I was whipped with a feather today by the estimable Australian and Quadrant columnist Frank Devine because I had the temerity to suggest that politicians and policy makers should think about the consequences for democracy if the bulk of Australian quality journalism disappeared.

In a column that aligned perfectly — but no doubt coincidentally — with His Master’s Voice, Devine trotted out lines that could otherwise have been lifted directly from The Australian‘s leader columns:

… “The notion of further involving government in Australian media is preposterous” … “funded by the taxpayer, the ABC has been a wretched exemplar of good journalism for the past 20 years” … “it is not by chance that newspapers struggling hardest to make ends meet are those most avidly practising agenda journalism, ranging from The New York Times to, alas, The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald” … “agenda journalism is a dangerous pursuit …”.

Putting aside the grand irony of attacking “agenda journalism” in the pages of The Australian, Devine misrepresents my comments in the interests of constructing his own internally useful polemic.

What I am saying is this. Australia’s important, well-resourced, “public trust” journalism resides primarily in three places: Fairfax (chiefly SMH, Age, AFR), News Corp (chiefly but not exclusively in The Australian) and the ABC.

These three quality journalism platforms have three distinct funding sources: newspaper classified advertising (Fairfax), the patronage of a proprietor who seeks influence rather than profit (The Australian) and the Australian taxpayer (the ABC).

Two weeks ago the Fairfax management effectively raised the white flag on their commitment to continued high-level funding of quality journalism in the SMH and The Age, with their announcement of another big round of editorial job cuts. This means, in my view, that the resources traditionally applied by Fairfax to quality journalism are likely to be in systemic decline.

That leaves the medium-term future of well-resourced quality journalism primarily in the hands of The Australian (and to a lesser extent papers like the Herald Sun and Courier-Mail) and the ABC.

The Australian makes hardly any profit and is just as vulnerable to the loss of display recruitment and classified advertising as any other newspaper. It survives — like the loss-making London Times and New York Post — on the support of its 77-year-old Medici owner who is likely to be mortal.

Which leaves the Leftist, agenda-driven, conservative-hating, incendiary hotbed of subversives, the ABC, as potentially the last remaining bastion of well-funded quality journalism in a decade’s time.

That is why I believe Australian politicians and policy makers should at least contemplate a world devoid of large-scale commercial quality journalism. Which is not to advocate the concept of government-owned newspapers or the creation of a government fund to pay for commercial journalism or anything like those things.

But the looming prospect of greatly diminished quality journalism in Australia, and the consequences of that prospect on the virility of the democratic debate in Australia, is in my view a discussion about market failure that is, at least, a subject worthy of debate rather than derision.

Peter Fray

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