Australia swims against the tide of democratic media reform

Australia’s established media groups have used the internet to extend their domination of news. AAP/Dean Lewins

That media ownership rules have been progressively relaxed in many democracies is certainly not news. But that Australia, with one of the most concentrated media markets in the world, is thinking of further deregulation is astonishing.

Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has suggested that he would like to relax the Keating-era cross-media ownership rules. These prevent any one proprietor from owning print, radio and television outlets in a single market.

Turnbull is also inclined to eliminate the rule that prevents a person controlling commercial television licences that reach more than 75% of the population. In his own words:

…the arrival of the internet and the additional diversity and avenues for competition that it brings really says we should have less regulation and more freedom.

This is the usual neoliberal argument that the internet will set us free: it is giving us more news to consume, more diversity, more happiness.

“I see a new Athenian Age of democracy forged in the fora the Global Information Infrastructure will create,” Al Gore proclaimed in 1994. Since then, the contention that the internet will disrupt power structures and neutralise traditional gatekeepers has become popular in the new left.

In the UK, for example, the Labour government relaxed media ownership rules in 2003. It explained that “technological development had opened the way for new market entrants”. Well, it did, but only partially.

Old players dominate online

Recent studies show the internet is used primarily for entertainment rather than for news and political information. The most-visited news websites in Europe, Britain, the US and Australia are the websites of the dominant national news organisations.

According to Nielsen Online Ratings, News Corp’s news.com.au topped the Australian rankings in January with an audience of 2.767 million, followed by Fairfax’s smh.com.au and the Microsoft-Nine Entertainment Company’s co-owned site NineMSN. These represent established media institutions rather than new market entrants.

What is even more interesting is that while newspapers are facing an unprecedented decline in revenues, they are also reaching record numbers of readers because of their online editions. This translates into more hegemonic power in the hands of the same few powerful media owners.

At the same time, leading social media and search engines are acting as megaphones of the prevailing elites’ media agenda. This further impairs a variety of viewpoints.

It is this lack of diversity of voices that should worry Turnbull. Excessively concentrated media power does not just entail unchecked ties between political and media elites, as the UK phone-hacking saga demonstrated. This was one of the most remarkable examples of how such dominant media power can undermine the proper conduct of democracy.

The Leveson Inquiry in the UK exposed unhealthily close links between the media and political elite. EPA/Andy Rain

The exercise of such power also entails the establishment of a system of control that does not allow space for dissent, for resistance, for minority voices. In other words, media concentration undermines democracy.

To echo prominent US academics Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky in their analysis of the news media, Manufacturing Consent:

If … the powerful are able to fix the premises of discourse, to decide what the general populace is allowed to see, hear and think about, and to ‘manage’ public opinion by regular propaganda campaigns, the standard [liberal-pluralist] view of how the media system works is at serious odds with reality.

The push for pluralism

Turnbull’s statements are at odds with calls from European media and civil society organisations that are promoting the European Initiative for Media Pluralism. The aim is to secure a European Union directive on national media ownership to avoid concentration in the media and advertising sectors.

This campaign is in line with the promotion of media pluralism by UNESCO and the Council of Europe. In 2005, UNESCO adopted the Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions. In 2007, the Council of Europe affirmed that:

…media pluralism and diversity of media content are essential for the functioning of a democratic society and are the corollaries of the fundamental right to freedom of expression and information.

The council specifically demanded legislation to limit:

…the influence which a single person, company or group may have in one or more media sectors as well as ensuring a sufficient number of diverse media outlets.

These international organisations have indicated resolutely the direction that media reforms should take. The Australian government should follow this course without delay.