In January this year, the Prime Minister told the National Press Club:

The strength and vitality of Australian democracy rests on three great institutional pillars: our parliament with its tradition of robust debate; the rule of law upheld by an independent and admirably incorruptible judiciary; and a free and sceptical press of the sort that we politicians simply adore.

But what kind of “free and sceptical” media will we have if it’s controlled by fewer owners with fewer opinions, fewer agendas and – inevitably – fewer journalists working for them?

And what kind of “great institutional pillar” will the main platforms of the Australian media be if they are owned by just a handful of proprietors?

Yet that is likely to be the direct result – presumably the intended result – of the government’s plan to water down the cross-media rules, a proposal that is a direct attack on the journalism that supports our “free and sceptical” media.

Abolishing the cross-media rules is an outright attack on journalism, mainly quality journalism, by a government that espouses support for the role of the so-called Fourth Estate. Because when people talk about the Fourth Estate what they’re really talking about is independent, fearless, well-resourced, serious journalism that reports, dissects, analyses and scrutinises the serious issues of the day.

Removing or watering down the cross-media rules will lead to industry rationalisation –which is the point of the legislation – which will lead to fewer jobs for journalists and therefore diminished journalism.

This is entirely about one issue – the power of media owners to influence the public debate. It is not about technology, because technology does not influence the public debate. It is not about “media diversity” because media diversity refers to all media – including the biggest category of media, entertainment media – and much of the media has nothing to do with the public debate.

Yet almost no-one talks about that power. The debate is gagged because the vast majority of journalists are unable to talk about it, for fear of impeding their employment prospects, and the vast majority of politicians won’t talk about it, for fear of losing vital editorial coverage from their local media.

Of course, journalists and politicians know that the power of media owners exists. It’s real. It’s palpable. It hovers over politics and journalism all the time.

And now there will be even more of it.

Peter Fray

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