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Issue #1553      27 June 2012

Media bloodletting and the right-wing agenda

Upheavals in Australia’s media industry are not new. From time to time there will be movement by one or other of the elite group of media moguls to buy a bigger chunk of his or her competitors’ stake in print or broadcast media. There is a flurry of commentary in the opinion columns. There is talk about the dangers of the concentration of media ownership, a minor realignment of monopoly interests is sometimes carried out and then it all dies down. The latest, looming shakeup is different. It threatens major retrograde changes within the monopoly-owned media and underscores the urgency of building the progressive alternative.

The furore was sparked by intentions on the part of the world’s richest woman, Gina Rinehart, to buy a 20 percent stake in the troubled Fairfax newspaper group. She wants three seats on the board – one for herself, one for Hungry Jack’s founder Jack Cowin and one other. Despite pleas from many quarters, including Fairfax journalists, Rinehart has refused to sign the company’s charter of editorial independence.

The charter dates from 1990s when Fairfax staff sought to defend the integrity of their work from company receivers who wanted to determine the editorial line according to “commercial interests”. Nobody doubts Rinehart will use the newspapers to push a political agenda. The mining magnate makes no secret of her right wing views. She doesn’t want to pay even a token “mineral resource rent tax” or “carbon tax” and wants a bigger audience for her views. She wants a Coalition government committed to scrapping that legislation.

Media corporations do not need to be told to represent big business interests. They are big businesses. Journalists might make an occasional show of “independence” but are more or less inclined to internalise the editorial attitudes of the outlet concerned. That’s not new, either. But the idea that an obscenely wealthy individual would move in and take over the more respected of Australia’s newspapers in order to continue build her fortune has brought a lot of people off the sidelines.

“I think it has very bad impacts for our democracy,” acting Prime Minister Wayne Swan said last week. “I think we should all be very concerned about this chain of events. No one has so blatantly and so publicly said they intend to impose their commercial imperatives on the essential role of journalists when they are trying to report in a fair and balanced way.”

Would the government or the opposition be prepared to do anything to ensure editorial independence for the country’s newspapers? Not on your life! While the public has been shocked by the phone hacking scandal involving the Murdoch press in the UK and would like to see reform of the media in Australia to lift standards, the government is showing no willingness to push for change. The demand for regulation of the press similar to that which applies in broadcasting is being quietly forgotten.

Communications minister Stephen Conroy and opposition spokesman Malcolm Turnbull have both rejected a Greens move to have the Fairfax group’s editorial independence protected. “A free press above all means freedom from government influence and control,” Turnbull said. He could have added that, in his opinion, “influence and control” rightfully belong to wealthy business interests.

Digital “cakes and circuses”

Rinehart will have a strong hand while insisting on her line on issues. Readership and advertising revenues are down. The company has announced that 1,900 jobs are to be axed. Fairfax will no longer print its own papers so the Sydney and Melbourne printing works will be closed from June 2014. The group had already caused a stink when it announced editorial production jobs would be shifted from Newcastle and Illawarra to New Zealand. The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age are to become tabloids. The managing editors of both the Age and Herald have announced their resignation.

Murdoch’s News Ltd is also planning to shed 1,000 jobs through “natural attrition”. People living in regional Australia are concerned that a new “one city, one newsroom” policy and other shakeups will lead to loss of local content along with the loss of locally-based journalists.

In another worrying development, the current and would-be owners of the print media are not showing much commitment to hard copy of their papers. The temptation is there to go to online content only. News Limited recently bought specialist business websites like Business Spectator and The Eureka Report run by ABC presenter Alan Kohler for around $30 million. It wants to double its hold in Foxtel. Channel Seven owner Kerry Stokes is also making a move on Foxtel. Media interests are shifting focus.

The impact of the end of hard copy newspapers and the wholesale move to online news and commentary has been widely discussed. It is seen as inevitable but in the current circumstances few doubt that it would have a very negative impact on the political awareness of the public. It would cause a further “dumbing down” of debate. Those possibilities serve ruling class interests. The challenge for left and progressive forces will be to build an influential, alternative media grounded in people’s struggle against the whole right-wing agenda.  

Next article – Editorial – Class nature of marriage equality

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