Politics, Ice Cream & Gossip Girl: Media Reform and Censorship

Stephen Conroy as Joseph Stalin.

  I actually think that was the highpoint of Australia’s recent media reform debate.

The Daily Telegraph’s representation of the federal Minister for Communications as a dictator, as well as the quite literal comparison of his proposed reforms to Stalinism was a classic example of lobbying overreach. But has it worked? The Daily Telegraph, along with all its stable mates, The Herald-Sun and The Australian (all owned by Australia’s largest media conglomerate, News Ltd), are viciously opposed to the federal government’s plans to tighten regulation around print news.

  The media industry and the federal government have one thing in common – they’re both in crisis. The debate around media reform and regulation needs to be viewed through the prism of the current print and news media context. Circulation is rapidly declining, journalists are being sacked en masse, the shift to online isn’t bringing in enough revenue and the media market continues to consolidate, reducing diversity.

  These issues combined with a view within the government (of which there is much evidence for) that the News Ltd papers, owned by Rupert Murdoch, are set on destroying the government and all the progressive things it stands for, have driven the media reform bandwagon to where it is today.

 I actually think that the government’s proposed reforms, described by Crikey’s Bernard Keane as “minimalist”, are fairly inconsequential to the broader debate but they’re worth taking a look at to highlight just how completely over the top most of the reaction has been.

  Conroy has proposed a national public interest test for media mergers, which requires mergers between large media companies to be assessed on whether the reduction of media diversity is worth the “public benefit”, a new print and online regulatory framework. The framework requires the industry to demonstrate that it is actually self-regulating the way it claims, and a “Public Interest Media Advocate” whose role it will be to assess the capacity of self-regulating industry bodies.

 As you can see, most of the changes have to do with ensuring that newspapers and online news outlets are actually adhering to the standards that they currently claim to be meeting. The “public interest” test has attracted much criticism, mainly from large news companies who stand to benefit from a lack of market regulation. However, very few of them have pointed out that the same test exists in both the United States and the United Kingdom, and it hasn’t hampered the drive to merge all that much.

 All it takes is a quick glance at what’s actually on the table to realise how ludicrous comparisons to Stalin and Pol Pot are.  The irony is that Australia once did have a quite restrictive news censorship program, aimed mainly at minimising internal dissent during World War II and the Cold War, implemented by Robert Menzies and administered by Rupert Murdoch’s father, Keith Murdoch.

 Despite The Daily Telegraph’s total misrepresentation of the actual reform proposals via their Photoshop job on Conroy, the incident was still interesting due to the reactions it provoked from supporters of media regulation and the fact that it, and the broader campaign against Labor’s reforms, seems to have worked.

 To pass the reforms, Labor needs the support of the independents and The Greens in the lower house. Despite quite vicious attacks on key independents like Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor by News Ltd papers, they both appear likely to scuttle the plan on the grounds that the government hasn’t given them enough time to review the legislation and they are concerned about press freedom. So it seems that the hyperbolic campaign of trying to link minimalistic regulatory changes to the threat of gulags has actually worked.

 Perhaps it’s not that surprising that the federal government managed to alienate virtually every media outlet and political entity in the country over reforms that were, rightly or wrongly, portrayed as being about “censorship”. After all, freedom of speech is something all journalists hold dear, regardless of the political persuasion of the company they work for.

 What is more surprising, and disappointing is the advocacy of censorship from some on the progressive side of politics who see it as a tool to “balance” the political debate in Australia. When The Daily Telegraph made its Conroy/Stalin comparison, some commentators argued that this was evidence enough for the need for media reform — presumably the kind of reform that would prevent publications from printing silly and misleading parodies. In this situation, supporters of media reform have correctly diagnosed the problem — a media landscape controlled by powerful and sectional interests, hostile to the certain political views, but they’ve come up with the wrong solution in the form of increasing state control and regulation over journalism.

 No matter what your politics, principles like freedom of speech shouldn’t be something up for negotiation. A kneejerk reaction in response to the horribly unsophisticated Daily Telegraph might be tempting, but once you hand that much control to the state and legitimise targeting news outlets for their political views, you begin to several erode some of the basic foundations of a free society.

 As I said earlier, I’m not suggesting this is where Conroy was proposing to go with his limited reforms, far from it, but it is clear that using the power of the state to smash institutions like News Ltd is something many on the progressive side of politics would like the federal government to do. My issue with this strategy is that it fails to recognise the motivating factors behind publications like The Daily Telegraph and assumes that, because they are “newspapers”, they have an inherent need to publish fair, factual and balanced information.

 In reality, all newspapers are published by corporations and thus are required to maximise profit for the shareholders who own them, regardless of fairness and balance. This inability to understand the basic market reality in which our society operates is incredibly frustrating in regards to the debate around media diversity.

 If we can’t have censorship, then we should at least advocate for more “diversity” in media ownership and argue progressive proponents of media reform. With 70 per cent of Australia’s newspapers owned by News Ltd, a company obviously hostile to the progressive agenda, again you can see why this idea might be tempting. But what does “media diversity” actually mean?

 

 Even if you force divestiture of News Ltd.’s assets or prevent them from buying anything else, it still requires an enormous amount of capital to run or establish a newspaper. What “diversity” really means is that, instead of one rich, old, white man controlling Australia’s newspapers, we’d have three or four. While we might have technical diversity of ownership, it’s hard to see this translating into diversity of views. Gina Rinehart is a good example of this. While her foray into print media has been met with controversy, it is actually an example of media diversity. It’s only the Packers, Murdochs, Rineharts and Palmers of the world that have the ability to establish and run newspapers in the current market framework.

 If you have any doubt that these “diverse” media outlets wouldn’t be equally as hostile to the progressive agenda as News Ltd, Jeff Sparrow from Overland convincingly argues: “The right-wing press — its sexism, its conservatism and, yes, its inanity — forms part of the landscape against which any reform project defines itself. A progressive candidate will inevitably receive constant visits from Murdoch’s flying monkeys; by definition, a successful campaign necessarily involves countering Tony Abbott’s grisly Hallelujah chorus on the op-ed pages.”

 So if not censorship and if not state-sanctioned diversity, then what? Well, the first thing to do is accept, as Sparrows says, that any attempt to fight for progressive reform in Australia is going to meet resistance from powerful corporate interests, including those who own the media. So there isn’t a quick and easy way to dilute the power of the corporate media, at least not in a way that doesn’t fundamentally reshape society in a way that begins to ignore corporate interests.

 The question of “what to do” is something I’ve spent a long time grappling with. Whenever I argue with my fellow progressives and lambast their support for media diversity, they say “Well, what’s your idea, then?” The best I can come up with are suggestions on how to establish news outlets that are accountable to a cross section of the population, not just corporate shareholders, and contain genuinely diverse views. Student media is an example of this. Student newspapers are published by student unions that receive their funding from student fees. There aren’t the commercial pressures that can so often lead to a paucity of rigorous analysis a la The Daily Telegraph. On a larger scale, trade unions both in the United Kingdom and in Australia used to own newspapers and radio stations. While they were obviously biased to a pro-labour point of view, that doesn’t matter too much when the bulk of the corporate-owned media is biased towards a pro-capital perspective. It certainly makes more sense to have competing sections of the media landscape with different perspectives than attempt to foist “balance” onto particular publications.

 The federal government could play a role in fostering genuine media diversity by offering substantial grants for independent media outlets. This could include community radio and online publications.

 None of these things in isolation will “fix” the problem we have with the media industry in Australia, and they’re complex and difficult to achieve. But when principles like freedom of speech are up for grabs, it’s worth spending time thinking up clever solutions than giving into desperate measures like censorship that might come back to bite us.

– Osman Faruqi

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