A great Grand Final yesterday showed, once again, that Rugby League has an uncanny ability to seal up the holes punched in it and carry on, a bit like the T-1000 in James Cameron’s Terminator 2. I’ve joked before that the cockroaches we’re told will survive nuclear armageddon will probably play the game. Yesterday two (sorta) foundation clubs went at each other in the mud, and capped off a season which, as Richard Hinds suggested in the Herald the other day, was another one in which Rugby League worked hard to win back some of the community affection it lost from the mid-1990s.
Of course, the problems this year involving the Melbourne Storm came from the same people that knocked a proud code off course back then: News Ltd. You could say on the evidence of this season that League’s biggest liability is its continuing entanglement with a company that can’t, on the face of it, organise the management of a football club within the code’s rules. Conversely, it’s arguable that what’s allowed Rugby League to survive are long traditions and community associations, some of which the News-backed Super League push explicitly tried to destroy.
There’s a comparison to be made between the Storm’s difficulties – as a wholly owned subsidiary of News – and what’s been happening in the UK with phone-tapping allegations against the News International tabloid, the News of the World. In both cases, News has tried hard to isolate the blame for corrupt behaviour with people down the pecking order form senior management. Here they’ve worked managed to firm up an impression that all the opprobrium for the salary cap debacle should be directed at former Storm CEO Brian Waldron. (Memorably, News Ltd sports columnist and partner of CEO John Hartigan, Rebecca Wilson, was especially vitriolic in pinning the blame on Waldron).
In both cases, in hosing things down they’ve been able to rely on their own control of a range of media outlets, and either complacency, resource problems or an unwillingness to pry on the part of non-NewsCorp outlets. Only the New York Times‘s pursuit of the phone-hacking scandal has reawakened interest in the UK in who precisely knew what, when. Of course, the NYT is unlikely to take an interest in Rugby League any time soon. Our local outlets appear to have lost any small appetite they did have for inquiring into the nature of News’s involvement in sports administration, even though some questions need to be asked in the public interest.
There’s no reason not to accept Hartigan’s word that he didn’t know about what was going on at the Storm. But that denial ipso facto raises questions about what sort of oversight is being carried out by News over its sports investments. There are some pretty serious concerns over Hartigan’s management of the news arm of the organisation, too, given the bizarre details that emerged during the Herald-Sun litigation earlier this year.
Why haven’t there been more questions from other outlets about what kind of ship Hartigan is running, given News Ltd’s own version of accountability when it comes to government ministers? How could a news organisation not ask the questions that punters were about the Storm’s golden roster? Was there a reluctance on the part of News journalists to do so, given the commercial relationship between the club, the league and the main organs reporting on it?
And here’s the big question: is anything about this relationship healthy, and does it indicate a failure of media regulation? Melbourne’s troubles are simply indicative of a wider problem with News’s web of ownership. In Brisbane, News have a newspaper monopoly – the national, metropolitan and suburban papers feeding into that market are all theirs. They also have a half share in the only NRL club in the code’s second city. In Townsville they also have a print monopoly, and although they’ve delivered the Cowboys into community hands after owning it for some year, a prominent News Limited identity will be taking the reins as CEO at the Cowboys. Which direction is accountability coming from? From the NRL, which News also owns a half-share in?
People have been complaining a lot about News over the last week. But they will always act in their own interests within the given structure of the news and entertainment markets. Successive governments have relaxed media regulation to the extent that not only does News monopolise some key Australian media markets, but it’s relationship with some of the organisations that it should be reporting on in our interest raises clear public accountability issues. Who will have the courage to address this in the only way it can be: politically?