In the third of five extracts from her new book The Content Makers, Crikey media commentator Margaret Simons meets Graeme Samuel and wonders at the ACCC’s role in media regulation.

Graeme Samuel is a small, dark and determined-looking man. He gives the impression of being tightly packed in his own skin. His staff reportedly say that he recognises no shades of grey – that he lives in a world of certainty. He has denied this. He says he is always prepared to listen to other points of view. Nevertheless, he gives the impression that the gap between what he sees as common sense and his own opinion is narrower than it might be for most of us.

He prefers to be called Graeme. In fact, he insists on it. Like a true free marketeer, he is against hierarchies and undue deference. He made a point of telling a conference on leadership a few months before our meeting that he preferred – insisted – on being called Graeme.

“You don’t create respect out of a title or a name, you create respect out of your ability to work with others, out of your ability to be able to communicate with others, out of your ability just to be able to provide leadership.”

The components of leadership, he told them, were an ability to think logically and objectively, self-confidence and the courage of your convictions, as well as enthusiasm, an ability to communicate, a thick skin and a sense of broader community responsibility. Now, in his handshake, the way he flung his arms behind his head and lent back under questioning, I could see the self-confidence.

He is a friend of the treasurer, Peter Costello. His critics had suggested to me that he would never stand up to the country’s establishment – to Murdoch and to Packer – and that he was in any case wrong to think that markets in news and information could be defined. How could one gain a monopoly in such a thing, in legal terms, unless one tied up all the journalists, or seized all the broadcasting waves?

I put this to him. He smiled. It was new territory, he agreed, but he was sure that it could be done. Just because it is complex does not mean it is impossible. So what is his idea of quality journalism? He answered that he would prefer to talk about credibility – whether one source of news is substitutable for another. I asked what he regarded as credible? What did he read himself?

He said he was a “big devotee” of The Australian, the newspaper in the front line of Howard’s culture wars, but he had been a bit “irritable” with it lately. It had, he said, a split personality, with serious opinion pieces but almost “tabloid” front pages. He gave as an example Caroline Overington’s exposés on the Australian Wheat Board. He didn’t think the government deserved the kicking it had received.

“The editor would say that that was larrikinism, and that you’ve got to have a bit of larrikinism in a paper.” But Samuel thought it was “tabloid”. It undermined credibility, to campaign in that way.

As for the rest, he looked at the mainstream media every day but was selective. He didn’t much like The Age, “because I find that it is quite definitively political in its direction, and I just don’t like the way that it does it. That is all right, that is just a political view”.

He watched the ABC and Lateline and logged on to the ABC’s online news service three times a day. He didn’t read the tabloids, except for the business analyst Terry McCrann on the business pages of the Herald Sun, but he could get that online. He subscribed to Alan Kohler’s Eureka Report, and expected to see more credible journalists start up outlets of their own, as Kohler has done. As for the radio, he rarely shifted the dial away from the ABC.

What about celebrity magazines, I asked. He laughed. They were “titillation”. How might one choose between them on the grounds of quality or credibility?

“Well, they are rubbish stuff, aren’t they?” he said. “Goodness knows how you would choose.”

Are they entertainment, or news? I asked. What market are they in? He thought they would be in a different market from news and information. What about tabloid television current affairs? “Yes, that’s just rubbish, but it makes money.” Channel Ten, he noted, was the most commercially successful television station in the country, on a return-for-investment basis. Big Brother was not to his taste.

So, I asked, is a current events program such as Channel Nine’s A Current Affair in the same news and information market as The Australian? They might all be different markets, said Samuel.

There might be an entertainment news market, and another market for international news, and another for national news of the kind run by broadsheet newspapers and the ABC, and another for local news such as that provided by local newspapers and radio. Local content, from a competition point of view, “has got to be our greatest area of sensitivity in terms of mergers”.

And what about the blurring of advertising and content? Samuel’s public pronouncements included an acknowledgement that the advertising and entertainment markets might be blurring, but said that this was happening only at the margins. I asked him about John Laws, Alan Jones and the Cash for Comment affair. How does that square with credibility? The answer, he said, is disclosure. The listener must be told when money has passed hands.

On we went, drilling down into the idea of a market for news and information, and just what quality or credibility might mean. How, in assessing potential mergers, would the ACCC try to measure the credibility of a media outlet?

“We think the audience will do that,” he said.

The staff of the ACCC would conduct surveys to find out attitudes to news and information. They would look at ratings, and they would look at qualitative information. “It’s all part of our standard investigative process.”

But is measuring audience habits the same thing as quality? It seems to me that this begs the question of whether a well-used outlet is the same as a quality outlet – whether ratings are all that matter.

We wrangled. He said:

There are some who might say that a tabloid newspaper’s content is of a lesser quality than that of a broadsheet. There are others who might say, “Well, look, you speak for yourself, but that happens to be your elitist view of the world. I happen to think that my tabloid newspaper is a much better quality newspaper.” There are some who will say, for example, that certain tabloid journalists are of lesser quality than those that appear in a broadsheet because they express a certain opinion but others will say, “Fair go, the broadsheet is pure left-wing, and the tabloid is right-wing, and I am of the right-wing view,” so I’m not sure how you measure these things. Quality is very much a judgement issue, you know.

I knew. That was rather my point.

Finally, Samuel said that perhaps what the ACCC would measure would not be quality, and not credibility. Perhaps the ACCC should not use those words. What the ACCC would be looking at would be audience choice and consumer preference.

Not long ago Samuel was sitting with associates from Opera Australia, where he was until recently chairman:

I ventured the question of whether what we were seeing being produced by some Australian composers and playwrights was genuinely creative artistic development, or was it artistic self-indulgence. Now, there was shock and horror from some around the table, but some others around the table said, “Yes, that is an interesting question.” Now, some investigative journalism is potentially very valuable, but ultimately, some of it may be regarded as rubbish.

I asked whether investigative, serious, resource-intensive journalism could survive in a market-driven world?

Samuel answered, “If consumers want it, yes, if they don’t want it, no.”

This is an extract from The Content Makers, by Margaret Simons, Penguin (rrp $35.00), available in bookstores from 3 September 2007.

Tomorrow: Network news.

Peter Fray

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