Media crisis: Is Aunty an ally?

July 13, 2012

Amidst the ongoing discussion about Fairfax, Gina Rinehart and the “crisis of journalism”, the ABC celebrated its 80th anniversary on July 1. As Fairfax and News Limited cut newsrooms and erect paywalls the ABC is expanding its online and broadcast news presence.

John Roskam, executive director of the conservative Institute of Public Affairs, said in the July 6 Australian Financial Review: “Right now, on many measures, the healthiest media outlet in Australia is the ABC. As the privately owned companies go through the turmoil of their restructures, the prospect is for the position of the ABC to keep growing relative to Fairfax and News.”

Roskam is less than impressed by this development. He said the ABC “is using its privileged, government-funded position to crowd out the market against its commercial rivals”.

What particularly worries Fairfax, News Limited and neoliberal ideologists such as Roskam is that “the ABC’s rapidly expanding online presence duplicates what Fairfax and News already provide, but with one vital difference — the Fairfax and News sites are, or soon will be, behind a paywall. In the not-too-distant future, consumers will have a choice: pay to get stories and commentary from Fairfax and News, or get them free from the ABC.”

As Jeff Sparrow, editor of Overland, said recently: “Most discussions of the current imbroglio fail to distinguish adequately between the social and the commercial function of newspapers, two quite different points. The business of broadsheets might be in crisis but there’s absolutely no crisis in the service they provide.

“We’re faced, in other words, with a failure of the market, not a failure of journalism.”

In contrast to Roskam, Sparrow argues that the “obvious” solution to the failure of the media market “is to expand the ABC, extending its operations to fund the quality journalism the newspapers can no longer provide. With extra staff and extra resources, the ABC could quickly and easily provide the kind of journalism for which we once relied exclusively on the press.”

Given the Fairfax/Murdoch media oligopoly, Sparrow says “an expanded state sector would offer more choice, not less”.

But the capitalist press has very rarely provided “quality journalism”. Any quality journalism it has produced is incidental to its main purpose, which is to report on the debates between capitalist politicians without questioning the rules of the game itself.

But a bigger ABC is not a genuine alternative to the problem. For example, on the same day Sparrow’s article was published, ABC 7.30 host Leigh Sales accused Greens leader Christine Milne of refusing “to budge an inch” while the rest of parliament were “willing to make a compromise” to “discourage people from coming to Australia on boats”. This was hardly an independent or alternative viewpoint.

Similarly, the ABC’s Four Corners recently ran a story called “Smuggler’s Paradise”, which set out to discover “how many [people smugglers] have made their way to Australia posing as asylum seekers and have persuaded the government to grant them refugee status and residency. Now they ply their lucrative and sometimes lethal trade, whilst living on taxpayers’ money.”

The Refugee Action Coalition Sydney said the Four Corners story “only added to the demonisation that surrounds the media and politicians’ portrayal of people smugglers.

“Rather than ‘shock-horror’ revelations that arrangements for boats were being made in Australia, Four Corners could have more usefully looked at the useless [police] prosecutions of Australian refugees desperate to get their families to safety.

“It is not people smugglers, but the politicians, using asylum seekers as political footballs, who are playing with refugees’ lives.”

No doubt, had the ABC existed in the 19th century United States it would have run an expose of the “criminals” coordinating the underground railroad that helped black slaves flee the US for Canada and Mexico.

Another example of the quality journalism on offer at the ABC was given on the July 2 episode of 7.30. Sales spoke to Treasurer Wayne Swan about the carbon price. Of the 10 questions she asked, just one was actually about the carbon price itself. The other nine were all devoted to how the ALP was going to sell the tax and the impact it would have on PM Julia Gillard’s chance of winning the next election.

Far from hard-hitting journalism, this typifies a consistent approach from ABC political journalists — they want to be “insiders”. As US media critic Jay Rosen has argued, there is something perverse about this. Surely the aim of quality journalism should be too expose the flaws of the carbon price rather than take part in the government’s attempt to spin the story in another direction.

Where was the question about whether the carbon price would actually achieve anything at all? Where were the questions about the obscene handouts to polluting industries? Instead, the one concrete question asked of Swan was why the average household was being “overcompensated”.

That the ABC is considered the most trusted news network in the country is more an indication of the poverty of commercial political journalism and the commercial format of news than a vindication of the ABC itself.

Rather than call for an expanded ABC, we should focus on developing a genuine alternative source of news and commentary. For the left the crisis of the commercial business model actually makes this more achievable than ever before — in other words, it is not a crisis for us but an opportunity.

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