Yes, News Limited owns far too much of the Australian media. And yes, there should be a government inquiry into media ownership now that the fiasco at the News of The World has laid bare the anti-social culture that resides within the same organisation that owns far too much of the Australian media.
But no, there is no democratic or economic rationale to support suggestions that News Limited should be forced to divest any of its Australian newspapers.
There is an obvious way, though, for federal and state governments to address the dilemma of concentration of media ownership. And that’s by a policy of encouragement, not discouragement. Helping people start and run media, not forcing anyone to sell media. Supporting the growth of media diversity, not suppressing what’s already there.
It would be entirely logical for governments, concerned about the damage inflicted on democracy by one organisation with so much power, to use a sliver of their considerable resources — society’s resources — to create mechanisms to help fund diversity of media ownership. How? By such measures as offering seed funding to new media ventures, just as governments support the development of numerous industries. Or by providing tax breaks to investors in independent media. Or, heaven forbid, by directing a small portion of government advertising towards media that is not part of a near-monopoly (only if it can be justified by objective measurement). Or by allocating some existing funding from the ABC or the Australian Council.
Of course, such ideas would induce howls of protest, and indignant editorials, from News Limited newspapers. And of course, such suggestions are tainted with self-interest when they come from anyone involved in independent journalism in a country where such activities are regarded with contempt by the incumbent media establishment.
In Adelaide, for example, I am a shareholder in In Daily — a daily online newspaper that represents just about the only independent competitor to News Limited in the city. In Daily is banned from receiving any government advertising by the South Australian government — by personal order of the Premier, Mike Rann, who doesn’t like our editorial coverage (of him). Is that in the interest of media diversity in a city where one company, News Limited, owns every daily, Sunday and suburban newspaper?
Instead of posturing about the theory of media diversity, Senator Bob Brown and the Greens should use their political influence to do something about its practice.
*Eric Beecher is chairman of Private Media (publisher of Crikey, Smart Company, Property Observer and The Power Index), chairman of Australian Independent Business Media (publisher of Business Spectator and Eureka Report), and a shareholder in In Daily and the Byron Shire Echo newspaper.