The dis­tor­tion of the Aus­tralian pub­lic sphere:

Me­dia own­er­ship con­cen­tra­tion in Aus­tralia

AQ: Australian Quarterly - - CONTENTS - ASSOC PROF JO­HAN LIDBERG

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

1

Aus­tralia stands out as one of the most con­cen­trated me­dia mar­kets in the world and this in­creas­ing con­cen­tra­tion has been hap­pen­ing for some time.

2

Then there is the ques­tion of why it also ap­pears to be speed­ing up.

Back­ground

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.

3

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.