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Malcolm Fraser: Does it matter who owns our papers? Yes it does

Malcolm Fraser and Gough Whitlam joined forces to protect the independence of The Age in Melbourne’s Fitzroy Gardens in 1991.

The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald have maintained editorial independence since the foundation of the newspapers. It is an important principle of all great newspapers, but it is a principle that will almost certainly be snuffed out this week.

Gina Rinehart is expected to take control of the paper almost immediately. A spokesman for her has already said that the board should establish an appropriate direction for editorial policy. What can we expect? Opposition to the Emissions Trading Scheme, which is already law. Opposition to the Minerals Resource Rent Tax, which is already law. Policies that will support unbridled profits of great mining enterprises, perhaps polices not far short of those supported by the Tea Party and the Republican right in the United States. If this comes to pass, Australia will be effectively without independent print media.

Governments could not have stopped the failure of The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald in their old form, because management has made serious mistakes. Instead of running the enterprises as one, they thought they could establish separate enterprises, one for the print media and one for the internet, or new media. This led to lack of strength on both counts and loss of advertisers, loss of support. These mistakes are directly attributable to incompetent board management.

Does it matter who owns our newspapers? Does it matter who controls the media? In far off days, which I am old enough to remember, Prime Minister Bob Menzies went into the federal parliament to prevent a British company buying four radio stations. He said it was wrong for people who do not belong to the country to own such a powerful instrument for propaganda.

The new owner of The Age certainly belongs to this country, but the principle Menzies enunciated carried with it further implications. Media should not be under the direct control of special interest groups whether they belong to this country or to other countries. That is why we need diversity of media ownership. That is why I stood on the back of a truck with Gough Whitlam overlooking Fitzroy Gardens long years ago, to try and prevent the Fairfax empire falling into foreign hands. A foreign owner has interests that are not ours. A mining magnate has specific industry interests that are not necessary those of Australia.

To say that it does not matter is to deny responsibility. What are governments to do? At the very least they could have preserved rules that would maintain diversity of media ownership. Those who own television stations should not own the print media. There should be a limit on the number of stations that any one person or corporation can own.

The economic rationalists might say that this will lead to inefficiencies. They are only concerned with the economic bottom line. A democracy is concerned with much more than that. A dictatorship could be more efficient than a democracy on that basis. You don’t need to pay all the politicians. Freedom and diversity have a cost. The economic bottom line does not always determine the best outcome. If it did, we would have no opera, no ballet, the arts would atrophy. The poor would be further impoverished.

For some time, Australian governments seem to have suggested that it does not matter who owns the print media, or for that matter television, perhaps a more powerful instrument for propaganda.

On many things, the political parties are at odds with the interests of Australians and with the views of many many people in Australia.

What can we look forward to? In present circumstances the print media espouses the most conservative economic policies. Policies that will enhance the obscene wealth of those who are ready extraordinarily wealthy, that will probably bind us even more tightly as a client state of the United States. No competition, no diversity, making it harder for people to make up their own mind, because people will not be given the choices as they were once given the choices. So much for Australia’s print media.

How much can new media, social media, the internet, Facebook or Twitter, The Conversation or advanced schools of journalism make up for these deficiencies? Certainly the internet makes it possible for people to read half a dozen papers each morning, or more, including journals that maintain high standards, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, the Financial Times or those with another language, French or German papers. Here we can find diversity. It is more and more readily available, it will certainly mitigate the coming lack of competition that will be evident in the Australian print media.

The Conversation and Crikey are probably Australia’s best efforts so far at overcoming the deficiencies, the narrowness of ownership and policy of the print media. Foxtel, although expensive, enables a great variety of news services and of commentaries to be readily available to Australians.

Two things are responsible for the destruction of Fairfax. Incompetent board management that has not understood the business it was running, together with governments that believe that ownership of powerful instruments for propaganda is of no account.

There are many countries that maintain nationality provisions for the ownership and control of important media within their borders.

There are no supporters however, for such policies amongst Australia’s current politicians. That may not matter if other forms of media can come to have greater and greater influence - but if politicians still believe the print media has a significant influence on policy and opinion, then we will be seeing policies sold to the highest bidder.

I was speaking to a couple of Americans from Los Angeles only two weeks ago. They told me that they feared their Presidential election would be bought by the candidate with the most money. Democracy for sale. We have not progressed quite as far as America, but we won’t be far behind.

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