Nine’s papers in major “independence” test: stumble hopelessly
It’s one of three giants in the oligopoly that is Australia’s commercial media. But despite it being allegedly involved in highly unethical activities, Nine Entertainment is refusing to say a thing. And its major newspapers The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age haven’t published a word on the growing scandal. Industry veterans step in to fill the void. Anthony Klan reports.
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Media and news giant Nine Entertainment Co is facing widespread calls to come clean on its secretive staging and funding of Pauline Hanson’s Uluru climb stunt last year, with the TV and newspaper juggernaut facing a major backlash from the public and high-profile industry figures.
Editors, veteran journalists and other media commentators were among those calling out Nine’s “disgraceful”, “shocking”, and “unconscionable” behaviour, after The Klaxon on Friday revealed Nine had orchestrated the stunt, and then misled the public about its involvement.
The mounting pressure on Nine to break its silence amid the scandal comes as the Federal Government agency that co-manages Uluru with Anangu Traditional Owners, Parks Australia, has confirmed that it too, along with the Anangu, had been opposed to the Hanson climb from the outset.
“Anangu Traditional Owners asked visitors at the time, and for many years preceeding, to choose not to climb,” Parks Australia spokeswoman Tanya Davies told The Klaxon yesterday.
“Unconscionable behaviour,” wrote one Twitter user.
“Nine were political participants and the story (is) not journalism. Everything that Nine publishes is tainted.”
Another user wrote: “How can a media outlet claim to be disinterested and objective when it creates stunts like this racist woman’s attempt to trample over sacred ground”?
Last week it was revealed Nine had paid for far-right Queensland Senator Hanson, and her disgraced chief-of-staff James Ashby, to fly to Uluru to be involved in the stunt, and provided the pair with accommodation while it was being filmed.
It was further revealed Nine had provided benefits worth thousands of dollars to Tjimpuna Ruby, the Indigenous Owner whose “group” of 15 people (which exists only on Facebook) had given “approval” for Hanson to climb Uluru in August last year.
(Nine allegedly then gagged the group, limiting what they could ask Hanson and what they could say to other media about their Hanson climb “approval”).
The stitch-up involved Nine “paying for a far-right, xenophobic senator to climb an Indigenous sacred site just before it was closed”, as observer Ketan Joshi, a technology author and analyst, succinctly put it.
How The Klaxon broke the story last week. Source: The Klaxon
The scandal is shoring up to be one of the biggest tests of “editorial independence” that the former Fairfax Media newspapers, which include The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and The Australian Financial Review, have faced since Fairfax was taken over by free-to-air TV giant Nine in December 2018.
The takeover drew widespread concern that the editorial independence of the Fairfax papers would be compromised by the TV giant, which has long specialised in tabloid entertainment.
When the Nine takeover of Fairfax was announced, in July 2018, editor of The Age between 2004 to 2008, Andrew Jaspan, said Australian journalism had “too few voices already”, and that it was a “bad day for journalism”.
Nine CEO Hugh Marks sought to hose down concerns at the time.
“We have been very clear Nine, its board and management are committed to the charter of editorial independence and already understand the responsibilities of independence for journalists as we respect that in our existing business,” Marks said.
Nine has refused to comment on the debacle since the story broke last week, intensifying the spotlight on it and its editorial policies.
That interest has been magnified given none of Nine’s newspapers, including The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, have published a single word about the scandal – five days since it broke.
On Friday, responding to The Klaxon expose, Bruce Guthrie, a prominent former editor of The Age (also a former editor of News Corporation’s The Herald Sun), said the scandal presented a crossroads for the Nine media giant.
“At some point Nine Entertainment is going have to decide whether or not it embraces journalistic ethics across the business,” Guthrie posted to social media.
“You can’t claim to be honest and reliable at, say, 6pm, but not at 7pm.”
Bruce Guthrie says Nine must decide whether or not it “embraces journalistic ethics across the business”. Source: Twitter
While Nine’s A Current Affair has a history of becoming entangled in controversy regarding some of its journalistic practices, the Uluru stunt stood out for many industry experts.
Paul Barry, host of ABC media accountability program Media Watch posted to Twitter regarding the expose: “That IS a scoop”.
Brisbane author Andrew Stafford said Nine’s Uluru stunt was reminiscent of infamous 1990’s ABC TV series Frontline, a parody about a fictitious, highly unethical, current affairs TV program.
“I keep coming back to this story and it’s like the worst episode of Frontline ever imagined,” Stafford wrote on Saturday.
The ABC’s Annabel Crab responded simply: “This is a shocker”.
Host of ABC’s Media Watch, Paul Barry, responds to the story. Source: Twitter
Eric George, award-winning podcast producer at The Australian newspaper, was also succinct: “Belter of a story”, he posted to Twitter.
Senior ABC reporter Connor Duffy said Nine’s program appeared to promote division – reflecting concerns raised by many others.
“This is an outstanding scoop,” he wrote.
“Reads as incitement to racial division delivered with (Nine’s) shareholder cash. Unless there’s a rebuttal @nicchristensen?”
(Nic Christensen is Nine’s head of communications. Christensen, along with Nine, has repeatedly declined to comment when approached by The Klaxon).
When the Hanson Uluru climb story aired last year, despite Nine’s heavy involvement in the stunt, A Current Affair host Tracy Grimshaw said “some questions” had been raised about the story, but that “we did not pay Senator Hanson, and the visit was not our idea”.
The ABC’s Annabel Crabb responds to the Nine Uluru scandal. Source: Twitter
Grimshaw then said a “full statement from Parks Australia about this visit can be found on our website”.
On the face of it, that statement appears to have been co-authored by A Current Affair and Parks Australia, as it carries comments from both parties.
However Parks Australia today confirmed it did not make the statement with A Current Affair.
Rather, A Current Affair had asked Parks Australia some questions, to which Parks Australia provided a written response.
A Current Affair then ran the Parks Australia’s response on its website, along with comments of its own.
Yet Nine’s The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age have so far failed to inform their readers about the scandal, despite it involving a far-right federal senator in a socially divisive stitch-up involving one of the nation’s most famous – and sacred – cultural landmarks.
The statement about Hanson’s Uluru climb on A Current Affair’s website. Source: Nine
The following month, on August 23, the paper ran, again under the tag “national”, a video clip promotion for A Current Affair’s story on Hanson’s Uluru climb, which the Herald had titled “Rock Rebel – Pauline Hanson’s Uluru mission”.
“The pictures that will divide a nation as two sides come together,” the title reads.
Nine newspapers appear to have been less gun shy of the Uluru-Hanson scandal this time last year than they appear to be now, after it has been revealed that Nine orchestrated the stunt.
It heavily criticised Hanson and said she had been wrong to compare the closure of Uluru to closing Sydney’s iconic Bondi Beach.
Hanson’s claim that the Anangu Traditional Owners wanted to close down the climb ‘all of a sudden’ ignored ‘even the most cursory understanding of the issue’, said the editorial, which was published before it was public knowledge that it was actually Nine that had orchestrated Hanson’s Uluru stunt.
“No Senator Hanson, you don’t get it. Uluru is not the same as Bondi Beach,” it said.
“The traditional owners of Uluru, the Anangu, have a connection to the rock that goes back at least 30,000 years.”
Investigative reporter Michael West weighs in on the scandal. Source: Twitter
Independent investigative journalist Michael West, editor of Michael West Media, posted to Twitter in response to The Klaxon expose: “Nine Entertainment not just a fund-raising entity for the Liberal Party but also a financial supporter of One Nation!”
The Willoughby fundraiser, which raised over $700,000 for the Liberal Party, was condemned by journalists on The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and The Australian Financial Review, who wrote to Nine management that it had “compromised” their papers’ “reputation for independence”.
(Two months later, in November last year, Costello admitted it had been a “mistake” for Nine to host the Liberal fundraiser and said Nine’s board had decided the company would “not be holding any political fundraisers at our premises”.)
“We believe there is a growing public perception that we have become politicised”
— Staff, The Age
The second major test came in mid-June, when close to 70 staff members at The Age wrote to management expressing “alarm” over the perceived increased politicisation of the paper, including, pertinently, concerns over failings in the coverage of Indigenous affairs.
“We believe there is a growing public perception that we have become politicised, a perception that is damaging the reputation of The Age and, potentially, the viability of the business,” the staff wrote.
One concern was an editorial which incorrectly said “Australia does not have a legacy of slavery”, despite their being well-documented history of the enslavement involving Indigenous Australians.
The error was corrected nine days later, on June 11, the day Chessell received the letter from staff.
Chessell said he was “as angry as you are about errors”.
He disputed claims The Age had become politicised.
News Corporation Australia’s major newspapers, which include The Courier Mail, The Daily Telegraph and The Australian have also been conspicuously silent on the Nine-Hanson-Uluru scandal, as has, it appears, public broadcaster the ABC.
News Corporation Australia has been in the spotlight this week after former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd on Saturday labelled the media group a “cancer on democracy” and launched a petition calling for a royal commission “to ensure the strength and diversity of Australian news media”.
“Australia’s print media is overwhelmingly controlled by News Corporation…with around two-thirds of daily newspaper readership,” Rudd’s petition states.
“This power is routinely used to attack opponents in business and politics by blending editorial opinion with news reporting.
“These facts chill free speech and undermine public debate.”
Hours after Rudd launched the petition, a piece in The New York Times quoted James Murdoch as saying he didn’t believe news outlets should be used to “legitimise disinformation” or used “in a way that hides agendas”.
James Murdoch, whose father Rupert Murdoch and brother Lachlan Murdoch helm News Corporation, resigned from the company’s board in August, citing concerns about its editorial direction.
Rudd’s petition for a royal commission states that News Corporation controls “around two-thirds of daily newspaper readership” in Australia, delivering it power it “routinely used to attack opponents in business and politics”, harmed free speech and served to “undermine public debate”.
The petition, which reportedly crashed several times due to high demand, had over 230,000 signatures by Wednesday afternoon.
Ex-PM Kevin Rudd calls for Royal Commission into media diversity. Source: Twitter
The revelations of Nine’s orchestration of Hanson’s Uluru stunt are particularly damning for the media company because, at the time of the stunt, Hanson had been employed by Nine as a “regular contributor” to appear in weekly segments of its tabloid breakfast TV show Today.
Nine had contracted the right-wing senator just weeks after she left abruptly from a similar position at rival Channel Seven, amid a row over racism in the aftermath of the Christchurch mass shootings.
(Nine dumped Hanson in July this year after what it described as “ill-informed and divisive” comments she had made regarding Melbourne public housing residents amid an early Coronavirus lockdown.)
The Klaxon’s revelations are also particularly damning because they show the company paid for Hanson’s chief-of-staff at One Nation, Ashby, to take part in the stunt despite him, just months earlier, having been exposed on the world stage offering to engage in serious parliamentary corruption.
In a sting by global news group Al Jazeera, hidden cameras filmed Ashby and Steve Dickson, One Nation’s Queensland leader and a former Queensland Liberal-National minister, offering to sell Australian parliamentary influence to the US National Rifle Association, including offering to push for the watering down Australia’s gun laws in exchange for millions of dollars.
Ashby had sought between $10m and $20m in “donations” from the NRA.
There was no evidence Ashby or Dickson actually received any money.
In a recent interview with The Klaxon, Tjimpuna Ruby said A Current Affair had taken her and her daughter on a sight-seeing tour of Sydney before flying the pair to Uluru for the Hanson climb stunt.
It emerged A Current Affair had also flown Ruby, who lives in the red centre, from Uluru to Canberra after the stunt was filmed, for reasons that remain unclear.
Nine had also allegedly gagged Ruby and her group from asking Hanson certain questions, and from talking to other media about their “approval” for Hanson’s climb for any longer than “one minute”.
The Uluru closure controversy was later identified by Nine News – Nine’s news division, which encompasses the daily news programs, A Current Affair, Today, and several other programs – as having “split the nation” and caused “social division”.
In December Nine News noted that the 2017 decision by Traditional Owners to close the climb had “attracted little fanfare”.
“But as the closing date drew closer, many far-right and conservative figures, One Nation leader Senator Pauline Hanson among them, led and outcry against the closure,” Nine News reported.
“The social division over the rock has echoes of other disagreements about Indigenous issues, which often split on progressive and conservative lines,” it said.
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