Right-wing media domination of regional NSW helps conservatives

August 25, 2020
The smaller newspapers available in Dubbo. Photo: Daniel Pehlivan

With such a strong right-wing media bias in regional NSW, is it any wonder that right-leaning parties dominate?

Of the 93 electorates in New South Wales, 28 of those outside of Greater Sydney, the Central Coast and Illawarra are considered “regional”. Of those electorates, 23 elected an MP from a right-leaning party — either the National Party of Australia, the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party or the Liberal Party. Last year, regional areas elected three Labor MPs and one Greens MP.

It’s a similar story in just about every state election. After researching the regional media landscape, it is clear that regional centres had much of the same right-leaning media characteristics as each other.

When left-leaning metropolitan residents discuss media bias, many bring up the Murdoch media empire as “the source of all evil”. In NSW, the reality is a bit more nuanced.

Typically, local papers are owned by Australian Community Media (ACM). But you can find local papers from neighbouring towns in regional centres. For example in Dubbo, newsagencies sell the ACM-owned Daily Liberal, the independently-owned Gilgandra Weekly, the ACM-owned Mudgee Guardian and the locally-owned Coonamble Times.

Newsagency owners tell me they offer local papers from other towns because many people from those smaller towns drive in to Dubbo for work or to go shopping.

You can find regional, agricultural newspapers owned by ACM such as The Land, Queensland Country Life and Stock Journal, along with News Corp Australia-owned The Weekly Times in many of the regional newsagents.

Although most of those agriculture-oriented papers are from different states, NSW farmers read them to find out about animal pricing, weather and climate forecasting, and farming techniques.

In addition to these, a free, locally-owned newspaper — Dubbo Photo News — is also available in Dubbo. Some of the free independent newspapers exist across the regional centres but they are rarer to come across than ACM, which publishes more than 160 regional newspapers.

Most of ACM’s publications are situated in NSW, but it also publishes in the other states and territories. Local papers owned by ACM publish “inserts”, such as Western Magazine, that are focused largely on agriculture. These inserts are also owned by ACM, but can be found across multiple different local papers. For example, the insert Town and Country can be found in the Wingham Chronicle, Manning River Times and Guardian News.

ACM was started by the owners of The Land, which bought out local NSW papers before finally instantiating themselves as Rural Press Limited in 1981.

In 2007, Rural Press Limited merged with John Fairfax Holdings, before it was renamed Fairfax Media and merged with Nine Entertainment.

This convoluted history isn’t over. In 2019, well after becoming known as ACM, it was sold to Antony Catalano and Alex Waislitz — two relatively unknown wealthy men. Catalano does not even have a Wikipedia page, despite being a newly-crowned media mogul.

From reading dozens of ACM mastheads, it is evident that their editorial strategy is different to that of News Corp local mastheads in suburban regions. News Corp focuses largely on crime in its news section, whereas ACM carries more community stories. However, their opinion sections express similar right-wing sentiments.                                

News Corp, which is largely controlled by the Murdoch family, owns almost no local media in these regional centres. Its main power lies with its metropolitan and national offerings, and its suburban newspapers.

Metropolitan newspapers are always offered in regional areas, and News Corp’s The Daily Telegraph is the best seller with Nine Entertainment’s, The Sydney Morning Herald trailing by a significant margin.

News Corp’s broadsheet newspaper The Australian is offered everywhere, and is almost exclusively focused on national and state politics rather than crime or celebrities. But it undersells compared to The Daily Telegraph and The Sydney Morning Herald, according to newsagency owners.

This is also borne out by the official circulation figures. The numbers look similar, but The Australian is distributed across the country whereas The Daily Telegraph is largely restricted to NSW. There is a significant conservative bias in The Australian.

Contrary to these general trends, there are interesting quirks in the distribution of newspapers across NSW at its borders.

In Broken Hill, the main metropolitan newspaper sold is Adelaide’s News Corp-owned The Advertiser. This is because Broken Hill is so far away from NSW printing presses, the town cannot acquire The Daily Telegraph early enough each day, but can do so for The Advertiser.

Broken Hill and South Australia also share the same time zone, television and radio broadcasts and people traverse the borders for work.

Intriguingly, Broken Hill’s local newspaper, Barrier Daily Truth is owned by the Barrier Industrial Council — effectively the town’s union.

There are similar dynamics in Byron Bay and Tenterfield, towns close to the Queensland border and which offer Queensland publications such as The Gold Coast Bulletin, The Chronicle and the Courier-Mail all News Corp-owned newspapers.

Interestingly, Byron Bay even offers the Herald Sun, Victoria’s major metropolitan newspaper owned by News Corp. The reason I’m told is that a lot of Melburnian tourists want to stay informed.

Nine Entertainment had its newspapers The Sydney Morning Herald and the Australian Financial Review in every newsagency I came across. Their bias is generally socially progressive but with a stated neoliberal perspective on economics.

Occasionally one of these newsagencies will sell The Guardian Weekly, a centre-left magazine with an international focus, or The Saturday Paper, a centrist weekly newspaper with an international focus. It is owned by Schwartz Media, an Australian corporation which also publishes books, Quarterly Essay and a magazine named The Monthly.

Many of these newsagencies sold Quadrant, a hard-right magazine founded on the back of money which originated from the CIA.

The trend across most of these regional areas is right leaning: the local, regional and metropolitan papers all lean in that direction.

Right-wing commentators in The Australian lament the loss of “free speech”. They say it is down to cancel culture even though they monopolise thought in the biggest print media outlets.

Radio in these regional areas is dominated by the ABC. But typically there is a Christian radio offering by non-profit Vision Christian Radio and other mainly music-oriented FM stations.

Metropolitan TV stations such as 10, Nine, Seven, ABC and SBS are available in regional areas, albeit under different channel names, and typically with regional news broadcasts rather than metropolitan.

One key difference exists between regional and metropolitan free-to-air offerings on television — Sky News on WIN. This is a free-to-air channel in regional areas that is not offered in metropolitan areas and, for most of the day, is rather benign politically — offering simple sports news and analysis. But after 6pm, hard-right commentators, such as Andrew Bolt, Alan Jones and Paul Murray each get an hour to spit their diatribes into hundreds of thousands of living rooms.

As of early July, Sky News on WIN broadcast to 2.2 million unique viewers during the prime time hours of 6pm-10pm. There is nothing comparable within free-to-air metropolitan television, although these same commentators can be found on Sky News’ Foxtel channel and on YouTube — both of which are accessible in metropolitan areas. It would be remiss not to mention that Sky News is owned by Australian News Channel, a subsidiary of News Corp Australia.

Bookstores, to the extent they offered political books, were focused on contemporaneous debates such as the rise of China and the future of the “world order”.

There were a fair number of books on climate change mixed in with recent autobiographies such as former United States national security adviser to Donald Trump John Bolton’s The Room Where It Happened.

Other than in Byron Bay, where there was a clear bias towards left-wing offerings, the books on sale were largely even-handed between left and right.

Regional libraries, on the other hand, were a completely different story. The vast majority of books available in Armidale, Byron Bay and Taree were left-wing.

But how many people read library books compared to watching television and reading newspapers? How much traction does online, independent media have within these communities?

With such a large audience for right-wing commentary on television, as well as in the traditional print media, it’s not hard to understand where the right-wing influence comes from.

There are a few independently-owned local papers with a left-wing bias, such as the Byron Shire Echo. If you trek out to Nimbin you’ll find a leftist Nimbin Good Times paper alongside Green Left. But these don’t sell in the hundreds of thousands like News Corp, Nine Entertainment and ACM papers do. And the ABC typically airs views from both major parties.

[Daniel Pehlivan is doing a Masters in Public Policy at the University of Sydney and works on policy for the Australian Greens.]

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