Friday, July 21, 2006

World: media ownership: how to tell the broad populace what to think

Australia’s media ownership regulations are being shredded. Why should anyone care? Why should there be any regulation at all?

Just look at Russia. President Vladimir Putin has stifled the independence of all the major media outlets, while correctly maintaining that there is a pluralism. But Putin knows that to keep a grip on public opinion, it is sufficient to control the flow of information and viewpoints in the largest voices.

To date, Australia has had a comparatively complex set of regulations limiting both foreign ownership of media, and diversity within particular markets. In practical terms, it recognises that the dominant media voices are the free-to-air tv stations and the mass circulation daily newspapers. The regulations also – effectively – recognise the distinct major markets (eg Sydney, Melbourne), and the differential nature of indigenous versus foreign interests in the media’s voices.

Most criticism of those regulations has come from large media proprietors and financial service organisations (eg merchant banks, accountancy firms) that stand to gain from the free-for-all that ensues from relaxation.

As both a dominant media proprietor and a naturalised American (and thus a foreigner), Rupert Murdoch stands to gain from weakened regulations. In fact, News Ltd outlets have complained the changes don’t go far enough: Murdoch wants the number of free-to-air tv licenses relaxed, so he doesn’t have to pay a premium to take over an existing network. However, he benefits anyway, in the new capability to own both tv and newspaper voices in the same major market.

An interesting piece this issue on Radio National last night gave some indication of the biases of the different players. Those from the financial services sector (eg accountant Matt Liebman of Price Waterhouse Coopers) focused exclusively on technical aspects of the changes, while oblivious of the social and political ramifications – as if advertising markets and profitability were sufficient proxies for a diversity of information and opinion.

Yet analysts (such as Steve Allen of Fusion Strategies) recognised that the changes chiefly benefitted “boardrooms and shareholders”, and recognised that News Ltd criticisms represented particular vested interests. While the technicians postulated that the regulations were irrelevant in a ‘new media’ era, the analysts recognised that the overwhelming majority of voters still consumed information from the traditional sources of tv and newspaper – and this would be the case for some time to come.

A media analyst from Melbourne’s The Age newspaper then noted that an analysis of recent reportage of the issue from the four main ‘national’ newspapers – upwards of 50 items from The Australian, Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, and the Financial Review – showed that Murdoch’s paper (The Australian) “lobbied unashamedly for changes - in its news, editorial and commentary” pieces” – with utter consistency. By contrast, the others – Fairfax papers - ran a wider variety of views, more often than not conflicting with the official Fairfax position. (The analyst’s situation can be debated, but his findings cannot.)

Fairfax is a peculiar beast. Since “Young Warwick” Fairfax’s disastrous privatisation attempt in the late 1980s, the organisation has had a run remarkably free from proprietor influence. It has been an anachronistic independent, a bastion of the relatively free voice (see Wikipedia’s entry on the Herald). All that will change in the impending feeding frenzy of takeovers, and Australia’s diversity of information flow will be substantially weakened.

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