government, seizing the moment, took up the cudgels. So too did the Greens, calling for an inquiry into media ownership and regulation. Precisely what kind of inquiry was unclear, although a few ideas were mooted at New Matilda. Nevertheless the media’s reaction was hostile pretty much across the board. Yesterday morning on ABC 774, Melbourne’s top-rating talk-back host Jon Faine expressed fears it would lead to “third-world” media regulation laws.

Media academic Tim Dwyer was hopeful the affair might lead to more diversity in the local media landscape. “The meltdown at the News Corporation is already having positive effects on the way we think about the role of the contemporary news media,” he wrote. “First among these is an acknowledgment that media ownership diversity really matters a great deal in democracies.”

But in the course of the day the focus shifted again, this time towards regulating for privacy protection. Again, reactions have been mixed. Margaret Simons doubts hacking could happen in Australia, ironically because of the lack of media diversity. David Maguire reminds us of the difficulties of legislating for virtue while Bill Birnbauer writes, “General principles and codes that encourage independent, honest and transparent behaviour are useful but the variability of on-the-ground reporting makes it almost impossible to regulate media behavior in any way that is meaningful. In any event, rules and laws are no substitute for a moral compass.”

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