Michael West: ‘Independent media is the future’

Photo: Gerd Altmann / Pixabay

In January, the British-based Australia Day Foundation gave Rupert Murdoch, a Lifetime Achievement award. The man, famous for being deemed unfit to run a company after his paper hacked a dead child’s phone, was lauded on January 26 as an example of how to shape public discourse and run a media empire.

It came just 10 days after Michael West Media named Murdoch the recipient of its Lifetime Achievement Award for Tax Dodging. News Australia Holdings had posted $16 billion in income from Australia but paid zero tax.

The vice-like grip Murdoch has traditionally enjoyed on the Australian media goes back to former Prime Minister John Howard’s changes to the cross media laws, allowing individuals to own all types of media concurrently.

The monopoly fallout continues today, including the recent restructuring of what used to be regional media, with many regional TV stations taken over by Sky, local papers closing and hundreds of journalists made redundant.

Nonetheless, there are signs the mainstream advertising-centric, partisan media model may have had its day.

Michael West told Green Left that despite the spin, the old media empires are crumbling, bleeding money and journalists over many years.

“It's death by a thousand cuts,” he said. “I took redundancy from Fairfax back in 2016 and it was already in trouble — the business model is becoming unsustainable.”

West founded the internet-based Michael West Media in June of that year and now has nine on his team.

Independent outlets like The New Daily are snapping up experienced operators while supporting new names. The media is diversifying, digitising and finding new ways to reach people.

West cited the upward trend in subscriber-based, independent media as a key indicator there are more diverse days ahead. He said young people are highly engaged politically, with YouTube channels like Friendlyjordies having more than 470,000 subscribers. More than half of West’s own audience is under 35 years old.

“Young people in particular are clearly fed up with the lies and spin of mainstream media, and the corruption and lobby dollars in government.” He singled out New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian as a prime example of how pork barreling has become normalised in politics.

“It has to stop or we will end up like the US,” he said. “Their corporations own the government outright.”

West said that only an independent media, free of corporate and government influence, can force the required accountability through public awareness.

“People are genuinely sick of seeing politicians put self interest ahead of democracy. And thanks to the internet, anyone can start an independent multi-media outlet.”

New world order

Social media is becoming the go-to for news and cost-free political analysis. This may be partly why the government wants to “regulate” Google and Facebook's handling of news content.

Now safely out of News Corp’s electoral reach, former Prime Ministers Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull are also seeking a royal commission into “threats to media diversity”. The target is Murdoch’s News Corp, along with Nine’s takeover of Fairfax and the war on the ABC.

Surprisingly, their petition garnered more than half a million signatures, the most ever presented to federal parliament. The Trump era has exposed the beast for the divisive, malevolent force it really is.

Streaming services have “killed Foxtel”, West said, adding that Murdoch is trying to transfer Foxtel out of Australia to dark company–friendly Delaware in the United States, along with millions in Australian government grants.

A new day

If big media is on its way out, will we see a crowded market of fledgling independents pitted against each other for increasingly scarce subscriber dollars?

West believes the antidote is collaboration and credibility.

“Collaboration might be sharing information and or resources, or simply backing each other up,” he said, noting journalists are often “highly competitive” and that “some people will never share what they’ve got”.

Credibility, he stated, comes not only from accuracy, but how you handle your mistakes.

“If you make a mistake, print a retraction. Tell your readers exactly what went wrong and how you addressed it. Be honest and up front in everything you do — the opposite of what they are getting now.

“We have to keep getting the truth out there. That, and get rid of political donations.”

Saving democracy

West described the Coalition and Labor as “pathetic” when it comes to lobbyists and their pervasive influence. He said all parties remain dangerously compromised unless political donations are stopped, noting that Labor recently supported continuing to allow property developers to make huge political donations.

Asked how independent media can possibly prevail in the face of open cheque books and bottomless pork barrels, he outlined a four-point plan.

“One, is community awareness,” he said, citing the Greens-initiated 2015 inquiry into corporate tax avoidance as a watershed moment. 

“After that a lot more people became aware of what a free-for-all corporate tax avoidance is in Australia. We need to build on that awareness.

“Next comes political action and believing Australia still has a chance to demand real change at the ballot box.

“Third is for that political action to turn into reforms.

“Four is positive behavioural change.”

He accepts it is a tough gig for newcomers without a network or experience, but believes we are up for it.

“There is always a lot of crap on the internet but I see a lot of quality stuff lately, too. Once you have built some credibility, you’re off and running.”

Green Left put it to West that, given the level of corruption and tax avoidance he regularly exposes, isn’t it a bit late to believe independent media can really help “keep the bastards honest”?

He said we can reduce corruption with public awareness by investigating throughly, checking the facts and using reliable sources like the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

Asked how he remains calm in the face of massive corruption and economic injustice, he said: “I have a motto. Don’t get mad, get even — by printing the truth. That’s our job as independents — to always print the truth.”

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