Rinehart’s tilt at power is bad news for public debate

Gina Rinehart’s involvement in Fairfax is unlikely to alleviate an already polarised and fragmented media discourse in Australia. AAP

There are numerous indications that mining magnate Gina Rinehart seeks to take control of the Fairfax media group. What are the likely implications of that move, and how would it affect Australian society and democratic discourse? I focus on two aspects of this potential development: the impact that different media outlets have on their audiences; and the likely consequences of an increasingly fragmented media landscape on societal discourse.

Concerning the first issue, there is ample evidence that bad media can do considerable harm.

Professor Stephen Kull and colleagues at the University of Maryland have been keeping track of key beliefs among the American public for many years, and their data are as revealing as they are concerning: long after the search for “Weapons of Mass Destruction” (WMD) proved futile after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, large segments of the U.S. public continued to believe in their existence.

Similarly, in 2010, nearly 45% of the American public erroneously believed that scientists are evenly divided on whether or not climate change is occurring — when in fact an overwhelming majority of experts supports the consensus view, endorsed by virtually all scientific organisations around the world: that the Earth is warming due to human activities.

Even more revealing is that the extent of such mistaken beliefs varies dramatically with Americans’ preferred news source. Consumers of Murdoch-owned Fox News were most likely to be misinformed on a range of issues, whereas those who primarily listened to National Public Radio (roughly comparable to our ABC) were most likely to be attuned to reality. Of course, this pattern may arise because people who are already ill-informed or less educated are more likely to tune into Fox, whereas people who are better informed or educated prefer to listen to National Public Radio. In other words, Fox may be a victim of its audience, rather than the other way around.

Although this possibility cannot be ruled out, it is rendered less likely by a further aspect of the data: the extent to which Fox-consumers were misinformed increased with how much they watched their preferred channel. Those who watched Fox daily had a particularly tenuous hold on reality, whereas those who watched Fox “rarely” or “only once a week” escaped relatively unscathed and resembled occasional listeners of public radio. Increased consumption of National Public Radio, by contrast, increased the accuracy of people’s perceptions, and daily listeners of National Public Radio were generally the best-informed people across a number of studies spanning nearly a decade.

What does Fox News have to do with Gina Rinehart?

We don’t know yet, but the data of Professor Kull and colleagues should alert us to the fact that when a media organ pursues an agenda in preference to reporting accurately, the consequences for society can be dire. And given that we already have several agenda-pursuing propagandistic organs in Australia whose disregard for accuracy is legendary, the spectre of a mining magnate taking control of the major competition must be reason for concern, even if the exact consequences of that move cannot yet be anticipated.

This concern must be balanced against the views of some commentators that “new media”, such as internet blogs, will compensate for the demise of conventional media. On this more optimistic view, it doesn’t matter who owns Fairfax and it doesn’t matter what Rupert Murdoch does because few people read their newspapers anyhow. Instead, the internet provides a smorgasbord of alternative information that permits readers to remain accurately informed.

There are indications that this optimism would be misplaced.

This brings us to the second issue: the consequences of fractionation of the media landscape.

One of the reasons Gina Rinehart’s moves on Fairfax have met little resistance is that the conventional business model of the print media is under great duress. It is precisely those alternative outlets on the internet and the multitude of offerings on cable TV that have curtailed the opportunities for large print-only media corporations.

There is every reason for this trend to continue because the fractionation of media audiences are in the interests of advertisers. For example, purveyors of adult incontinence products do not want to shell out gazillions to advertise to a broad audience on national TV — they much prefer to pay less for ads that air on a smaller network whose audience, however tiny, has exactly the right demographics. Those commercial pressures will likely result in a continued fractionation of media offerings into cyber- or cable-ghettos that satisfy the needs of one — and only one — demographic segment of the population. (It must be noted that this is a future scenario on which there is some agreement, although there is considerable debate about the current extent of audience fragmentation. But the trend seems clear.)

It is possible, therefore, that the large print-oriented Fairfax will be broken into smaller components, and there has been speculation that this break-up is one of Rinehart’s intentions.

So, what of it? And why would any of this matter?

There is evidence that fragmentation matters a great deal because it leads to increasing polarisation of public discourse and “epistemic bubbles”; that is, isolated communities in which facts are shaped to suit the beholders ideological needs. People tend to visit internet sites (especially blogs) that conform to their own views. In consequence, it becomes advantageous for politicians to make extreme statements.

Research by Professor Ed Glaeser and colleagues has shown that if politicians can preferentially address their own supporters, they are more likely to make extreme statements. This extremism becomes worthwhile only if a politician’s extremism attracts more supporters than are repelled on the opposing side. Thus, audience fragmentation is a necessary prerequisite for extremism because if a politician’s statements were processed by a broad national audience, then there is a strong incentive to pursue the “median” voter rather than make extreme statements.

We are therefore facing a pernicious chain of consequences. Modern technology has enabled the creation of a multitude of information channels; commercial pressures are likely to facilitate the creation of isolated “cyber-ghettos”; and, as a result, society is likely to become more polarised and politicians more extreme.

Those trends cannot be healthy for democratic discourse and the well-being of civil society. Opposing those trends is a difficult challenge, and that challenge is unlikely to be aided by an increased involvement of Gina Rinehart in the Australian media.