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Murdoch's News Corp Faces More Pressure in Australia

News Corp Chief Executive and Chairman Rupert Murdoch holds a copy of The Times newspaper as he leaves his home in London July 20, 2011
News Corp Chief Executive and Chairman Rupert Murdoch holds a copy of The Times newspaper as he leaves his home in London July 20, 2011

Australia is to consider toughening its privacy laws in the wake of the British phone-hacking scandal that has stunned Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. Canberra said Thursday that the proposed changes would allow Australians the right to sue over serious breaches of privacy, something that is not guaranteed under current legislation. Australia's Greens Party is asking for an official investigation into the company as well as the broader issue of media ownership.

Phone hacking down under?

Australia is where it all began for Melbourne-born Rupert Murdoch more than 50 years ago with just a single newspaper.  His company News Limited has become the country’s most powerful media organization that controls 70 percent of the newspaper industry and has significant interests in television and online.  But the Murdoch empire in Australia is being scrutinized like never before as the scandal half a world away in Britain intensifies.

The big question in Australia is could phone hacking have happened here?   There are those who think that reporters or private investigators probably have intercepted voice messages.

“I would be amazed if there were no instances in Australia of either newspapers or television current affairs programs, employing PIs to do similar sorts of work. I'd be amazed if that wasn't the case,” said Michael Gawenda, a former editor at the Age newspaper in Melbourne and is a director of Melbourne University’s Centre for Advanced Journalism.

The issue already is dominating discussions on television news programs.

“But there is no evidence to suggest that anything has gone wrong in News [Limited] in Australia,” said one guest.

“It probably will not be found that anything has taken place which is untoward here for the very reason that there is no competition here.  It is the competition that has driven it, no doubt, in the UK,” added another guest.

Media ownership debate

Murdoch’s Australian group is trying desperately to distance itself from the allegations of phone hacking at its parent company. Senior managers point to the very different cultures between Australian and British newspapers.

News Limited’s chief executive John Hartigan says the industry here is far less ruthless than in Britain.

“They refer to a lot of the media as "red tops" in the United Kingdom. They're very aggressive newspapers," he said. "They have - you know, they're very sensational, they deal with people's lives, private lives, and they - some of the behaviors that have come out have obviously been driven by the need to get in front of each other. I would argue very  strenuously that we don't have those behaviors in Australia.”

The scandal has prompted a broader debate here about media ownership and regulation.

The Australian Greens are questioning News Limited’s domination of the domestic newspaper industry and want an official investigation into its operations. The party’s
leader Senator Bob Brown says too much power lies in too few hands.

“We have the most concentrated newspaper ownership of any similar democracy and that means that two thirds of the metropolitan newspapers [and] two thirds of the suburban newspapers are owned by the Murdoch Empire," said Brown. " And it does not allow for the plurality of views that is healthy for a modern democracy.

When asked if he had have any suspicions that his phone or phones of colleagues had their messages hacked by journalists in Australia. Brown replied that he didn't have "any evidence but I have been told by a very experienced journalist not too long ago in the last few days, you know, you would be unwise to not expect that was possible.  But it is pretty shocking to think that we should even have to think about it.”

No Britain, Australia connection

While tougher regulation of the Australian media is unlikely, the government is considering strengthening privacy laws to allow individuals to sue.  Canberra is also accusing News Limited of political bias.  Ministers say the Murdoch press has a vendetta against the left-of-center government, while News Limited editors say they are simply holding politicians to account.

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard says in light of the phone hacking scandal the company will have to answer some probing questions.

“I think Australians have been disturbed by them," said Gillard.  "I think they've been disturbed to see the reports in the UK and the kind of things that have been happening with telephone hacking and the like, and I think that does mean that Australians here look at News Limited and they've probably got some hard questions that they want answered.”

In a statement News Limited said the prime minister's remarks were unjustifiable and reiterated that there “was absolutely no connection” between events in Britain and News Limited in Australia. However, the company is likely to face more questions when the Australian parliament resumes next month.

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