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Media ownership matters: why politicians need to take on proprietors

The Murdoch crisis in the UK raises many questions about media ownership in Australia. AAP/William West

The Gillard Government’s media inquiry is to disregard the crucial issues of bias and concentration of media ownership, despite Bob Brown’s demands for wider terms of reference. This is, at best, misled.

The Murdoch News of the World phone hacking scandal in Britain has brought to light many disgusting and wilfully illegal abuses of personal privacy.

It points also to the scale of the corrupting power that media proprietors can have on good governance and liberal democracy.

Concentrated ownership

We have reason to worry. It is well known that Australia has one of the highest concentrations of media ownership in the world. Liberal, “fourth estate” standards of journalistic independence and diversity of opinion are essential conditions for informed citizenship and freedom of speech and hence for the proper functioning of a democracy. By those standards Australia compares poorly with most other developed OECD nations.

The Australian situation has much to do with the historic domination of the Australian media by the three media dynasties of Packer, Fairfax and Murdoch.

All three have at various times asserted their private commercial and political interests strongly, and used their influence in ways that flouted journalistic and editorial independence.

Public broadcasting

The weakness of “watchdog”, “fourth estate” controls on the privately owned broadcasting and print media has been exacerbated by the comparatively low funding of Australian public service broadcasters and their low share of the television viewing audience.

This did not, however, prevent the conservative Howard Government’s attacks on both the critical independence and funding of public broadcasting in Australia. Paid advertising was forced on the SBS TV network in 1991.

And no one should doubt that an Abbott government would deliver still greater power to the private media proprietors, restart the culture wars and renew attempts to starve, hobble or privatise the ABC.

Monitoring the media

The professionalisation of journalism came relatively late to Australia and commercial broadcast journalism functions here with minimal regulation for accuracy and impartiality.

In the early 1990s, Hawke government reforms replaced the existing requirement that a broadcasting licensee be a “fit and proper person” with ownership and control limits and handed much responsibility for the quality of content, including the development of codes of practice, to the broadcasters themselves.

That allowed our notorious shock-jock talkback radio kings to become a law unto themselves to a point where Justice Woods noted eleven years ago on a public action against broadcaster 2UE that John Laws was “too famous to be put in jail”.

The effect has been to encourage hate speech, scapegoating, and blind politics among some of the most powerless sections of the population.

Standards not ownership

At the other end of the spectrum the once reputable Murdoch-owned Australian speaks only for top end business interests.

The print and broadcast media now routinely offer platforms for the views of right wing think tanks funded with undisclosed contributions from corporations, such as the Sydney Institute, the Institute for Public Affairs and the Centre for Independent Studies.

Successive governments have taken the cowardly way of avoiding vexing the media proprietors with needed public interest regulations on quality, content, journalistic standards and editorial independence.

Instead they have attempted to fix the problem with rules designed to promote diversity of ownership.

Flawed rules

The most recent round of legislative changes in 2006 on cross-media ownership prohibit an individual from controlling more than two media out of radio, TV and newspapers in a license area.

But what our most recent studies have shown is that rules were deeply flawed and have led not to less concentration but rather to more.

Between 2003 and 2010, while the number of licensed commercial broadcasting services increased from 306 to 317, the number of controllers of these licenses fell, from to 42 to 39.

The number of newspapers monitored by the Australian Communications and Media Authority did not change, while the number of controlling organisations fell from 13 to 8.

These rules have increased incentives for large media companies to centralize their news and current affairs with costs to both quality and regional focus.

Weakened governments, powerful proprietors

Some may object that these are merely the precious concerns only of a progressive middle class (about 25 per cent of voters), or worse, as the think tank hit men would have it, more noise from “the Balmain basket weavers”, “chattering classes” and “the doctors wives”. Wrong!

Our analysis of successive waves of the ANU Australian Survey of Social Attitudes shows that more than 70 percent of Australians believe that the big media proprietors have too much power and that the ownership of the media is too concentrated.

The same surveys show that people care much more about good governance, civic engagement, and public provision than is commonly believed.

Many factors have contributed to the increasing paucity of our news and current affairs. A general tendency for people to retreat from the public world into entertainment is but one of them. The inherent and the often wearing complexity of political and policy problems is another.

But none of this can hide that the deterioration is a direct consequence of a larger 25 year long policy of micro-economic reform that has steadily weakened the role of government and preferred, one-sidedly, to advantage private interests against public interests and the interests of the consumer over those of the citizen.

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