The new media laws are set to raze the landscape, with old voices and new operating at an increasingly hysterical pitch. Their first target, our balanced public broadcasters.
On the face of it, relaxing Australia’s media ownership laws in response to the revolution that is the Internet makes sense. In the days when they were first designed, what is now called mainstream media (the fact it has a new name is revealing in itself) was the only vehicle by which most Australians could receive their news and information. In that environment, restricting the number and kind of media outlets that could be owned by one company or proprietor was sensible, although it still resulted in Australia having one of the most concentrated media ownership profiles in the world.
Today, thanks to the Internet, Australians can and do get their news from anywhere. The effect of this on advertising revenue for mainstream media has been devastating. This fact also indicates the drastic fall in the influence of traditional media. People’s eyes follow that influence. Advertising dollars follow people’s eyes. If, like me, you believe in following the money, the Internet is winning and print, TV and radio are losing. It makes sense, therefore, to relax the old laws to take account of what is happening in terms of revenue. Allowing media companies to amalgamate outlets to consolidate shattered revenue is something of a no-brainer.
Unfortunately, however, the changes in the media ownership laws have not escaped the dead hand of the increasingly bitter and polarised culture wars. Right wing cultural warriors like One Nation’s Pauline Hansen have insisted that – among other spiteful little slaps – the words “fair and balanced” be added to the ABC’s charter as the price for their votes in support of the new media ownership laws in the Senate. “Fair and balanced”, terrifyingly, is a slogan used by the anything-but Fox News. To me, the phrase now has the same chilling echo as “different but equal”, the words used to justify apartheid in South Africa, and “work makes you free”, on the gates of Auschwitz. All are examples of Orwell’s newspeak, where words mean the exact opposite of what they say. “No Child Left Behind” and “Building the Education Revolution” are other examples as is the use of “sector-blind” and “needs-based” to describe Gonski 2.0. Language is co-opted to soothe and placate a supposedly gullible public. “Fair and balanced” will be used to justify further ridiculous juxtapositions like One Nation’s Malcolm Roberts debating (I am being generous here) Professor Brian Cox about climate change on the ABC’s Q&A.
Of course, this will merely hasten a trend that has been happening for some time. I remember being part of the panel for a pilot of an early iteration of Q&A where we debated education funding. When it was produced for broadcast, I was not invited back. Perhaps I was just shit talent but when I saw the program, the argument for public education had been considerably watered down. I remember sending an email to the producers pointing out that balance did not mean that all arguments needed to be equally weak. It seems, however – and we are seeing this writ large in the equal marriage debate – that for the proponents of the weaker case that is exactly what they do mean. Indeed, if someone presents a stronger case these days, they are often accused of “bias” or of “bullying” and “silencing” their opponents!
This undermining of the ABC by ideological warriors matters because public broadcasters are the one part of mainstream media that have actually benefited from the arrival of the Internet. Their success has infuriated their commercial rivals and presented an opportunity for their enemies, who appear to be trying to hobble the ABC and SBS anyway that they can.
I am concerned about where Australia’s media is heading. Many will have to turn more frequently to overseas outlets for news, information and entertainment. I fear our own stories will become increasingly hard to create, finance, publish, film and tell.
The public broadcasters have done well mainly because they do not have to bow to commercial pressures in the way their rivals do. Their government funding has enabled them to concentrate on content (hint: this is the way to hang on to audiences – make great shows people want to watch) and provide catch-up TV and radio without needing a paywall. The public have responded with enthusiasm and I suspect any government that tries to – as the commercials want – insert a paywall between them and the service they already pay for via their taxes may need to think very carefully about a viewer backlash. Australians love their iview. I am also interested in the pressure on SBS On Demand – another very popular and successful service – given that it also runs ads. One solution to this pressure is that governments may be tempted to examine is running ads on iview. Perhaps the commercial operators should be careful what they wish for. At least the ABC currently only competes with them for viewers and not advertisers.
The culture-wars effect on the suggested new media ownership laws is also revealed by the deliberate exclusion of Guardian Australia from the package of sweeteners for smaller media players negotiated by Nick Xenophon in return for his party’s vital crossbench votes. Guardian Australia Political Editor Lenore Taylor says Xenophon consulted with them along with other smaller media players before the negotiations and that he has expressed his regrets at their exclusion. The excuse is that they are foreign-owned. As Taylor also points out, this seems to have had no effect on generous tax-payer-funded subsidies to Foxtel, which is half-owned by a foreign company.
I must say I was delighted to hear that Channel Ten may be sold to a new player in the Australian market, CBS. The sale is not definite as yet, as it awaits a creditors’ meeting who will also consider an offer by Ten shareholders, Lachlan Murdoch and Bruce Gordon. If the latter bid is successful (as I write, it looks increasingly unlikely), that will add to the concentration of ownership. A successful bid by CBS will dilute it.
Regardless of what happens with Ten, I am concerned about where Australia’s media is heading. The ABC is already embattled and faces budget cuts and almost unrelenting suspicion and accusation on a daily basis. The most trusted media outlet in this country has become a political football and the dampening effect of this intimidation is increasingly obvious. The media companies that stand to benefit from the relaxed ownership laws have been around for decades and will probably continue to give us more of what they’ve always given us, just at an ever more hysterical pitch. I do have hope in some of the smaller players, most of whom strive for high quality journalism. However, I think many thoughtful Australians will have to turn more frequently to overseas outlets for their news, information and entertainment. What with the parallel imports threat to the Australian publishing industry that still hangs over our collective heads, I fear our own stories will become increasingly hard to create, finance, publish, film and tell.