Australia’s media concentration bad for democracy

September 2, 2011
News Limited CEO John Hartigan.

A poll commissioned by new online campaign NewsStand found 61% of Australian people agreed a “public inquiry into the Australian media is necessary so the public can better understand the relationship between politicians, corporations and media outlets”.

NewsStand, backed by GetUp, then launched an online petition on August 11 calling for parliament to “publicly scrutinise the media landscape as a whole”, which quickly gathered almost 30,000 signatures.

Online petition site also launched a similar petition demanding a “full inquiry into Australian media’s practices including far-reaching investigations of Rupert Murdoch’s News Limited”.

Professor Wendy Bacon, an investigative journalist with the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism, told Green Left Weekly the proposal for an investigation of media practice in Australia had come at a crucial time.

After the worldwide exposure of illegal and unethical practices in Rupert Murdoch’s news empire, particularly the phone-hacking scandal that led to the end of Britain’s News of the World, Australians could not assume its media were immune.

Bacon said: “You’ve got computer hacking allegations in the US, and Italy, a phone hacking scandal that was correctly described by Four Corners as a ‘criminal enterprise’ and people want to put their head in the sand in Australia and think it’s not like that here?”

She said the growing concentration of media, as well as the powerful influence of who owns it, needed serious attention.

“The problem with media concentration and ownership became obvious when the News Limited scandal happened. If the Murdochs decided to close down outlets in Australia to hold up their profits, smaller and regional areas could lose their primary source of information.

“That is bad for democracy, but it makes this an important time to now push grassroots campaigns for a more diverse range of media."

Australia Institute executive director Richard Denniss told GLW: “Australia doesn’t have a very diverse media. Many cities, even capital cities, have only one major newspaper.

“In these papers there is a high degree of subjectivity about what stories are selected as ‘newsworthy’ and the way those stories are presented to the public.

“It means fewer people are making judgements over what the public knows and sees. The best way to overcome that is to have a diverse range of people making decisions about news and information.”

Bacon and Denniss have joined NewsStand — along with Miriam Lyons from the Centre for Policy Development and several other prominent media professionals — to pressure the government into examining corporate dominance of the media in Australia.

NewsStand’s website said its aim is to “look at how to promote higher standards, protect people’s privacy while guaranteeing the freedom of the press, stimulate a more diverse media marketplace, and ensure that problems and complaints can be handled simply, fairly and effectively”.

Denniss said public discussion about who runs the media in Australia was important because “there are many limitations at the moment”.

“The relative attention paid by the media to the Craig Thomson affair compared to the virtual silence over the government’s desire to spend $50 billion on submarines is evidence of the need for broader perspectives.

“And when we make this a public conversation, people want to be involved.”

Bacon said the existing mechanisms were not enough. “There are bodies like the Australian Press Council that are supposed make media accountable, but which are not actually independent. And there is Media Watch, which is very good, but 15 minutes a week is not enough, and it is still run by the ABC.”

NewsStand’s petition was given to communications minister Senator Stephen Conroy on August 24, who was already holding a so-called convergence review to regulate new and digital media.

However, Greens Senator Bob Brown said on August 31 he would seek to establish a more thorough parliamentary inquiry and had negotiated with Conroy over possible terms of reference.

Bacon said there were risks that a parliamentary inquiry may not go far enough.

“We need a media inquiry, but we need to make sure it’s an inquiry that’s worth having,” she said. “The department of commications' 'convergence inquiry' is driven by questions about technology and mainly defines people as consumers, not citizens with rights in a democracy.

“What we also don’t want is ‘more government regulation’ — more laws that restrict journalists and reporting.

“Privacy is obviously important, but the concentration of media and, more importantly, information about who owns and controls it, is what a useful media inquiry will uncover.”

Prime Minister Julia Gillard reacted ambiguously to the call for “opening the books” of Australia’s news corporations. But her reaction also showed why “the relationship between politicians, corporations and media outlets” needed to be scrutinised.

Last month, Gillard met News Limited editors at the invitation of CEO John Hartigan after she said News Corp had “hard questions” to answer following the News of the World scandal.

But after the meeting Gillard declared her support for Murdoch’s Australian newspapers, saying “there was no evidence of telephone hacking” and she was “satisfied” with News’ plans to audit itself, the Australian said on August 16. She has since shown only a reserved opinion of an inquiry.

Bacon said alternative and independent news sources, shared and controlled by communities, would help break the power of the news corporations in Australia.

“This online campaign is important, but it won’t be enough. You’ve got to have a grassroots movement — better journalism education, more resources pumped into diverse media and investigative journalism. We need to have a more democratic media.”

She and Denniss pointed to examples of independent media that have pushed against the Fairfax and News Limited trend.

“Green Left Weekly and New Matilda and the great work of Crikey’s Power Index … show the direction Australia needs to go — people first need a voice and they need a media outlet to express it,” Bacon said.

Denniss said: “The fact that the broadsheet and tabloid newspaper market is under threat because of new technology … is creating space in the market for Green Left Weekly, Tracker, The Monthly, and others.

“We have to be careful not to judge the health of Australian media purely in terms major metropolitan newspapers.”

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