Five hundred years ago, English capitalist farmers began a process known as “enclosure of the commons”, the forced and wholesale appropriation of public land — formerly used by villagers for arable farming. Now corporate forces, led by Rupert Murdoch, and agents of the political right are attempting a similar manoeuvre on public broadcasting — the broadcast commons. The ultimate price is our democracy.
There are few remaining really globally trusted brands in journalism: Reuters, The New York Times and the BBC spring to mind. Here in Australia, there really is only one news brand left that the nation turns to in a crisis — the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. But even dear old Auntie is on a slippery slope as — like a reluctant middle-aged stripper — she desperately seeks the approval of a vengeful right that hates the very fact of her existence.
The attack on public broadcasting is not just an Australian phenomenon. In the US in the past week, House Republicans, citing left-wing bias, voted to cut federal funding to National Public Radio, all $5 million of it — a number Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank noted represented one ten-thousandth of 1% of the federal budget. The Republicans’ ammunition, such as it was, included a recent orchestrated sting of an NPR fund-raising executive who was secretly filmed bagging the Tea Party.
The attempt to silence the last non-corporate, independent media voice in America comes despite an extraordinary increase in listenership for public radio. According to the recently released annual Pew Centre Project for Excellence in Journalism, NPR’s listening audience increased 3% in 2010 to 27.2 million members weekly, up 58% overall since 2000. The fact is, public radio is one of the last, if not THE last, bastions of serious, sober, accurate and trusted news — a field vacated by a commercial media increasingly obsessed with gadgets, vapid celebrity and the vein-popping screeching of polarised talkshow politics.
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In the UK, meanwhile, Murdoch — who appears set to get his way yet again in moving to full ownership of satellite broadcasting behemoth BSkyB — has been seeking, through anointed heir James, to cut the legs out from under the BBC, which he believes operates unfairly with a public subsidy. A poll shows 60% of Britons believe Murdoch is already far too powerful. But politicians, wary of the reach of his platforms, are reluctant to curtail the spread of his ownership.
In a recent address to the London School of Economics, available on via podcast, Michael Lyons, the outgoing chairman of the BBC’s governing body, mused the perfect environment for an attack on public broadcasting by commercial media was one of recession and declining advertising revenues — exactly what the UK has been experiencing for the past two years. Murdoch resents the public subsidy that the BBC operates under, particularly now that it competes with his newspapers for eyeballs in the online space.
Here in Australia, where the market is even more dominated by Murdoch, it now seems clear that the state broadcaster is seeking to appease the forces of the corporate and cultural right by allowing their already very visible agents free access to air time to spread their gospel even further. The Andrew Bolts and Janet Albrechtsons and Piers Akermans regularly appear on ABC political talkshows such as Insiders and Q&A to tell us that climate change is a con, that the Greens are fascists and that a powerful, non-elected, leftist cultural elite is forcing its views on the rest of the population.
Now, no one is saying that a range of voices should not be heard on a publicly funded broadcaster. But it seems fair to ask why Bolt, a journalist who already has a platform to expound his views in the biggest selling newspaper in Australia, need any further publicity. What gives him special status? Why is his opinion so keenly sought? In short, why is the ABC — a public broadcaster with a charter to air a wide range of voices — so seemingly desperate to court the approval of paid columnists of a magnate who already controls 70% of the metropolitan print media in Australia?
What seems very clear to independent observers is that public broadcasting is under a sustained attack by forces that would deny its right to exist and who insist that in the meantime it be yet another platform for the conservative viewpoints already crowding the editorial pages of the rest of the commercial media. Seeking the quiet life, the ABC has clearly decided that there is an asymmetry to the political pressures it might be under. Labor governments, now routinely afraid of fighting the culture wars from the left, will leave the state broadcaster alone, while Liberal governments will religiously run the stop-watch on its programming to enforce an accountant’s conception of “balance”.
In a world now perilously short of publicly minded media, what’s needed more than ever is a rigorously independent public broadcaster that does not seek to pander to anyone, which asks hard questions of all sides of politics and that devotes its precious resources not to cheap and populist “opinionating” but to straight journalism, the type that exposes who is pulling the strings of power in a world in which wealth is ever more concentrated and independent voices ever more straining to be heard.
*This article was originally published at blog The Failed Estate