SOS – Save our scribes

Jul 5, 2024
SOS IT HELP - Close up on Three SOS keyboard keys in a Pile of Black and White Computer Keyboard Keys. Three visible keys have letters SOS.

As legacy media dies we seek its phoenix.

With the new financial year comes a welcome slump in begging e-mails for newsletter subs. Not just from the spare room laptoppers but also the towering universities that pay their vice chancellors millions yet want the public to fund an editor.

Appeals stress reading is free but production isn’t. The costs frequently exclude the work that makes the venture worthwhile – the journo’s fee.

This is like building homes but not paying the brickies whose skills are critical to the structure. The labourer being worthy of his hire seems to have been forgotten despite its Biblical endorsement.

Commerce trumps scripture.

Nonetheless, our culture still retains faith in a healthy work-life balance and tends to despise exploitation.

The Fair Work Act is supposed to “provide a balanced framework for cooperative and productive workplace relations that promotes national economic prosperity and social inclusion for all Australians.”

On the Labour Rights Index Australia gets ranked as having “reasonable access to decent work”; the terms are subjective.

The mainstream media is wading through a gory field of sackings, euphemistically labelled “downsizing to restructure”. The “production staff reductions” include the creatives whose work is central to sales.

Old media company boards have yet to discover how to treat hemorrhaging incomes; the first-aid kits are empty of bandages so they reach for the knife. Aesop defined their idiocy in Fable 87.

Ironically they’re now pleading for Canberra’s help to fight the international social media giants though having long stressed abhorrence of government interference.

Many young idealists fought to get into the media believing in the public’s need to be factually informed; we saw this as a basic human right built into the four-pillars of democracy.

The first three, Legislature, Executive and the Judiciary are funded by the public and that seems to be widely accepted. But apart from the ABC the Media pillar has been outsourced to capitalism, not primarily to “factually inform” but to make money.

Cadet naivety rapidly turned to cynicism when working in newsrooms. Although we’d write forever, the quick learners soon understood that if the investors weren’t getting enough returns they’d spike our efforts and switch from selling news to baked beans.

With Australia’s taxpayer-funded national broadcaster ($7.7 billion across five years) said to be central to our culture, we expect governments to be involved in ensuring democracy’s right to know.

The feds are thrashing around for solutions as the Meta Monster and Brother X refuse to pay for the stories that draw readers to their sites.

We might never have known of Tchaikovsky’s music or Michelangelo’s paintings if the creatives had not been supported by patrons centuries ago. The Renaissance was largely fuelled by the wealthy paying the artists.

Without them, the little swans would clump on stage and the Sistine Chapel would be a bureaucratic beige.

This is not a plea for government control of the media. May the wrath of the deities descend should we become like North Korea or Afghanistan, though we’re nothing to write home about when liberties are measured.

We rank 39 in Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index, lower than NZ and the UK but better than the US.

The Reithian principles of educating, informing and entertaining that are embedded in the BBC Charter (1927) and adopted by the ABC are good for listeners and watchers. Why not the readers?

It was an accident of history because German goldsmith Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of movable type in 1439 pre-dated the electronic media, so well in place before the lawmakers awoke.

But that doesn’t mean it’s the best way to fix the problem of tired modern media and cash-famished hacks.

NZ is showing a way to prop up the fourth pillar: The conservative National-Coalition government has decided a Cabinet Minister will run a media subsidy scheme.

She or he “will decide which media entities will be eligible to receive the proceeds of a levy the Government proposes to impose on Facebook and Google” estimated to raise between NZ$30 and NZ$50 million a year.

A few even further right than the pro-business government have called the idea “stupid”, “unprincipled” and “a move of breathtaking audacity” – but it’s going ahead.

Back on this side of the Ditch the Greens are pushing for a “Billionaires Tax and a Corporate Super Profits Tax to make big corporations and the super-wealthy pay their fair share so we can properly fund public services… ”

They claim a six per cent levy would raise $48 billion across ten years.

Their ambition seems doomed because the big parties will ignore and the nation’s 141 billionaires could use their ore-crushing power to pulverise the idea

That doesn’t stop them from sipping a nip of altruism before bedtime, adding a slice of media to the arts generally considered to be painting, theatre, writing and composition. To be fair, some philanthropists are already active in these four categories.

Then there’s sport; $97 million in the Federal budget over the next two years.

The money could go into an Independent Media Foundation separate from the government and donors, distributing pooled funds on application to newsletters that follow agreed guidelines like the MEAA Journalist Code of Ethics.

By mixing up the dough patrons – like an imaginary WA mining tycoon – wouldn’t know if it was her generosity that was helping fund a commentary lauding or thrashing fossil fuel controls…

There are 25 independent newsletters in Australia. Some have too narrow interests or are run by salaried uni staff, but others are the work of visionaries with ideas bigger than their wallets. They need the IMF. So do we.

This being Australia there’d be naysayers. Driving them away could reveal a new Renaissance – young creatives challenging old media, using fresh ways to tell truths and engage honestly with the public.

Farewell Rupert.

Disclosure: Like all contributions to Pearls & Irritations this piece is unpaid. It’s not an ideal arrangement – writers also have to eat. But the rewards are nourishing – exposing wrongs and pushing ideas alongside the thinkers that John Menadue has attracted and energised.

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