Class war in Australia? In your dreams Tony

May 11, 2012

The history of all hiterhto existing society is the history of class struggles…in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight…The modern bourgeois society that has sprouted from the ruins of fuedal society has not done away with class antagonisms. It has but established new forms of struggle in place of the old ones.

Marx & Engels – The Communist Manifesto

Everywhere, it seems, except in Australia.

The myth of egalitarian and classless Australia has served the ruling class well. It is a convenient deceit that leads to passivity and an unnamed restless feeling that things could be different if only… The idea that we are somehow all middle class denies us the possibility of a better world. It also leads to the self-loathing sentiment that if we fail it is our own fault. It leads to the doublethink situation in which feelings of inadequacy fuel our aspiration.

On the other side of that ideological coin is the idea that it is only the ‘Left’ that doesn’t believe in this myth and that the ‘Left’ promotes agitation for its own devious ends, rather than to fight for a more just distribution of wealth. Only old Trots like me (and the dupes who I’ve duped) believe in class any more – that’s the myth peddled in the mainstream media.

This week the ruling class’s lackeys in the mainstream media have again invoked this twisted image of class war to, attack the Labor government and endorse Tony Abbott as the Prime Minister in waiting.

Unfortunately this is myth of egalitarian mateship and fair-go, fair-dinkum class-free Australia is far from the truth.

Read the rest of this entry »


A changing of the guard: Gina Rinehart mogul-in-the-making or corporate raider?

February 4, 2012

James Packer, Lachlan Murdoch, Kerry Stokes, John Singleton and Gina Rinehart. While Stokes and Singleton have been around media traps for a few years now, the return of a Packer, a Murdoch and the addition of Rinehart represents a changing of the guard for Australian media dynasties.

But this will not necessarily mean a return to a past where empires and family fortunes are entirely entwined. Perhaps, ironically, it signals the end of the dynastic age and the emergence of new corporate battles for control of media assets.

Gina Rinehart

Why buy?

Much attention has been focused this week on Australia’s richest woman, Gina Rinehart. Her play for Fairfax Media assets and her well-known disdain for “communist” journalists are a potent mix in these post-NOTW days.

There has been speculation and rumour about her motives, none of it substantiated, but all interesting.

I particularly like Stephen Maynes’ theory that Rinehart’s decision to raid into Fairfax was an act of hubris and rage at the unsympathetic portrait by Jane Cadzow in Good Weekend (published by Fairfax). From published accounts this seems a typical Rinehart approach to solving a problem.

Others raise the possibility that Rinehart and Singleton will now join forces to create a super network of right wing shock-jockery to campaign against Labor in the 2013 election. This is an attractive theory that aligns well with the suggestion Rinehart is a fierce warrior for conservative forces in Australia. It would be easy to do as Fairfax radio assets have been in play and Singleton’s Macquarie Network is a keen buyer.

Then there’s my favourite theory: Rinehart will grab the Fairfax papers, leaving the rest of the company behind. She will gut the current communistic news staff and hire a bunch of young Liberal communications majors; thus turning the SMH and the Age into simulacra of The Australian’s right-wing bile factory.

All equally attractive propositions to Rinehart’s lovers and haters alike. There’s no doubt her actions have polarized the media landscape and created turmoil in the already fragile media asset market.

[Published 4 Feb 2012 on The Conversation]

Update 4 Feb 6pm:

This disturbing footage was released by Get Up Australia. It clearly shows climate change denier and libertarian organiser Lord Monkton urging the establishment of a Fox-like media outlet in Australia funded by one of the super-rich.

It puts a new slant on the Rinehart putsch on Fairfax Media shares this week.

The story was reported on The Drum a couple of days ago by Graham Readfearn.

Read the rest of this entry »


Telco giants do the techno-legal time warp, again

February 3, 2012

Telecommunications giant Optus managed to convince the Federal Court in Sydney this week that there’s a legal blindspot in relation to its download pay-per-view service.

Telstra – given its business relationship with The National Rugby League (NRL) and Australian Football League (NFL) – had tried to prevent Optus from recording and re-broadcasting matches screened on free-to-air television.

But Justice Steven Rares found Optus’s mobile television service didn’t breach the Copyright Act for a couple of reasons: Optus keeps separate recordings for each customer, and individual customers are responsible for requesting the recordings.

So what’s going on here?

To my mind, former rugby league coach Roy Masters – ever the shrewd observer – hit the nail on the head when he wrote the following for the Sydney Morning Herald yesterday:

“They framed the copyright laws to protect the average punter from being sued for taping a TV show, including a football match on his home recorder. Now, their legislation is being used by Optus to sell a service.”

Naturally, Telstra has concerns. The AFL’s A$1.25 billion five-year rights deal signed last season with Channel Seven, Foxtel and Telstra, included a A$153m payment by Telstra for the online broadcast rights to games. The NRL, likewise, expected a proportion of its next deal to come from internet rights.

[first published on The Conversation, 3 Feb, 2012]

Read the rest of this entry »


Rinehart’s Fairfax gamble…a long play game

February 2, 2012

Published 2 Feb 2012 in The National Times

There’s been some excitement on the bourse and in media boardrooms this week over Gina Rinehart’s move on Fairfax Media. It seems the West Australian iron ore magnate is angling for a seat on the Fairfax board to add to her $165 million berth at the Ten Network.

Rinehart is keen to take her original 4 per cent stake of Fairfax to about 15 per cent. She bought the first shares for $100 million and is likely to spend close to $200 million on this raid.

But what are the real implications in this venture?

There’s been speculation that the Communications Minister, Senator Stephen Conroy, might move to block Rinehart’s attempted takeover of Fairfax – if indeed that’s what it is. The grounds for such a move would perhaps be that she’s not a fit and proper person to own media assets because of her alleged political bias. Rinehart is a vocal opponent of the Labor government and its resource rent tax scheme. The timing of Rinehart’s grab has created talk about the blocking move by Canberra. She’s made the play as the final report of the Convergence Review on media and communications is due to be handed down, and in the knowledge that the current convoluted and unworkable media ownership rules will be changing.

Blocking any takeover is open to the regulators under provisions of the Trade Practices Act dealing with matters of public interest. A strong case would have to be made that Rinehart’s control would lessen media competition. There is no “media” law that prevents her actions now and even less under the proposed new regulator.

But, for me, the timing is coincidental. Rinehart is buying Fairfax shares under the existing rules, which limit audience share across platforms and across markets. She is therefore entitled to increase her stake in Fairfax – while holding significant shares in Ten – as long as she does not control the companies and her combined media assets do not constitute a breach of the “three-and-two” rule (where companies are allowed to own up to two media outlets — TV, radio and newspaper — in a single area).

There’s also the issue of the government’s legislative and political timetables to consider. Filling in the substantial missing detail in the Convergence Review’s recommendations is going to take months, if not years. The timeline could stretch well beyond the next election cycle. We will be playing by the old rules for a while yet.

Rinehart’s decision to move now can be explained without recourse to conspiracy theories or invoking the “evil witch of the West” stereotype. She is cashed up; the Fairfax share price is ridiculously low (down from about $5 five years ago to less than 90 cents today) and by taking a chunk of stock she gains leverage over the company at a time when it needs to transition from being primarily about ink on paper to being truly converged and multimedia.

Rinehart may well be thinking long-term and looking for business synergies, cost-savings and profit-taking by joining up her investments in Ten and Fairfax. She would effectively then be able to either harmonise these business units to create a going concern, or sell-off strategic assets once the new ownership rules and content regulations are in place.

Whatever her motives, Gina Rinehart still has to play by the rules. She cannot easily move to positions of control of both Ten and Fairfax Media under the current cross-media ownership regulations without a fight. Under the mooted new rules she would also have to pass the public interest test.

Having said that, I don’t think it is useful to demonise Rinehart and suggest that she has an ulterior personal and political motivation for taking on Fairfax. She has strong and very conservative political views and she has been spending some of her inherited mining wealth on anti-government campaigns in recent months, but I am not sure that Gina Rinehart is another Kerry Packer or Rupert Murdoch waiting in the wings.

Rinehart is incredibly rich and she has seen an opportunity to buy a media asset while it is at or close to the bottom of its share price cycle.

What we should be concerned about is that this share market play makes a mockery of the idea that the news media and the press are somehow bastions of free speech and freedom of expression.

According to her own family, Rinehart is a tough woman and as hard as the ore her father dug out of the Pilbara to create her vast fortune.

She will have to be resolute if she is to take on Fairfax journalists who have fiercely defended their independence in the face of perceived corporate interference. Readers of Fairfax publications may also not take too kindly to Rinehart’s editorial line.

Her solution might be, as some have suggested, to wrestle control of the major Fairfax dailies and leave the rump to be sorted by the board. This scenario rests on Rinehart’s motivation being influence rather than profit.

Rinehart’s multimillion-dollar raid on the Fairfax share cupboard just goes to show that the adage “freedom of the press belongs to those who can afford to buy one”, still applies in convergent Australia.

Rinehart’s estimated wealth is staggering – she’s rumoured to be one of the richest people on the planet – so she can easily afford to buy Fairfax and whatever she damn well wants, but there are many hurdles to jump before she can claim the throne as Australia’s princess of print.


The Age raid: where’s the public iterest?

December 16, 2011

Republished from The Conversation

Victoria Police e-crime squad members yesterday raided the offices of The Age newspaper as part of their ongoing investigation into allegations that reporters from the paper illegally hacked into an ALP database.

Officers attempted to seize the computers of investigative reporters Nick McKenzie and Royce Millar, but The Age obtained an emergency injunction blocking the removal of the equipment.

Police interest in the matter stems from a story published during the 2010 Victorian election campaign demonstrating the high level of personal detail kept on individuals by ALP on its voter management database.

The Conversation spoke with Associate Professor Martin Hirst about journalism, the law and what constitutes public interest.

The original story in The Age revealed how the Victorian ALP collected and used data on constituents. Was this in the public interest?

I guess every story in politics is in the public interest, and this certainly was a politically interesting story, but having reread it, it seems to me that it was merely a one-off, a front page splash for The Age, and an exclusive for them, so it was good for them, but in the scheme of things I don’t think anyone would be surprised that political parties, or indeed any organisation, is keeping files on them.

Has the significance of this story been overblown?

I think the significance of the original story has been overblown. It’s been kept alive very well over the past several months by the Herald Sun and by The Australian and I think they’ve done a very good job of keeping it alive in the public mind. They’ve related it very much to the British phone-hacking story and used it as a bit of a spoiler to deflect from the heat from that. It’s on a different scale,though. The News of the World events are much more significant.

How did the article lead to a police raid on the paper?

Well it seems there’s a bit of a background here. After the Herald Sun started sniffing around on this story, one of the people they spoke to was the Victorian Electoral Commissioner, who then complained to the police and asked the police to investigate whether any illegal activity had taken place. So it seems that’s where the original complaint was laid from, and the police are now just doing what they’re tasked with, which is to follow up on these types of of allegations.

Who do you see as being the victim in this crime?

It’s hard to say that anybody’s really a victim here. The Labor Party is obviously embarrassed because their secret polling and the existence of this database is now public information, so they’re a little bit embarrassed. The Age has been very careful not to release information they got from this database without checking with those people, so they haven’t really released any private information. I think to some extent it’s a victimless crime. There’s no victim I can see here.

The police have raided the office to establish whether journalists who accessed this database have broken any laws, in particular section 478 of the Commonwealth Criminal Code. If the journalists have broken this law, do you think it was a law they were entitled to break, and are journalists entitled to break the law in general?

The police have to establish through their investigation whether or not a law has been broken and I think if I was advising The Age journalists I’d be very cautious about what they say about this, and certainly I would argue that given that they got the password and the username from an ALP worker that they perhaps could argue that they were authorised.

But in the general sense of when it’s permissible to break laws, I think what has to happen in a a situation like that is that the public interest has to be set very, very high. I think the public interest test bar has to be incredibly high in a situation like this before you can actually say that journalists are allowed to break the law.

I think journalists often would like to think they’re above the law but they’re not. Journalists must abide by the laws of the land and for anybody to take the law into their own hands and argue that they have a right to break a particular law, you have to have a very good case, you have to have a very strong public interest argument that it’s desrirable to break the law. I don’t think the original public interest on this story was high enough to warrant breaking the law – if that’s what’s happened.

There is a shield law to allow journalists to protect sources, found in the Evidence Act. Should that shield law be applicable in this case?

It seems to me that the most interesting aspect of this case is in fact that that new section of the Evidence Act can be brought into bear here, and may be used as a defence. I don’t think this law has been used before – it was only passed into legislation earlier this year – so it has not yet been tested. Now having looked at section 126h of the Evidence Act, or the amendments to the act that were passed this year, it does make it quite clear that a journalist is within their rights to refuse to give up the name of a source if they have offered that source some form of identity protection, so in this case it could very well be used as a defence. It seems to me that we’re likely to see the first legal test of this if it does ever get to court.

 


Convergence Review Interim Report – The Conversation

December 16, 2011

Republished from The Conversation

The Federal Government’s Convergence Review has released its interim report, recommending the scrapping of existing cross-media ownership rules and that commercial operators be given “certainty” around the activities of the ABC and SBS.

The report, which says new digital media operators should face the same regulatory framework as traditional media outlets, suggests introducing a new “super-regulator”, local content quotas, and the use of a “public interest test” for media company takeovers.

Deakin University Associate Professor in Journalism Martin Hirst examines what the recommendations could mean for Australia’s rapidly changing media industry.

[published as Q&A due to my hand issues]


Do you think the report adequately responds to the challenges arising from media convergence?

I think it’s quite empty of content, to be perfectly honest. The headline in it for me is that it’s an attempt to come to terms with what I call the “techno-legal time gap” – the dissonance between what technology can do and how it is regulated.

It’s an effort to bring the regulatory regime up to speed with the technological advances in the media industry.

This is why the report emphasises platform neutrality, which is the idea that we should treat all communications technology pretty much the same way. There is no real argument anymore for maintaining any difference in the way that we regulate print and broadcast.

Convergence means the overlap between different types of media is huge, particularly online. We now see television and radio networks producing blogs and other forms of written copy. You can go to the ABC News website and read transcripts of stories from ABC radio current affairs program AM, and you can go onto a newspaper’s website and watch video content that they have made.

This is one of the key things the review was set up to look at.

Some of the proposals, such as setting up a new regulator, will take a lot of work. Is the political climate right for these changes?

The devil is really in the detail, and it’s difficult to tell just from this interim report where exactly the entire review will head.

One of the most crucial issues seems to be the time frame. We are now probably 18 months out from the next federal election, and it’s going to take much longer to get that sorted out. So it looks like the review has created a political football to be kicked around until the election comes.

The issue of setting up a replacement for the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) is quite complicated. Where does this leave the proposal put forward by head of the federal media inquiry, Ray Finkelstein QC to give more powers and money to the Press Council?

If you have one super-regulator that is at arm’s length from the government and deals with consumer complaints, then you don’t need a Press Council to deal specifically with print.

ACMA has done a good job in the past few years, particularly in reining in the worst excesses of the shock jocks. But the report is putting forward a light-touch approach to regulation here, and that is definitely what the industry wants.

The report talks about clarifying the charters of the ABC and SBS around their digital expansion. What are the implications of this?

There is a very important line in the report which is going to come back to haunt the ABC and SBS, but it is something that the Murdoch camp has been pushing for globally for some time. It says that the government must “give commercial operators certainty about the boundaries of public broadcaster activities”.

Over the past three or four years that have been various people in News Corporation, including Col Allan, John Hartigan, James Murdoch and Rupert Murdoch, attacking the ABC and BBC, saying that they’re getting in the way of commercial networks expanding.

If there is a move to put strong boundaries around the ABC and SBS, that will certainly work in favour of the commercial operators.

The review calls for a “public interest test” for media takeovers and mergers. Would this work in practice?

This relies on a flawed idea of how the market operates. If you look at the public interest test as it currently exists in the ACMA legislation, the Broadcast Services Act and at the Australian Consumer and Competition Commission, it is all about the invisible hand of the market.

What this does is set up people as consumers rather than citizens. It says that as long as we are satisfied as consumers – rather than as citizens – the public interest is being met.

The report acknowledges the concept of public interest is not very well defined.

Could the loosening of ownership rules lead to a wave of consolidation, or change the make-up of the media industry?

The elephant in the room here is what is happening to the Nine Network. No amount of tinkering with the diversity and ownership rules is going to deal with the fact that Nine is on its last legs.

In the next two to three months, it will fall into the hands of the banks or the receivers. That is the biggest problem with this review – it cannot address issues of market failure.

Five years ago Nine was competing with the ABC to be known as Australia’s national broadcaster. Now it’s a basketcase.

The reason why Nine is in such mess is partly due to previous deregulation. The only thing that could be done to keep Nine going would be to nationalise it, and that’s not going to happen.

When all its debt comes due in February, I’d be surprised if it has anything in place to keep it afloat. The banks don’t want it – it’s toxic debt.


The beginning of the end for the Press Council?

December 10, 2011

Some interesting news this week of a new organisation set up to represent newspaper publishers.

THE country’s four major newspaper publishers have formed a new venture, the Newspaper Works, to give the industry a united voice on a range of issues from environmental sustainability to collecting readership data.

Under the new banner, the publishers at Fairfax Media, News Ltd, Seven West Media and APN News & Media have the scope to discuss, comment and set collective policies to make the sector more efficient for advertisers and readers.

I can’t help but wonder if this is not a precursor to something else – the break-up, or perhaps the assassination – of the Australian Press Council.

In the past few weeks the Finkelstein inquiry has been getting an ear-bashing from old-school newspaper types objecting to the kite-flying proposal to give the Press Council more teeth and some government funding.
All along Ray Finkelstein has been raising this possibility as a solution to the vexed question of how to enforce greater accountability for errors and egregious attacks while maintaining the cloak of respectability (invisibility?) that comes with the pretence of full ‘independence’.

In Perth a few days ago, this hefty swing from West Australian Newspapers group editor-in-chief Bob Cronin smashed the government support delivery out of the ground:

“My concern is that in recent times, rather than dealing harshly with egregious errors, the council has become a cudgel with which zealots, bigots, academics and despotic politicians are able to beat newspapers which dare to depart from their view of the world.”
My colleague Professor Mark Pearson of Bond University and one of Australia’s leading media law academics also poured cold water on the Finkelstein idea. It seems, at least from this report, that they had a fairly terse exchange of views.

ANY attempt to force a newspaper to publish a judgment from a government-funded body would send a message that the Australian government does not believe in freedom of the press, a leading media law researcher has warned. Mark Pearson, professor of journalism at Bond University and the Australian correspondent for Reporters Sans Frontieres, was speaking at the final day of public hearings for the government’s media inquiry.

Chairman and former Federal Court judge Ray Finkelstein QC asked Professor Pearson what he thought of the notion of a levy-funded regulatory body with the power to order newspapers to publish Press Council-style judgments.

“Two out of three of the major members of the Press Council have told me they will refuse to provide any more funding,” Mr Finkelstein said. “So what do I do?”

But in a robust exchange of views Professor Pearson argued that any such body would be

viewed as an instrument of government regulation and would be at odds with any editor’s view of their role. “The notion of the fourth estate is a residual idea, it is much more than a commercial ethic. It is part of an editor’s sense of fierce independence from a government-funded body.”

Mr Finkelstein argued with Professor Pearson that a levy-funded body could be different.

“It is still a government institution,” Professor Pearson replied and said no editor or publisher would support it.

“Without freedom of expression embodied in a constitution or bill of rights, it would send a message to the international community that the Australian government wants to force its will on media organisations.”

Professor Pearson said he questioned any need for a new regulatory body when the Press Council did its job “reasonably well” and that all it lacked was community education of its process.

He also questioned the cost of the inquiry, estimating it as more than $1 million.

“So what, so what?” Mr Finkelstein said, glaring at him.

“I don’t object to government funding, but I do object to the regulatory regime,” Professor Pearson said.

Earlier, Mr Finkelstein had remarked that he was starting to understand the way editors thought: “Judges don’t like being told what to do and I have the feeling editors are like judges.”

The inquiry was also told publishers could benefit from the advice of an “integrity”authority.

[Nick Leys - The  Australian - 9 December]

I don’t agree with all of Pearson’s remarks, but in general he’s right – publishers have given a strong signal that they don’t like the idea of government ‘interference’ in their self-regulation (mutual stroking) regime.

But Mark is mistaken in his view about the links between ‘freedom of expression’ in a bill of rights type instrument and the freedom of the press being threatened by government ‘forcing its will’ on media organisations.

This idea is based on a flawed – but widely held view – that individual humans and giant media corporations are the same thing in the eyes of the law and that they have the same ‘rights’. I say this is bullshit.

Giant media corporations are legal entities (firms or companies) established for the benefit of shareholders. Their whole reason for being is to make money – profits – and to distribute this to shareholders.

Why should something – the media company in this case – which is founded on the principle of private profit be extended what is fundamentally a human right – the right of free expression.

What the legal fiction of equality before the law does in this instance is give licence to the private ownership of this right to speech.

The ‘right’ to freedom of expression should not reside with the media company; it actually belongs to the people and, as our political representatives – working to the public interest – governments technically and morally have a right to intercede on our behalf to ensure that corporations act in the public interest.

This is not going to happen, the force of the (broken) market will ensure that capital is free to exploit and expropriate and also to continue speaking with forked tongue on freedom of speech.

I am working on a major research piece that will elucidate my arguments more clearly. That will be available early in the new year.

Season’s greetings

This is my last post for 2011. I am having yet another round of hand surgery on Tuesday next – the dreaded ‘Viking disease‘ – and will be in a cast for three weeks.

I hope you have a safe and fun silly season where ever you are in the world. As a level 7 aetheist I offer a secular greeting – “cheers”.


Focus on complaints misses real point of media inquiry

November 19, 2011

An edited version of this post was published on The Conversation earlier today.

After five days of public hearings and well over 50 submissions the government’s independent media inquiry has retired to deliberate. After absorbing the tenor of some witnesses, I do not envy the judge and the professor the task ahead of them.

It seems that despite their sometimes bitter commercial rivalry the Fairfax and News Limited empires agree on one thing: the Finkelstein inquiry has been a giant waste of time and money.

Both have produced more than one editorial slamming the inquiry unnecessary and asking what is its purpose.

Outgoing News Limited CEO John Hartigan and current Fairfax CEO Greg Hywood sang the same jingle during their appearances at the inquiry this week in Sydney.

The news coverage in the papers of both media companies has been overwhelmingly negative and critical. So what is going to happen next?

My reading of the situation is that there is likely to be a recommendation, or series of recommendations that deal with the issue of the Australian Press Council. At the moment the APC is quasi-independent, but because it is entirely funded by the two major newspaper companies and some smaller publishers, this claim of independence must be questioned.

Two issues arising from the inquiry’s terms of reference have dominated the inquiry and both are to do with the APC’s relationship with its constituent members and the possibility of it taking some over-arching role in complaints handling, with additional funding from government coffers.

It is likely then, given the signals sent by Ray Finkelstein during the public hearings, that some form of ‘super’ APC will emerge; perhaps in spite of complaints from the key media companies. At the end of the day they may well agree to wear such an outcome knowing it won’t really change much in their day-to-day operations.

What we could end up with is something that looks like, smells like and barks like the British Press Complaints Commission. The PCC does not receive any government funding, but the size of the British market perhaps suggests it doesn’t need to. What is clear from the APC’s own submissions to the inquiry and Finkelstein’s generally positive commentary, is that some subsidy from the public purse could be offered.

This point has generated the most heat in the discussion so far. John Hartigan dismissed it outright, even conceding that News Limited and the other council members might have to up their own contributions to keep government ‘interference’ at bay. The argument is that a government subsidy would mean government meddling, because it would require some statutory backing from parliament.

Giving the APC some legislated authority would create something of a hybrid: a cross between the self-regulatory functions of the Press Council (or Complaints Commission) and the statutory regulation of broadcasters provided by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA). Such a body would be a break with traditition; most Western liberal democracies have historically kept self-regulation of the print media at arms length from government while heavily regulating broadcasters using the argument of ‘spectrum scarcity’.

This argument – scarce bandwidth requires tough controls – is now out-of-date and has been for sometime. The IEEE has described the new situation as a ‘spectrum bonanza‘. What it should mean is that heavy regulation of broadcast media should be lifted, not attempting to drag the print media into the fold.

The media inquiry was tasked with examining the issue of compliance, codes of practice and regulation in the context of digital convergence; but not much was heard about that in the public sessions. In the logic displayed so far by Ray Finkelstein it makes sense to combine complaints handling in one body that is platform neutral. The question raised again and again though, is: How do you get bloggers and so-called citizen-journalists to register and be included in such a regulatory system?

No doubt these are questions that will be ‘hhhmmmmed and hhhaaaed’ over in the next few months. The judge and the professor will have plenty of reading and some interesting conversations to get them through the looming silly season. Their report and recommendations are due to be put to the convergence review in February next year.

However, I would argue that this focus on regulation and complaint management misses the point somewhat.

The existence of the PCC did not prevent the UK’s biggest media scandal in a generation, the now notorious News of the World serial phone-hacking debacle. Streamlining the complaints procedures will not improve the quality of news or journalism.

There are two issues relating to questions of quality that were, at various times, mentioned at the inquiry, but which have been effectively sidelined in the coverage.

The first is the issue of market failure and Australia’s impenetrable duopoly in print news media. While the exact figures are disputed, depending on the measure you use, it is clear that News Limited has a dominant position in metropolitan print markets, closely followed by Fairfax. The situation is not much different in radio, television or magazines.

In this environment how do we ensure a diverse range of media and opinion is available? It is difficult for new players to enter either print or broadcast markets because the cost of plant, equipment and human resources to match the two dominant entities is well into the hundreds of millions. This is despite the write-down of value in the major companies over the past few years, mainly due to the influence of the GFC.

Where public interest players are in the market – in community radio and television – the terms of their licenses are so restrictive that they exist tenuously without adequate funding or commercial income streams.

The smug response from the big two is that anyone is free to launch an online competitor and that the ‘invisible hand‘ of the marketplace will decide the outcome. What this free market myth fails to take into account is that the market is a) not a level playing field because of high entry costs and the advantage of size and first mover, and b) the market itself has failed; it does not deliver the promised outcomes and, in fact, the failure of the market has contributed to the current crisis in both business models and in lack of public trust.

At the heart of this market failure is a contradiction so intense that it is almost insurmountable and unresolvable in the market’s own terms.

The market dictates that competition produces profits for some and losses for others. It is a valorisation of monetary value and the interests of property and shareholders over the value of public interest.

Within the framework of capitalist market relations the private interests of shareholders acting in their self-interest in the marketplace cannot be reconciled with the collective social interest that effective working of the public sphere demands.

In short, I would argue, the marketplace of ideas does not guarantee an effective outcome in the public interest.

This, I feel, also undercuts the argument from News Limited and Fairfax that the media inquiry is an attack on the news media’s right to free speech. In the marketplace of ideas, speech is not free. Speech takes on a commercial and commodified form in the market and the right to freedom of the press claimed by editorialists and CEOs, is effectively a property right.

As such, it is not available to everyone. Unfortunately, apart from my own modest contribution on the first morning of the inquiry in Melbourne last week, these ideas have not been canvassed. Perhaps Stuart Littlemore came closest yesterday when he talked about the festering culture inside some newsrooms to explain how some reporters and editors appear to take perverse delight in venal attacks on and vendettas against certain targets.

Despite the comfortable deniers on mahogany row, there is evidence that the current model is broken and, as senior Fairfax news executive Peter Fray said in his Sydney University lecture earlier this week, journalism has failed us, journalists are guilty of group-think and are seduced by public relations.

The question that was not asked, let alone answered, amid all the bluster and talk of reform of the media inquiry is: What to do about the crisis in news and journalism?

Peter Fray offered one solid suggestion in his First Decade Fellow lecture, which was, unfortunately not repeated during his media inquiry appearance as sidekick to Greg Hywood a day later.

“What I am saying is that we need to become more sophisticated and radical about the way we talk about journalism and its roles.”

I couldn’t agree more, but when sophisticated and radical ideas were raised in front of the professor and the judge last week, they were howled down by a chorus of acrid smoke and noise from those who are charged with living up to the ideals that their bosses espouse.


Who’s got a short memory? Like limitednews, I forget

November 18, 2011

I’ve finally been named in a newspaper editorial. I think this is a first for me; others may remember some obscure late 1970s rant against rioting students that noted my presence at an occupation somewhere or other.

A privilege or a punch?

On Friday I was named in infamous company by The Australian in yet another editorial lambasting all and sundry who think an inquiry into the Australian news media has got any merit at all.

The Communications Minister and Greens leader apparently have short memories, as do academics Robert Manne, Martin Hirst and Margaret Simons, who have also complained about what they perceive to be “campaigns” or “vendettas” in News Limited papers. Dr Hirst said he was “blown away” by the papers’ anti-government bias.

Yes, I did say that and the context (missing from limitednews coverage) is explained here.

The fact of our short memories is then ‘proven’ in the editorial by reference to moments when News Limited papers have attacked political parties other than the ALP.

And, no Virginia, kicking Bob Brown on an hourly basis does not count. The Australian means serious criticism of serious parties.

Several incidents from the Howard years are mentioned; all of which do meet the criteria for giving government the rough end of the media pineapple.

The inquiry has heard nothing, for instance, about the blowtorch this newspaper applied to the Howard government for buying votes with middle-class welfare, the Australian Wheat Board scandal, during which we exposed kickback payments to Saddam Hussein’s regime, and our expose of the “children overboard affair”, in which senior Liberals, including John Howard, wrongly claimed that asylum-seekers had thrown their children into the sea.

I do actually remember these incidents as being significant at the time and if they were so germaine to the media inquiry, then surely John Hartigan and other News Limited folk could bring them up again and again and discuss their relevance.

Rattling off a list like this and suggesting that no-one but News Limited remembers them misses the point. It’s not about individual campaigns or moments in time, it’s about an attitude over time.

I remember too, but have not found it on a Google search, a recent comment from John Howard from his biography, Lazarus Rising, about being grateful for the support he got from News Limited papers during his time as Prime Minister.

[If anyone can find this quote, or definitively show me it wasn't made, I will be grateful]

I have read the News Limited submission and apart from the opening gambit – there is no problem with News Limited titles – the issue of an even-handed approach is not discussed. The only mention of political coverage is to point out that in last year’s election some News Limited titles backed Gillard and some backed Abbott. If an election was held tomorrow, I’m sure that would not be the case.

In any case, I remember it more like this:

DURING John Howard’s lengthy prime ministership, his conservative Praetorian Guard in the media coined a pejorative term for critics of his government. They were branded ”Howard haters”. The ”Howard haters”, the argument went, occupied the commanding heights of Australia’s cultural institutions (especially the universities), and the Coalition, notwithstanding many other achievements in office, had been unable to dislodge this rag-tag band of liberal-left windbags.

[Politics of hate takes aim at PM]

I also remember, as do many others, News Limited unflinching support for Howard during the second Gulf war against Saddam Hussein, even after the point at which everyone stopped believing in WMD.

Finally, I would just point out to the good folk at News Limited that I am still waiting for my right of reply to the untrue allegations made about me in The Australian, The Herald-Sun and The Daily Telegraph.

Is it the case that their editorial policy is honoured in the breach?

As reflected in 1.3 of the News Code, it is standard journalistic practice that person or persons who are “attacked” would be given the opportunity to provide their views or version of events as part of the original story. The right of reply would form part of the story.

[News Limited submission to Media Inquiry]

In fact, at limitednews and, I’m sure, at Fairfax and others, it is the editorial right that takes precedence. If your views are assessed as being unworthy, then you don’t get to express them.

It is appropriate that a newspaper has the editorial discretion to assess the strength or credit of views and decide the weight to give some views and not others.

As has often been said: freedom of the press belongs to those who own one (or more)

However, there is one point in the News Limited discussion document that I do agree with – though for reasons totally opposite to those expressed here:

Requiring journalists to adopt the MEAA code would make coming under the MEAA umbrella mandatory.

This is tantamount to compulsory unionism.

Of course the collective expression, by a union, of the universal right of its members to assembly and political speech cannot be tolerated in the free market of ideas. Speech in that environment is reserved for the bosses and their toadying representatives in mahogany row.

A closed shop and high density of union membership would put paid to newsroom shenanigans and could very well have saved The News of the World. Have you considered that?

But, before we leave, I would like you to ponder these excerpts taken from the News Limited submission to the media inquiry:

It is incorrect to refer to rights for journalists. …It is the antithesis of free speech that a person wishing to be involved in public debate through a traditional media company or other form of media has to agree to a set of standards.

…It is our strong view there is no alternative model of regulation of the standards of journalists which would guarantee the freedom of the press.

…If print and online media companies were to be subject to government oversight of whether or not their content is accurate and balanced, then equally so should Richard Flanagan or Christopher Hitchins giving a public lecture on women’s rights or climate change and so should a tax‐payer arguing against climate change policy on the ABC’s Drum blog website.

…We strongly contend that the case for continuing regulation to ensure media diversity has not been made out.

…Newspapers are not limited by scarcity or high barriers to entry.

…News Limited submits, the need for cross‐media regulation to achieve diversity no longer applies. The market has delivered diversity.

Does that puzzle and worry you? More on this and other thoughts of [ex]Chairman John later.


What are news? Watermelon_man helps us out

November 17, 2011

Since engaging with #mediainquiry on Twitter and in the meatworld I have stumbled across some really nice people (at least they seem nice, I’ve only seen their avatars).

Their tweets make sense and they are using their real names. This is always a plus with me because I think free speech comes with accountability.

Anyone can use anonymity to fart into the wind and spew abuse over everyone and everything. But it takes courage to stand up for what you believe in and to take responsibility for your words and actions.

At times it can be tough. Saying things that are unpopular, or that inflame the prejudices of the dribblejaws is like painting a target on your back or pinning a ‘kick me’ sign to your arse.

Anyway, two of the good guys have recently been added to my blogroll:

Watermelon_man

Happy Antipodean.

This morning a brief post. I just want to share some entries from Watermelon_man’s dictionary; they are apt in the discussion of journalism and the news that occurs frequently on EM

Advertising: Sophisticated and highly profitable activity designed to turn informed consumers into ignorant ones.

Anecdote: Story by untrained amateur of poorly observed, half-remembered event, used by media to overturn work of world scientific community

Apostrophe: most misused punctuation mark. When in doubt best not to use one and be thought idiot than use one and confirm it.

Journalism: process of analysing, explaining, making clear, issues for public (archaic); process of obscuring reality (modern)

Journalist: A reporter of facts, an impartial observer (archaic); A writer of fiction, a political player (modern)

Media scrum: a pack of journalists, behaving like animals, from every media outlet except your own. See also: paparazzi, tabloid

Opinion Poll: Phone calls to a small number of conservative people who are asked to confirm that conservative politics is best

Political news: trivial information carefully gathered from press releases, publicity stunts, malignant gossip, by “reporters”

TV Documentary: Form of teaching about a subject where the viewer gains information in spite of director’s best efforts, not because of them.


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