News Corp and the Murdochs starting 2017 with more news and influence than before

In the lead-up to Christmas, News Corporation got a nod of approval from the competition regulator to purchase a company that publishes 72 newspapers around Queensland and northern New South Wales.

Only a few days earlier News also announced it was moving from a 33 per cent stake to full ownership of Sky News, the 24-hour news service available through Foxtel.

As this new year starts – one in which Parliament will debate changes to Australia’s media ownership laws – News Corp and the Murdoch family have set about expanding their level of control over media in this country.

Their assets include commercial television, subscription television, commercial radio, newspapers, magazines, and a media-buying network. Internationally they own nearly 40 per cent of and manage News Corp and the enormous 21st Century Fox conglomerate, which is close to taking over UK satellite broadcaster Sky.

But back in Australia, the purchase of Australian Regional News [ARN] for $37 million means News Corp now publishes about 200 newspapers and magazines around the country, including the influential capital city tabloids and national paper The Australian. Meanwhile its competitor, Fairfax Media (publisher of The Age and Sydney Morning Herald), publishes around 170 newspapers and magazines after merging with Rural Press in 2007. 

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Most of ARN’s papers are delivered in regional Queensland, which gives the Murdochs a lot of power in that state, according to University of News South Wales associate professor David McKnight, who also wrote Rupert Murdoch: An Investigation of Political Power.

“Because of federation, much of Australian politics is regional and state based and the purchase of regional newspapers will deepen Mr Murdoch’s political penetration and influence. In Queensland he will have a virtual monopoly which includes the main daily, the Courier Mail. Queensland is often a swing state in terms of election results,” he told Fairfax Media.

“Apart from election time, Mr Murdoch’s newspapers shape the national mood by being the main outlet for climate scepticism and conservative commentary,” Professor McKnight said.

News Corp also owns stakes in online classifieds with 61 per cent of REA Group, which runs realestate.com.au, nearly 14 per cent of SEEK Asia and 25 per cent of HiPages. And in October it purchased punters.com.au for an undisclosed amount. 

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In late 2016 the executive chairman of News Corp Australasia, Michael Miller, said the company would spend this year consolidating its purchases and to “continue to invest in our audiences and quality content”.

“After a busy year of investments in 2016 – Sky News, Punters.com.au and ARM – our focus is on integrating them into News Corp Australia and maximising their return,” Mr Miller said.

On top of publishing, News Corp owns 50 per cent of Foxtel and 100 per cent of Fox Sports, which it bought from James Packer’s Consolidated Media in 2012.

Foxtel has about 2.9 million subscribers and its main news channel is Sky News.

The decision to buy 100 per cent of Australia News Channel (ANC), which produces Sky News and the Australia Channel, was unlikely to be for commercial reasons, as ANC made a profit of just $3.9 million in 2015-16 and already runs very thrifty newsrooms.

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However, it is an influential asset because it screens non-stop on televisions inside parliament houses, airport lounges, and office buildings. It also provides a platform for politicians to quickly argue their position, and cross-promotes News Corp columnists like Andrew Bolt, Chris Kenny, Peter Van Onselen, and Rowan Dean.

Rodney Tiffen, from the department of government and international relations at University of Sydney, said concentration of media ownership leads to a concentration of ideas. Publishing the same columnists in every capital city and pushing the same political line in all the tabloids creates a “stultifying political uniformity”.

The news priorities of each and all papers are clearly directed by Mr Murdoch, according to Tiffen, although when that assertion has been made before it is hotly contested by some editors.

Former editor of The Herald Sun Bruce Guthrie wrote in his 2010 book Man Bites Murdoch that “in five years at News, I had learned that most senior executives don’t do anything without first asking themselves: ‘What will Rupert think about this?’.”

“He’s an all-pervasive presence, even when he’s not in town,” Guthrie wrote at the time.

And concentration of ownership creates economies of scale for advertising opportunities, printing and distribution that shuts out competitors. And it limits the job opportunities for journalists who cannot or will not work at a News Corp publication.

Australia’s media ownership laws currently restrict a single person from owning commercial television, radio and print in a single radio licence area to avoid excessive influence. The coalition government has proposed new media laws that would remove some ownership restrictions, although Labor has not agreed to scrap the two-out-of-three rule.

But already most Australians live in cities where they can only buy daily or weekly newspapers owned by either News Corp, Fairfax Media, or, if they live in Western Australia, Seven West Media. And even operating within the existing laws, the Murdoch family has a small hand in commercial television and commercial radio assets.

Lachlan Murdoch owns a 7.7 per cent stake in Channel Ten (where he was briefly chief executive and chairman) and Foxtel also has a 13.8 per cent stake in Ten. Lachlan also owns 100 per cent of Nova Entertainment through his investment company Illyria Nominees Television. Along with the Nova channel, the network broadcasts SmoothFm, FiveAA in Adelaide, Star 104.5 and digital station Coles Radio.  

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After 10 years away from his father’s companies Lachlan Murdoch returned in 2015 to become co-chairman of News Corp and executive chairman of 21st Century Fox, a role he shares with Rupert Murdoch. Meanwhile Rupert’s other son, James Murdoch, is now chief executive officer of 21st Century Fox after taking over from Rupert in mid-2015.

And while the Murdoch family own just 39 per cent of both News Corp and 21st Century Fox either directly or through trusts, chairman Rupert Murdoch retains power by appointing “very tame board members”, according to Dr Tiffen.

“There has never been any major company decision that [Rupert] Murdoch did not want to happen,” he said.

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