Let’s drop the pretence that there is freedom of the press in Australia.
Let’s also recognise that the Rupert Rinehart media future is anti-democratic and a threat to our collective rights as citizens to have freedom of speech and freedom of expression.
Make no mistake, the Rupert Rinehart media want it all for themselves. Their freedom of the press comes at the expense of our freedom of thought and our freedom of action.
It is a nonsense to pretend that a Gina Rinehart controlled Fairfax represents the exercise of free speech just as it is bullshit to argue that New Limited is a paradigm example of freedom of expression in action.
Murdoch sets the tone at News Limited and it is he alone who has freedom of speech across his newspaper titles. His minions either carry out his wishes or find themselves another job.
If Rinehart gets her way – and she will – then it is she who will set the editorial tone across the Fairfax titles. Her interest in Fairfax is not commercial, its political. The idea that she is a white knight who will turn around the fortunes of the failing company is a fairy tale.
‘What’s the problem?’ the free speech fundamentalists will ask. They will answer for themselves. The owner of the business, or in Gina’s case, the major shareholder, has the right to set the editorial line.
‘After all, it is their paper to command.’ The fundamentalists will then cross their arms with a smug smile of the self-satisfying undergraduate mass debater plastered across their chops.
Unfortunately, this argument is jibber jabber of the worst order.
I’m not making this up,the free-speech fundamentalists are wetting themselves with anticipation that the Rupert Rinehart media axis will come to prevail.
The Institute of Public Affairs’ John Roskam has nailed his libertarian colours to the mast of media freedom post-Gina:
“A free media means neither the government nor government-appointed censors can tell the media what it can do. And a free media means politicians don’t decide who gets to own newspapers. And a free media certainly means politicians don’t get to decide how newspaper owners run their company.
You can have a fair media or a free media. You can’t have both.”
This is, of course, nonsense. What’s even more astonishing though is that this crap was published in the Financial Review as well as on the IPA website. Do Fairfax editors really have a death wish?
But back to the main argument.
Governments make laws which ‘the media’ must obey; libel, contempt of court, trespass, privacy, etc and media workers are subject to the law as well. Then there’s the Trade Practices Act and ACMA and much much more. There are even ‘government-appointed censors’ that can and do tell the media what to do.
And you know what: that’s actually a good thing. There are rules about tobacco advertising; about what can be shown during peak children’s viewing times; about Australian content; to enforce advertising standards and to provide a rating system for sexual and violent content.
There is actually an important principle here that Roskam wants to ignore – the genuine public interest.
Perhaps the free speech fundamentalists like John Roskam would abolish all this government interference. The resulting free-for-all would be a gold mine for the companies that sponsor the Institute of Public Affairs, but it would not be so good for the rest of us.
The second point that Roskam argues here is also patently rubbish too.
For the past 30 years, at least, successive governments have made laws about media ownership. They have done so because of a perceived public interest and public benefit in such radical notions as ensuring that there is some diversity of viewpoints; or preventing monopolies from developing.
There can certainly be argument about whether such ownership control regimes have worked, but only a fool would suggest that public interest considerations are not part of a government’s purview.
We are citizens, not just consumers
The IPA view, parroted by dribblejaws and radio jocks is that consumers are now in charge. We have the right to not buy the shit that is being pushed at us. If we don’t want to consume the Rupert Rinehart media, we don’t have to.
No, we can go and live in a fucking cave, or walk around with our eyes shut, fingers in our ears singing ‘la la la la’.
Yes, we can pretend that the world is a better place than it really is, or we can be pig ignorant because we choose not to consume the mainstream media.
Or, we can go and start our own version of the Rupert Rinehart media.
Easy as piss: all you need is about 300 million dollars.
Or, we can actually do something about it as citizens.
Yep, we can exercise some real people power.
There is an important, but currently weak, democratic sentiment in having some government control over both media content and media ownership.
We the people have a right to tell companies what to do. We are in charge, not the rich assholes who own stuff or inherited it.
We elect governments to do what we want them to do. We exercise collective control and we have the right to make decisions that rich assholes don’t like.
The Institute of Public Affairs and its fellow travelers in politics and in the news media don’t like it. Our rights interfere with their rights to remain rich assholes and to make their assholes even richer at our expense.
We have to make this democratic current stronger, not give it up or let it be taken away by falling for a trick argument designed to enshrine Rupert Rinehart’s freedom to manipulate and control the media.
The point of Roskam’s piece is to attack Fairfax journalists for attempting to insist that Gina Rinehart sign the company’s Charter of Editorial Independence before gaining a seat on the board.
Roskam argues that insisting that Gina sign the CEI is an attack on the right of owners to manage their capital investment. Apart from making a real hash of Joseph Schumpeter’s thesis (purely for effect, I’m sure) Roskam conflates the Charter with ‘government’ interference.
However, there is another line in Roskam’s diatribe that left me ROTFLOL:
The requirement that reporting be “fair and balanced” is a recipe for political manipulation and for the erosion of freedom of speech.
Fantastic John Roskam, you have just skewered Fox News and Rupert Murdoch. I’m sure that was not your intention, but the famous Fox slogan ‘fair and balanced’ does actually provide a pretense of cover for the political manipulation and erosion of freedom of speech that occurs in the Murdoch-owned network.
Finally, this line ‘You can have a fair media, or a free media, but you can’t have both’ is a gob-smacking, head-shaking piece of logical weirdness.
WTF do you mean John Roskam?
That a ‘free’ media – at least in the terms of libertarian ideologies – must by its vary nature be unfair?
How would this work?
Maybe such a media would be unfair to a particular social group. Well, yes, I can see how that might work because that’s exactly how the media works today.
The media is unfair, every day. It is unfair to workers and trade unionists, it is unfair to minority groups of all stripes and it is heavily biased in favour of the big end of town.
That’s right the same big end that provides the IPA with funds to promulgate it’s anti-democratic hogwash.
So let’s not confuse the right of ownership with free speech.
The right to edit a newspaper – and hence to control the editorial line – is a property right in the marketplace of ideas. This is not the same thing as freedom of speech, or freedom of expression.
The right to edit is a commercial right. Editorial speech has become commercial speech. The gloating supporters of Rinehart and the econo-pologists tend to mix up freedom of speech with property rights. It just all seems natural to them.
In this ‘down the rabbit hole’ version of the world we are not citizens we are all just ‘customers’ and as the Institutional Economist Professor Sinclair Davidson argued in The Conversation last week, it is just market logic if the customer becomes the business owner.
Professor Davidson did make a couple of valid points. The first is that the main game for Fairfax is not the fourth estate and being a defender of democracy. The main game, Professor Davidson reminds us is the bottom line:
The first objective of any media company is to earn a profit, or have a patron who will tolerate losses. All the other objectives, promoting democracy, providing alternate voices, enhancing civilisation, whatever, are subsidiary to the first objective.
Professor Davidson also gives us an important question:
But some might argue that Gina Rinehart will use Fairfax to push her own views and agenda – as opposed to the current editorial stance. How much of a problem is this really?
The professor’s answer is to say it doesn’t matter because without Rinehart’s patronage the whole show is over.
This question was posed in a slightly different way by former Fairfax journo and now Melbourne Uni PhD student Andrea Carson:
With the almost certain rise of Rinehart to the Fairfax board, will there be guaranteed editorial independence to ensure the conservative interests of the business elite do not unduly influence the media from within the print duopoly that is Fairfax and News Limited?
There will be no guarantee that quality and independence can be maintained if Rinehart gains control of Fairfax.
In fact, the opposite is most likely to apply. The ‘conservative interests of the business elite’ will become the editorial line.
In the IPA world that is fine because such a golden age would be a sure sign that the media is ‘free’.
But this is not the sort of ‘free’ that means alternative, dissenting or radical views would be published alongside the views of the business elite. It would mean that climate change denial anti-union and anti-humanist bollocks would be freely available on all channels and platforms.
Rupert Rinehart: the media beast with two backs
We are heading in the direction of what is likely to become the Rupert Rinehart media system in Australia.
There will be an effective duopoly in both national print and television markets and an effective concentration of ownership across all media platforms into the hands of three or four (at most) very rich and increasingly powerful corporate interests.
These entities controlled by Rupert Murdoch, Gina Rinehart and Kerry Stokes will be aligned with the other business interests of the moguls, whether in minerals and exports or other sectors of the economy.
Let’s not pretend that these paragons of business acumen give more than a passing fart’s worth of attention to quality investigative journalism. They don’t want argument, the groupthink that currently passes for ‘free speech’ at News Limited would be imposed on Fairfax under Rinehart.
There is no room in that world for the likes of David Marr or other independent, thinking, argumentative journalists.
It would be wall-to-wall Windbag.
This is a frightening thought for anyone with more than a fleeting interest in the future of this country.
There is a question here about the future of Australian democracy under these conditions.
The libertarian IPA types don’t care about that. They are anti-democratic in sentiment. All that counts for them is the individual. They don’t give a shit about the public interest or any collective interest in how the Australian media might work for or against democracy.
At the end of the day this world view breaks down social norms of democratic decision-making in favour of unfettered capitalism.
And yes, that’s worked a treat for everyone’s benefit for the last two hundred years.
Roskam makes the point that producing newspapers is no different to manufacturing plastic cups.
Fairfax journalists, the government, and the opposition respond to all of this by claiming the media is different. They say a company producing newspapers can’t be compared to one making plastic cups. Politicians claim an interest in the internal management systems of newspaper companies because, supposedly, newspapers are essential to democracy while plastic cups are not.
Notice how newspapers are only ‘supposedly’ essential to democracy.
This is a frightening ‘supposedly’.
If only Rupert Rinehart would stick to plastic cups. Perhaps s/he could give Mr Roskam one for what’s left of his brain.
Maybe if we want to stop the Rupert Rinehart train in its tracks we should all get down to the station.
How about we Occupy Fairfax?