It used to be once asked why generals seemed to want to fight the last war.

Why do some in the media today want to fight over the dated issue of whether there should be special laws about who owns which media? It is pretty clear that some people would have liked a law to stop Kerry Packer owning any media, or Rupert Murdoch owning The Australian which, incidentally, he founded. Picking media proprietors, as Paul Keating famously once did, is not a role for politicians.

The content of news and current affairs today is determined by journalists and not proprietors. In fact proprietors, in the sense of press barons, are a disappearing species.  There are none at Fairfax, Channel Ten, West Australian Newspapers, of course the public broadcasters and most radio networks. And in addition, Rupert Murdoch is an absentee proprietor. The idea that he determines what appears in, say, The Australian, is preposterous. If he does, he must do this for every newspaper he owns. Now he does work hard – but he is not a superman. In any event, journalists have become so powerful that they rule the roost, not, say, the shareholders of Fairfax or indeed, the ABC board. No longer anonymous as they once were, many journalists now publish or broadcast with no editorial supervision whatsoever, as Lord Hutton found at the BBC. Alternatively their celebrity status can often ensure that any supervision is minimal. This was inconceivable 40 or 50 years ago. The potential for proprietorial control is just not there. The real issue about the media is the way the serious media can best overcome bias in the news, ensuring objectivity and also that comment is identifiable as such. While this is desirable for commercial outlets if they wish to to retain any credibility, it is crucial for public broadcasters, who are under the additional obligation to ensure that comment is from across the mainstream spectrum.  Why aren’t we trying to address these real 21st century issues, rather than something more appropriate to the middle of the last century? And let’s not get sidetracked by whether or not there should be minimum local content on regional radio – this is an entirely separate issue from ownership. The media show scant sympathy for farmers and others exposed to unfair international competition – why should they live in a protected workshop? What is the public benefit in that?

Peter Fray

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