Long departed architects of media laws have left a lasting stain on the media landscape and the intellectual and cultural milieu of Australia.
In Battlestar Galactica there is a memorable line that should be etched on the political tombstone of every Australian politician who has been responsible for the media portfolio. ‘All of this has happened before. All of this will happen again’.
Over time, successive governments have tinkered with competition laws in order to introduce a more competitive media landscape. Nothing changed. Some new names have appeared, but high levels of concentration remain a stubborn fact.
A classic example of history repeating itself is the anti-siphoning law introduced in the 1990s to ringfence major sporting events falling into the hands of the Murdoch behemoth when he set up the Pay TV operation Foxtel. Today watch any sports segment on ABC TV news and note the logo of Nine, Seven or Fox Sports is emblazoned at the top of the screen on almost every clip they run. In brief, the ABC sporting department exists to provide publicity for commercial broadcasters and Pay TV. Fox Sports is part of Foxtel.
The commercial free-to-air TV stations kept their access to key sporting events after the inception of the new law but the ABC and SBS witnessed their sporting cupboard atrophy. They lost out to wealthier free-to-air rivals. The anti-siphoning law never allocated for the disparities in wealth between the free-to-air stations. Then to add insult to injury a handful of other pay TV operations joined Foxtel and they made a mockery of the ringfencing aim of the anti-siphoning law. The market for major sporting events was divided between a cashed-up core free-to-air-group and Pay TV players.
SBS lost the iconic English FA Cup. It lost its crown jewel when the football franchise assiduously built up by Les Murray and Johnny Warren was swept away. The blue-ribbon European Cup competitions fell into the clutches of Pay TV. Optus Sport, a division of a Singaporean multinational, snapped up the prized English Premier League rights and initially gave SBS one of the Saturday matches between the less fancied teams in the English Premier League.
After a season Optus Sport pulled the plug on SBS and left followers of the English Premier League no option but to cough up for a subscription fee. The SBS football department collapsed, and staff departed. The silence from politicians was deafening.
Across the country as the World Cup co-hosted by Australia and New Zealand loomed avid ABC and SBS viewers steeled themselves to make the move to switch to the Kerry Stokes owned Channel Seven or Optus Sport who had won the rights. In the UK ITV a commercial channel had to share its rights with the BBC a public broadcaster. In Australia this scenario was never on the table.
To a degree some loyal ABC viewers may have consoled themselves by thinking Channel Seven may make a good fist of showing the World Cup. After all, once upon a time it even snatched high quality BBC dramas from under the nose of the ABC. It craved respectability.
There was also the factor that a respite from the ABC could be endured. After all it routinely leads its news bulletins with the latest flame out on the Pacific Highway or focuses on a gangland killing in the suburbs and takes ages to get to international news. Paul Keating and Bob Carr are not alone in their fierce criticism of the intellectual poverty of ABC news programs.
Moreover, wherever you look the daily ABC TV schedule engenders despair. The Breakfast show competes with its commercial peers for vapid celebrity interviews and cheery, empty chatter. All designed to set up white collar workers for another despairing day in the offices of corporate Australia. ‘Life measured out in coffee spoons’, as TS Eliot put it. ABC drama output heroically clings on, but low budgets ensure it struggles to impress whilst Scandinavian series win international awards.
Then there’s ABC 24. Whilst its mainly young news reporters conjure up catchy phrases to end their stories none shows any sign of being a budding John Pilger. Journalism school plays its part in inculcating timidity, and editors at the ABC finish the exercise. They drill into neophyte heads that everything they say must be strictly impartial. This credo obviates the fact every type of thinking expresses in one way or another a political philosophy. But that maxim escapes the logic of the guardians of power at the ABC. So, anodyne description substitutes for searching and uncompromising analysis as the myth of impartiality is pursued.
The 7 30 Report has a host who glares down the barrel of the camera and promises in promos to speak truth to power and then predictably fills the slot with conformist political interviews and is star struck when interviewing pop or film stars. The poor old Russian Ambassador was an exception. He turned up and the impartiality mask was dropped like a hot potato. He was cowered into silence as the host tore into him. He was scolded and constantly talked over as the host lectured him on the Washington consensus about the causes of the Ukraine war.
The night viewing finishes off in soporific fashion with ‘The World.’ The host interviews the same litany of dull conservative commentators that reflect a familiar standpoint on every political story. It’s a reactionary’s picnic and Hartcher pops up regularly.
As for the Channel Seven coverage of the World Cup it was cringeworthy. All the old tropes were there. The jingoism, the endless ad breaks featuring Kia, Cadbury, Adidas, and of course McDonalds. This was compounded with relentless plugging of what passes for entertainment on Channel Seven once the World Cup finished.
The constant stream of ads can be traced back to the work of a brilliant dead economist. Keynes underconsumption theory is based on the system producing more than can be absorbed by consumption due to shortages of income leading to a lack of purchasing power. Advertising is one of the measures utilised to boost effective demand by encouraging consumers to use credit to bridge the gap between production and consumption. Live now, pay later.
The on-air talent was a misnomer. Channel Seven led with Bruce McAvaney and Mel McLaughlin. They were the focal point, and their lack of football knowledge was beyond parody. Empty vessels with a bagatelle of prosaic utterances. They were obviously there as the marquee representatives of Channel Seven sport and to drum into viewer’s minds that these two were the ones to turn to after the World Cup finished and the usual events and evening sport slots resumed.
McAvaney is a Cathy Freeman fanboy and one waited for him to refer to how great the Sydney Olympics were and the way her Olympic feat sealed our national identity. The wait was not long. Only McAvaney noted the Matildas had picked up Freeman’s mantle. They were the new symbols of national unity. For her part McLaughlin’s boosterism was captured by her comment that Mary Fowler had a good game against England. In fact, Fowler was blotted out and one understood why she has only played sporadically for Manchester City. The simple fact is England and Sweden tore Australia apart. They both played a possession game that controlled the spaces and then pressed forward in numbers with deadly effect. Australia was run ragged.
David Basheer’s commentary was pedestrian. Human interest morsels about the players were amplified. He supplied no expert insight detailing how England and Sweden played a sophisticated brand of football whilst Australia was bereft of attacking guile and relied on punting the ball up the field towards an isolated Sam Kerr.
At the end of the day, it was sad Australia lost out on a medal, but the blessed compensation was saying a swift sayonara to Channel Seven as the World Cup wrapped. In sum, long departed architects of media laws have left a lasting stain on the media landscape and the intellectual and cultural milieu of Australia.