Imagine, this is how it ends:

The fire is so close. Phone coverage gone. You turn on the car radio, hoping for a lifeline. It’s the celebrity newsreader, networked from another state. The one they sacked the journalists for. The one who only reads generic stories. The kids scream as the windshield explodes. Yes, it’s real. And, yes, it’s an absolute disgrace.

Australia, we have a big problem. Voices are being snuffed out and democracy severely undermined, with technology falsely held up as the culprit. From mega moguls to emotive regional lobbying campaigns, existing owners continue to push for the right to buy up more and merge. Don’t be fooled.

One of the critical instruments of our democracy, journalism, is being systematically eroded by balance sheet jockeys with no real vision. Those who own the game have spun and lobbied and merged and gouged, to the point where many just accept the cracks left behind.

Curiously, millions can be found for the latest hit show, a new digital channel, and even a non-core business or two. At the same time, we are fed the tripe that because the ABC is delivering a news service, commercial interests no longer need to keep their end of the bargain.

We’re also asked to swallow the ridiculous argument that no one else will want to run or be able to afford these media outlets. If it really is such a burden to own a media outlet, put it up for sale. (Aussies get first bite and no cross-ownership, so you can only own one type of media in any given market.)

But what exactly do we mean by the loss of democracy? And what can we do to save journalism?

How did we get here?

The notion that existing big players should be allowed to own more and more of the media for the greater good is thinly veiled nonsense. The track record of buying up outlets and reducing journalist numbers through merged newsrooms has reached embarrassing levels.

Many local newspapers are no longer based in the communities they are meant to serve, but instead warehoused with other “local” media at centralised locations. It is absurd.

Bizarrely, journalists have lost their own voice. What used to be a clear and concise voice is now buried in an incredibly broad alliance that also represents trapeze artists (an admirable skill in itself, but not the same skill as journalism).

From the outside it seems that, while Rome burns, the eclectic Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance creates more and more Walkley categories to supposedly “help” journalism. The franchise even extending to underage Walkleys.

But journalism needs far fewer Walkleys and far more journalists. So how do we get back on track?

Postcode policy
Australia needs a “postcode/per capita policy” to ensure a dynamic profession that will act as a safety net for our democracy. It needs a quotient of on-the-ground news representation to redress the gaping holes that exist across too many places and communities. Thanks to technology, this has never been easier to achieve, with connected locally based reporters feeding into a network.

And don’t think this is some radical, never-before-tried concept. It is already happening with Australian music, radio and TV programs. Broadcasters are required to deliver a set amount of Australian content in their programming. It is a locked-in “support local” policy that has delivered.

This should be at the very DNA of our media laws for news coverage.

Turning it into reality
The quotient needs to be established by a credible, independent tribunal that includes journalist and community representation. It must be locked into law, or it will be corrupted, spun and lobbied out of existence.

The pathway is also clear. By and large, the footprint of the modern-day Australian media still follows its brick-and-mortar origins. In the vast majority of cases, you’ll find parent companies with roots in traditional media. Start there.

Beware of false idols
The Save Our Voices campaign complains about bigger competitors hurting regional news through the internet, while also wanting “economies of scale” and “mergers”. This is a disturbing suggestion. History shows mergers don’t give us more voices; they give us fewer.

Easy to sell
Local means relevant. People like it, and advertisers like it. Local should be at the absolute forefront of marketing messages: “Hell, why not shame generic out-of-town pretenders while you’re at it?”

Unity and a clear voice
Australia’s leading news directors need to get together and demand of their union a concerted campaign highlighting what has been lost. Local MPs need to be targeted. Consideration needs to be given to re-establishing the Australian Journalists Association as a stand-alone entity.

A pro-active role
A reborn AJA should have its own press gallery reporters to ask the questions that are not being asked. Thought should also be given to running candidates at upcoming elections. If specialist interest groups can find themselves with significant influence, then surely a more dynamic democracy is worthy of a vote.

Too few control too much and give back too little. Australia deserves better.

*Brian Johnson is a former news director at Triple M Sydney and Triple M Melbourne. He won FM radio’s first ever Walkley Award (for a documentary on the then-emerging AIDS crisis). 

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey