(Image: Private Media)

This is day five of The Dirty Country: Corruption in Australia. Read the whole series here.

Australia’s media are a key component of any anti-corruption agenda. Media companies have campaigned for greater transparency, and governments work assiduously to thwart journalists’ requests for information and efforts to hold them to account

But the media are also part of Australia’s corruption problem.

If soft corruption is the misuse of public resources for private benefit, and the abuse of public policy and institutions to benefit the latter, the media have been as enthusiastic as any other major sector in attempting to influence governments to serve their interests — and not abstract interests relating to a free press and journalistic freedom, but the economic interests of media companies.

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Few media companies donate to political parties — a rare exception being the Nine Network, chaired by Liberal elder Peter Costello, which hosted a fundraiser for the Morrison government in 2019. Given most political contributions are devoted to buying advertising, there would be a certain circularity to such donations anyway.

But media companies can offer something far more effective than advertising spots: they shape the images and words that voters are presented with about politics, particularly during election campaigns. And if newspapers can shape the terms of political debate, it is television, and particularly commercial television networks, that are the most potent shapers of what messages voters receive.

This had led to both sides of politics distorting public policy to serve the interests of the commercial television networks over decades.

In particular, politicians prevented any effective competition to the commercial television networks that might have served consumer interests: additional commercial TV licences were banned; pay TV was banned until the mid-1990s and then heavily restricted to prevent it competing with free-to-air broadcasters; and when digital television arrived, the government established an absurdly elaborate framework to prevent the vast amount of spectrum freed up by digital transmission from being used for any service that might compete with the free-to-air broadcasters.

The broadcasters were also given a light-touch co-regulatory regime in which even egregious breaches of codes of practice were met with wrist slap-level punishments.

At every turn, the commercial interests of media companies were favoured over those of consumers, in a distortion of public policy that delivered windfall profits to commercial television licensees. And those distortions have given us our current deeply flawed and oligarchic media environment.

And the distortion continues, with the government’s news media bargaining code drafted by media companies with the goal of forcing Google and Facebook to hand over revenue, backed by a vociferous campaign of demonisation of the tech companies led by journalists, not just editorial writers.

Media companies, it turns out, are happy to mislead their readers and audiences and undermine journalism to maximise their own profits.

As with restrictions on competition for television licensees in past decades, the real goal of the news media bargaining code is to entrench the position of major media companies, which will benefit disproportionately from revenue from tech companies compared with smaller competitors.

Corruption goes further in relation to particular media companies. News Corp, in the words of one of its most senior Australian figures — The Australian’s editor-at-large Paul Kelly — admitted his masthead, the company’s flagship, supports the Coalition, saying it was “the working rule of established media. Centre-right newspapers back centre-right parties”.

In return for its support, the Coalition has showered tens of millions of dollars in taxpayers’ money on the company — $40 million in recent years, five times the amount of tax the multibillion-dollar company has paid. This funding included millions in untied grants with no performance requirements attached.

Such individual cases of favouritism can at least be called out by other media companies. But when major media firms influence politicians to distort public policy in their own interests, there’s no guardian of the public interest to warn of corruption and vested interests; the public are kept in the dark about how the public interest is being undermined in favour of influential corporations. The watchdog, it turns out, will stay very quiet when it stands to benefit.

Private Media, the publisher of Crikey, receives funds from Google’s News Showcase.

Should Australia’s media companies declare their interests? Write to letters@crikey.com.au. Please include your full name to be considered for publication in Crikey’s Your Say section.