Tycoon loving IPA advocates privatising the ABC

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As with everything in Australian politics these days, debate over the federal government's media inquiry has become just another coat-hanger on which ideologues of every stripe can drape their off-the-rack worldviews. It's why we're hearing market forces are the fix for dodgy journalism.

So, knock me over with a feather quill, here's Chris Berg of the Institute of Public Affairs (an organisation whose KPI  is promoting corporate interest as the public interest) saying that rather than the government spending big bucks on public broadcasting, they could save the money and just let it rip, so to speak.

"The profit motive is one of the most powerful forces in our society precisely because it delivers consumers what they want," Berg wrote on, um, the ABC's website.

"(So), the profit motive seems like a pretty good way to deliver journalism which people want to read, watch and listen to. But, otherwise, the government spends a billion dollars a year on the ABC - specifically to address an assumed failure by the market to provide quality media in the absence of a public broadcaster."

That's it! Sell the ABC and let the market decide! Why hasn't anyone else thought of that before? That's clearly what's skewed journalism in Australia — an army of fearsome basket-weaving, beard-stroking, lentil-munching public broadcasters are wrecking the opportunity for Rupert's brave rear-guard of freedom fighters and culture warriors to cement complete dominance of the Australian media landscape and run more fanzine-style stories about Shane Warne and Liz Hurley or manufacture dishonest beat-ups about carbon pricing.

Not Enough Market on this world view is just another synonym for Not Enough Murdoch. If the old biddies want to watch lawn bowls on Sunday afternoon or if the navel-gazing wankers in Balmain really are interested in the politics of Third World Aid, let them pay for it. The taxpayers' role is not to subsidise the idiosyncratic desires of obscure urban tribes, but to 'remove the impediments' to global media magnates making even more moolah. 'The People' are the ultimate arbiters of good journalism and it's the job of the media to satisfy their curiosities, not matter how base. So if one needs to hack into the phones of murdered teenagers or pass off photos of a half-naked model as that of a former politician, so be it. It's what the market wants.

As Mr Berg says, everyone knows that free market forces deliver the best solutions. Just look at the global banking system and the enormous growth of securitisation in the past decade and a half. Err, no, wait. Anyway, the thing is – as that hugely successful Fairfax publisher Fred Hilmer once said – journalists are really just content providers for advertising platforms.  Their job consists of making the news widget thingies that occupy the white spaces between the clients' advertising collateral. As such, their mission is to generate sufficient click bait to get people looking at the ads. We want more of 'Gordon Ramsay's Dwarf Porn Double Dying in a Badger's Den' and less of why billionaire miners might be so keen to co-opt the public interest as their own in blocking attempts to secure a bigger share of a commodity windfall for public education and health.

But seriously, if you genuinely believe that 'unfettered market forces' will rescue journalism, you've been asleep for the last 30 years. The whole story of my lifetime in journalism is the gradual encroachment of bloodless managerialism and the liberal market worldview into a craft whose greatest practitioners have always lived outside the business world, not within it. Editors in recent years have been more focused on 'wages and pages' (the cost of people and the cost of print and distribution) than on the content, which is mostly an after-thought. We are living with the consequences of that trend.

No-one is saying journalists should not be aware of the need for their proprietors to make a profit. And more government regulation is not the answer either. But journalists' output should not be seen as a commodity to attract eyeballs to ads. And it is not profit-making that motivates good journalism. Instead, journalists excel when they keep a foot outside the market and see as their first priorities to safeguard the interests of readers, to retain commitment to the truth and to maintain a level of independence in the face of commercial pressures to cater to the lowest common denominator. If journalists spent less time fussing about the business model or the technology or the distribution platform or 'exploring the synergies from the multi-media interface' and concentrated on their craft, the profits might follow.

(This story was originally published on The Failed Estate on November 14, 2011, and has been republished with permission.)

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