In the Shadow of Phone Hacking: Media Accountability Inquiries in Australia

June 25, 2013
 Johan Lidberg, Monash University and Martin Hirst, Deakin University

Reproduced from the first edition of Political Economy of Communication, a new peer-reviewed journal from the Political Economy section of the International Association for Mass Communication Research (IAMCR)

Figure 1. Stalin, Mao, Castro, Conroy—media dictators Murdoch style

Introduction

On July 10, 2011, Rupert Murdoch closed the News of the World, one of the biggest selling tabloids on the globe, once the newspaper had used up its store of public trust. The paper was accused of, and later admitted that a culture of illegality had engulfed its newsroom. Phones were routinely hacked and journalists paid public officials for information on celebrities and other citizens. The News of the World scandal triggered over 100 arrests of journalists, police officers, private investigators, and public officials. It also initiated a wave of inquiries into journalistic practices and standards in several countries.

This article will summarize the two inquiries into media practice and standards in Australia, and consider the impact on democratic discourse when ownership concentration of media companies reaches high levels.

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One tweet does not a revolution make: Technological determinism, media and social change

May 11, 2013

This is my recently published piece on technological determinism and revolution – case study of the Arab Spring.

Reprinted from Global Media Journal

Abstract

This paper discusses the problematic influence of technological determinism in popular news media coverage and analysis of the Arab Spring events of 2010-11.

The purpose is to develop insights into how and why elements of a ‘soft’ technological determinism inflect both journalistic practice and news discourse in relation to the Arab Spring. In particular it discusses how the ‘bias of convenience’ and a journalistic obsession with the ‘continuous present’ connect with this determinist inflection to create a potential distortion in the journalists’ ‘first rough draft’ of history in relation to significant and complex events such as social revolution.

Debates about the significance of social media and communications technologies more broadly in generating mass outbursts of protest and even violence have raged in the popular news media for the past decade at least. A wave of interest in ‘theories’ about how and why new services like Facebook and Twitter may create or enable mass protest was generated by the revolutionary events in Iran following the June 2009 elections (Hirst, 2011). Many of the arguments then and now, in coverage of the Arab Spring, are suggestive of a form of technological determinism that is coupled with other underlying and little-investigated assumptions inherent in most forms of news practice and discourse.

The question of the influence of technological determinism within journalism studies is a far from settled debate and this paper follows Mosco’s argument and suggests that the idea of a social media revolution is a myth of the ‘digital sublime’ (Mosco, 2004). At best social media is a new battleground in the struggle for information control. At worst it can blind activists and commentators to reality (Morozov, 2011).

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The media reform bills – what is really in them

March 19, 2013

Daily_Telegraph_19_3_2013 For the last 12 months we’ve been warned on an almost daily basis that the sky is about to fall in on media freedoms in Australia, but what does the legislation before parliament this week actually propose?

News Media (Self regulation) Bill 2013

There is one simple purpose to this legislation and it is not to stifle freedom of the press. Instead this bill simply creates the conditions under which the Public Interest Media Advocate (PIMA) can declare that an organisation is a “news media self-regulation body”.

The definition of a self-regulator rests on one condition: the body must have a self-regulation scheme that is binding on members.

The only other function of this bill is to remove a news organisation’s exemption from some provisions of the Privacy Act 1988 if it is not a member of a self-regulatory body recognised by the media advocate.

The effective clause of the Privacy Act is 7B(4) and as it currently stands, a news media organisation is only exempt from some Privacy Act provisions if it adheres to public standards. This new bill changes nothing in that regard.

That is it; that is all this legislation is aimed to do. The self-regulation scheme proposed in the bill is no tougher than the current rules and membership requirements of the Australian Press Council. Read the rest of this entry »


Media “reformers” drunk on Clayton’s tonic: How to be seen to be doing something while not doing much at all

March 13, 2013

Well Communications Minister Stephen Conroy has finally let the skinny, de-clawed and highly-stressed cat out of the bag. This week he has announced a raft of media reforms that will be introduced into Parliament in a series of piecemeal bills designed not to offend anyone.

Australian print and online news organisations will continue to be self-regulated through voluntary membership of a press standards body, which is likely to be the tame-cat and toothless Australian Press Council.

The announced reforms are the government’s official response to the Convergence Review and Finkelstein Inquiry into the media in Australia. But the proposals are watered down, wishy-washy and look like something the cat dragged in.

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The compact comes of ‘Age’, but the real fight for Fairfax is scooping digital eyeballs

March 8, 2013

Fairfax launched its new compact size in a week where Victorian politics dominated the national agenda, making it a very good time to consider just how Melbourne’s former broadsheet, The Age, fared with its now similarly sized competitor, the Herald Sun.

The re-launch of The Age as a compact was never about being the biggest selling newspaper in Melbourne. There’s no way The Age can compete with the genuinely tabloid Herald Sun.

The Herald Sun is a modern giant among Australian newspapers: its audited Monday to Saturday circulation hovers around the 450,000 mark. That adds up to more than a million readers every weekday.

The Age sells roughly one-third: Monday to Friday (157,000) and about half (227,000) on Saturday. Readership is about half too: 566,000 Monday—Friday and 720,000 on Saturdays, according to Audit Bureau figures.

So the driver of this week’s move was re-attaching Age readers who’ve let their subscription lapse, or who hated the unwieldy broadsheet.

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Over the falls in a barrell – smooth-talking Corbett doesn’t let facts get in the way at Fairfax AGM

October 24, 2012

The Fairfax Media AGM took place in Melbourne today against a backdrop of financial meltdown in the company’s fortunes. The share price — currently at 38 cents — has halved since the beginning of the year.

That’s not such bad news if the stock is actually worth something. But when the fall is from 80 cents to less than 40 cents, it’s a calamity piled onto a disaster.

However, you wouldn’t necessarily get that impression from the soothing opening remarks by chairman Roger Corbett, who told the small Melbourne audience of shareholders that despite the ravages of an “annus horribilis”, Fairfax Media is in good shape and in good hands.

That’s like Monty Python’s black knight claiming “it’s only a flesh wound” as he bleeds out, limbless on the forest floor.

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The future of newspapers: Anybody’s guess at this stage

June 27, 2012

This post is a work in progress; I have published today [June 27] to get the ball rolling, I will be adding to this post over the next 72 hours.

On Monday 18 June the sky began falling in the Australian news media. Within 10 days the world of Australian journalism had changed forever, but the change hadn’t stopped.

Over 3000 jobs were going to be purged from Australia’s two largest news organisations.

The West Australian mining mogul, Gina Rinehart, was poised over Fairfax Media like a vulture over the corpse of a dying baby.

We all knew why she was there; it was just a matter of time.

That was the week that was (June 18-24)

What is the future of newspapers? At the end of a week in which both Fairfax Media and News Limited announced seismic changes to their business – including ditching about 3000 jobs between them – what can we say about the printed news sheet?

Well, it seems that the answer is ‘heaps and heaps’. Millions of words have been written, blogged and spoken on the future of newspapers this week; tens of thousands of them even appeared in the newspapers themselves.

So what do we really know at this point?

Not much more than we did last weekend, is my quick answer.

The ‘perfect storm’ that hit Fairfax Media this week — with Gina Rinehart at its epicentre — has been a long time coming. The Fairfax share price has been on a really steep down slide for the last two to three years.

Today it’s under 60 cents, just three months ago is was over 70 cents. The last time it was over $1.00 was June 2011; it dropped under $2.00 in November 2008. It was last at $3.00 in June 2008 and we have to go back nearly six years to December 2006 to see Fairfax at over $5.00.

In contrast the News Corporation share price on the ASX has jumped from $16 to $20 since June 2011. It has been over $15 for the past three years despite some ups and downs and has risen from a low of $12.91 on 23 June, 2009.

This shows that the problems facing Fairfax Media are commercial and financial, not just or even mostly technological.

These problems are not brand new either. It is not the Internet that has caused the total collapse of the newspaper business model; it has been a long time coming. It is instructive to go back and look at the history of the newspaper industry in Australia to understand why we are in the situation of having the Rupert Rinehart duopoly looming over the news media’s future.

Fairfax has a new model

In the middle of the second week of this perfect storm – June 27 to be precise – things did become a little clearer.

Three senior Fairfax editors had left the newsroom for the last time. It seems that there was a period of negotiation – one incoming new EiC (see org chart below) admitted he had been in discussion with management for about two weeks.

Still, many reporters were shocked and emotional scenes were reported.

News Limited announced around 100 job cuts, mainly in regional areas, including the Gold Coast and Fairfax unveiled a new newsroom model to staff.

The Fairfax model looks a bit like the broken ferris wheel here in Melbourne and I can’t help wondering why some of the content wedges are bigger than others. Is it because they will get more attention in the new system of content brokerage across neutral platforms?

If it is then going ‘compact’, or ‘tabloid’ is about more than just the size of the page.

The Fairfax ferris wheel.
Click to enlarge

The new Fairfax organisational chart is also worth taking a look at.

It’s not that different from a traditional newsroom structure in many ways, but the convoluted explanations of roles and responsibilities that accompany it are straight from a weak MBA dissertation.

Fairfax Org Chart: designed by a poor MBA student?
Click to enlarge

In this model reporters who are covering breaking news are to be known as ‘first responders’, this gives the whole thing the feeling of a medical emergency.

And that’s what this is. It is an attempt to triage a series of seriously wounded patients on a bloodied battlefield.

The Fairfax mantra of journalism and integrity come first is pleasant soothing language that will hopefully comfort the afflicted, but when you rip the heart out of a newsroom no amount of placatory talking can alter the facts.

Then there’s the hovering vulture and her cronies.

In a statement released on 27 June, Rinehart’s advisers conceded that she might be prepared to negotiate and sign a new Charter of Editorial Independence, but this ominous set of phrases is where the really alarming detail bedevils:

“Active consideration of content or a change in content is required to attract readers and advertising revenue in the interests of shareholders, together with other options to increase revenue and hence share value.”

What does this mean?

Well, it can really only mean one thing: shifting the Fairfax editorial culture. But which way will it be shifted?

Most money is on the bet that Gina Rinehart will want to shift Fairfax to the right and into more ‘business-friendly’ reporting. This is assumed to include more climate change ‘scepticism’ and less criticism of the minerals industry.

However, it is questionable as to whether this will attract readers, increase advertising or enhance shareholder value.

It may well have the opposite effect as current readers of the SMH and The Age desert the papers in direct proportion to their rightward drift.

If this happens and the new tabloid-ified Fairfax mastheads begin competing with the Murdoch titles then the next logical step – to maximise shareholder value, mind – would be to merge the titles in Melbourne and Sydney and turn them into one-paper towns in line with the rest of the country.

That is the logic of shareholder value maximisation – or in blunt Marxist terms it is the application of the logic of capital accumulation.

It is also the history of the Australian newspaper industry.

In 1886 – just 128 years ago – there were capital city 48 daily newspapers in Australia. By 1903 that had dropped to 21; it was down to 17 in 1947, 15 in 1950, 14 in 1960 and it has continued to drop since. From the mid 1990s on the present situation became established.

Today there are 11 capital city dailies: two in Melbourne; two in Sydney; one each in Canberra, Adelaide, Hobart, Perth and Darwin and two that circulate nationally.

That is why questions of concentration, ownership and diversity are being talked about again in the context of both the Finkelstein report and the Rinehart push for editorial control at Fairfax.

The giant media fuss about Finkelstein and the frenzied cries of censorship and government control prompted me to look at the last government report into the news media, delivered to the House of Representatives in 1992. [I'll come back to this].

 

News & Fair Facts

Just over 20 years ago, in March 1992, a House of Representatives Select Committee tabled its report into the Australian print media industry. It is worth looking at this report because it had bipartisan support and its findings make it clear that the issues that free speech alarmists are shouting about today have deep roots.

It is also interesting because the free speech alarmists — those who argue that government censorship is coming in the form of the Finkelstein report — would deny some of the language used in News & Fair Facts, particularly about the problems of monopoly and the concentration of media ownership.

For example:

On the basis [of figures given to the committee], the Australian print media industry generally is highly concentrated. In almost every sector of the industry one or two groups dominate in terms of the number of publications and related circulation under their control.

News & Fair Facts, 1992, p.101

Now the Rupert Rinehart apologists deny that monopoly is a problem.


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