Regulating opinion in Australia

Retired journalist Leigh Williams still reads the newspaper each morning. Photo by Justin Currie-Smith.
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An international study has found that Australia has the highest concentration of media ownership. Justin Currie-Smith explains media diversity and the massive influence of News Corp.  

In 1975, publishing magnate Rupert Murdoch issued a stern directive to his Australian newspaper editors: destroy the Whitlam Government.

While Murdoch’s papers turned against the man they had helped elect eight  years earlier, the order also saw over 100 journalists from The Australian go on strike in the midst of a federal election campaign.

Now, 40 years later, it is clear that this instance of editorial interference was only the beginning, and that Murdoch’s influence has continued to blur the lines between journalism and activism.

“SEND IN THE CLOWN,” said Queensland’s The Courier Mail on August 9th, 2013. On August 22nd, they asked “DOES THIS GUY EVER SHUT UP”, accompanied by a photo of Labor leader Kevin Rudd.

Not to be outdone, Sydney’s The Daily Telegraph announced that we could “KICK THIS MOB OUT” on August 5th, and then, on September 1st, told us that “AUSTRALIA NEEDS TONY”.

But retired writer for Australian Associated Press (AAP), Leigh Williams, remembers a time when Australian newspapers didn’t write like this.

“[The Australian] campaigned relentlessly for (Liberal leader Malcolm) Fraser, and some of their writers were unhappy about having their work cut up and turned into pro-Fraser stories.”

The 1975 election campaign was, according to Williams, the first time an Australian newspaper involved itself so heavily in politics.

“We always had an opinion, you’ve got to, but this modern stuff is just character assassination.”

A 2013 article on The Conversation reported that News Corp-owned newspapers account for almost 60 percent of all daily newspaper sales, with a further 65 percent of the metropolitan newspaper sales, which includes The Courier Mail, The Daily Telegraph, and The Herald Sun.

News Corps closest rival, Fairfax Media, publisher of The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, holds only 25 percent.

A worldwide study by the International Media Concentration Project found that Australia has the highest concentration of media ownership in the world, with two owners holding almost 90 percent of newspaper sales.

News Corp papers The Herald Sun and The Australian photographer Justin Currie-Smith
News Corp papers The Herald Sun and The Australian. Photo by Justin Currie-Smith.

Tito Ambyo, Associate Journalism Lecturer at RMIT, believes that while there is no inherent problem with newspapers having a “clear editorial take” on political issues, the size and reach of News Corp mean the discussion does not end up being balanced.

“In any society we need robust discussion about ideas, and newspapers can play a role in saying ‘hey, this is our take’, that’s why they have editorials, but the discussion in Australia isn’t as robust as it should be.”

Although Australia has had an influx of foreign outlets – such as The Guardian, The Daily Mail and The Huffington Post – opening their doors and publishing local content online, Ambyo believes  society is “still learning how to do online well”.

“On the internet we have a different problem in that there is just too many voices,” he says. “People tend to be less informed online, making judgement without knowing the facts or stating an opinion which they can’t really support.”

He believes that newspapers work best when acting as a “gatekeeper” of opinion, keeping ideas clear and helping guide readers through the issue.

Fourteen years ago, whilst debating a previous proposal for media ownership reform, the sometimes-controversial Member for Werriwa Mark Latham criticised News Corp, and its opinion columnists Andrew Bolt, Piers Akerman, and Janet Albrechtsen, for failing to provide a diverse range of opinions.

“Unfortunately, the Australian media are dominated by insiders, and this applies to both the Left and the Right of politics, the old and the new establishments,” he told parliament.

News Corp, according to Latham, fails to represent the voices of “the great suburbs of this nation”.

Ambyo believes this lack of diversity also extends outside the cities, saying that while we might hear about the ordinary working class Australian – or “battler” – we rarely hear from them.

The Federal Government is again attempting to change media ownership laws in Australia, a move cited by critics as having the potential to further limit the representation of voices and opinions in the Australian media.

Australia has rules governing media ownership and operation, regulated by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA).

The Government is proposing to remove two of the rules; the 75 percent audience reach rule – which prevents a single television broadcaster from reaching more than 75 percent of the population – and the two out of three rule – which prevents an organisation controlling a radio, television broadcaster and newspaper in a single area.

Independent submissions to the Inquiry into the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment, the Senate committee established to investigate the proposed changes, shows concern about the potential for Australia’s largest media organisations to grow even larger.

But Professor Rod Tiffen of the University of Sydney does not believe these reforms would necessarily lead to a monopoly on media opinion.

“Legislating for diversity through cross-media limits has become outdated, that does not mean that monopoly and lack of diversity are not issues [but] they probably need to be pursued by other means.”

In its proposal to remove the two ownership rules, the Government argues that the current ownership regulations are no longer appropriate, due to the large number of alternate platforms which fall outside the scope of the regulations.

While Tiffen agrees, he argues that markets still need strong rules to protect competition, as “the bulk of consumption is still with the mainstream media”.

Ambyo says that journalism has changed since these regulations were introduced, but that the Government is now struggling to play “catch-up”.

Changes to the broader consumer and competition laws to ensure diversity throughout the media might be a more suitable option to replace the outdated rules, according to Tiffen.

But Leigh Williams, looking back on what has changed since his retirement, is not so positive.

“Their circulation is their influence… They’re going to do this kind of reporting anyway, but the more people they can speak to the harder its going to be to counter it.

“Murdoch is really just like a modern day [Citizen] Kane.”

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