2018 saw big shifts in the media-scape that might have a bearing on the Federal election in the first half of this year. Media editor Lee Duffield asks how much changes in the structures and organisation of the media will have on services and democratic government.
It started under new rules for media put through Federal Parliament late in 2017.
The changes were described as an adjustment to new media technologies, replacing a regulatory set-up last altered on a major scale over 30 years before.
These eliminated the “two out of three rule”, which meant a commercial media owner could only own two kinds of media outlet in one market: print or radio or television. They also removed the “75 per cent audience reach rule”, preventing a single commercial television chain getting access to three-quarters of the Australian population.
Other constraints remained, like commercial owners only being able to have two stations in one licence area; to have more than one television network operation in one area, or to buy up broadcast stations or print outlets so that in total, there’d be fewer than five separate operations, or “voices” in a metropolitan area (four in a regional area).
“Advances in technology now allow digital content from anywhere in the world to be accessed instantly through computers, smartphones or smart TVs”, said government spin doctors.
'These new options have changed the way we consume media in Australia and have intensified competition between media outlets. In this digital environment, Australia's ownership laws prevent traditional media outlets such as TV, radio and newspapers from structuring their businesses efficiently or achieving the scale necessary to adapt and compete more effectively with newer unregulated services.'
The vision of expanding numbers of outlets and changes in the way consumers used media would be invoked a year later to help justify Nine's Fairfax take-over.
How about the interests not only of organisations and shareholders but the media professionals and general citizenry? There was not much outcry as sane old Malcolm Turnbull, Prime Minister, was credited with making a fairly limited change, considering the exploding technology and corporate predation going on all around. The radical right-wing of his party, if fully in charge might have wreaked some havoc, including selling the ABC (inscribed in 2018, by a two-thirds vote, as Liberal policy), but their hour had not arrived.
CRISIS AT THE ABC
Two of the large ructions in media affecting audiences and the general wealth during 2018 were the ABC crisis and then the merger of Nine and Fairfax.
The following summary outlines what happened at the ABC.
Long-time hatreds directed against the organisation from the political right wing intensified, the intensification from sources like:
- an ideology that says everything in the world should be privately owned;
- greed, where the subscribers to the ideology might be rich enough to themselves cash in on privatisation;
- philistinism, where they fear and puzzle at cultural and intellectual material on the ABC;
- authoritarianism, where they’d like to see just one perspective, one narrative given in media (maybe NewsCorp papers and angry old blokes on 2GB) instead of several;
- a special mental disability — disdain for other people’s interests and enjoyments;
- and so on.
The cacophony of abuse of the organisation, taking material shape in the throttling of its budget, assisted an internal revolution where they gave control to corporate types, not broadcasters, with a policy of corporatisation (making it like a business) and short term efficiencies.
A managing director was appointed, Michelle Guthrie, not a broadcaster but from News International management, and Google, therefore a presumed computer whiz, who came to be rejected by most of the practitioners on staff and ultimately by the ABC Board, on 24 September.
Efficiencies and infatuation with new media forms had run to the great blunder of surrendering the organisation’s still very functional shortwave frequencies — immediately taken over by China. It was a contradiction of ABC responsibility to audiences at home or abroad and to Australian public interest.
The problem was, this Board was itself full of business types, short of expertise in broadcasting and the character of its markets, and shaky on ABC independence — at least in the person of its Chairman Justin Milne.
Told on by Guthrie for direct-dealing with the government over editorial choices, he went a few days later, inquiries were called and the year ended with us waiting to hear the outcome.
What did the remaining Board members know about the ructions which they should have known about, what did they think and say, and so which of them should resign?
Senior figures at the public broadcaster expect the Prime Minister to choose a permanent replacement for Justin Milne soon. https://t.co/AWMrtWh6Fu— SMH/Age Business (@BusinessDay) January 5, 2019
Late in 2018 Nine Entertainment took over Fairfax Media. The merger deal, completed on 10 December, cost $4 billion, with Fairfax shareholders getting 0.3627 shares in the new company for each of their own, paid at a 21.9% premium on market value. Nine will have 51.1% of the new company, with full naming rights – no more Fairfax brand – and the former Fairfax shareholding will come to 48.9%
So the shareholders were alright and net staff losses were confined for now to 90 people in support roles at Nine — the media professionals in the case additionally badly affected.
The journalists’ body, the MEAA called it a
... body blow to media diversity and the forerunner to future mega-deals that will reduce coverage of matters of public and national interest and do untold harm to media jobs.
The merger has been approved without any conditions being attached about editorial independence, protection of jobs or employment conditions, or continued operation of existing mastheads.'
Under the deal the Fairfax newspapers (Financial Review, Sydney Morning Herald, The Age) will amount to about 7% of value of the company, additional to regional press and more than half of Macquarie Radio (including 2GB, 3AW, 4BC), Nine will be 40%, Fairfax’s valuable Domain real estate business about 25%, along with other components including the Stan video streaming service.
IMPACT ON THE PUBLIC INTEREST
How are the public interest and the public affected?
It is a wide belief in the community that reducing the base of media ownership will come out in narrower choices and exposure to heavy bias, which stands to reason where new laws – and mergers – move the whole system further towards monopoly.
If the new Nine is now the biggest media outlet, with some 6,000 staff, it has just one main commercial rival in Rupert Murdoch’s Newscorp and loss of Fairfax as an independent media concern, as the journalists argue at the MEAA, becomes a threat to diversity and democratic debate.
The Fairfax policy was to observe standard journalistic practice: concentration on establishing facts, working on news values especially new information that captures public interest, doing this disinterestedly, without bias, employing devices like editorial balance to keep it fair, working transparently through identified sources (save when protecting sources in agreed ethical ways) and being accountable.
Whether Nine lived up to a version of this in the television medium, the criticism being made is that dropping a player like Fairfax as an independent force is a severe loss for citizens and country.
The regulator that approved the Nine-Fairfax take-over, the ACCC, said media competition would not be too much affected, because the two services – especially under media legislation before 2017 – had not been strongly direct competitors, (although media proprietors have always chafed at any broadcast competition).
It also brought in ideas about new media, saying that more diversity was being delivered by online news providers such as the Guardian, the New Daily, BuzzFeed, Crikey and the Daily Mail.
That refers to a trend where media businesses will tend to be smaller businesses now, rather than giant corporations in the past. It’s a trend that drives the “old” corporations into these mergers and drives out many of their principals, like the family Packer, to look for more lucrative investments in other industries.
Here at IA, there would be no argument against the power of new outlets to make new markets and also draw off audiences from major operators.
At the same time, the small media field is confusing, and congested with heaps of fake news, private networks, corporate publications and newsletters that make no pretence of providing the kind of broad service given by mainstream media.
A durable argument for central, large media organisations – public, like the ABC, or private, like today’s Nine – is to give a central forum for democracy — the “social responsibility” idea of journalism.
That argument gets a laugh when critics mention the egregious editorial bias in Newscorp newspapers, but even there coverage can be comprehensive and local — they know that actual news sells papers.
On top of the many services citizens can use and enjoy, they can spare themselves fruitless searches, and go straight to the “plenary” services – “traditional” media – for the main news of the day. It is effortless and quick, surveillance and summation all done, subject to your own good judgment, and can be shared by all in times when weighty decisions must be made.
That is a defence of professional journalism in the general context of attacks on many professions, where the alternative becomes trying to do it all yourself on a smart phone. In the case of news, the journalist’s skill of constraining their own opinion, “keeping yourself out of the story”, goes against a general human tendency to argue and is a key skill, especially during election campaigns.
MEDIA AND VOTING
The election this May, or maybe March, will provide a test of the state of media — how well they can help the public with information and commentary for “weighty decisions”.
The ABC will need to show it continues to function independently under pressure, stress, and open public abuse, especially from forces on the conservative side demanding it be sold. While working on fair coverage, its own survival will be a political issue, opposition parties bound to be saying “save the ABC”. ABC journalists will keep to “standard journalistic practice”, which will be unsatisfactory for certain political players, frightened in the heat of battle, edgy at hearing themselves contradicted by opponents.
Will former Fairfax Media continue on track, still able to operate their own newsrooms, keeping key staff, satisfying public interest in reliable news, always acute in the lead-up to elections?
Support independent journalism Subscribe to IA.
ABC Radio's @RNBreakfast has been accused of allegedly over-representing @Greens Senators, compared to @AustralianLabor and @LiberalAus.— Sky News Australia (@SkyNewsAust) December 12, 2018
Stephen Conroy: I've known for a long time that the ABC favours the Greens, even more than Labor.
MORE: https://t.co/tb2LL9eh0s #pmlive pic.twitter.com/mOTZqSBiFC
ABC Fran Kelly interviews YTD with Senators— Ewart Dave 🎺 (@davidbewart) December 12, 2018
Cross bench 16
Labor 11 #auspol