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Australia’s lamentable media diversity needs a regulatory fix

Australian media, and in particular the print media, stands out internationally among advanced democracies for its extreme concentration. Three owners – News Limited, Fairfax Media and APN News and Media…

Two companies control 88% of Australia’s print media assets. AAP/April Fonti

Australian media, and in particular the print media, stands out internationally among advanced democracies for its extreme concentration.

Three owners – News Limited, Fairfax Media and APN News and Media – hold approximately 98% of the sector, and two of these owners, News and Fairfax, together hold about 88% of the print media assets in the country.

This places a ceiling on the number of the voices Australians can access in the form of original news. Even when performing optimally, the limit of these corporate voices is a constraint on the diversity of news and opinion.

A reasonable comparison can be drawn with the supermarket retailers, Coles and Woolworths, and their Australia-wide duopoly. There are relative adverse consequences of having a duopoly in our retail food sector compared with one in the news print media. Indeed, the possibility of the Australian population being sufficiently well informed to make many important everyday living and election time decisions, ratchets the media sector up a notch or two over grocery shopping.

Why does a diverse print media sector matter? Contrary to the misleading celebrations about internet abundance that we all too frequently hear nowadays in the (self-interested) media or claims by their politician fanclubs, there is clear evidence that print media (including online versions of the most popular news brands) remains the dominant source of news for the rest of the news media sector – both traditional (radio, television, magazines, subscription) and new media (online only news sites, and very popular aggregators like Google and Yahoo or portals like Ninemsn).

The most important news media for everyday living is the media that can usefully inform us about political, consumer and business choices at a very local level. Don’t fall for those superficially persuasive arguments about how we can now all have A-list opinion twitter feeds and read newspapers and blogs from all over the globe on your smartphone.

Sure, it’s possible, but the majority of people simply don’t approach media in this way. We use search engines or bookmarked web pages to find out more about story we’ve heard about in the workplace, through friends or family, hearing background media like talkback radio, or having it shared or liked on Facebook. We’re still watching free-to-air television and listening to commercial radio.

With the exception of Sydney and Melbourne, no other large Australian city has more than a single daily newspaper.

Which other major cities around the world can you think of that have such limited choice? I was recently researching news media diversity in Hong Kong, and was surprised to learn they have 50 daily, made from trees newspapers, for a population of only seven million.

These consist of 24 Chinese language and 16 English language (including one in Braille) papers, eight bi-lingual dailies and five Japanese dailies. Most have online versions.

Hong Kong might not be the perfect comparison, but the difference is instructive.

In more similar countries, the US, with a population of around 307 million has three corporations controlling 26% of the circulation of newspapers. The UK, with a population of 62 million has three corporations with 62% of the circulation.

For a medium-ranking democracy, Australia’s 98% print media circulation in the hands of three corporations puts it in a special category in the international media concentration league table.

With concentration data like this you can begin to see why Australia needs to be a regulatory trendsetter, and why comparing Senator Stephen Conroy to Stalin is clunky hyperbole from those with power in their hands.

Whether or not the proposed Public Interest Media Advocate is the best mechanism to safeguard existing media diversity, and most importantly news media diversity, is debatable. But even the most self-interested supporters of self-regulation should acknowledge that Australia is in need of all the regulatory help it can get, because our very limited news media diet is clearly not a very healthy one.

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26 Comments sorted by

  1. Trevor Kerr

    ISTP

    Julian Disney at the Inquiry (19/3) said "...to me one of the main answers to media diversity is to strengthen quality online journalism, to recognise the validity of that journalism and to encourage people to be able to identify it so that we have a broader range of sources. Some of the talk about diversity generated by online I think overstates the case. I think we need to bulk up the audiences for some of these people. They need then to be clear that they have the same standards and the same privileges…

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  2. Michael Brown

    Professional & academic

    "Even when performing optimally, the limit of these corporate voices is a constraint on the diversity of news and opinion.A reasonable comparison can be drawn with the supermarket retailers, Coles and Woolworths, and their Australia-wide duopoly."
    I think you are factually wrong here - there is intense competition in supermarkets from Aldi and Costco - Aldi has more than 300 stores now.
    And the "corporate voices" in the press are certainly not a constraint on diversity of news and opinion - there is a myriad of diverse sources of high quality content online - anyone who says there isn't, is not looking, or is spinning a political line.
    There is no problem needing fixing.

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    1. Darren Kay

      Private trader

      In reply to Michael Brown

      According to this recent story: http://www.smh.com.au/business/coles-woolies-turn-the-screw-on-competitors-20121102-28px6.html

      Coles and Woolworths account for 56% of the grocery market so as you suggest, the analogy wasn't accurate.

      You state that "a myriad of diverse sources of high quality content" exists. Maybe, maybe not. Even making the assumption that new sources are 'high quality' you've missed the point.

      The point is that print media and their online versions still dominate the rest of the news media sector. Read the link provided in the article (http://cpd.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/Centre_for_Policy_Development_Issue_Brief.pdf).

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  3. Felix MacNeill

    Environmental Manager

    Thanks Tim - useful and powerful points.

    Despite the fact that Michael Brown has obviously either not read your article or completely failed to understand it, the plain truth is that most people get most of their reportage from evening news on TV and the morning paper. The lack of diversity in these media is disturbing.

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    1. Tim Dwyer

      Senior Lecturer, Department of Media and Communications at University of Sydney

      In reply to Felix MacNeill

      Thanks Felix. I can't think of an Aldi approximations in the media here (certainly not Crikey), but yes the more important point is that there is a serious lack of print media diversity in this country, and this needs thoughtful invention that's not hastily horse-traded within unrealistic timeframes. The arrogant attitude by sectors in the media that dismisses the need for policy interventions to both restrict further concentration, and to encourage further diversity, is breathtaking in its self-interest.

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    2. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to Tim Dwyer

      Exactly - I could have lived with the Daily Toiletgaffe criticising Conroy's legislation for being a bit weak and muddled, but the dictator reference was one of the purest examples of self-interest I've ever seen - although the breaking [largely meadia-manufactured] storm about the Labor leadership is giving it a run...

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    3. Edward Fensom

      Coordinator Brisbane Region Environment Council.

      In reply to Tim Dwyer

      GOOD POINTS TIM,
      Many of the intracies of the 6 media bills have not reached the public and and the hundreds of Community groups contesting big governments, big Local Governments , big developers and Quangos . These groups have SOME road blocks with News Ltd papers , Sub Editors, Editors ,and Chiefs of Staff.and TV stations , Governments Review Committees for a variety of reasons . HOWEVER it is difficult to attack the faults of institutional arrangements, and…

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  4. Paul Cm

    logged in via email @gmail.com

    The Australian press already has good regulators, 22 million of them in fact: they're called consumers ;)

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    1. Darren Kay

      Private trader

      In reply to Paul Cm

      Unfortunately the media is not just another product/service to be consumed by the public. The readership seldom knows how actual events are translated and shaped into words on a page for their consumption. Hence the need for independent oversight.

      Another point I'll make is that humans are susceptible to confirmation bias. In this context, they select the news source which aligns best with their pre-held beliefs, not necessarily what is actual fact. Think Fox News viewers and their alternate reality they live in. Moreover, conservatives are more prone to this bias because they have smaller anterior cingulate cortexes (I suggest you google this) which means they don't handle conflicting ideas well and tend to rely on heuristics and 'gut instinct' to make hasty decisions. Combine this with the dominance of News Ltd and you start to understand how prone the Australian media is to publically accepted bias.

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    2. Paul Cm

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to Darren Kay

      Darren, thanks for your reply. I want you to read your comment and ask yourself if you exhibit any confirmation bias. Don't answer now, think about it properly and get back to me in a few days.

      Cheers,
      Paul

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    3. Darren Kay

      Private trader

      In reply to Paul Cm

      Paul, by stating 'humans' are fallible to cognitive biases, I naturally include myself. I can honestly say though I haven't encountered any articles suggesting there isnt a concentration of media ownership in Australia so I don't think I'm exhibiting confirmation bias in this instance.

      Back to your assertion, I'm still curious - why are you equating the consumers with regulators in Aust media?

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    4. Leigh Burrell

      Trophy hunter at Trophy hunter

      In reply to Darren Kay

      "Back to your assertion, I'm still curious - why are you equating the consumers with regulators in Aust media?"

      You're not really that thick that you don't understand. Publishers are already licenced by our media viewing and spending habits. Ultimately, no audience, no publishing. Just ask Fairfax.

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    5. Paul Cm

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to Darren Kay

      So two points on that Darren.

      1) like you say, humans have a predisposition to confirmation bias. Regulators are not immune to this. So by having a regulator as suggested, all we are doing is centralising bias.

      2) Why am I equating consumers to regulators? Because we are talking about a public interest regulator. I believe ( and I'll argue this till the cows come home) that the best parties to determine what is in the public interest, is the public. All 22 million of us.

      Hope that helps!

      Enjoy your weekend, Paul.

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    6. Darren Kay

      Private trader

      In reply to Paul Cm

      Paul,

      1) the point of regulation presumably is to remove/minimise bias. A predisposition to bias is not equivalent to exercising bias and a competent regulator would discharge their duties with this in mind.

      2) you're generalising to state the public acts in the public interest. A proportion of people act solely in their personal interests. And even those who do choose to act in the public interest can only do so if they are given an objective set of facts (ie unbiased unfiltered news). To the extent they don't get this unbiased set of facts, their decision making is hindered/flawed (setting aside cognitive biases).

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    7. Darren Kay

      Private trader

      In reply to Leigh Burrell

      Leigh, unfortunately you're not adding anything new to the conversation. You're conflating the notions of commercial viability and media bias.

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    8. Leigh Burrell

      Trophy hunter at Trophy hunter

      In reply to Darren Kay

      Not at all. The article wasn't about bias and nor were my comments. Concentration of ownership and diversity are the issues discussed in the article.

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    9. Paul Cm

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to Darren Kay

      Hi Darren, apologies for the delayed response:

      1) So you admit that all humans have a predisposition to bias, but trust that a centrally controlled regulator would refrain from exhibiting it? Can you imagine a centralised regulator being impervious to exploitation?

      I share your frustration when it comes to bias in news media, but I don’t think yours – or the authors - preferred solutions will come close to resolving the issue. I think yourself and Tim can only make it worse.

      2) Yes, I am…

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    10. Darren Kay

      Private trader

      In reply to Paul Cm

      No problems - it was the weekend after all...

      1) As I mentioned above, a predisposition to bias doesn't equate to exercising bias. Any number of public servants are required to exercise impartiality in their roles, most notably judges. Sure, our legal system isn't perfect but it works. It's hardly a cesspool of corruption (or else it's well hidden).

      2) I still disagree with your generalisation for the reasons I gave above. Anyway, with respect to your questions, i) I was hoping you would have…

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  5. Leigh Burrell

    Trophy hunter at Trophy hunter

    "Three owners – News Limited, Fairfax Media and APN News and Media – hold approximately 98% of the sector, and two of these owners, News and Fairfax, together hold about 88% of the print media assets in the country."

    How many shareholders do these publicly listed companies have? That's the real number of owners. The suggestion that a handful of scheming media moguls control what we hear, see and read without regard for market realities is out-and-out fantasy.

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    1. Darren Kay

      Private trader

      In reply to Leigh Burrell

      I suggest you read this: http://theconversation.edu.au/carbon-pricing-policy-in-the-media-3746

      to get an idea of the consistent media bias found in Murdoch publications. All the moreso since you are a self-confessed apostate of climate change.

      You seem to be suggesting that the larger the number of shareholders, the more diverse is our media. Errr, no. Generally speaking, the larger the company, the larger the number of shareholders. And they only care about dividends and capital gains - that's why they invested.

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    2. Leigh Burrell

      Trophy hunter at Trophy hunter

      In reply to Darren Kay

      Darren, diversity of ownership is the issue in question here and the ultimate owners are the countless shareholders. That they care first and foremost about profitability was precisely my point. The publishers can preach an ideological agenda only when it is compatible with their duty to serve their shareholders - specifically, by maintaining a paying audience and advertisers.

      Every purchase of shares, every purchase of advertising and every purchase of a paper is a vote of confidence in news media produced by this process. An attack on the result is an attack on the intelligence and character of everyone involved, an attack on freedom and an endorsement of totalitarianism.

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    3. Darren Kay

      Private trader

      In reply to Leigh Burrell

      "The publishers can preach an ideological agenda only when it is compatible with their duty to serve their shareholders"

      This is what we have observed in practice. That is, publishing with an ideological slant is tacitly endorsed by News Ltd shareholders.

      So in fact, "a handful of scheming media moguls control what we hear, see and read" WITH regard for market realities. This is the problem.

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    4. Leigh Burrell

      Trophy hunter at Trophy hunter

      In reply to Darren Kay

      There you have it folks. The totalitarian left have identified the villains behind our dangerous mainstream media - not scheming media moguls, but free enterprise, free expression and free thought.

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    5. Darren Kay

      Private trader

      In reply to Leigh Burrell

      Leigh, before you dig a bigger hole I suggest you look up definitions for totalitarianism, generalisation, and slippery slope fallacy.

      Thanks for playing!

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    6. Leigh Burrell

      Trophy hunter at Trophy hunter

      In reply to Darren Kay

      Not sure what generalisation you're on about. The argument for regulation is fundamentally that freely writing, publishing, buying and reading news and opinions isn't safe or in our interest and that State regulation of these acts is the solution. If you can't recognise that as a lurch towards totalitarianism you are to be pitied.

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