Role Of Media In Australia Essay

The Role Of The Media In Australia

The Role of the Media in Australia

Osborne and Lewis state that [a] preeminent theme in Australian thinking about the use of communication is the extent to which it has been viewed as a form of control. There has been concern in recent times of the enormous power communication holds as an agent of societal control. This is due to a number of factors, such the media mogul dominated media, which promotes a very conservative view and does not allow for alternate opinions to be voiced. The wide-reaching capabilities of the media, particularly electronic media via the Internet allows for the influence to spread across the entire country to remote areas and therefore heightens a sense of societal control. Although there have also been calls for harsher and more defined regulations to be set down on the media industry in light of its influence, the concepts of free speech and censorship have existed ever since the introduction of the mass media. With the current trends in Australia moving towards "an essentially corporatised system of public communication" , concerns about the extent to which media and communication controls society will continue to be of relevance in Australia.

The very basis for Australia, that is colonialism and settling a new land, formed the foundation for the media of the nation. In 1803, The Sydney Gazette, a government publication, became the first Australian newspaper to be circulated in the colony. It dealt with legal news, farming news and other areas of interest for the colonisers. Of course, it was aimed only at educated white colonials and not indigenous people or convicts. Despite starting as a government controlled newspaper, by 1824, the year that The Australian was started, all government ownership of the press has ceased and private owners were involved. This was a sign of things to come and is the root of current problems with dominant ownership of the press. Although by 1923 there were twenty-six metropolitan dailies owned by twenty-one proprietors, this balanced industry was not to remain and by 1983 there were only three major owners in the press industry. In 2001, two major media companies dominate the Australian press -- NewsLtd, and Fairfax. A government controlled media is not possible in a democratic society, however a media industry controlled by media moguls with widespread influence is hardly a better option, and results in a greater and more centralised control over society.

The 'media-mogul' dominated industry presents enormous problems and certainly contributes to the fear of controlling power held by the media. The fact that one person, family or company could control the majority of newspaper media that is being fed to society is consistent with the growing fear of social control. Rupert Murdoch, and his company NewsCorp, currently owns more than half of the newspaper industry in Australia, as well as about one-third of British newspapers. He also has film, TV, newspaper and publishing...

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The use and abuse of excessive media power

Posted September 13, 2011 07:38:09

Last year, it was widely reported in News Limited's Australian publications that News Corporation had bought US-based educational technology company Wireless Generation for $360 million.

These 'good news' stories quoted chairman Rupert Murdoch in visionary mode: "When it comes to K through 12 education, we see a $500 billion sector in the US alone that is waiting desperately to be transformed by big breakthroughs that extend the reach of great teaching." Wireless Generation, he predicted would "revolutionise public education for a new generation of students."

In June this year, The Australian quoted Murdoch again, this time in London on plans for News Corp to spearhead the provision of educational materials and specially designed tablet computers.

Mr Murdoch said he would be"thrilled"if 10 per cent of the business was made up of education revenues in the next five years.

Just days before News Corp clinched its deal with Wireless Revolution, the company hired the then-New York State Department of Education Chancellor Joel Klein as a vice-president with responsibility for Wireless Generation. In June this year, the New York schools department granted Wireless Generation a $27 million contract to supply educational software. The contract had been a no-bid tender despite the fact that 16 other firms expressed interest in the work.  In July this year, Murdoch chose Klein to oversee News International's internal investigation into phone hacking scandal in the UK.

What was not reported by News Corp publications in Australia is that two weeks ago New York State Department of Education Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli cancelled a $27 million contract with Wireless Generation to develop software that will track students' test scores. According to the London Telegraph, he wrote :

In light of the significant ongoing investigations and continuing revelations with respect to News Corp, we are returning the contract with Wireless Generation unapproved.

DiNapoli announced that the contract was now being put out to tender because officials could not be sure that Wireless Generation's parent company had an appropriate record of "vendor responsibility". According to a Factiva database search, the only outlet that reported this news in Australia is the business paper, the Australian Financial Review.

The incident in New York highlights the damage and potential damage done to News Corp's international operations and reputation by the phone hacking scandal in the UK and unfolding investigations in the USA and Italy. It also highlights the limited flow of information in Australia, especially in our popular media. This is nothing new or surprising since News Ltd controls all tabloid newspapers, the only newspaper in four capital cities and a big slice of online news media.

I know about the cancelled contract because I follow Media Matters, a non-profit organisation which was launched in 2004 to monitor misinformation in the media. According to its website it produces reports and works "to notify activists, journalists, pundits, and the general public about instances of misinformation, providing them with the resources to rebut false claims and to take direct action against offending media institutions." A whole section is devoted to News Corp Watch.

This was the sort of thing I had in mind when I joined the board of NewsStand, a fledgling non-profit organisation. NewsStand has similar ideas about using humour and research to achieve a more transparent and fairer media and to promote quality journalism in Australia. As we found when in our 2009 ACIJ/Crikey Spinning the Media project, which investigated the high levels of public relations in Australian newspapers, especially News Ltd tabloids. There is plenty of scope for NewsStand to involve supporters in monitoring media power plays, picking spin and conspicuous silences, although to achieve even this considerable resources will be needed.

With initial support from the online campaigning organisation Getup, NewsStand began with a survey of community attitudes measuring attitudes to media concentration and the idea of a media inquiry. It found that 60 per cent of people favoured an inquiry and more than 70 per cent think there are too few media owners. It now has 27,000 signatures on a petition supporting a media inquiry.

On Wednesday, Greens leader Bob Brown will pursue his motion for a parliamentary media inquiry. We will then see if the Labor Government has the gumption to support an inquiry which examines how power is exercised in our concentrated media landscape or whether it has been cowed by News Ltd into submission, just as prime minister David Cameron confesses UK governments were for decades.

Despite the public support for an inquiry, there has been little support in the mainstream media itself. News Ltd managed to get away with closing down questions (including my own) at the height of the scandal on the basis that it had announced a review of its editorial expenditure. Most local discussion proceeded on the naïve assumption that the consequences of criminal activity in the UK would have no affect on the Australian side of the company although a simple search of newspaper archives demonstrates that the Australian operations of the vertically and horizontally integrated company rely on a regular flow of stories from London.

As Stephen Mayne explained in an earlier Drum article, the origin of our current crisis goes back to 1987 when the Keating Labor government and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission allowed News Ltd to take over the then big media company Herald and Weekly Times. Four years later, a federal parliamentary select inquiry chaired by then Labor politician Michael Lee found that the:

Concentration of ownership is potentially harmful to plurality of opinion and increase the potential risk that news may be distorted.

A minority concluded that there was a connection between the:

Unexpectedly high concentration of media ownership and the lack of diversity of information and ideas in the Australian press and that the former is likely to be a significant cause of the latter.

The committee steered away from any positive moves to address the potential threat and over the intervening 20 years, concentration has increased with News Ltd increasing its penetration of Australian sport, entertainment and Pay TV. Lachlan Murdoch, who was briefly out of the family fold, is now in radio and free-to-air television.

Robert Manne in his recent Quarterly Essay uses a number of well-argued case studies, including the coverage of the critical issue of climate change, to show why he thinks News Corp, especially The Australian with its bullying style, is a threat to democracy in Australia. It's disappointing but not surprising that there has not been more public discussion of his claims

It's also no surprise to see the neo-liberal Institute for Public Affairs' Chris Berg arguing that calls for a media inquiry are a threat to a free press. His arguments are echoed by media bosses and some journalists. Those opposed to even considering policies aimed at developing a more democratic media argue as if the media field is an equal playing one – an assumption which can be seen at a glance to be false. They argue that any extension of state power will automatically threaten their right to a free press. Their familiar ideas arose centuries ago when state power was indeed the main threat to free media and no one dreamt of corporate power of the sort exercised today. What these opponents of a media inquiry don't want the public to think about is the threat and limitations of private corporate power.

How do countries of similar size use public policy to maintain a more diverse media? How could devices such as 'Rights of reply' be used where excesses involving misinformation, fear mongering and racism exist? How could the independence of a complaints body be guaranteed from both government and corporate power? These and other policies could easily be considered by an inquiry which had terms of reference which committed it to protecting us from increasing government power of the media.  

Given the company's reach and power, any media inquiry in Australia would inevitably focus on News Ltd, but its scope should be much wider than that. Compared to other parts of Australia, Sydney and Melbourne are relatively well-served for media. Even the small independents tend to focus on Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra. Regional Australia and smaller capitals have suffered cuts to local television, and share radio news.

News Ltd and Fairfax which between them control all but one of Australia's metropolitan newspapers and a huge chunk of the suburban, regional and rural market are already joint owners in the Australian wire service AAP which controls the Pagemaster subediting service that many journalists see as a further threat to quality journalism. News and Fairfax are now negotiating to share printing arrangements. A third print company APN News & Media, a branch of an Irish multinational which is now the biggest player in NZ, has just announced closures of printing presses and a 7 per cent reduction in staff in its Australian regional division. Is it wise to leave the fate of the role of media in democracy to the market when the market is so obviously in crisis?

Rather than being a reason not to have an inquiry, the fragility of our private media is itself a reason to have an inquiry.

As Rupert Murdoch's influence further declines will his newspapers survive the technological revolution that left many US cities without newspapers? Since buyers might not easily be found, what public policies do we have to maintain a media sphere in regional Australia? What impact should this have on public funding for the ABC? Should subsidies for other independent media be provided, much as they are to maintain arts? What happens if the company is found not to be a 'fit and proper' shareholder for broadcasting licenses in the UK? Are we supposed to just ignore what is happening?

There are some who argue that Minister Stephen Conroy's inquiry into the impact of convergence on the production and delivery of media content can do the job. This is a three-person inquiry chaired by Glen Boreham, who was managing director of IBM for five years. While this inquiry may well do useful work, its focus is on implications of technological change for regulation and delivery of information to media consumers. It could suggest some changes to our inadequate media complaints procedures which currently leave online media in a vacuum but was never intended to tackle the fundamental structural problem of how the use and abuse of excessive media power is affecting information flows and Australian politics.

A new media inquiry should take up where the 1991 Select Committee left off by examining in what ways Australia's unusual concentrations of private media power threaten democracy.  There is no shortage of remedies and international experience to draw on which could help develop a more transparent, accessible, diverse and accountable media that can withstand the threat of both state and private power.

Wendy Bacon is an investigative journalist and Professor of Journalism at the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism based at the University of Technology, Sydney.

Topics:information-and-communication, broadcasting, print-media, journalism, government-and-politics, federal-government

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