The proposed Nine Entertainment Co’s takeover of Fairfax would be a disaster for journalism and for Australia.
PM Malcolm Turnbull’s changes to the 30-year-old "cross-media rule" mean one owner can control print, radio and television in one market. Of course, this will result in serious loss of diversity in information. That it is Nine that will take control of Fairfax is spine-chilling. It is a devastating outcome for those Fairfax journalists who have dedicated their careers to accurately informing readers who value objective professional reporting.
It can be said with confidence that Nine has not pursued Fairfax for its stable of investigative and principled journalists. They are the last consideration. This is about commercial profit. And with editorial control in the hands of Nine what follows is an example of what can be expected.
In the 1980s, when I chaired the Children’s Program Committee (CPC) for the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal (ABT), I was the public face of children’s television standards and quotas that enraged the television industry — Kerry Packer in particular. He was apoplectic that his bosom-buddy Bruce Gyngell, then Chairman of the ABT, would have allowed such a thing to happen. Packer would not be told by anyone what his network could or could not do.
When, subsequently, I was appointed as inaugural director of the Australian Children’s Television Foundation (ACTF), Nine began a concerted attempt to discredit me and unseat me from the CPC. Within days of the announcement of my new role, I was interviewed by Glenys Bell, a journalist with The Bulletin. The tenor of Bell’s article was that that I would have a paralysing conflict of interest in my two roles and that the CPC members were irrational, incompetent bureaucrats, denying stations their freedom to screen what they wished, as they did for every other hour of the day. The Bulletin’s editor, Trevor Sykes, told media journalist Jefferson Penberthy that the article would be "seminal", apparently meaning likely to lead to my resignation.
The Bulletin published its story in May 1982 and, three weeks later, I was approached to do an interview for Nine’s Sunday program. The interviewer was Jennifer Byrne, a newcomer to television at that time. A crew arrived at my house on a Sunday afternoon with two cameramen and I was interviewed over a three-hour period. I was used to media interviews but had never encountered anything of this intensity before. Phillip Adams, who had already been interviewed for the program and who had very good connections to the Packer empire, warned me what to expect.
The 20-minute segment, entitled ‘Conflict of Interests’, allowed Phillip Adams and me 18 lines each from what was a seven-page transcript. The rest of the 20-minute program was given over to three critical interviewees, whose programs had either been rejected or criticised by the CPC. Their comments were woven together in a florid narrative delivered by Jennifer Byrne.
Byrne introduced the segment with these words:
Children’s television has always been a special case needing special treatment … It’s an area with more than its fair share of backbiting, rumor-mongering and plain bad blood. Lately, it’s got worse. Largely as a result of Dr Patricia Edgar now holding two prominent and some would say conflicting positions … the rise and rise of Dr Edgar has followed a classic pattern. The long-standing activist, who gets in early and, four committees later, ends up in charge.
The program was an example of special pleading by the Packer camp. The tone was pre-emptive, and the editing of the interview materials a failure of objectivity, balance and fair discussion. I had come to expect nothing better from the Packer interests: The Bulletin, the Nine Network and the Federation of Commercial Television Stations (FACTS), chaired by Sam Chisholm from Nine.
But they did not get their way. I survived, the Standards kick-started a domestic and international industry, and the ACTF made exemplary programs that garnered many awards. Meanwhile, Nine continued on its bullying path with tabloid and cheque-book journalism. It refused to buy a single ACTF-produced program for the 20 years I was in the role.
As former Prime Minister Paul Keating has said, in his renowned style,
" Channel Nine, for over half a century, has never, other than displayed the opportunism and ethics of an alley cat."
The public knows this.
The recent Roy Morgan 'Media Net Trust' Survey found, in three surveys of 4,000 Australians, that the public gives a negative trust value to the banks of minus-18, while media companies scored minus-seven. The commercial networks scored between minus-six and minus-ten. The only three media organisations that got a positive score were the ABC, SBS and Fairfax, in that order.
If this takeover is approved, the stakes become very high indeed for the public interest and for the ABC, with the Government hell-bent on cutbacks and enquiries. There is no doubt their intention is to emasculate the ABC — particularly its news and current affairs. We are hearing near hysterical calls by News Limited for the ABC to get off its turf and remain offline — a demand that would see the national broadcaster out of business, and the diversity of our news and current affairs coverage seriously diminished. We should be worried, for ambition trumps principle in politics today every time and this Government believes it can stay in power if it silences the ABC.
Back in 1979, I published The Politics of the Press, based on interviews with the Canberra Press Gallery and the editors of the major papers following the Whitlam dismissal.
Max Walsh, then editor of the Australian Financial Review, told me:
"There are some papers in Australia — if Malcolm Fraser lined up half the population and shot them, they would say it was a difficult but necessary job. They will not climb down off the fence and take an issue on and criticise … To a large extent, it is where the conservative forces have always had an edge in society. They do control the means of communication … It’s not that the conservative forces have taken over these media outlets, it’s that they established them in the first place."
Nearly 40 years later, we have arrived at a place where "the Leader of the Free World" states openly that he could shoot people and his supporters wouldn’t care. This week, he said: "What you are seeing and hearing is not what is happening." This is where we are heading.
In these extraordinary times, unsurprisingly, people are distrustful of news media, their leaders and their institutions. Unfortunately, the only way there can be any correction to these patterns is by the simple and very long process of education.
Patricia Edgar is a former member of the Australian Broadcasting Control Board 1975-76, Chair Of the Children’s Program Committee of the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal 1978-83 and Founding Director of The Australian Children’s Television Foundation 1982-2002. This article was originally published on 'Pearls and Irritations' and is republished with permission.
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