The release of submissions to Communications Minister Helen Coonan’s media reform proposals merely confirm a few truisms about the debate over media ownership in Australia: The public is deeply ambivalent about the spectre of ownership concentration. And few commentators and organisations are willing to break the cycle of protectionism and regulation that has characterised the sector for the past century.
Much of the debate about the removal of cross-media ownership rules, and their proposed replacement – a minimum number of owners in each market – has missed the point. Competition law, rightly or wrongly, governs the sector to protect against monopolistic practices. But ownership regulations relating to broadcasting go beyond that to encourage structural diversity.
Why do we fear, as Senator Coonan’s media reform paper put it, “excessive ownership concentration”? An aim of the broadcasting law is the promotion of opinion diversity.
Access to this is one of the foremost assumptions of a democratic society. It is widely believed that to ensure people are adequately informed about their choices in a democracy, they require a wide range of information.
Given the large influence the media has on our democratic process, legislators fear a media mogul could unduly manipulate public opinion for their personal ends. With ownership limits, the Government tries to encourage “diversity”.
Unfortunately, we have not come far from the views of Robert Menzies who feared that “the most intimate form of propaganda known to modern science” could be controlled by “people who do not belong to this country”.
Senator Coonan has his spirit. Menzies was no lover of the free market and his Toryism is still reflected in the backward attitudes of the Liberal Party to media ownership.
The Government’s media changes will probably remove restrictions on foreign investment and ease cross-media ownership restrictions. While these changes go a small way to liberalising the industry, they do not challenge the widely held belief that moguls manipulate public opinion, to the detriment of Australia’s democracy.
Compare our relatively objective media with the highly partisan media of the 19th century and before.
Objectivity has not arisen because of ownership restrictions or the best efforts of legislators. Instead, it is a response to market demands through changing technology.
In the early 20th century, many media proprietors realised there was a greater market for a news media without overt partisanship. Technology in this period, from cheaper printing presses to radio and television, enabled them to capture that market. The notion of journalistic objectivity has been the result of these changes and consumer demand.
More recent changes in market structure could be pushing our broadcast media the other way. We often desire objectivity in reporting, but also enjoy reading highly partisan blogs or opinionated columnists.
Today’s proprietors face an explosion of technologies. Some are well appreciated, such as blogs on the internet. But some are not often recognised for how significantly they have changed viewing habits, such as the video recorder.
Despite their well-publicised views on political issues, the moguls, including Rupert Murdoch, have comparatively little influence compared with the all-powerful newspaper tycoons such as William Randolph Hearst and Lord Beaverbrook, who operated without substantial competition. Murdoch is no Citizen Kane.
Radical change over the past 30 years has inundated media companies with competition. The high capital costs that encouraged the media to package objectivity are being replaced by the extraordinarily low costs of cheap printing and the internet.
As any first-year marketing student will predict, media companies, big and small, are attempting to respond to this highly competitive environment by differentiating their product from competitors.
One effective way is the careful, studied introduction of political viewpoints.
Any assessment or assertion of bias in a media organisation has to take into account this fact – more often than not, bias is an intentional technique to attract and retain an audience.
The internet gives people interested in political ideas more viewpoints than they would be able consume in a lifetime.
We live in an age of information and opinion abundance, rather than one where we need to be wary of the undue influence of media tycoons.
The reality is that no ownership regulation is going to prevent media organisations from chasing markets they consider to be profitable. Legislators should treat the media no differently than any other industry – neutral and respectful of the services they offer consumers.
It is unfortunate the Government, and many of the contributors to the media reform consultations, do not believe that.