Media concentration in Australia and the Murdoch damage

It is important that any arrangements made for Facebook/Google/Twitter to pay media companies for content are made transparently and equally available to ALL online media publishers who meet (a very low) bar and wish to participate.No government should  ever facilitate the handing  over of  money to  tax shy oligopolies.

Unbiased and freely accessible newswire services are essential for the distribution of news content. The Government should regulate these services to ensure it is not influenced by advertising directly or indirectly or by other commercial interests and be free from Government intervention related to content.

Media Concentration

The petition launched by former Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd correctly focused on the influence of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation.  Signed by more than 500,000 people it reveals major disquiet about the role of News Corporation and the media more generally in Australia.

Only the single-party states of China and Egypt have more concentrated media than Australia. Yet the monopoly media in Australia continue to plead for more and more government support. Their pleas should be rejected. Support should go to new and independent media.

Controlling two-thirds of metropolitan media in Australia, Rupert Murdoch has other major media enterprises in the UK and the US.  As a former promising and young media proprietor, he has now debauched democracy in three continents.  He has helped create a crisis in democracy itself. Together with Clive Palmer, Murdoch had undue and perhaps decisive  influence on the outcome of our last federal election.

Numerous surveys reveal that News Corporation is the least trusted media in Australia, particularly its mastheads, the Melbourne Sun, the Courier Mail and the Daily Telegraph.

The Reputation Institute of Australia conducts an annual ranking of Australian corporations. The Institute tracks community attitudes towards large and well-known companies. The tracking is based on surveys of 10,000 Australians.

In its 2019 rankings, the top six companies were Air New Zealand, Qantas, JB Hi-Fi, Toyota, Mazda and Aldi. The bottom-ranked six companies were Westpac, Telstra, CBA, News Corp (Australia) and AMP.

We have paid a very heavy price for Rupert Murdoch’s fulsome support of the Iraq War and the enormous human cost that has followed. Other media have acknowledged their mistake but not News Corp.   News Corp continues in serious denial about climate change and the pending catastrophe that is imminent.

The Murdoch organisation also demeans women in public life.  Julia Gillard suffered immensely, but so has Julie Bishop, Annastasia Palaszczuk,  Jacinta Ardern and even Gladys Berijiklian.

Some parts of News Corp continue to make large losses, but that is a price that Rupert Murdoch is prepared to pay for the political power which those losing enterprises provide for him.  He uses that power, partly to advantage his businesses, but also for the personal pleasure that exercising political power gives.  Donald Trump courted him.

Independent-minded staff leave News Corp, but Murdoch pays well for tame employees to remain. I know because I used to work for Murdoch.

Murdoch is a foreign citizen in Australia and has enormous influence in public life. He breaches our Foreign Influence laws on a daily basis.But no action is taken.

But whilst News Corp looms large, there are many other problems.

First, the ABC is under relentless pressure by powerful business and political groups, led by News Corp.  The ABC’s funding is under constant attack. As a result, the ABC is not properly resourced to fill the vacuum left by the failing Corporate Media which I summarise as ‘News/Nine/Stokes’.

Under continual assault, the ABC is increasingly timid. But despite its shortcomings, it remains the best immediate hope for improved media performance and diversity in this country.

Second, almost all our media, including the ABC, seriously neglect news and opinion from our region.  Our ‘white man’s media’ still has a colonial dependence on media feed out of the UK and the US.  An outsider looking at our media would assume that Australia is an island parked off London or New York.  So much of Australia’s news and views about the region is viewed through a UK or US media lens.  Not surprisingly, almost all Australians, including business and political leaders lack an in-depth understanding of our region – and particularly China and its history.  This has contributed to the present parlous state of our relations with China. We are ignorant of the region which is so important to us. Under financial pressure one of the first things our media does is to cut back on regional correspondents. Media ignorance of China is on daily display.

Online readership is growing and moving away from the mainstream

Although print circulation and readership continue their decline, online continues to grow and to show a very different picture of readership. While Murdoch’s News Corp and Nine/Fairfax still dominate print readership, online the leader is the ABC.

According to the latest Nielsen’s “Digital Audience Measurement” of October 2020, ABC leads the Current Events and News category with a monthly unique audience of 11.77 million readers.

More importantly, News Corp sites (news.com.au and TheAustralian.com.au) constitute just 17.8% of the top 10 total online audiences. Nine/Fairfax properties represent 42%, leaving “mainstream independents” with 40.2% of the total readers in the top 10. In addition to the ABC, the independents comprise the Daily Mail, The Guardian and the Australian Community Media (formerly Fairfax regional).

Independents are on the rise

Independent media represents a smallish, but fast-growing segment of the Australian online media landscape. Unaligned, the mostly independently owned and operated media offers a diverse range of coverage – niche news, investigative journalism, analysis, comments and opinions.

Reflecting its print growth, The Saturday Paper’s online audience is up by 38% since January. However, this pales in comparison with the Adelaide-centric Indaily.com.au, which has trebled its audience this year. Maybe a reflection of otherwise stale Murdoch owned media in the City of Churches.

The largest publisher in this category is The Conversation, which continues to increase its Australian audience – up by 96% in its web-traffic since January 2020. The New Daily’s online audience is up 21% over the past 12 months, while Crikey has grown by 57.3%, which is especially impressive given it is one of the few sites in this sector that is behind a pay wall.

Pearls & Irritations continues to grow strongly and, together with its associated Michael West Media, have almost doubled combined traffic since January this year.

But it is not all roses for independents: some of the mainstays of the sector are struggling, including, sadly, those that focus on satire. Maybe we have all lost a bit of our sense of humour in this rather calamitous year!

Overall, the 30 sites measured in this category have grown their audience by 9.5% in the past nine months (Data collected by theIndependents.org.au – a portal for independent media, courtesy of SimilarWeb – a global web measurement company)

What can be done?

Kevin Rudd has suggested a Royal Commission as one possibility.  That would be useful to expose more fully the serious state of our media and the corrupting influence of News Corp.

But we have had enquiries and reviews in the past but little progress has been made in improving and reforming our media.  This has occurred because most reform proposals have been self-interestedly attacked and rejected by the very same powerful media players who are the subject of these enquiries.  In their monopoly positions they have much to protect.  Governments and politicians have been too frightened to make any useful changes to the power of existing media players.

Media Reform Commission (MRC)

First I suggest that the Australian Parliament legislate for a permanent standing MRC composed of independent and well-regarded people from a range of fields in Australia – business, unions, professions, NGOs and the community.  The MRC should regularly report on media performance and recommend necessary reforms to establish a healthy and diverse media in Australia.  The MRC must have an important role in promoting an informed public debate. This debate is avoided or undermined in the mainstream media.

The MRC should have the power to initiate enquiries and not be dependent on ministerial referrals.  It should have powers to summon people and have them testify on oath.

In short, what I am proposing is a standing royal commission.

The Australia Law Reform Commission  which was established in 1975 is a useful model, in part.  About 90% of its recommendations have either been adopted in full or in part by governments.   An informed public debate is an important reason for its success.

But my proposed MRC would have more powers than the well-established and well-regarded Australian Law Reform Commission.

We need a strong and well-resourced MRC to highlight existing abuses and to bring health and diversity to our media.

The ABC

The Parliament should support several steps to ensure that the ABC is adequately resourced and independent. It has been subject to interference by both Coalition and Labor Governments. There should be-

  • Three-year funding adjusted for inflation
  • An ‘Age ‘ type declaration of independence that is respected by all
  • Separation of the roles of Managing Director and Editor in Chief
  • Legislation to exclude advertising and promotions
  • Governments to appoint only persons to the Board that on the shortlist recommended by the Nomination Panel.
  • Board members and staff that are more representative of our multicultural community and less of inner-city dwellers.

Concentration of ownership and the impact of Australia’s media ownership laws on media concentration in Australia;

Printed newspaper distribution in Australia is largely owned by four companies – News, Nine, Stokes and now Australian Community Media (ACM). The Government should put measures in place to limit any further expansion by these four groups. A moratorium on any mergers or asset transfers between these companies should be introduced immediately and for a minimum period of three years.

There should be no more corporate welfare for the ‘four’.

Changes in media models and the impact of significant changes to media business models since the advent of online news and the barriers to viability and profitability of public interest news services;

Access to news content from a vast (and global) number of free sources has rendered the traditional models of pay for content unprofitable. Equally, classified advertising has largely moved to non-media companies. This has led to increased reliance on consumer advertising as the chief revenue source, which is directly threatening editorial impartiality. (Major advertising spender Harvey Norman recently was shamed by Choice in their annual Shonky award, yet it did not rate a mention in any of the Corporate Media papers  – Media Watch 16/11).

The Big Tech platforms and  the impact of online global platforms such as Facebook, Google and Twitter on the media industry and sharing of news in Australia;

  • It is important that any arrangements made for Facebook/Google/Twitter to pay media companies for content are made transparently and equally available to ALL online media publishers who meet (a very low) bar and wish to participate. Far too often government support goes to the large established players e.g. recently ACM received $10.4 m out of $18m put aside for publishers as part of the Public Interest News Gathering Programme, a grants scheme that was set up to help regional media businesses stay afloat during the pandemic.
  • A Government body – possibly the ACMA – be authorised to negotiate on independent media’s behalf – based on a low barrier opt-in model of participation
  • If the ACCC proposal of advance notice of algorithm changes is accepted in any form by the social media giants, it is essential that this is made available on equal terms to ALL online media publishers.

Independent and community news outlets and the barriers faced by small, independent and community news outlets in Australia;

Independent and regional news outlets face the same barriers as major (metropolitan) outlets for the same reasons: declining revenue or in many cases no revenue. Many of these outlets are based on volunteered or underpaid work but are often operated by people with significant media experience. Traditionally smaller media outlets have been “breeding grounds” for journalists.

The Government should support/subsidise journalism apprenticeships for small and regional media outlets.

Newswire services and the role that a newswire service plays in supporting diverse public interest journalism in Australia;

Unbiased and freely accessible newswire services are essential for the distribution of news content. The Government should regulate these services to ensure it is not influenced by advertising directly or indirectly or by other commercial interests and be free from Government intervention related to content.

These services should mandatorily be made available to anyone based on a user pays model, with pricing reflecting audience size.

Journalism and the role of government in supporting a viable and diverse public interest journalism sector in Australia;

  • Government action/regulation that oversees and curtails the dominance of social media companies in news distribution in Australia is essential, including; working closely with EU and US regulators (and others) and reviewing all existing media regulations and legislation with a view to imposing such regulations on social media companies considering their role as distributors and publishers of news content
  • Work with TAFE and Universities to support and fund apprenticeship programs for journalists
  • Introduce tax concessions that recognise ‘donations’ to all social media companies directly attributable to their activities in Australia

See also:

JOHN MENADUE. It is no surprise that News Corp is even less and less trusted.

Independent media winning the battle of the online audience

Summary

For the health of our democracy media concentration and the corrupting influence of Rupert Murdoch needs to be urgently addressed.

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John Menadue is the publisher of Pearls & Irritations. He has had a distinguished career both in the private sector and in the Public Service.

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