Journalism in Australia has a courageous history, but Murdochism has turned it into a disgrace

Here in Australia, the "threat" of the "flood" of illegal asylum-seekers (no more than 4,000 arrive in a year, most of them genuine) is said to have given Prime Minister John Howard his election victory last November. The decisive moment was when Howard and his ministers accused refugees of throwing their children overboard from a boat in which they were approaching Australia. These were "vile people", who "went against natural instincts". Last week, two official reports confirmed that this was a lie. Ministers knew the story was bogus but they said nothing.

The main route for these lies and xeno-racism has been the Australian media. Those journalists now complaining about the government's "outrageous deceit" have yet to admit the part they have played in the false hysteria that has clearly hardened public attitudes towards the refugees.

Last month, editors of the leading newspapers meekly agreed to a demand by the authorities that their reporters withdraw from the perimeter of the notorious Woomera "detention camp", where suicides and hunger strikes are common. Since the refugee issue arose, not one reporter has had the wit or the backing to go under cover and expose from the inside camps described by the former conservative prime minister Malcolm Fraser as "hell-holes". Instead, falsehoods have been repeated about refugee parents sewing up their children's lips.

Much of the Australian media is a microcosm of what happens when media monopolies are allowed to destroy diversity of opinion in a free society. This has produced an ethos that richly deserves the sobriquet of Murdochism. Last week, the Murdoch press here offered a shining example. As mentioned by the New Statesman editor, Peter Wilby, in his leader last week, two of Murdoch's Australian papers, the Herald Sun in Melbourne and the Courier-Mail in Brisbane, wrote that my "anti-Semitic stories" had forced "the editor of the New Statesman into a two-page apology".

This breathtaking lie appeared under the byline of the London correspondent of both papers, Leo Schlink, who was aware that Wilby had made clear that I knew nothing about the cover that had caused offence. To describe my column, which analysed the Blair government's support for the Sharon regime in Israel, as "anti-Semitic" is contemptible and defamatory, but not untypical of those who now exploit past Jewish suffering in order to justify and divert attention from Israel's atrocious behaviour. It is hardly surprising that Murdoch has extensive interests in Israel.

Ironically, there is a history of courageous journalism in Australia that goes back more than 100 years when New South Wales had probably the most diverse and adventurous press in the world. Hundreds of newspapers blossomed across the state, many challenging the colonial autocracy and championing civil rights, even Aboriginal rights.

What eventually shut them up was big money, which swallowed the independent newspapers and produced what is today the most monopolised and politically narrow press in the democratic world. The facts of Rupert Murdoch's remarkable strangle-hold speak for themselves. Of the 12 daily news-papers in Australia's capital cities, Murdoch controls seven. Of ten Sunday newspapers, he has seven. In Adelaide, he has a complete monopoly. He owns the daily, Sunday and local papers, and all the printing presses. In Brisbane, he controls all but some suburban papers. In other words, of the daily papers published in the capital cities, where the great majority of the population lives, two of every three copies sold are Murdoch papers.

Most of the rest of the metropolitan press is owned by Kerry Packer and the Fairfax company. Federal and state governments are, to varying degrees, in the pockets of Murdoch and Packer. John Howard is routinely beckoned by Packer and Murdoch. When he was stricken with pneumonia, Howard got out of bed to see Murdoch. The Howard government is currently pushing legislation through the federal parliament that may well hand Murdoch a national TV network and give Packer control of Fairfax and the Sydney Morning Herald.

Australia's commercial radio is dominated by "shock jocks", redneck motormouths who command immense political power. The recently announced departure of Alan Jones, the most redneck of all, from Sydney's Radio 2UE to its rival, 2GB, caused the collapse of 2UE's share value. Two years ago, the Australian Broadcasting Authority found that Jones, together with another talkback name, John Laws, had breached the commercial radio codes of practice at least 90 times. Both had misled their huge audiences by failing to disclose secret fees of up to A$250,000 paid to them by companies whose interests they plugged as editorial content.

The scandal may have actually enhanced Jones's political influence. He has a private line to the prime minister, whose more malign policies he promotes with enthusiasm, especially the persecution of asylum-seekers.

Some of the finest journalists work in Australia: Brian Toohey, Marian Wilkinson, Mark Davis, David Bowman, Ken Davidson and others. Their compliant colleagues often complain that they are powerless in the face of the Mafiosi of Murdoch, Packer et a1; and there is no doubting the threat of unemployment. They ought to reflect, however, on the suffering and plight of helpless people in their country's concentration camps, whose only hope might rest with those paid to keep the record straight.

www.johnpilger.com