Media moments

MOST JOURNALISTS have very strong
professional reservations about whether the public will benefit from the
Government’s proposed media changes, a feeling perhaps the more worrying given
that many feel they cannot write honestly about the subject lest they offend
their owner.

According to a survey of 374
working journalists, conducted by Roy Morgan, and commissioned by the Media
Alliance and by Crikey.com.au, 87 per cent of those surveyed oppose the dropping
of cross-media restrictions, 74 per cent oppose the plan to drop foreign
ownership restrictions, and 70 per cent are opposed to the continuation of the
current cosy arrangement by which no more than three commercial television
licences are available.

Asked if the overall changes would increase or
reduce diversity of opinion, 85 per cent thought it would reduce it and only 5
per cent that it would increase it. Asked about how it would affect the general
integrity of media reporting, 2 per cent thought it would improve it, 16 per
cent thought it would make no real difference, and 82 per cent thought it would
adversely affect it. These are hardly
ringing votes of confidence in the way the Government is going.

There is no doubt some
self-interest in this perception of where the public interest lies, though it
may have a considerable intersection with the public’s view.

Many journalists believe that the
proposals will see further concentration of ownership across different media,
with the new owners seeking to fund their new investments from “synergies” in
using journalists across several mediums at once.

So that if, say, Fairfax merged with the Nine
Network and Foxtel, the journalistic product of all three would be combined,
with fewer journalists overall, and, as a result, with a narrower, not a broader, coverage of
news and views.

Hence, from a journalist’s point
of view, fewer jobs and opportunities (with possibly more work); from the
public’s point of view, fewer alternative presentations of the material, and a
narrower range of information from which a reader can form an opinion.

The 374 journalists surveyed were
all “working” journalists, from employers such as News Ltd, Fairfax, Rural
Press (owner of The Canberra Times) and
the major television and radio networks. It seems that some of their cynicism
about how the changes might work is tinged with a considerable degree of fear or
apprehension about the standards of their own mediums.

Five in every eight respondents
thought that existing media companies had “too much influence” in determining
how Australians vote, and 71 per cent thought they had too much influence in
determining the political agenda.

More than half (53 per cent) said
they felt they were unable to be critical of the media organisation for which
they worked, and 38 per cent said they had been instructed to comply with the
commercial position of their company for which they work. About a third said
they felt obliged to take account of the political position of their proprietor
when writing stories.

These are serious reflections,
and not only on media companies, but, by
their own admission, on journalists themselves. The more worrying, perhaps,
because they accord easily enough with popular cynicism about journalists, as
tools and hirelings of their wicked owners. I am told by Roy Morgan that a
further public poll he is conducting will show that the public suspects of many
journalists what some of them, in this
survey, admit – that journalists’
professionalism is not always strong enough to stand up against the
political or commercial interests of their employers. Where it is true, it can
affect not only what is reported, but what is not reported, as well as whether a
complete range of views and opinions is getting reasonable coverage. It can
include matters such as whether there is honest coverage and criticism of
advertisers, or whether there is pressure, overt or covert, to write about or
avoid writing about particular matters in which the employer has an interest, to
whether one is, in effect, writing conscious propaganda for one side of the
debate.

The common or garden cynic will
find plenty of evidence for cynicism about such things. There is, for example, a
remarkable symmetry of opinion in all of the many (too many) newspapers
published by News Ltd, and, it seems, an increasing unwillingness to publish any
but a token array of views not in accordance with the opinion as expressed in
editorials. The obvious example might be
on opinions about Australian involvement in Iraq – perhaps the more interesting
in that there is an argument that they are coordinated to fit in with the views
and interests of Rupert Murdoch as American citizen and dealmaker, than as
Rupert Murdoch, former aggressive Australian. There might always be an obvious
exception – a tame house ratbag “balancing” an array of aggressive and
strident ratbags singing from the company hymn sheet – but the overall slant
will be obvious to any analyst.

But there are even more
commonplace corruptions. A good many little newspapers expect journalists to
write advertorial material, uncritical
puffs for advertisers, not always labelled as such. There are some publications
– the City News here would be an example – in which the overwhelming proportion
of the supposed editorial product has
been written because the subject has advertised. This is usually so obvious that
the value of the overall product – even as a vehicle for advertisers – is
diminished because the publication can hardly claim any independence or
integrity in its judgments.

The overwhelming proportion of
journalists on mainstream newspapers should have few difficulties with conflicts
of interest between their professional duties and their employers’ interests
because they do not write in a field where they are in obvious conflict.

Both the proprietors and the
editors of the bigger newspapers recognise that run-of-the-mill integrity – over
pressure from advertisers for example – is a part of their stock in trade;
indeed the more important these days as newspapers, like other mediums, struggle
in a competitive market. If there is pressure, it will usually be visited on an
editor, not on the working journalist, who may not even be told if the person
attempting to exercise influence has been rudely rebuffed.

There is a host of people, from
public relations, marketing and lobbying areas, whose full-time job is to
attempt to exercise influence and to make vague threats and promises, though it
is a desperate or desperately naïve person who will resort to commercial threats
about advertising revenue.

I cannot say that I have never
received such threats – or, just as commonly, attempts to ingratiate by
reminders of how much they advertise – but I do not think they have much
influence on news judgment here and,
when they do, their efforts are as likely to be counter-productive as
productive. That does not mean that they are not listened to respectfully, their
points noted, and that we do not make at least casual secondary efforts to be
sure that their view is presented. But their capacity to kill a story or to head
off a legitimate source of interest is very limited.

I sometimes hear, around the
traps, of various lobbyists and marketing people boasting of their capacities to
influence editors. On almost every occasion in which it has happened in a public
place, at least one of their friends and acquaintances has rung to let me know
of this splendid public relations for us, and (without my quite admitting that I
have ever abused my own power, small as it might be) it has sometimes led to an
unpleasant surprise for the boaster and
his, or her, clients.

There has long been a principle
at The Canberra Times, as on most major newspapers, that we take care to report
public criticism of ourselves, even, perhaps particularly, criticism we regard
as ill-informed or unfair.

Indeed, I have long thought it a
measure of how good a newspaper is, how well and how fairly it reports such
criticism, even if it answers it in the same report.

In just the same way, one of my
first measures of the calibre of any journalist is how fairly and properly they
can report a position of which they are , properly within their lights, quite critical.

Anyone can knock down an Aunt
Sally, or grossly exaggerated position; to rebut a proper argument based on
facts involves a little bit more.

There was a time when that would
be virtually the only time the newspaper itself would be reported, apart from
some self-promotional material involving, say, our sponsorship of sport, culture
or charity. Our editorial executives were not, generally, public figures, our
reporters – even our well-known ones – not “personalities” and “talents“ in
their own right.

Nowadays, both journalists and
editors are better known – something which helps safeguard some independence –
and some older attempts at strict neutrality have been replaced by efforts for
an overall balance of opinion.

The bedevilling thing is that the
media itself is news, and not only over the way that media personalities and
players behave, but over tussles between media organisations and government,
about media conflicts of interest (as when, say News Ltd, owned an airline and
the Packer organisation owns casinos and various other things within the
dispensation of government), and about the process of media agglomeration and
disintegration.

In matters such as these, the
potential for conflict of interest is obvious, but the careful reader often gets
a good chance to add his or her own perspective, if only because there will be
rivals who will not hesitate to point out deficiencies.

Each year, for example, it seems
to me that there is a better news story about the admiring way journalists
working for News Ltd report their company’s financial results than in the
results themselves.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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