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Sky News, ABC cuts and creeping populism: Australia becoming the U.S.

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Alan Jones has recently moved from 2GB to Sky News (image via YouTube)

Australia is treading a dangerous path of media concentration, neoliberal government and little respect for the arts, which is ominously similar to America's, writes George Grundy.

THE ADDITION of Alan Jones to Sky News’ evening roster puts yet another piece into position, as Australia’s political and media recalibration continues at a pace undaunted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Jones, who was finally prised from his seat at 2GB in May, will join Peta Credlin, Chris Kenny and Andrew Bolt in what is fast becoming as stellar a conservative line-up as Sky’s spiritual sibling, Fox News, in America.

The alignment of these bombastic right-wing voices on Australia’s leading satellite news channel comes at a time of profound crisis elsewhere in Australia’s media landscape. The Australian Associated Press (AAP), the most trustworthy news source in the country, has just barely avoided closure.

In May, News Corp cut budgets at over a hundred regional newspapers and weeks later the ABC has announced 250 further job losses, in what appears a never-ending effort by Scott Morrison’s Government to weaken the nation’s broadcaster.

Taking a step back, it’s clear that a broader assault on Australian cultural life is taking place.

The arts, tertiary education and scientific community have all suffered swingeing cuts. Media organisations and journalists have found their homes and offices raided by federal police. Galleries are slashing their budgets. Arts and Humanities degrees are to double in price.

Global pandemics rarely provide the sort of economic climate where there is plenty for all, but it’s striking that at this time of austerity the nation’s military budget remains untouched, even expanded, as does the cosy relationship between the Government and heavily subsidised fossil fuel producers. This month, Scott Morrison announced a multi-billion dollar upgrade to the nation’s missile defence systems.

The ABC costs a relatively paltry $879m. Cuts to its budget are clearly ideological, given the money being thrown around elsewhere.

From Trump's U.S. to Boris Johnson’s UK, right-wing governments are taking advantage of the rapidly changing media sector to disparage, denigrate and defund the kind of journalism that critically evaluates information and asks uncomfortable questions.

Disdain for the arts and science has become axiomatic for the hard-right faux populists now commanding the world’s (former, perhaps) great democracies. President Donald Trump, in particular, has become the champion of labelling anything that doesn’t support his worldview as "fake news", despite empirically being the most dishonest president in American history.

If you wish to see a glimpse of Australia’s future, it’s worth examining the stunning and unprecedented role Fox News now plays in American public life. Its evening roster of Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham spew alternative narratives, intellectual dishonesty and often barely concealed racism and misogyny three hours a day, five days a week.

But unlike here, Fox has captured the ratings and the station often described as "State TV" consistently garners the highest cable news audiences.

Fox News’ extraordinary profit and reach have handed Rupert Murdoch a degree of political power, perhaps unmatched by a media mogul since William Randolph Hearst.

Fox News was a critical factor in the rise of America’s populist demagogue president and Murdoch is said to speak to Trump on a weekly basis. His emissary Sean Hannity often travels with the President, coordinating his show’s output with Trump’s in a way that has blurred the line between setting and reflecting the president’s agenda.

Here in Australia, the Murdoch family have for years voiced their disdain for the ABC and barely concealed their quest for the type of power enjoyed in the U.S. Australia already has one of the highest levels of media ownership concentration in the world, but despite the propaganda of the Murdoch machine, the ABC remains Australia’s most trusted news source and retains significant public affection.

ABC’s regional coverage during the recent bushfires was integral to the effort to save lives (at a time when the Prime Minister chose to holiday in Hawaii) and there is little evidence that the public supports the $783 million cut from its budget over the last seven years.

Kevin Rudd, himself the subject of overt political attack when Prime Minister, has described Murdoch’s influence as "a cancer on our democracy" and called for a royal commission into media ownership. That prospect seems remote under Australia’s current government.

However, liberal activists have taken note from abroad and successfully pressured advertisers to abandon broadcasters like Alan Jones.

Social media groups such as Mad Fucking Witches and Sleeping Giants were, despite claims to the contrary, instrumental in ending Jones’ eighteen-year run at 2GB and he is likely to face similar pressure at Sky News.

As the media landscape consolidates further, Australia’s democracy finds itself at a moment of extraordinary fragility. The Government was in great measure handed power by a billionaire. Public funds were misused in a political rorts scandal that engendered no substantive consequence. Democratic institutions have been weakened.

A secret trial is taking place, apparently kept under wraps solely because it embarrasses the Government. And Peter Dutton, the menacing Minister for Home Affairs, has begun to cross the line between disparaging and openly ignoring the judiciary, showing withering disregard for the law and order he so proudly champions.

Alan Jones’ appointment is just another step in the slow but steady "Foxification" of Sky News in Australia. From July, Australians can tune in each weeknight to see hard-right media figures spewing vicious invective and alternative narratives, in a naked attempt to reframe the political debate in a way that reflects the establishment’s agenda.

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Fox’s perfection of this model has had a baleful effect on our American cousins. Anyone wishing for reasonable and reasoned public discourse should fear the arrival of an Australian Fox.

A royal commission might finally allow the public a say about the influence of an American who denies climate science and seeks the powers of kingmaker. The ABC retains public trust across party lines and its slow death is a loss our democracy cannot afford. We should act before it’s too late.

George Grundy is an English-Australian author, media professional and businessman. He currently maintains the political blog americanprimerweekly.com, providing informative and entertaining commentary on major events in politics and sport.

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