AQ: Australian Quarterly
The distortion of the Australian public sphere:
Media ownership concentration in Australia
They say News Corp staff can feel when Rupert Murdoch is in town. The 88-year-old chairman of News Corp has achieved a mythical status in Australia and around the globe. He is the maker and breaker of prime ministers, his latest scalp that of Malcolm Turnbull. His company also embodies the societal problem with media ownership concentration.
This article will not resort to News Corp bashing, because the problem is far greater than just one company. But there are a few useful case studies emanating from News Corp that I'll return to. The wider
problem is a structural and regulatory issue where Australian politicians, from both major parties, have yet again failed to play the role of the honest broker between market forces and the public interest.
Australia is not alone in having a concentrated media market. We can see similar patterns emerging both in the US and in some parts of Europe. But
Australia stands out as one of the most concentrated media markets in the world and this increasing concentration has been happening for some time.
Then there is the question of why it also appears to be speeding up.
We could program our Tardis to revisit various technological disruptions that have led to, first, media expansion and then concentration, eg. offset printing, the birth of radio followed by TV, but they all pale in comparison with the birth of the internet within which the world wide web (www) exists. The online/digital disruption was, and still is, immense and it caught most legacy media companies off guard.
I saw my first web page in 1992. It is forever burned into my memory. It was the official web page of the US White House. The second page my early technology adopter colleague showed me was a fake US White House page – an ominous sign of what the www would offer in the future.
It took until the mid-to-end 1990s until media companies started to explore the potential of publishing online. Here we find pivotal moment one: most publishers made news available for free. Possibly the dumbest business decision since (a quick internet search later) Western Union passed on the offer of buying the telephone patent in 1876 for US$ 100,000.
What were the legacy media companies thinking when offering their quite expensively produced content for free? Probably that the www was a bit of passing fad and that in a best-case scenario publishing online would attract audiences to the real stories printed with ink on paper in huge printing presses that rumbled in the basements of newspaper houses.
In Australia, we have our own worst media business decision. Fairfax, publisher of The Age, was a leader in online news in the early 2000s. They had a clear edge compared to their competitors and the choice of embracing online. Eric Beecher, then a senior editor at Fairfax, was commissioned by the Fairfax board to look into the future. The future Beecher saw was online and digital. Yet, in spite of his advice, the Fairfax board decided to stay with and prioritise the hard copy newspaper. The rest is history.
For Australia the second pivotal moment arrived in 2006. The thencommunications minister, Helen Coonan (Liberal), engineered (heavily lobbied by the big media owners) media regulation ownership reforms that allowed for increased ownership across media platforms. Blogs were the flavour of the day and one of her driving arguments for the reforms was that the internet allowed citizen journalists, for instance via blogs, to publish and contribute to media diversity.
That argument was as flawed then as it is today. Here is the reason: producing independent public interest journalism that meaningfully holds power to account is time consuming and expensive. Citizen journalists have day jobs. Very few of them contribute original reporting to the public sphere. This is not a critique of citizen journalists (CJ), there are some really good things with CJS – like diminishing the publication gate-keeping role of legacy
WHAT WERE THE LEGACY MEDIA COMPANIES THINKING WHEN OFFERING THEIR QUITE EXPENSIVELY PRODUCED CONTENT FOR FREE? PROBABLY THAT THE WWW WAS A BIT OF PASSING FAD.
Australian politicians, from both major parties, have yet again failed to play the role of the honest broker between market forces and the public interest.