Australian politics, society & culture

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By Robert Manne 
Cover: November 2006November 2006Medium length read
 
Last month, the federal parliament passed the most important media laws in 20 years. The laws allow newspaper owners to move into free-to-air television; they allow television owners to purchase a newspaper chain. Before their passage, controversy arose over trivial or second-order issues. Should a single proprietor be able to own a newspaper, as well as a television channel and a radio station, in one non-metropolitan market? Should minimum levels of local content on country radio stations be mandated by law? On these minor questions, because of National Party pressure, the Howard government eventually gave way. There was, however, an overwhelmingly more significant political question: whether Australian democracy is threatened by laws which effectively permit the formation of a near-duopoly in the main sphere of the public media - free-to-air television and metropolitan newspapers.

Apart from a spirited intervention by Paul Keating and the whispered criticisms of the Labor Opposition, in which only a political tragic would even be aware of whether or not its leader, Kim Beazley, was involved, the Howard government's legislation passed without even the pretence of a searching debate. Now, as a consequence of these laws, there is nothing to prevent the owners of Channel Nine, James Packer's PBL, from purchasing Fairfax; there is nothing to prevent Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation from purchasing Channel Ten and turning it into an Australianised version of the populist-patriotic-conservative Fox News. But I am not concerned here with the question of whether or not they will.

According to the previous media laws, overseen by Paul Keating in 1986, which followed the model of the US, no media corporation was able to own simultaneously a metropolitan newspaper and a television channel. There were, though, no restrictions on the number of newspapers or the size of the national market a single proprietor could control. This proved a fatal flaw. Under Keating's law, News Corporation quickly came to own approximately 70% of the country's newspapers, including the most popular daily newspapers in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide, Hobart and Darwin, and the only true national paper, the Australian. Even before the passage of the Howard government's new laws, then, Australia had one of the most concentrated media sectors in the Western world, primarily because of Murdoch's newspaper stranglehold.

This mattered a great deal. For a number of reasons, at least in Australia, newspapers still shape citizens' political interpretation of the world more deeply than does any other branch of media. Neither commercial radio nor television in Australia shows much interest in serious analysis of public affairs. Newspapers feed stories daily to their only real commercial competitor, under-resourced talk-radio. They are also the employers of a very influential new social group, the right-wing opinion columnists, who work in tandem with another group of terrible simplifiers, the commercial talk-radio hosts, whose joint purpose is to excite free-floating public outrage, stigmatise outsiders, stimulate patriotic sentiment and marginalise the much-despised left-liberal elites. Given the political significance of newspapers, to allow any single owner 70% of the national market was a serious mistake.

To allow Rupert Murdoch, in particular, this kind of influence made absolutely no sense. Murdoch is no ordinary media proprietor. He is a highly political animal who is driven almost as much by his zeal to advance the twin ideological forces now dominant in the English-speaking world - neo-liberalism in the economic and workplace-relations spheres; neo-conservatism in the spheres of culture, morals, education and foreign policy - as he is by his genius for making money. It is no surprise that he has wielded an indefensible leverage over Australian political life, especially in the past ten years. Without the backing of News Corporation before, during and after the invasion of Iraq, it is hard to see how a blunder as comprehensive as Howard's could have had so little impact on his reputation and that of his government, a matter which has made our prime minister the wonder and the envy of both George W Bush and Tony Blair. And, during the past decade, federal Labor has often been attacked by the Murdoch press for even minor dissent from News Corporation's philosophy. It could probably not have survived the mauling it would have received if it had decided to challenge, in some genuinely fundamental way, the policy preferences or the ideological worldview disseminated daily across Australia by News.

In this story, Murdoch's flagship, the Australian, especially under the editorship of Chris Mitchell, has played a leading role. For this country at least, it is a newspaper of a new type, combining the resources and the borrowed authority of the conventional broadsheet with the missionary zeal, the ideological self-certainty, the take-no-prisoners combativeness and the smart-alec tone more usually associated with a student newspaper or a politically engaged "small magazine".

Two small examples of the house style will suffice. In a preposterously premature, celebratory editorial of 12 April 2003 (called, with characteristic subtlety, "Coalition of the Whining Got it Wrong"), the Australian used the arrival of the US forces in Baghdad to trumpet not only a total military victory in Iraq but also to deliver what it hoped would be the knockout blow against the enemy in the Culture War the paper obsessively fought: "the performance of the ‘intellectual' Left, in Australia and elsewhere in the West, has been a disgrace ... Remember the quagmire? Remember the bloody campaign in which we were going to get bogged down before being caught in ‘street by street' fighting, only to end up trapped in a bitter intifada? ... Never underestimate the power of ideology and myth - in this case anti-Americanism - to trump reality. But at least we now know for sure it is not love but being a left-wing intellectual, that means never having to say you're sorry."

If anything, the Australian and the other Murdoch newspapers in Australia have been even more irresponsible over the threat of global warming. An almost universal scientific consensus on the threat and its primary cause has existed for several years. This has not been News Corporation's view. As late as January this year, the Australian used the occasion of the first meeting of the Asia-Pacific Partnership, led by the anti-Kyoto US, to trot out the opinions of almost every global-warming denier it could find. Its editorial writers solemnly informed their readers that while scientists might claim that burning fossil fuels was primarily responsible for global warming, the fact was that "no one" knew the real cause, and that while the scientists "may be right they could just as easily be wrong". It accused green supporters of Kyoto of nothing less than trying to bring capitalism down.

The Murdoch empire is at least as unified and hierarchical as the Papacy. Rupert Murdoch recently announced his conversion to the cause of stopping global warming. It will be a grimly amusing spectacle to watch as the loyal Australian climate-change deniers inside News now go silent or, presumably after a decent interval, announce their conversions, one by one.

The unhealthy influence of News Corporation's share of the Australian press over the past ten years would not have proved so damaging for our democracy had it not occurred concurrently with the long campaign mounted by the Howard government to destroy the political self-confidence and independence of the ABC. The ABC has always been an indispensable forum for the discussion of politics and ideas. It still is. Australian politics without AM, PM, Radio National, The 7.30 Report, Four Corners and Lateline would be a very different thing. Although it is important not to deny that the tension between the ABC and the federal government has a long, complex history, or that the decline in ABC funding began not under Howard but rather under Hawke, it is also obvious that over the past decade the relationship between the ABC and the government has reached an all-time low.

Over these years, as Ken Inglis demonstrates in detail in his masterful and moderate new history, Whose ABC?, the Howard government has mounted a pincer-style attack, involving fiscal squeeze on one flank and persistent accusations of un-Australian, left-wing bias on another. In this campaign, the most important example concerned the series of trivial charges laid against AM's coverage of the invasion of Iraq by the minister in charge of the ABC, Senator Richard Alston, which took no fewer than three separate inquiries to resolve. What made the case peculiarly distasteful was that while the reputation of the ABC was harmed by claims about the occasional sarcasm of its reporters, the reputation of the government in which Alston served was barely tarnished by the slightly more serious fact that it had taken Australia to war on the basis of intelligence which proved to be entirely false, after which Iraq descended into unimaginably bloody civil war - for which those who bore responsibility, including the minister himself, showed not the slightest sign of remorse.

Alston did not act alone. There can be little doubt that John Howard has been determined to bring the ABC to heel as part of his more general ambition to destroy as much as possible of whatever remains of the cultural influence he labels the "soft Left". Howard has borrowed from the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci the idea that a counter-revolution, as much as a revolution, requires a long march through the institutions of society. Unlike Gramsci's preference, however, the long march Howard has tried to orchestrate inside the ABC is from the supposed Left to the truly Right: hence the astonishing presence on the ABC board of Australia's most strident cultural warriors - Keith Windschuttle, Janet Albrechtsen and Ron Brunton.

Thus far, the conservative chairman of the ABC, Donald MacDonald, has more or less held the line. When he retires shortly, the independence of the ABC will most likely be eroded further. As a result of financial retrenchment, the policy of permeation from the top and outright persistent political attack, executives and program-makers are now in a defensive or even fearful mood. There is not much more work left to do.

It is the combination of Murdoch's dominance of the press with the government's taming of the ABC which makes the present situation of the media in Australia particularly unhealthy. The new laws, which will further concentrate the power of media proprietors, seem likely only to make things even worse.

Powerful myths surround the question of politics, the concentration of traditional media ownership and the new media forms. It might be true, as optimists argue, that citizens increasingly pick up their daily news from the internet. What they fail to mention, however, is that the news websites are mainly supplied by newspapers, television and the ABC. It is also true that self-selecting tiny minorities satisfy their hunger for more detailed knowledge than the public media can provide by turning to specialist websites, or find their pleasure in communing with those whose political prejudices they share by participating in blogs. Nonetheless, it remains the case that in many contemporary democracies, and certainly in Australia, the discussions which shape citizens' views of what is going on in their world, and which influence the way they respond, still take place predominantly in the three most traditional and conventional forms of the media: metropolitan newspapers, free-to-air national television and radio.

Among the conditions for creating and maintaining a robust democracy there are, accordingly, few things more important than the discovery and the honouring of rules which guarantee the political diversity of public media. In the UK and its derivative societies, the former dominions, one means of guaranteeing this political diversity has been the creation of one genuinely neutral media sphere, the publicly-funded radio and television broadcaster, whose independence is safeguarded by formal charter and a government ordinance requiring non-interference in the institution which it funds. In recent times in Australia, the fragility of this cultural achievement has become increasingly clear, as we have seen.

In almost all democracies, rules that prevent individuals or corporations from owning too large a part of the commercial media sector are the normal means for guaranteeing political diversity within the sector. Nothing is more basic than the understanding that the rules which govern the ownership of national media ought necessarily to be different and more restrictive than the rules operating in other commercial fields. In most spheres of business, the only basic principle that must be satisfied is competition. Even an effective duopoly, so long as it is policed by a powerful competition watchdog, can be rationally defended. In the sphere of public commercial media, however, there are two principles, competition and diversity, that need to be defended. Here, duopoly is entirely indefensible. Democracy requires not just formal freedom of expression but also the creation of the conditions that allow a wide variety of voices to be heard - from the Left, the centre and the Right, from dissidents and from the mainstream. The most important public space for these voices is still found in the traditional media forms.

Defenders of high levels of media concentration frequently argue that ownership is irrelevant to media diversity, that throughout the media it is the editors and journalists who rule. On both empirical and conceptual grounds, this argument does not work. Does anyone believe that Silvio Berlusconi did not use his media power for political purposes? Is there anyone (who has actually looked into the matter) who believes that Bush, Blair and Howard were not assisted by Rupert Murdoch's mobilisation of his vast media empire to support the invasion of Iraq?

Moreover, even if it is true that in some instances media owners, unlike Berlusconi and Murdoch, will be solely interested in making profits and not also in shaping minds, it is impossible to argue that if a high degree of media concentration is permitted this must always be the case. The conceptual question is not whether, in a democracy where media ownership is highly concentrated, proprietors always use their power to manipulate opinion; rather, the question is whether permitting individuals or corporations high levels of media ownership allows them to manipulate opinion, if they are so inclined. It is astonishing that these arguments have played almost no part in our recent debates over media law.

Media concentration has already created an almost textbook example of a vicious circle. The more the media is concentrated, the greater is the problem for the health of democracy. Yet the more the media is concentrated, the less likely it is that the issue will be debated freely in the only appropriate forum for the discussion, the media itself. As the recent passage of the new media laws showed, we are now trapped inside this circle. Can anyone suggest how we might break out?

About the author Robert Manne

Robert Manne is Emeritus Professor and Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow at La Trobe University and has twice been voted Australia’s leading public intellectual. He is the author of Left, Right, Left: Political Essays, 1977–2005 and Making Trouble