News Of World: Sideshows And Political Opportunism

The News of the World phone hacking scandal has spiralled out in a dozen different directions.
No wonder. It’s fun to talk about Rupert Murdoch. And for the British Labour Party, it’s exciting to tie David Cameron to the News of the World.
But from a political economy perspective, it’s the role of the London Metropolitan Police in the hacking which should be the most concerning.
That’s because we expect politicians to be craven, and to coddle up to media proprietors. And we expect many journalists to be opportunistic and tasteless. As long ago as the 1730s, Montesquieu was complaining about the immorality of English newspapers.
But we expect – well, require – the police to be lily white.
In a free society, the police are not just any institution. Only they can use force against citizens. The purpose of the police is to prevent crime. There’s no clearer breach of the social contract than police being complicit in criminal activity.
Operation Elveden is the investigation of the Metropolitan Police into officers suspected of aiding the phone hacking. It was sparked by News International documents which mentioned payments to police.
Elveden is being conducted side-by-side with the investigation into the hacking itself, and given similar priority and prominence. Officers from both operations have conducted the few arrests so far.
Some survivors of the 2005 London bombings believe the only way their contact details would have been accessible to News of the World is if survivor lists – full of telephone numbers and addresses – had been leaked by Met officers.
If true, that would suggest some of this scandal’s most ethically egregious violations would not have been possible without the complicity of the Metropolitan Police.
And Operation Elveden has not been the only investigation into police corruption in recent years.
As Graeme McLagan, a former BBC home affairs correspondent, pointed out in The Guardian earlier this month, accusations of inappropriate and corrupt relationships between the police and journalists have been a regular feature of the last decade. In 2002, McLagan was documenting the existence of a private detective agency which funnelled information from corrupt police to News of the World and the Sunday Mirror.
Obscuring these serious issues are a number of sideshows.
The police commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson resigned last week because of the “embarrassing” fact he hired a former deputy News of the World editor as a public relations consultant. But, justified or unjustified, that seems to be just a matter of impropriety – the same sort of impropriety which David Cameron must regret for having hired Andy Coulson.
Impropriety may have political significance, but has little policy significance. Bad judgment is not a crime.
Much more important is the statement made by former Assistant Police Commissioner John Yates to the House of Commons committee that “I confidently predict that, as a result of News International disclosures, a very small number of police officers will go to prison for corruption.”
Then there are suggestions that the police failed to adequately pursue the hacking story when it first arose in 2005.
Focusing on the police does nothing to diminish the ethical and criminal seriousness of what News of the World did. Journalists, editors, private investigators, political advisors – anybody who has committed a crime should, and no doubt will, be prosecuted to the maximum extent of the law. That’s what a legal system is for.
But a legal system cannot function if its enforcement arm is anything less than scrupulously clean.
It’s not surprising that Australian commentators haven’t focused on police corruption. Scotland Yard doesn’t own two-thirds of our newspapers.
But accusations of phone hacking have spread well beyond News International. Thirty-one separate British newspapers are now under investigation. They’re not all Murdoch’s.
And there has been no serious suggestion anything remotely similar has happened in this country. (If you think The Australian’s antipathy to the Greens is at all like hacking the phones of terror victims, or even vaguely connected, your moral compass is way off.)
Yet Australian politicians and partisans have tried to make the scandal fit an existing set of hobbyhorses – anti-government hostility in News Limited papers, journalistic ethics, and media consolidation. Australia’s political class can be as opportunistic as any tabloid.
Australian commentators can wax lyrical about media ethics and regulation only because we don’t have to face the implications of law-breaking journalists working in tandem with law-breaking cops.
For the public and for the press, police corruption isn’t as thrilling as allegations of widespread criminality in their favourite newspapers.
And hauling the world’s biggest media mogul before a panel of politicians was great theatre.
But it wasn’t Rupert Murdoch’s evidence in front of the House of Commons committee which was most important. It was the police commissioner’s.

WikiLeaks and the virtue of transparency

WikiLeaks’s release of American diplomatic cables “may put lives at risk”. The White House spokesman Robert Gibbs claims that the release may damage the “cause of human rights”. WikiLeaks’s actions are “reckless” and “dangerous”.

Sounds serious. But we’ve heard these claims before.

When each of the Afghan and Iraqi war logs were released earlier this year, US officials lined up to condemn the whistleblowing site in the strongest possible language. The Afghan documents, “put the lives of Americans at risk”, according to the US national security advisor. The Department of Defense said the Iraq files dump “could make our troops even more vulnerable to attack in the future”.

On Sunday night a Republican Senator from South Carolina wildly argued on Fox News that “The people at WikiLeaks could have blood on their hands.”

The operative word in that sentence is “could”.

Having lived with WikiLeaks’s release of the Iraq and Afghanistan war logs for months now, Pentagon officials concede there is no evidence that a single person has lost their life as a result. Not one.

And when requested in the lead up to the latest release, the State Department refused to guide WikiLeaks as to which documents should be redacted to protect against “significant risk of harm”.

Instead they insisted the site delete all the documents and forget it ever happened – something the messianic and volatile WikiLeaks head Julian Assange was quite unlikely to do.

Crazy-brave, with all those lives at stake. But more likely just a bad bluff. Major government departments aren’t good at poker.

The passionate assertions that national security will be compromised, that lives will be lost, that the cause of human rights will be set back: shameless, unadulterated hyperbole, by a government not even sure what’s about to be released. Transparent attempts to dissuade WikiLeaks from revealing uncomfortable material.

To take a random example out of the 243 documents released so far, it mustn’t be nice to have it publicly known US diplomats think Bavarian premier Horst Seehofer is “unpredictable” and has only “shallow foreign policy expertise”.

The full diplomatic archive of a quarter of a million documents will be released in dribs and drabs over the coming months.

Some of what we’ve seen is little more than banal gossip. Nobody needed leaked diplomatic communication to realise, say, Dmitry Medvedev “plays Robin to Putin’s Batman” as one cable put it, although it’s great fun to see it in an official document. Or that Kim Jong-Il is a “flabby old man”. That Silvio Berlusconi is “vain” with a “penchant for partying hard”. It will shock the international community to learn Hamid Karzai is “extremely weak”.

One overwhelming impression from the cables which have been released: professional diplomats are unimpressed by the politicians they’re compelled to work with. If only we could see their pens turned against their US political masters.

Other cables are more important, but still only embellish what we know already.

For instance: the US government has been trying to convince other countries to resettle its Guantanamo Bay detainees for years. But thanks to WikiLeaks we now know how desperate those US negotiators sound: officials tried to convince Belgium accepting prisoners would be “a low-cost way for Belgium to attain prominence in Europe”.

This is not materially new information. But it is more revealing than the sterile reports we’re familiar with.

After all, it is one thing to know the world’s superpower is negotiating to resettle detainees. It’s quite another to learn that the superpower sounds like an anxious salesman as it tries to do so. Or like a shonky political party treasurer selling tables to a fundraiser: Slovenia was told resettling a detainee would earn Slovenian leaders an audience with Barack Obama.

These cables further underline how the original decision to set up Guantanamo Bay dropped the US into a complicated long-term legal bind from which it is still struggling to extricate itself. It’s not revelatory. But the desperation is very, very revealing.

So too is the deep mistrust within the Middle East towards Iran.

Arab leaders in the region endlessly crow about Israel, but in private it is Iran they worry about. The cables vividly show that the leadership of Qatar, Abu Dhabi, Oman and Bahrain are all deeply concerned about Iran’s nuclear program. Saudi Arabia has been urging a US attack on Iran.

Analysts have been saying this for years, of course. But the unadorned cables make their points starkly and unambiguously.

Julian Assange is anti-war. But when the world reads the Egyptian president telling the US ambassador to only enter dialogue with Iran “so long as the [US] does not believe a word [the Iranians] say”, the case for dealing with Iran as soon as possible is strengthened, not weakened.

The documents are unlikely to damage America’s global reputation.

While foreign governments will kick up a fuss about what they read, they know how diplomacy works. They’re worried they could be the victims of the next WikiLeaks release.

Neither are they likely to be of great interest to foreign intelligence services. At a minimum, 3 million American soldiers and officials have access to the cables and the clearance to read them. That’s the security problem, not WikiLeaks. Let’s assume much of these cables have leaked before, just less publicly.

In the past, the US government itself made use of WikiLeaks to expose corruption and mismanagement in the United Nations. One of George Bush’s senior officials said in July, “Transparency and accountability in government and international institutions is a best practice and of great importance and WikiLeaks previously has been a force for good in the area.”

It must be harder to see the virtue of transparency when you’re the target.

Chris Berg is a Research Fellow with the Institute of Public Affairs. Follow him

The dichotomy of Wikileaks

Does Julian Assange understand the significance of what he is doing? Perhaps not.

The Australian editor in chief of Wikileaks has published some extraordinary material in the past, but the release of the Afghan war logs is a big deal. The 91,000 classified documents – only 75,000 have been publically uploaded so far – cover six years of the War in Afghanistan.

The meaning of it all isn’t yet clear.

At Slate, Fred Kaplan has written “Just because some documents are classified doesn’t mean that they’re news or even necessarily interesting.” But if nothing else the documents provide a portrait of a war which hasn’t been going well. There may not be any smoking guns of conspiracy here. But there is a lot of murkiness.

This isn’t the way Assange sees it. On Thursday’s Lateline, Assange said the documents revealed “negligence that’s on a massive scale”. He told Der Spiegel the material “shines light on the everyday brutality and squalor of [the Afghan] war”. It will “change public opinion”.

With Wikileaks Assange is trying to pursue two missions at once. And they clash.

The first mission is to provide a repository of data and documents. Wikileaks is where whistle-blowers can dump raw material – everything interesting and uninteresting.

But Assange is obviously trying to match that with political activism. In this case, activism against the war in Afghanistan.

He’s welcome to walk and chew gum if he can. But the editorialising necessary for his activism undermines Wikileaks’ integrity, and ultimately weakens the site’s power.

Nothing illustrates the perils of this two sided approach as well as the Baghdad air strike footage. Released in April, three months before the Afghan War Logs, the footage depicts a 2007 American attack against insurgents and what appears to be unarmed individuals, including two journalists.

Wikileaks released two versions of the footage.

The original, unedited version was 39 minutes long. The other version was an 18 minute highlight reel. Opening with a George Orwell quote – “Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give the appearance of solidity to pure wind” – the film, titled “Collateral Murder”, broadcast Assange’s opinion proudly. (The video’s provisional title, “Permission to Engage”, was discarded.) The audio was edited carefully to avoid viewers making an emotional bond with the American soldiers.

As they say: don’t telegraph your punches. Let the material speak for itself.

Instead, by editing it he made the video into a political football. Supporters of the war were able to dismiss the leaked video as nothing more than anti-war hype – they focused on what was edited out, not what was left in.

Wikileaks risks being dismissed as just another partisan media outlet.

It’s a shame because the site couldn’t be more important.

The biggest barrier to the scrutiny of government is their monopoly over information. Governments like secrecy a lot. It’s a precautionary thing. From a political perspective it’s far safer to claim something is confidential, or of too great importance to national security to be shared with the public. You never know how information, once released into the public domain, could create political problems.

So it’s easier not to release information at all, if you can avoid it.

Last month, the Australian Attorney General’s Department gave a very clear example of how pervasive this risk-averse, secrecy-first attitude is.

A freedom of information request focused on the federal government’s plans to have internet service providers monitor the surfing habits of consumers. The request was successful. But the document which was released by the Attorney-General’s Department had been almost entirely censored – 90 per cent of what was released had been blacked out.

In a supporting letter, the department claimed censorship was necessary because releasing more information “may lead to premature unnecessary debate”.

Obviously the government thinks it better to encourage uninformed speculation.

The South Australian government recently kept an embarrassing list of defective bridges secret, claiming that the information could be used by al-Qaeda.

Wikileaks has the potential to disrupt this habitual secrecy once and for all; an institutional counterweight to the government’s monopoly over its information.

Yet it seems that for Assange, Wikileaks is instead a new media venture, and comes complete with an editorial stance. Those 91,000 documents are the supporting material for Wikileaks’ investigative work.

Talking to The New Yorker, he described this practice as “scientific journalism”, comparing Wikileaks to academic scholarship: “If you publish a paper on DNA, you are required … to submit the data that has informed your research – the idea being that people will replicate it, check it, verify it.”

But some commentators have pointed out Assange had to pitch his story to The Guardian, The New Yorker and Der Spiegel to get publicity, rather than rely entirely on his site.

Assange should take that as a compliment, not a criticism.

Wikileaks has done some amazing things since it was founded four years ago.

But its success so far shows how much the world needs an unedited, unfiltered, and above all studiously neutral, depot for data and documents, much more than it needs another new media editor with a political campaign.

Come On, Aunty, Time To Work Out Where You’re At

Management guru Peter Drucker famously asked the chief executive of General Electric two simple questions: “If you weren’t in the business you’re in, would you enter it today? If the answer is no, what are you going to do about it?” Has our ABC ever asked itself these questions?

The GE chief took Drucker’s questioning as an opportunity to radically restructure the company and re-examine its core business. The ABC should use the challenges brought on by new media and the internet to do the same.

A poorly kept secret of Australian libertarian and conservative politics is that when we complain about bias, it’s usually only because we faithfully watch and adore the ABC.

The network’s nickname – Aunty – makes it seem more like a kindly relative who has cats and loves having you over for quiche than a major government program that employs 4500 people and receives nearly $1billion dollars of taxpayers’ money.

Aunties don’t have to justify their own existence; government programs do. Certainly, the broadcaster has a charter. But that charter consists of little more than vague platitudes towards diversity, community and “awareness of Australia”.

Unfortunately, the reforms announced over the past month – the introduction of a 24-hour news-gathering service, a few local websites, and some shedding of in-house production staff – do little to clarify the ABC’s proper role.

But that is hardly surprising. In fact, in her 76 years of operation, Aunty has never really known what she is for. Australia has public broadcasting primarily because our pre-WWII federal government didn’t trust the commercial radio stations to sufficiently educate the lumpen masses on the finer points of Brahms and Shakespeare.

Since everybody in parliament agreed that Britain’s BBC was really cool, the government set up an Australian version. But unlike the original BBC, the ABC has tried to be “for all Australians” and tried to compete with commercial broadcasters, adopting an uncomfortable mix of highbrow and lowbrow programming.

But a core foundation of liberal democracy is that the government should not do anything that society can do itself. The government should not directly compete with the private sector.

What then would the ABC be doing now if it took Drucker’s advice?

There seems little reason for the network to have a commercial arm – should the ABC be directly competing with bookstores? Why, too, should it be broadcasting highly popular sporting events when there is no lack of private networks willing to do so? As a rule, the ABC should never out-bid another broadcaster for programming.

ABC director Mark Scott argued that not only can the network provide local news and commentary to remote and rural communities, but it could also provide a digital “town square” for community engagement.

Among public broadcasting advocates, this view is popular – it is a convenient way to imagine a role for the ABC far into the online future. But it is again indicative of the ABC’s drifting purpose. Why should taxpayers be paying the government to imitate the thousands of bulletin boards and forums that already pepper the internet? And genuine communities are built by individuals, not governments.

There are, unquestionably, roles for which the ABC is necessary. Government is responsible for broadcasting political events such as Parliament. And the ABC has an enormous back catalogue of Australian history it should be immediately digitising.

Its cultural role needs to be examined in the context of the entire broadcasting market – in particular, the Australian content regulations that apply to commercial channels. If government is convinced that artificially promoting Australian culture is vital even in the age of media abundance, then that may be a task for public broadcasting alone.

But these are unasked questions. The ABC is seen by commentators from the left and the right as a sort of gift from the government for the politically obsessed, rather than a major public policy initiative of the Federal Government.

All media organisations across the world need to go through similar soul-searching. But because the ABC is insulated from the punishing winds of the market, it has consistently avoided tough decisions about what services it should provide. If it is to adjust to the future, that will need to change.

No Umpire Needed In Sport Media

The AFL, with its of salary caps and draft restrictions, is one of the most regulated sports in the world. Unfortunately, the Australian media is just as regulated, and the regulations punish clubs, consumers and players.

Protectionism may no longer dominate as an economic ideology, but it lives on in the Australian Government’s approach to the media.

Invariably, from the artificial limitation on the number of television licences, to the banning of advertising on the ABC, to the digital transition debacle, each and every media regulation and reform proposal seems designed to protect incumbent free to air (FTA) broadcasters and penalise their competitors.

Anti-siphoning laws, which give FTA broadcasters first rights over a huge range of premium sporting content, are some of the most egregious examples of this protectionist approach.

FTA broadcasters are granted the privilege by government of not having to compete for broadcast rights in a fair and open market.

Like all protectionist rhetoric, advocates of the current system couch their arguments in the “public interest” and “protecting the consumer” terms. But preventing pay television from bidding for broadcast rights is not without cost.

A modern sporting competition is an extremely expensive affair, and, like any other business, its producers strive to appeal to demanding consumers.

To do so, the sports have evolved, not only in the manner in which they are played, but also through technological innovations that alter the experience for consumers.

Coaches utilise better communications and analysis tools to manage their teams.

Players utilise more powerful – and more expensive – medical advances to prevent injury and enhance performance.

And consumers utilise a variety of print, electronic and broadcast media to access statistics and interactivity to enjoy their game more.

But all this requires money. By restricting pay television from the market for broadcast rights, sporting codes are deprived of a potentially lucrative source of funds.

Competition is intense between the FTA broadcasters, but by banning alternative broadcasters, the final price that broadcast rights are sold at is likely to be lowered.

Anyone that doubts that this is a problem should identify any sporting code or club that wouldn’t be able to use the extra money. Many sports on the anti-siphoning list, like netball and the IndyCar series, do not command the enormous audiences that the big football codes do. Restricting the market for the broadcast of these sports punishes fans – it doesn’t protect them.

With the larger sports, problems are just as evident. The demise of the Fox Footy Channel, a casualty of the lopsided negotiations between FTA, pay television and the AFL, has been a loss for consumers. Die-hard fans are denied the opportunity to enjoy a channel dedicated to the sport to which they are devoted.

If the AFL had been able to negotiate with Foxtel directly, this may have not occurred.

As Justice Ron Sackville, judging a Federal Court case over AFL rights this month, stated: “The poor old AFL is denied the opportunity of a fair and competitive process to get the best price for its product . . .” He continued: “Now, that seems odd.”

Exempt from anti-siphoning restrictions, Football Federation Australia has been able to sign a deal with Foxtel to show all Socceroos, A-League and Asian matches. These rights were sold on mutually agreeable terms, and should help the code establish itself in the mainstream.

The anti-siphoning laws punish consumers and sporting codes, but the larger objection is philosophical, and one shared by the codes themselves.

Those who make a product, own it. The sporting codes should be able to determine to whom and under what condition those rights are sold.

The anti-siphoning laws confiscate the property rights of the producers of sport.

A better approach would be to treat content broadcast on television or radio neutrally. Governments should not be making a determination of the relative importance or merit of certain forms of entertainment. Doing so punishes the very consumers that these laws profess to protect.

The Government’s media reform bills have not tackled with any rigour the Government’s regressive approach to the media. Unfortunately, its penchant for protectionism does not appear to be abating.

Sports are supposed to be competitive, why can’t broadcasting be the same?

The Value Of Secrets To Pollies And Journos

In 1870, the editor of the Chicago Times got his job description down nicely: “It is a newspaper’s duty to print the news, and raise hell.”

So it is hard to sympathise with Peter Costello’s claims that his now famous dinner was off the record. After all, the demand for salacious gossip about senior politicians is almost infinite. And for journalists, the market for information is highly competitive.

When these combine, it must be tough for journalists to resist disclosing juicy political confessions. The potential personal benefit for the reporter and commercial benefit for their employer is enormous. And nobody wants to be the one who sat on a big story while their competitor makes their reputations disclosing it.

Such briefings with seemingly sympathetic journalists are common enough when tilling the ground for political change. By going public with the details of the dinner, some may claim that damage has been done to the sacred reporter-politician relationship. And the journalists involved will struggle to get invited to dinner with the next aspirational treasurer.

However, whatever country club mentality remains in the relationship between these two opposed professions is bound to erode away over the course of the next few years.

The news media has been highly competitive since the invention of the daily newspaper nearly three hundred years ago. But the even greater competition brought about from recent technological change has exponentially increased the value of a scoop.

Outlets like Crikey explicitly market themselves as purveyors of inside gossip and rumours – when Crikey readers are offered “the inside track”, it is in contrast to what is seen as an overly conservative traditional press corp.

In the United States, bloggers who self-identify as online journalists are routinely granted the legitimacy of press passes and interviews. With none of the institutional and reputational support that comes with a masthead, these writers can only sell themselves on original content. For this reason, some US bloggers are becoming formidably competitive at sourcing news, often shining their dead-tree counterparts.

If on the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog, then in the real world, nobody knows you’re on the internet. In the era of widespread social-networking, people don’t even need a blog to break news. We shouldn’t be surprised if in the coming years some stories are broken in the status updates of Facebook profiles.

Politicians can hardly expect secrets to be kept when there is so much value from disclosure.

Laws Against Concentrated Media Ownership Hurt, Rather Than Help

The Australian reports today that the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has begun its inquiry into Fairfax’s acquisition of Southern Cross Broadcasting’s TV and radio assets.

The ACCC has been given a greater role in the regulatory adjudication of media mergers after Helen Coonan’s partial deregulation of ownership law in September last year.

For consumers, these reforms should have been welcome. Laws against concentrated media ownership hurt, rather than help, the cause of media diversity.

Media ownership laws rely on a crude, and possibly erroneous, model of the relationship between ownership and content diversity. Their premise is simple: concentration of ownership is a proxy for concentration of content.

But a growing body of empirical evidence suggests that this link is not as well established as the critics of media deregulation might assume.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, concentration of ownership can increase media diversity. A reduction of the number of owners in a newspaper market often leads to an increase in product differentiation. Firms in these situations find it is more profitable to lure consumers with new products than by trying to ape established ones.

Another classic example here is subscription television, where a single firm offers consumers dozens of highly diverse channels. But the diversity available on pay TV indicates a source of the dull homogeneity of much of Australia’s television – the protectionist management of the broadcasting spectrum. If we are serious about encouraging media diversity we should be at the very least liberalising the number of television licences.

Across the media sector, firms are searching for new business models. The announcement that PBL Media would be taken over by a private equity firm indicated just how aware ‘old media’ firms are of their new competition and their audience’s changing media consumption patterns.

In this context, media concentration and consolidation might more usefully be seen as a ‘circle the wagons’ strategy by firms in traditional markets. As audiences fragment, many firms feel that they have to expand their empires just to keep up.

This may not end up being a successful strategy. In the United States, a wave of consolidations a few years ago has been followed by widespread break-ups and divestitures.

But in such a competitive environment, these firms need to be allowed to experiment with business structures as much as possible. Applying economy-wide rather than sector-specific competition law to the industry is a step in the right direction.

Is Aunty’s Strength A Net Gain?

The ABC has turned 75 and still occupies a central place in Australia’s political status quo. But getting to its 100th birthday may be tougher.

The ABC has to come to terms with the dramatic technological changes sweeping across the media landscape, changes that are slowly eroding the rationale for public broadcasting.

Unfortunately, many of Aunty’s recent attempts to shoehorn itself into the internet age have been embarrassingly awkward. The ABC has eagerly jumped at fads rather than focused on its strengths.

It has been convinced by a stream of hyperbolic and ridiculous media reports that the virtual world Second Life is the inevitable future of the internet. Second Life is essentially a glorified chat room with a focus on sex and gambling, but the public broadcaster has gullibly embraced it.

Unsurprisingly, in May the ABC’s Second Life headquarters, ABC Island, was reduced to a bombed, cratered mess by the pranksters who roam the online world.

A recent attempt to duplicate the success of the video-sharing site YouTube was also unsuccessful. The website that accompanied the screening of The Great Global Warming Swindle asked viewers to upload their own videos critiquing or commenting on the documentary. But by the time the forum was shut down, only two people had done so.

Building virtual islands and user-generated video sites are hardly central planks in the ABC’s charter. They are also a pretty questionable use of taxpayers’ money; the world doesn’t lack for YouTube clones or chat rooms. However, the ABC’s website is a relative success and understanding why can provide a template for future online activity.

The discussion forums that accompany many of its radio and television programs are popular and cost effective. The network produces a huge volume of content every day and provides much of it online as podcasts and streaming video, instantly multiplying its value for taxpayers.

Indeed, shifting material online is a far more vital task for the ABC than producing yet another mini-series based on a significant moment for the labour movement. Considering the central role the ABC has played in Australia’s history, digitising as much of its archive as possible would be a more valuable education resource.

A debate rages within the ABC as to whether to charge for access to online content. Being asked to pay for ABC programming twice, the first time through the tax system, is hard to stomach. But, more important, the worst thing for a media company is not for consumers to enjoy its content without paying but to not enjoy it at all. The media landscape is characterised by an abundance of material. In a crowded, highly competitive market, few companies can afford to deliberately exclude their consumers.

This abundance also presents a problem for the ABC. Public broadcasting is premised on scarcity. The limited space on the broadcasting spectrum, so the argument goes, means that commercial broadcasters will not be able to provide high-quality or important programming. Public broadcasting steps in to fill that gap.

But with the widespread availability of the internet, quality journalism has never been more plentiful. Quality opinion and editorial is produced by millions of amateurs and professionals, on and offline. Quality drama is available at the click of a mouse from anywhere in the world.

If anything, media consumers suffer from an overload of information and entertainment. In such an environment, it is hard to justify spending vast sums on public broadcasting. The ABC may need to look towards another programming and funding model if it is survive to meet its next big milestone, in 2032.

A useful model to consider is provided by C-SPAN, the US cable TV network dedicated to 24-hour coverage of congressional debate, campaign trail footage, speeches and book forums. C-SPAN is self-consciously focused on objectivity, even going so far as avoiding political commentary.

One of the most important roles the ABC has is broadcasting parliamentary proceedings, and the C-SPAN model would allow it to continue and expand on this valuable programming.

C-SPAN, however, is a good example of how the free market can provide quality public affairs broadcasting in the absence of government subsidy. The network is a privately run, not-for-profit company. An ABC strictly adhering to the C-SPAN model may not have to rely on tax dollars for financial support. Alternative models, such as accepting advertising or even full privatisation, have been well discussed by critics of the ABC. But probably sooner than it expects, Aunty is going to have to provide an answer to a simple question: what role should public broadcasting have in an age of media abundance?

Big Brother vs. Big Brother: How politicians failed to understand reality television and in their confusion instead decided to regulate the internet

With Hugh Tobin

If the people who watch Big Brother are so stupid, why do we allow them to vote? After all, the cultural criticism of reality television is, implicitly, a criticism of its audience.

The political condemnation which has greeted a series of reality television controversies could easily backfire. The series is simple entertainment, but it is entertainment designed to reflect the social lives and concerns of its audience. There is more to Big Brother than voyeurism.

Nevertheless, in June this year, the cultural pessimists who have made sport of condemning the reality television genre were provided with yet another target for their concentrated hysteria. A new Dutch reality television programme, The Big Donor Show, starred a terminally ill woman with a kidney to donate. Three potential donor recipients were to compete for the life-saving organ. (The programme’s logo tastefully featured a drawing of a kidney in place of the final ‘o’ of ‘donor’.)

Of course, it was a stunt, designed to highlight the shortage of organ donors in the Netherlands and, indeed, around the world. The conservative politicians who had been quick to condemn the programme and call for its censorship awkwardly tried to back away.

The show may have been designed to attract attention to the shortage of organ donors, but the politicians who instinctively shot from the hip illustrated just how highly politicised reality television has become. Reality television attracts vehement criticism—criticism about its supposed emphasis on sex, its voyeurism, its artlessness, and its seeming appeal to the lowest common denominator.

On the surface, many of these objections seem unfounded. Artless voyeurism and sexual innuendo have not merely been a prominent feature of the history of television, but probably a big source of the medium’s popularity. Reality television, then, is simply another genre of entertainment, and should be judged by the same standards as ‘traditional’ genres such as sport or drama. Putting aside the intellectual snobbery adopted by culturally conservative politicians, there’s nothing harmful about a bit of trash TV.

The success of the Dutch kidney donor stunt was only made possible by exploiting the instant notoriety with which reality television has become synonymous. And just as in the Netherlands, over-zealous Australian politicians have rushed to condemn the tone and content of the genre. But the political response in Australia has gone much further than simple statements to the press. The knee-jerk reaction to a series of reality television scandals has led to a major regulatory expansion for online content and delivery.

The controversy surrounding Big Brother in mid-2006 has inspired the federal government to increase the powers of the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) to police mobile phone and online content. A hastily written piece of legislation now urges the regulator to develop industry standards for the entire Australian internet community, as well as enforce the removal of ‘objectionable’ material here and overseas.

Vague borders

It’s no surprise that Big Donor would originate in the Netherlands. Endemol, the production company which produced the stunt, was one of the major companies responsible for the modern wave of reality television. It produced the first series of Big Brother which aired in 1999 on Dutch commercial television.

The first of the Survivor franchise was aired in Sweden in 1997 as Expedition: Robinson, and 19 Entertainment’s Idol format began in 2001 with its UK series, Pop Idol. These have all been franchised internationally: there are now 95 different winners of the Idol series around the world, and more than 160 winners of Big Brother.

But reality television, a loose genre which presents largely unscripted non-actors in various contrived situations, has a long history. 1948 — the same year in which George Orwell wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four — also saw the first television broadcast of Candid Camera, the long-running and influential concealed camera show which pioneered the genre.

The borders of reality television are unclear. The genre borders upon documentary filmmaking — programmes such as the US’s COPS and Australia’s Border Security, or ‘celebreality’ shows, such as The Osbournes and Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica, document the daily lives of non-actors. The Seven Up! Series — the latest episode of which was reviewed in the December 2006 edition of the IPA Review — also shares some similarities with this strand of the genre.

What constitutes ‘reality’ television is often a matter of degree — many of the staples of the genre have close affinities with more traditional programme formats. Like a game show, the participants in Big Brother compete against each other for a prize, as do contestants in the Idol and Survivor formats. Talk shows such as the Jerry Springer Show have also sometimes been classified as part of the genre when they actively try to foment on-air drama between participants.

Much reality television blurs into fiction. The question of just how ‘real’ reality television is is made particularly problematic by shows such as Laguna Beach, which purports to follow a group of wealthy teenagers living in Orange County, California. Laguna Beach features a not-insignificant amount of scripting and ‘production manipulation’.

Scandal and controversy have accompanied reality television since its early days — reality television has been a more powerful conduit for debate about social and cultural issues than any number of high-minded, preachy Hollywood films. In the 1973 US series An American Family, which centred around a family experiencing a divorce, the eldest child’s homosexuality was the lightning rod for controversy.

In 1992’s Sylvania Waters, a series which filmed an Australian family, the perceived and real alcoholism, racism, and materialism of the Laurie Donaher/Noeline Baker de facto family drew much criticism. The Sun headlined its story on the series when it debuted in the UK: ‘Meet Noeline. By Tonight You’ll Hate Her Too’.

The most controversial programmes, however, have been those which have placed participants in special living environments. MTV’s The Real World has, since 1992, placed participants together in an urban house and given them jobs and group activities. Tensions and arguments over race and sexual orientations have been a recurring theme throughout the series.

Politics and Big Brother

Unsurprisingly, the Big Brother franchise has a tradition of controversy. Last year’s accusations of racism in the UK Celebrity Big Brother gained the British series world-wide attention. Politicians who have been so eager for the limelight that they have volunteered as participants have come under heavy public fire. The Scottish MP George Galloway thought that the best way to capitalise on his notoriety after being accused of Iraqi Oil-for-Food corruption was to appear on the 2006 edition of Celebrity Big Brother. The minority whip of the Mexican Green Party also participated in a 2004 Mexican Big Brother, to much political criticism.

The Australian Big Brother may not have featured any politicians as housemates yet, but the franchise has been readily embraced as a political totem. Beginning in 2001, early Australian seasons of Big Brother were aired with relatively little controversy. 2003 saw a small incident as one housemate identified a minor in an ongoing court trial — the producers frantically shut down the live Internet feeds and official Website discussion boards. A 2004 contestant staged a silent protest upon his eviction from the house, taping his mouth shut and holding up a banner reading ‘Free th refugees’ (sic), to the consternation of producers who had planned the usual extensive post-eviction interview.

The Dutch production company which developed the Big Brother format originally conceived as few as six contestants locked up in a house for a year. The format was partly inspired by the early Webcam movement, a late 1990s’ trend where exhibitionists document a usually unedited video stream of their lives onto the Internet, including sexual encounters.

And it is this lineage of total surveillance and exhibitionism that has provided the source of the major controversy. The 2005 series’ emphasis on the sex appeal of the housemates, in particular the weekly 9.40pm ‘Uncut’ programme which presented material not appropriate for the 7pm ‘Daily Show’, was a focal point of political condemnation. ‘Uncut’ featured, for the most part, conversations about the sex lives of the housemates, shower scene footage, and general playing around.

Following complaints from the Australian Family Association, Liberal MP Trish Draper condemned the programme as pornographic, arguing that the housemates have ‘an aspiration to be porn stars’. Big Brother participants are certainly exhibitionists, but it would undoubtedly be easier to get work on a porn film than become a housemate.

In 2005, ‘Uncut’ was the problem. Once the programme had attracted the attention of the Communications Minister, Helen Coonan, media regulators determined that the material chosen for broadcast was in breach of the free-to-air code of conduct. For the next year’s season the programme was retitled ‘Adults Only’ and the sexual content watered down. (Nevertheless, by June 2006, Channel Ten had succumbed to political pressure from government backbenchers and pulled the show; even though it was, as everybody acknowledged, firmly within the bounds of broadcasting regulations and the television industry’s code of conduct.)

But for Big Brother 2006, the biggest controversy wasn’t what was broadcast on free-to-air television. It was the Internet-only, subscription-only live feed which recorded the alleged sexual harassment by two contestants of a third female participant.

Steve Fielding of Family First led the critical charge of criticism at the show: ‘This show legitimises behaviour that is not acceptable anywhere in our community and this latest incident is disgusting and degrading and, quite frankly, this is not a community standard that’s acceptable … Family First is calling for Big Brother to be pulled’.

The Prime Minister also called Big Brother a ‘stupid program’, and the Communications Minister said that it was ‘disturbing and offensive’. Predictably, the ACMA was once again pulled back into the fray.

Whether the ACMA had jurisdiction over the online material was, however, uncertain. The incident was not broadcast on television. As the ACMA noted in its report, the footage wasn’t even stored on the Big Brother website — the site did not provide an archive of the feed. But enterprising subscribers had recorded it themselves, and the incident was soon viewable on video-sharing sites such as YouTube.

The ACMA’s report concluded that there was little the regulator could do about what was provided online. For the government this was an insufficiently dramatic political response to the August 2006 incident.

So now, in 2007, we have legislation which gives the ACMA that authority. The Communications Legislation Amendment (Content Services) Bill, which passed through parliament in late June, gives the regulator authority over ‘ephemeral’ content services such as Internet live feeds, as well as the power to regulate ‘convergent’ devices, such as mobile phones offering video or other content. But the importance of the new legislation is not limited to an expansion of the ACMA’s jurisdiction. The law places the regulator firmly at the centre of ascertaining the responsibility for content created and delivered on the internet.

The creation of content by Internet users, rather than professional content producers, has been one of the primary innovations in entertainment technology over the last decade. Sites such as YouTube provide a neutral distribution system for users to upload and broadcast that content. But the introduction of this legislation requires the site to police the material it hosts, rather than placing the responsibility with the producer of the material. As Microsoft has noted, this surpasses the high regulatory bar set by the European Union—an unfavourable comparison.

The high pace of innovation has blurred the distinction between forms of content and delivery—indeed, this is a good working definition of ‘convergence’. In an effort to translate the complex technological and cultural changes of the content industry, the legislation confuses and over-regulates.

For example, there are 22 exemptions to what is considered, for the purposes of the legislation, as a ‘content service’. Entrepreneurs eager to found their own YouTube killer in Australia will struggle to navigate the convoluted legal framework and liability issues. They will be doubly frustrated if they had originally been seduced by the federal government’s public desire to encourage a local content industry.

Between the audience and the activists

As has regularly been pointed out both by critics and contestants, ‘The Daily Show’ and ‘Uncut’/‘Adults Only’ programmes of Big Brother are not strictly ‘real’. Programme producers can cut and edit what is finally broadcast to direct or create narratives, play up potentially dramatic situations and even manipulate audience perceptions of individual housemates. But they have very little capacity to manipulate the live Internet feed.

What is shown live from the house is as close to ‘reality’ as audiences are likely to get from the artificial environment of Big Brother. If the programme’s original conceit was to broadcast the mundane lives of a group of people in an isolated house, then live streaming is the ultimate manifestation of that idea.

When politicians criticise or disparage the contestants on Big Brother, they implicitly criticise the (voting) audience.

In the UK, the programme’s audience is 58 per cent female, and 49 per cent are aged between 16 and 34. The Australian audience has a similar composition. The participants on most of the standard Big Brother series are deliberately chosen to replicate the likely audience.

This same demographic now spends more time online (38 per cent) than with any other entertainment medium. Again, the activity online provides an interesting parallel with the Big Brother format. This is the same generation that is likely to have a public profile on MySpace or Facebook, to record their daily activities publicly on services such as Twitter, to run a blog, to produce YouTube commentaries, or in some other way to participate in online discussions and forums.

Big Brother may be exhibitionism on the scale of free-to-air television, but the audience also practices their own smaller-scale exhibitionism online.

Politicians eager to court this key demographic should be wary of such instant point-scoring. The reactionary attitude of the political class to the genre is, particularly for young viewers, indicative of a failure to understand youth culture.

One recent paper in the International Journal of Cultural Studies has found that UK Big Brother viewers were, when assessing a politician, most likely to give their support to someone who they saw as an ‘ordinary’ person. The programme, this finding implies, is popular because the audience can relate to the housemates; and politics is unpopular because the participants are harder to relate to.

How individuals acted in the artificial environment of the Big Brother house was seen as a reliable guide to their personality and ability—a view that contrasts poorly with finely stage-managed political personas. The ‘Uncut’/‘Adults Only’ programme was both unfiltered titillation and a candid display of key aspects of the housemate’s personalities.

Endemol has itself encouraged the comparison between the programme and politics. The company’s UK division sponsored a 2003 study which contrasted what it saw as the typical Big Brother viewer — typically female, under 40, and largely uninterested in politics — with ‘Political Junkies’—male, 50-plus, professionals, who regularly discussed politics in social settings. Endemol’s UK chairman wrote in the study that the British government needed to replicate the most appealing aspects of Big Brother and ‘broaden its accountability, allowing the electorate more control via interactivity and thus earning more respect from the new generation of voters’.

Politicians should probably not apply to be housemates. George Galloway was, after all, voted out of the house early into the season. But the remarkably confused interpretation of the implications and importance of reality television and the internet has led Australian politicians to demonstrate just how little they understand this key demographic.

When the frills of Big Brother — the prize money, the weekly voting, the Friday-night games — are stripped away, the programme does nothing more than stick 14 young people in a house and watches what they do. They may be more attractive and extroverted than the norm, but they represent a cross-section of the social, political and economic make-up of their generation.

Politicians would do better to watch the show than to breathlessly condemn it.

Media Faces An Unsentimental Future

Media critics have made careers proclaiming how dangerous media moguls are for Australian democracy. These critics now face an even more serious problem – no media moguls.

If PBL Media – which private equity now controls- is anything to go by, we may see nameless, faceless, investors replace these personalities.

Private equity firms may be nameless and faceless, but they are ruthless. CVC Capital Partners has already torn out the symbolic heart of the PBL empire, Alan Jones. The relationship between Jones and the late Kerry Packer was not atypical – the journalist under the mogul’s patronage.

Press critic A. J. Liebling wrote that few journalists under William Randolph Hearst’s tutelage would be employable elsewhere.

The Bulletin has long been made viable by a tacit acceptance of its unprofitability and its prestige as Australia’s oldest magazine. But sentimentality, as Jones and his audience have learned, is not a defining characteristic of private equity firms. CVC will be looking closely atThe Bulletin.

Private equity groups act when they see a company with good but underutilised assets. They assume a big risk. To make this risk pay off, private equity needs to cut fat and make money. Typically, after a few years they exit, selling a more efficient company for an enormous profit.

If this is CVC’s game plan, it picked a great time to get into the media industry. CVC has given itself a five to seven-year window. But by then, PBL Media will not just have to be a streamlined organisation, it will have to be radically different, if it is to keep up with the radical changes in the form and content that media consumers demand.

It took only 18 months for YouTube to go from a garage to a $US1.65 billion ($A1.96 billion) Google acquisition, during which the user-uploaded video website had firmly implanted itself in media consumption habits around the world.

The search giant quickly moved on to an even bigger acquisition this year, buying advertising outfit DoubleClick for $US3.1 billion.

The business of the media is to connect eyeballs with advertising. YouTube and DoubleClick present new competitive pressures on companies that depend on both. Given the pace of online innovation, how these companies will affect the market for media content is unknown.

Corporate responses to these changes have been mixed. In the US, the media empires have already begun dramatically overhauling their structure and, in many cases, spinning off subsidiaries.

It is far easier to point out failed attempts to modernise businesses than successes. The merger between America Online and TimeWarner, which was greeted by the US commentariat with fear and awe, is now an embarrassing failure.

In part, the struggle with modernisation is due to the dramatic internal and philosophical changes required. For instance, Google’s project to index all the information in the world forces media companies to rethink rapidly their relationship with their own content and the value received from it. The chief executive of Macmillan book publishing this month demonstrated his confusion of the issues underlying new media by swiping two laptops from the Google stall at a publisher’s expo.

Google Book Search has been indexing his company’s books under the US “fair use” copyright exception. But rather than giving Google “a taste of its own medicine”, the incident was a cringe-inducing display of the chasm between “new” media and the old. The CEO was devoted to the traditional business model on which his company was founded decades before. Hopefully, as we move towards private equity, similar attitudes in Australian companies will be jettisoned. The regulatory framework that has controlled the broadcasting sector for the past 50 years, for instance, has been a complex web of protectionism, restriction and government favours.

Relationships between press barons and governments have dominated Australian public policy. But private equity groups have few political aspirations – their only aim is to make money.

Politicians who have been used to trading favours with media moguls may have to adjust to a press less interested in politicking and more interested in marketing. CVC hopes to make a big profit out of PBL Media. To do so, PBL Media will not only have to be lean and efficient, but comfortable competing with all-new competitors in an all-new space.

A. J. Liebling once wrote: “The function of the press in society is to inform, but its role in society is to make money.” When private equity owns media, it hopefully can do both.