Last night Media Watch favoured us with what Paul Barry was pleased to describe as a special edition asking what can be done to “save public interest journalism”, not that he ever bothered to explain what the program meant by that term.

Instead, we were first given a predictable lecturette on how too many journalists are being shed by the legacy media as the internet continues to siphon off their traditional sources of advertising revenue. Gosh. Really? One might have thought that the Media Watch audience didn’t need to be told this (especially since the program had devoted an edition to the same theme a year ago).

No matter. A current Senate inquiry urged by Labor and the Greens has now given Barry and MW a topical peg on which to hang a reprise of their pet protestation: Facebook and Google are choking quality journalism to death while living off their content.

It’s a perfectly tenable complaint, even if it sidesteps the awkward truth that newspapers, radio and television could not survive today without the vast, free research resources provided via Google, and the endless supply of quotes that can be harvested (again at no cost) from Facebook and Twitter.

But there were a number of misjudgments and omissions in this Media Watch “special edition” that underline how dangerous it can be for a purportedly independent program to offer analysis in what is a contested issue of public concern.

The first, and most obvious, mistake was to rely on the utterances of a politician. In the space of its allotted 13 minutes MW featured five unchallenged statements from ALP Senator Sam Dastyari. For a Labor machine man struggling to revive his reputation, those free kicks on national television were pure gold.

In the context of public politics — the only world that means anything to him — Dastyari doesn’t give two hoots about “public interest journalism”. It seems to me a quick and easy way to grab exposure and curry favour with the journalists and editors whose goodwill he will need along the way. It also plays well in the inner-city ALP branches where preselection for his factional comrades is crucial and the members view cheap access to quality journalism (i.e. anything other than Murdoch) as a right.

A large chunk of last night’s Media Watch was given over to the proposal that internet giants such as Google and Facebook should be compelled, by taxation law, to contribute billions to other companies so that they can continue producing so-called “public interest journalism”. There were seven hefty quotes in support of this notion; none against.

Had the program’s research team bothered to canvass a balancing viewpoint they might have been told that the suggestion that one commercial sector should be penalised for its success in exposing the weaknesses of its competitors is the height of economic hypocrisy. Newspapers don’t pay a special tax to support the town-criers they put out of business. Trucking companies are not required to contribute a levy on their profits to support unemployed bullock drivers.

The same traditional media who for so long have been telling us about the virtues of competition within a private enterprise system cannot now rationally cry foul when new players on their patch start knocking them out of the game.

And it’s not as if this threat is new. Had the managements of our newspapers not been so slow and incompetent in their response to the obvious power of aggregation, their profit graphs might still be pointing north.

But the most disappointing aspect of the Media Watch feature was its implied snobbery. Throughout, we were meant to understand (although this was never stated), that the commodity that so urgently needs to be “saved” is serious journalism — the high-minded stuff they like to read in The Age, Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian.

Yet the popular press, still bought by more than three times as many people around the nation, has been hit just as hard by the leeching away of its advertising revenues to the internet. Nobody on Media Watch was proposing that they should be supported by special taxes. Perhaps the concept of public interest journalism doesn’t extend to what the public might be interested in

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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