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Jul 18, 2011

Politicians are too scared to push for more media diversity

The problem for any inquiry into media diversity is politicians won't act to retrieve what we've lost.

The Greens’ call for a media inquiry won’t get up, and nor should it.

There’s a key difference between politicians inquiring into how we regulate media, and inquiring into the media itself. The issues the Greens want addressed veer over into the latter. And the potential for favours, anticipation of future reward and get-squares is too great. Moreover, the whole thing will look like a Murdoch-bashing exercise. The problems of Australian media aren’t confined by any stretch to News Limited, especially when you take into account that newspapers are a declining, ageing medium with significantly less influence than the major television networks in shaping voters’ perceptions.

But more to the point, the two key issues to emerge from both the phone-hacking affair and the way News Ltd’s newspapers debase and defile public debate in Australia — the need for a statutory right to privacy and an examination of media diversity — are already the subject of separate processes. The government has yet to outline how it will respond to the ALRC’s 2008 recommendation about the need for a statutory right to privacy (strongly opposed by all the mainstream media, not just News Ltd). The phone-hacking scandal and the growing threat of super-injunctions in the UK couldn’t have come at a better time from that point of view — anything less than Labor adopting a statutory right to privacy (with a public interest exception) will look a profound misjudgment.

And as previously noted, the remit of the convergence review covers media diversity. There’s more potential from an independent review of diversity than from a Senate inquiry, although the last serious independent review of media regulation, the Productivity Commission’s Broadcasting review in 2000, was simply ignored by the Howard government.

The right to privacy is the easier issue. The ALRC has made its recommendations; either the government accepts them or it doesn’t. If it does, it can seek to legislate. It is likely the Greens would support a right to privacy. Tony Abbott, because he’d oppose motherhood if Labor proposed it, and because he’s keen to retain News Ltd’s favour, would oppose it. It would be down to the crossbenches.

Diversity is a more complex issue because, whether you’re an embittered veteran of the media regulatory wars or a misty-eyed neophyte who thinks a “public interest test” would solve everything, sooner or later you run up against the problem that Australia lacks media diversity and the only way to get it back is to force some of the six big media groups that dominate the Australian media landscape to divest some assets.

That’s a step well beyond anything previous parliaments have been prepared to come at — telling the Murdochs, or the Packers, or the Stokes, or the Gordons, that they’ve got to sell some newspapers or broadcasting licences or shareholdings. And, I’d venture, there’s no way either of the major parties would ever contemplate forcing divestiture.

That’s the threshold issue for media diversity. At best, politicians will only ever preserve the diversity we’ve got left, not go out and create some more.

There’s an analogous problem, though, with regional media diversity. People living even in large regional centres have significantly less media diversity than people in the capitals. Radio, particularly, is almost devoid of local content — regional radio is rife with networked, sometimes out-of-state content, ruthless minimum wage employment and cosy deals between notional competitors. While the Howard government made a half-baked effort to save regional radio content at the behest of the Nationals, its de facto solution was to fill the hole left by the abandonment of regional communities by radio licence owners with the ABC.

The ABC takes local communities seriously, takes its role as an emergency broadcaster very seriously, and has long effectively married local radio with local online sites. Its regional radio network expanded under the Howard government courtesy of additional funding for regional content.

Unlike forced divestiture, additional resourcing for news and current affairs for the ABC is not merely within the government’s control — it doesn’t even need to legislate for it beyond a budget bill — but politically acceptable, except inevitably to the Friends of the ABC, whose Fair Trade soyaccinos will surely froth with fury at the notion of “tied funding”. It’s a second best option, but in the absence of more voices, improving the publicly funded voices is the next-best option.

The ABC’s news and current affairs coverage is extraordinarily patchy and frequently acts as an echo chamber for News Ltd. Radio National Breakfast routinely relies on that day’s edition of The Australian to shape the program’s political coverage. The ABC’s online news coverage is often sloppy, with opposition press releases frequently run almost verbatim as news. Insiders’ “conservative” panellists are primarily drawn from News Ltd outlets, which ignores the substantial number of far better conservative and libertarian commentators outside their pages. And its “Online Investigative Unit” seems obsessed with replicating News Ltd campaigns against Labor, from the BER to the NBN. A substantial injection of permanent funding might enable the ABC’s editors and producers to lift their game and contribute more effectively as an independent news outlet.

Where would the funding come from? Well, for starters, dumping the Australia Network would free up a substantial amount of funding.

As has been made plain by News Ltd’s long-running  campaign against the ABC, and James Murdoch’s splenetic and, in the context of recent events, comic railing at the BBC in his 2009 MacTaggart Lecture, the Murdochs fear and despise a well-funded, independent public broadcaster. For anyone interested in media diversity, that’s a clear guide to a diversity strategy.

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69 thoughts on “Politicians are too scared to push for more media diversity

  1. paddy

    [Where would the funding come from? Well, for starters, dumping the Australia Network would free up a substantial amount of funding.]

    Bernard…… and I say this in the nicest possible way.
    You’re a rolled gold sh*t stirrer. 😀

  2. Pamela

    Whats wrong with Rupert-Bashing? It is good for the soul if nothing else.
    God knows we have listened to enough Greens bashing, Refugee bashing, Environment bashing to last a lifetime.
    What goes around comes around- ENJOY.

  3. SimsonMc

    The big test would be are the media in Australia too scared to have a similar system like Canada’s? Under the Canada’s Radio Act “a licenser may not broadcast … any false or misleading news.” This provision has kept Fox News and right-wing talk back radio out of Canada and helped make Canada a model for liberal democracy and freedom. As a result of that law, Canadians enjoy high quality news coverage, including the kind of foreign affairs and investigative journalism that flourished in this country before News Ltd brought in their American news model.

    Political dialogue in Canada is marked by civility, modesty, honesty, collegiality, and idealism that have pretty much disappeared in countries where Murdoch resides. When Stephen Harper (Canada’s Prime Minister) moved to abolish the anti-lying provision of the Radio Act, Canadians rose up to oppose him fearing that their tradition of honest non-partisan news would be replaced by the toxic, overtly partisan, biased and dishonest news coverage familiar to American citizens who listen to Fox News and talk back radio. Harper’s proposal was timed to facilitate the launch of a new right-wing network, “Sun TV News” which Canadians call “Fox News North.” It appears that because the proposal failed, Canadians might have dodged a bullet considering the events in London and America.

    Bob Brown – It’s not rocket science FFS.

  4. T.D.G.

    Giving the ABC a heap of new money to do some worthwhile reporting could be a good way to get a greater diversity of views. With a better resourced and more interesting news service the ABC would undoubtedly get more viewers/listeners/readers and could take a lead in setting the news agenda.

    The problem with News Ltd controlling 70% of newspaper circulation is not just that Murdoch’s views dominate print, but also that the rest of the news media tends to takes its lead from what is printed in the morning papers. In addition to controlling most of the country’s newspaper circulation, Murdoch also controls news organisations that have limited audiences, but a national reach and a disproportionate level of influence over politics, business, and the general news agenda – namely The Australian and Sky News. A better resourced ABC would be able to challenge this domination in the way that the BBC does in the UK.

    I, however, disagree with dropping the Australia Network. Certainly, the government needs to work out its priorities about what it wants the service to achieve and what sort of programmes it should be broadcasting. Whilst ending the Australia Network would be barely be noticed in Asia, it could have devastating consequences on the state of the media across the Pacific. In many small Pacific countries, TV only first appeared at around the time that Australia started international TV broadcasting and many local TV channels rely very heavily on rebroadcasting Australia Network content for most of the day. The only other groups interested in providing affordable TV content to the Pacific seem to be the PRC government and evangelical Christian groups – with no Australia Network a number of Pacific countries could end up with no TV service or with one that presents propaganda funded by foreign interests.

  5. geomac

    The Canadian model sounds like a good alternative to what we have at present. I will have to look into it.

  6. Stiofan

    1. The ABC already has a sh*tload of money. If it wants to fund more news and current affairs, it could fund them by dropping its latest legal soapie (Crownies), its ABC1+ digital channels and JJJ (or whatever it’s called these days).

    2. The problem with Radio National Breakfast is not that it takes its agenda from The Australian (what a bizarre notion!). It’s that it has a not particularly bright presenter in Fran “Bee Gees” Kelly. On almost every topic other than national politics, she is clueless. There is nothing better than waking up on a summer morning to hear that Fran is on leave for the duration. Things are also improved by the temporary absence of The Political Editor Of The Age Newspaper (who seem to regard her job as something between an attack dog for the ALP and a summer-up of the bleeding obvious).

    3. Since when has it been the job of all newspapers to act as cheerleaders for the incumbent Government? Isn’t that the self-appointed role of the ABC and the Fairfax press?

  7. Stiofan

    Oh, and your responses are purely for your own relief: they will be so bloody predictable.

  8. Down and Out of Sài Gòn

    I’ll add my amen to taking guidance from the Canucks. “A licenser may not broadcast … any false or misleading news”? Can’t see anything wrong in that. Of course, the usual suspects are going to cry foul on any attempts to legislate this.

  9. Just Me

    “the need for a statutory right to privacy and an examination of media diversity”

    “The problem with News Ltd controlling 70% of newspaper circulation is not just that Murdoch’s views dominate print, but also that the rest of the news media tends to takes its lead from what is printed in the morning papers.”


    Plus, as noted in another comment above, a legal obligation not to lie, and to take reasonable steps (due diligence) to avoid serious misrepresentation (and to promptly and clearly correct it when it does). The news and current affairs section of the commercial media is not just the advertising arm of the corporate world, they have some responsibilities here that extend beyond the bottom line.

  10. Just Me

    “3. Since when has it been the job of all newspapers to act as cheerleaders for the incumbent Government”

    Who is arguing for that?

    Answer: Nobody, except in your fevered partisan brain.

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