News Corp’s immorality – should we act surprised?

“I hope we shall… crush in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations, which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength and to bid defiance to the laws of our country.” ~ Thomas Jefferson, letter to George Logan. November 12, 1816

One Sunday I needed to go to a store in the City to change a wrong-sized T-Shirt. Off I went with my 11 year old son. As we arrived at the CBD we saw lines of police barricading the road we needed to go along. As we approached I sensed a real tension among them but approached one to ask how I could access the street I need (which I head earlier checked was not in the exclusion zone). The guy visibly stiffened as I approached, glared at me through his shades and didn’t answer. I asked again. Snarling he grunted “can’t tell you. Work it out, now move along”. We walked off, a little shaken by the level of latent aggression in the guy’s demeanour. This is not what you expect from an Australian police officer. Later I learned that my experience was not uncommon although nothing compared to others like Greg McLeay who was assaulted and then jailed by police …for crossing the road.

Am I describing a bad dream? No, this happened in September 2007, during the APEC meeting in Sydney, which – featuring a visit by George Bush along with his 650 person security entourage and Vladimir Putin – was a very big deal. Let me take you back to that occasion….

The government set up a special security branch and spent  $24million per day on it, $78 million of which went to the NSW police. Many public roads in Sydney were closed and kilometers of steel and concrete barriers were erected in the CBD. A State public holiday was announced to minimise the number of people going into the the City. New laws were passed including amongst other provisions allowing police to search people without requiring a warrant or even reasonable suspicion! (This is specifically stated in The APEC Meeting (Police Powers) Act 2007, section 11 and 12 ).

The APEC meeting occurred late in the reign of PM John Howard, a period in which a number of prominent Australian commentators documented an atmosphere of oppression and proliferating censorship, to the extent that the rhetoric of Howard’s government was compared to that of Stalin. It was later discovered that the police had got themselves into a frenzy – they had been told to expect violent protests (as it turned out later this advice was based on nothing more than rumour). Sure enough I saw a protest underway in the city’s park – not a very large crowd (many were high schoolers) was engaged in sitting around on the grass being quiet and entirely peaceful. It was later revealed that many police had removed their badges in order to remain anonymous while they dispensed the  ‘protection’ which injured a number of innocents. Their behaviour was subject of an inquiry and they were condemned and humiliated. It’s sad that even in so-called civilised societies, similar such abuses of power against citizens are not uncommon.

My personal brush with this antagonistic, trigger-happy militia that appeared overnight in my own city centre shook me. We in the modern West have no experience in our lifetimes as to how quickly we could be subjected to violence if the powers-that-be took it upon themselves to foist it upon us – but ask old people in Poland for example. When we hear the warnings of civil libertarians, do we take them seriously, or do we mutely trust that our system has the necessary sanity not to turn on its citizens? Surely those in power would not abuse it against us?…….

For year many have criticized Murdoch as having too much concentrated power, of how ruthlessly he wields it over governments. But we allowed News to grow unabated. Now we’ve found out at that the heart of that power lies immorality that spread to infect the police and government it co-operated with. Why did we not take more seriously the calls of those who expressed concern?

As the full extent of just how endemic was this cancerous immorality, I’ve been thinking about how very vulnerable we as a society are to abuses of power amongst the institutions and individuals who influence our lives. And without wishing to sound over-dramatic, how fragile our liberty is and how vigilant (and not apathetic) we must remain to such abuses.

In March this year, a poll by The Guardian newspaper found that 60% of Britons thought Murdoch had too much power. They knew something was amiss. Why didn’t the regulators see what the public could see?

One of the fundamental power balances in this age is that between corporations and government, yet there is little consensus about the issue; positions range from free-market capitalists like Milton Friedman  (capitalism will take care of everything) to deep concern as seen in the movie The Corporation (corporations are psycopathic abusers of power).

WalMart economic size comparison with NationsWhat isn’t in dispute is that corporations are bigger and exert more power than ever before. Imagine being a state legislator and a company tells you they will spend ten or a hundred million against you if you don’t act in their interests. No one can stand up against that and if they DO they’ll be out of office in a heartbeat. In Australia that’s exactly what the mining industry did, and won.

What surely couldn’t be in dispute is that the public has largely been mute in allowing this to happen, even complicit as we consume the goods (including newspapers) and invest in the companies (inclulding News) that increasingly rule our world.

Of course the recent events of the GFC where governments decided to prop up bankrupt businesses in the interests of stability brings the relationship further into question. Surely the most ardent of capitalists until that time would argue that businesses need to be profitable in order to survive. Who’d have thought we’d see the day when tax payers agreed to keep merchant bankers in jobs that they showed themselves were unable to hold down? What kind of complicity is this, and in whose interests?

In terms of influencing government, Murdoch has for many years been naked and brutal. In 1992, The Sun ran a headline, It’s the Sun Wot Won It, after the Tories won a narrow margin over then-Labour leader Neil Kinnock.  In September 2010, the Australian Greens’ federal leader Bob Brown wrote that Murdoch-owned The Australian newspaper has “stepped out of the fourth estate by seeing itself as a determinant of democracy in Australia”. In response, The Australian opined that “Greens leader Bob Brown has accused The Australian of trying to wreck the alliance between the Greens and Labor. We wear Senator Brown’s criticism with pride. We believe he and his Green colleagues are hypocrites; that they are bad for the nation; and that they should be destroyed at the ballot box.”

What irony that the very politicians who once curried favour out fear of editorial retribution will soon sit in judgment of Murdoch. He’s worried. As the storm gathers pace, Murdoch’s public strategy has seen him shift from being dismissive to utterly apologetic. Who knows how far this will go, but even when David Cameron admits, “The music has stopped on my watch,” do we really believe that the interests of citizens will be any better represented in the dangerous dance between government and corporations after the air clears?

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