Why would a government that supports the concept of free speech prefer to have fewer major media owners in its democracy?
It’s a highly relevant question as the government this month applies the final touches to its plan to abolish Australia’s cross-media rules – a move that will inevitably reduce the number of big media owners and concentrate even more media power and influence in fewer hands.
For some guidance on the subject, take the case of Argentina, a country where freedom of expression has been guaranteed by law since it returned to democracy in 1983. Since then, reports today’s edition of The Economist, “criticism of the government in Argentina’s media has never been as scarce as it is now.”
The Economist cites the sacking of radio personality Pepe Eliaschev, on Argentina’s public broadcaster, whose 20-year career ended abruptly last month when the station’s boss told him that an order had come “from above” to drop the program – an unusually heavy-handed step in the government’s ongoing campaign to tame its media.
According to the magazine, the Argentinean government achieves its media-taming objectives by “funnelling official advertising to sympathetic media and withholding it from others” and by dispensing favours to selected media organisations.
President Néstor Kirchner’s government has been particularly kind to Argentina’s largest media conglomerate, the Clarín Group, introducing legislation that effectively prevented creditors taking over the company after it defaulted on its dollar debts and extending the group’s cable-television licences for ten years. “Perhaps not surprisingly, Clarín, Argentina’s biggest-selling daily has tended to back the government,” notes The Economist.
Meanwhile Página/12, a “left-leaning daily founded to crusade for human rights” that was once committed to investigative journalism has become a “mouthpiece” for Kirchner and “in return, the government has pumped in money.”
As well, unco-operative media face “low-level coercion” from the government, including “aggressive phone calls from officials after critical stories” and the denial of interviews or seats on the presidential aircraft.
Could it happen in Australia if the cross-media laws are abandoned? Well, with fewer media owners to deal with – not to mention the outstanding IOUs from the owners who will benefit commercially from the cross-media change – the government won’t have as many pesky proprietors to bother it.
And it’s all presented as part of the government’s modernisation of a media industry that is theoretically more diverse because of technology, but in reality is still overseen by a handful of families who are granted favours, public endorsements and state memorial services. Just like Argentina, really.