Those who want a picture of the predicament of the Australian media could look no further than a short article on News Limited’s recent purchase of Australian Independent Business Media by Ben Butler in The Age. This completely competent and unobjectionable report is stitched together with more pro-forma disclosures than a Craig Thomson payday loan application. Its dominant parts of speech are nouns, verbs and disclosures. There are more interests on display than a swingers’ party in … well you get the general idea.*
The disclosure illustrates the reality behind much of the current storm of debate around media futures — that behind the hype about the death of independent media and scrutiny are ownership structures so monolithic and inter-connected that the notion of a large independent media sphere amounts to something of a joke. It is not merely the fact that there is a virtual News-Fairfax duopoly in the private print media, but that the duopoly has the capacity to draw in sundry institutions that might develop as an independent voice. Ravenous beasts, they scarf up local papers, central city media, etc.
For anyone from the Left, the week’s events are a genuine setback, and another instalment in the mythologisation of Australian media, and public life in general. For while it’s true that the virtual collapse of Fairfax represents a disaster for the left-liberal side of politics, it also makes visible another aspect of media conglomerates — they are concentrations of capital, with a dual function, the return of profit and the production of ideology.
For a time — from the end of WW2 to the 1980s — those two functions coincided in a liberal, and then left-liberal newspapers. Those mourning the descent of such papers from magnificent investigative, crusading, etc, of yesteryear to the lifestyle section wraparound of today, should remember that until the late 1960s (with one notorious exception) neither paper backed a Labor government in an election. Look back at coverage of Vietnam protests, the Suez crisis, the green bans movement or a million other things, and you’ll find a pretty mealy mouthed, simpering discussion of such.
Then, as part of the social revolutions that engulfed the West in the ’60s and ’70s, for about two decades, The Age and The SMH became pretty magnificent. Funded by the classified advertising “rivers of gold” the papers had the money and the orientation to fund extensive investigative reporting, substantial opinion sections, deep book review sections, and other essential features of a genuine public sphere. As always, one key function of left-liberal media was to exclude a further left (i.e. a genuine left) from the wider public realm, and to police the acceptable political spectrum.
Fairfax-advocates — Fairfaxvocates? — are wont to emphasise the top-down nature of this process. The wise, elite editors who dragged a recalcitrant population into taking a wider look at the world — central among them Graham bloody Perkin — are held up as gods. But the process was as much from the bottom as from the top. Left-liberal glory days occurred during a a postwar world in flux, a more educated and fluid readership, and above all a transitional class — in office work, policy, teaching, etc – neither fully identified with the working class or bourgeoisie.
Thus, the appetite for a type of coverage that saw the world as transformable, had a liberal idea of selfhood and culture, was immense. In Australia it lasted right into the 1990s. Why did it start to die? Many Fairfaxvocates have a myth of the fall as far as that goes — evil, brand-oriented managers sullied the pursuit of pure news and budded-off lifestyle sections, choking true journalism. In fact, the public was changing because the culture was changing — in a world where globalised capitalism had become the sole ideology by which society could be run, the focus of mass interest turned away from the society and towards the self.
Many people simply abandoned the idea that they could change the larger structures of everyday life, and became intensely focused on how their own selfhoods developed. This is the era when Time magazine famously stopped running geopolitical images on its cover, and focused instead on its human-interest story — the family, childhood development, psychological issues, etc. If that is what sells papers, it is because that is what people are really interested in, en masse. If journalists who have churned out their fair share of such material lament the days of news gathering, and progressive campaigning, it is because such a conception of the journalists role gives it a heroic cast — without which it would just be a life of wrapping text around advertising (which seems to be the basis of the News reorganisation).
The shift to the personal and the individual started in the ’80s, and was then taken over by the online revolution and the shift towards a fragmented mediasphere — a fragmentation that is part of the atomisation of social life in general, and with it the creation of an identity politics. Once that occurs, the collective audience for a left-liberal politics is gone — society appears to be an unchangeable machine, politics a set of instrumental processes, and the only reality is the individual self amidst a network of tastes and choices. It’s fair to say that sections of major media management have been more awake to these shifts than many self-aggrandising journalists who feel they’ve been sold out by pointy heads and bean counters, etc.
For anyone on the genuine left side of the equation, the death of this middle formation should be treated as an opportunity, not a threat. Yes, the trajectory of News Ltd into lunar right territory, and the prospect of Fairfax being run by the Rinehart cowboys is terrifying — but in another sense it was always going to happen. Capital was going to return to capital one way or another. Yet, given online costs, etc, in parallel with the august pluralist publication in which you are reading this, it would be possible to create media outlets that are not beholden to that principle.
One of the most remarkable things about Australia over the past century is that major progressive forces — i.e. Labor and the unions — made very little effort to develop their own media outlets. A few radio stations — the greater 3KZ — and that was it. No daily newspaper, no TV stations, etc. They relied on smaller publications, informal networks, etc — and for the past two decades they have relied on Fairfax to provide a forum of sorts. Looking at the next decades, it’s worth thinking big — not $5 million or $15 million projects, but $100 million and $200 million projects, funded from progressive capital and public capital funds under management, to create a new mediasphere, and challenge what will inevitably be a monolithic centre-right duopoly before long.
The question is whether such money and such will can be found, or whether even that vestigial political formation is so far gone that we have drifted into the era of the totally post-political, in which big questions cannot be raised, and those who do could not keep publishing.
*Yes, yes, disclosure, disclosure. Crikey owner Eric Beecher is part-owner of AIBM. I have been a long-time freelancer for Fairfax, and contributed to The Australian during its brief thaw in the early 2000s.