Interview: Australia’s media crisis has never been more serious

Green Left Weekly’s Jay Fletcher spoke to Wendy Bacon, a Walkley award-winning journalist and professor at UTS’s Australian Centre for Investigative Journalism, about the crisis in Australia’s mainstream media

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The big structural changes announced at Fairfax — 1900 jobs cuts, moving the flagship papers to tabloid, merging the Sydney and Melbourne news rooms — seem to spell the continuing trend toward more corporatism and less journalism. What are the main consequences of Fairfax’s downsizing?

We can’t say for sure but overall there will be fewer stories and voices and there is a danger that content will be more clearly driven by commercial values than it is at the moment. In the long run, strong journalism at Fairfax will only survive if people pay for it online or it is cross-subsidised from other more profitable parts of the company. The trouble is that shareholders will support what delivers them the most money.

Corporate media have always been underpinned by advertising and sales — mostly advertising. So as technology changes the way advertising happens, the amount of money coming in has changed.

So the fact that media are downsizing or closing is an old story. It was really the scale of the Fairfax announcement that was surprising. The company has developed its online media sites in a more commercial way — by which I mean, the content is more directly influenced by what stories will get hits and therefore attract more advertising.

Also the journalists in the online section were less unionised than in the old newsroom and less imbued with the ideas behind editorial independence. So if these values dominate in the so-called “integrated newsroom” that will affect what journalism gets produced and published and with how much prominence.

But there is definitely a struggle going on inside Fairfax with lots of journalists prepared to go fully digital if necessary but still wanting to preserve some territory for independent professional journalism. There is always a tension within corporate media between professional and commercial values and the worry is that commercial values will overwhelm the culture at Fairfax, which is more independent than that at News Ltd.

Management has said that “quality” won’t be compromised in the new tabloid format that will be produced by fewer journalists. But we can’t be sure about that. If by that they mean there will still be some depth, then there will be fewer stories.

It depends what sort of tabloid they mean. That is, there is a difference between the UK based The Guardian and GLW for that matter and News Ltd.’s The Daily Telegraph (in lots of ways of course!) but also in size and number of stories.

In Australian Centre for Independent Journalism research projects we have found the Telegraph has less and shorter stories with fewer voices than the Age and the SMH.

The SMH tends to use more NGO voices for example. You could call it small “l” liberal and pro business but not so neoliberal as News Ltd. So if Fairfax gets reduced there will be even less stories covered and fewer voices in the mainstream media. It is not that there are not a lot of voices and perspectives missing in the mainstream media, but what I am saying is that there is still a big difference between Fairfax and News Ltd. Fairfax, for instance, has been far less willing to promote climate scepticism than News Ltd.

From a regional point of view, if Melbourne and Sydney are even further integrated than they are already, then again there will be less coverage of issues, probably in Victoria.

Because financial journalism will be easier to make a profit out of online, media in working class communities and in rural areas will also be less well covered. For decades, coverage has declined as range of outlets declined. The drive for more efficiencies and very regular filing with fewer staff will accelerate that decline unless new outlets get off the ground.

As these big cuts are occurring, ostensibly intended to keep Fairfax profitable, Gina Rinehart has bought up almost 20% of the company's shares and wants a heavy hand in editorial decisions, even hiring and firing editors and reporters. What are Rinehart's intentions in making such a big investment in a company like Fairfax?

No one has any doubt that Rinehart is intending to impose her political editorial agenda. How she does it is another question. So far she has refused to sign [Fairfax’s] “charter of independence” But at the end of the day, the board selects the editors and the editors select those under them.

Already we have News Ltd, which has a mostly neo liberal editorial agenda, owning nearly 70% of print/online mainstream media circulation. Rinehart is not only extremely wealthy and conservative but she is also a climate skeptic. She has campaigned against the mining tax and carbon policy. She is far more right wing than your average business executive. So this is all adds to the dangers I was talking about before.

In this context, it is really important for Fairfax journalists to maintain some independence supported by parts of the community that support them. The problem really goes back to a failure of Coalition and Labor governments to do anything about media ownership regulation in this country.

Every inquiry has found the fact that we have such a highly concentrated media could lead to abuses of media power. Now the results are staring Labor in the face. They would not even put concentration of media ownership on the Finkelstein media inquiry terms of reference last year. This is by far the most serious situation we have faced in media politics in this country because it is hard to see the way back out of it.

Could you compare these recent developments to News Ltd and Murdoch? Particularly as it moved to buy up James Packer's Consolidated Media Holdings?

The News Ltd situation is really just a continuation of the problem I have been describing. The Consolidated Media Holdings investment just reinforces their interests in television and video. In the end if News Corp offload the newspapers, they can integrate the pay TV assets (which will be concentrated in sport and business) into the rest of its global empire.

In terms of downsizing and integration, it has the same problems as Fairfax. For example, already in there is a lot of syndication of copy. There will be more now and less local journalists. Just think of the situation in Queensland where News Ltd have a clean sweep of the coast — the Cairns Post, Townsville Bulletin, Courier Mail and the Gold Coast Bulletin. There will just be even less stories for regional Australia and again those that get the most quick hits will be editorially promoted.

Many have defended the need to keep editorial independence at Fairfax, but was it really independent before? What do these moves by Rinehart mean for ethical codes in Australian journalism?

Journalism is always influenced by the political economy in which it is situated. There are lots of gaps and values embedded in corporate media but at the same time, you need to see the interests of journalists and the owners separately. Even within Fairfax, some parts of the outlets are more independent than others.

In fact some of those endless supplements like Drive or Good Living, which have been heavily influenced by advertising but are now not as profitable because the readers have gone online, may go.

One can hope some of that goes into more news reporting and investigative journalism survives. There are limitations but at the same time, there is a less compliant, less tribal culture at Fairfax than News Ltd. There has been a strong sense that journalists at Fairfax can’t just be told what to write in the way they sometimes are at News Ltd.

This is important and it is simply an application of the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance code of ethics. The Charter of Independence that was brought in in the early 1990s bolsters professional journalism. The journalists are organising around that and I strongly support that.

The Charter is just something to organise around. It could be stronger and apply to more areas. For example, journalists due to lack of resources are more inclined to accept free trips than before. None of this is good for journalism but what I am saying is that it is a matter of degree. Bending to outside influences is unethical for journalists.

The union, the Media Arts and Entertainment Alliance, and many journalists who are now academics in universities are working on ways that independent journalism (which is also ethical journalism) can be supported in mainstream media but at the same time we need to strengthen independent and community media in Australia.

Comments Community Saves Fairfax If ONE MILLION AUSTRALIANS SPENT LESS THAN $100 BOUGHT & HELD 100 FAIRFAX SHARES, readers would have significant impact on the future of Fairfax newspapers
We must remember history. Whitlams Labor was elected when Murdoch gave the green light in his media and he gave the red light to make said pm deposed aswell. This man has too much power. It's time there was more control. Freedom of the press is the enslavement of the people. The media needs to be balanced, not just for the news of the right. We should be asking more of journos & reject the tabloid trash.

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