Three weeks ago, one of the biggest changes in media ownership laws in Australian history was approved with the support of Family First Senator Steve Fielding. In justifying his support for the changes to Age readers (October 26, 2006), the senator described assumed links between ownership and content as a "myth", and asked "where is the evidence"?
Let's look at some of the evidence. The most obvious type of interference - the one most people worry about - is when media proprietors use their print or broadcast outlets to push a political agenda.
This happens, and some outlets are even willing to brag about it. Most famously, Rupert Murdoch's London Sun newspaper proclaimed in a front-page headline in 1992 that "It's the Sun Wot Won It" for the Tories. And anyone who has watched Fox News or seen the documentary Outfoxed knows Murdoch's American news network wears its political allegiances on its sleeve.
The most infamous examples in Australia are the 1972 and 1975 elections. In 1972, disillusioned with the McMahon Government, Murdoch and his papers played what has been described as "an active role" in Labor's election campaign, but by 1975 Murdoch had fallen out with the Whitlam Government. His papers then took such an unrelentingly anti-Labor stance that News Limited journalists went on strike for two days to protest against proprietorial interference in their work.
Sometimes such interference is more about commercial interests than directly political ones. The Packer family, in particular, has always been good at lobbying for its commercial interests.
And sometimes political and commercial interests overlap. In 1961, Warwick Fairfax snr advocated a vote for Labor because the Menzies Government's misapplied credit squeeze had shrunk Fairfax advertising revenue. The general manager of Fairfax disapproved but said "his boss" had told him to "implement the new policy".
We know about these older examples because people talk about them years later, when it's safe to do so. What we haven't heard yet are the backroom stories from today.
Fielding said he talked to all the heads of the main media organisations when making his decision. But did he also talk to individual journalists? It's hard for them to write about it in their own outlets but we know what Australian journalists will say anonymously about their work conditions.
In 2001, the Australian Broadcasting Authority surveyed 100 news producers across different media. Many said that ownership was "a subconscious pressure, which led to self-censorship". And a Roy Morgan survey of 374 Australian journalists for Crikey! earlier this year found that 32 per cent said they felt obliged to take into account the political views of their proprietor when writing stories. More than half said they were unable to be critical of the media organisation they work for.
These are the people who Fielding wanted us to rely on, whom he thinks will carry democracy by virtue of their strong, independent voices. I have no doubt they will try, but let's also be realistic about their position. In Australia, if you are a newspaper journalist, there are only two main employers. What are your chances of finding employment if you annoy one or both?
When owners push a particular political agenda it is dramatic interference, but there are far more subtle ways to wield influence. It's less about editorial interference and more about organisational culture. In a culture where everyone knows what is expected, no one has to directly censor journalists or direct them how to write.
From a content analysis of Murdoch's more than 175 newspapers around the world, Roy Greenslade found that all were pro-Iraq war, with the exception of the Papua New Guinea Post-Courier.
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