During last year’s Federal Election campaign, I ran the Counterspin blog on the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) and Melbourne Age websites. It was an instructive experience. The ABC was the only other mainstream news organisation to embrace the new technology. I quickly learnt that many readers were disillusioned and suspicious of the news they were being fed by the major media companies and wanted the media bosses to know it. They still wanted to marvel at the Murdoch minions working for a glorious Howard victory (mission accomplished) and the Fairfax troops offering a soft-left agenda and occasional critical editorial. The final leaders of the campaign gave the clearest indication yet of the true intentions, and indeed delusions, of our media players.
The Murdoch press all followed their master’s voice. He’d made it quite clear that Howard’s economic “success” and Iraqi “bravery” should be rewarded. During a visit to Australia in April 2004, Murdoch told 2GB’s Alan Jones that Australia “had to see the job through” in Iraq and urged changes to cross-media laws. “The old ideas of it [the media market] being too concentrated” were gone, he offered. Murdoch’s obedient editors know that crossing Rupert ensures a one-way ticket to media oblivion.
The Age, under then editor Michael Gawenda, spent years campaigning against some of Howard’s greatest excesses, especially the folly of the Iraq invasion, and draconian refugee policy, while campaigning for truth in government. And yet come election time, Howard was endorsed for a fourth term. Crikey! reported at the time that pressure had been exerted by management down to editorial for economic reasons. Fairfax's editor-in-chief of metropolitan newspapers, Mark Scott, allegedly claimed that Mark Latham wouldn’t be good for business.
How, then, to explain the Sydney Morning Herald’s fence-sitting editorial? It’s impossible to accurately predict, but in all likelihood there was a tussle between management, who are actively campaigning for cross-media laws to be loosened, and many senior journalists and editors who argue that such a change would reduce editorial quality and increase reliance on advertising. It is quite clear that current Fairfax management is slowly but surely making the once-great media company as attractive a proposition as possible for a potential buyer once the media laws are inevitably changed some time after July 1 this year. More editorial staff are rumoured to be on the chopping block in 2005.
Former Prime Minister Paul Keating offered his own opinions on such matters in a column censored by the SMH in 2003. Deemed too touchy by senior management, including CEO Fred Hilmer, who had already expressed interest in expanding the Fairfax media empire, Keating wrote: “Fred, in advocating changes to the cross media rule thinks he is joining Kerry [Packer] and Rupert [Murdoch] in the media proprietors' club. The difference is that each of them is long experienced and accomplished in the game of snatch and grab. Devouring a company or two before the main course has arrived. Fred would be still unfolding his napkin as the assets were swept off the table.”
And let us not forget that Eric Beecher, new owner of Crikey! and former editor of the SMH, also supports changes in the cross-media laws. Here’s Beecher in the SMH in June 2003: “Even if Rupert Murdoch emerged with a TV network (possible), or Kerry Packer acquired Fairfax (unlikely), does anyone really believe either of those enlarged groups would harness their television stations alongside their newspapers as serious political propaganda tools?” Is Beecher seriously suggesting that media moguls such as Murdoch don’t unite their empires to actively campaign on issues of choice, from Iraq to the dissolution of ABC Radio National or the UN?
The following day Mark Scott added his unsurprising views in the SMH. He argued that the myth of the media mogul “isn’t worth the paper it’s written on” and readers could take comfort in the fact that Fairfax’s “broad-based ownership structure is key to its ability to produce quality newspapers.” SMH editor Robert Whitehead, never one to avoid appeasing senior management, told Media Watch in 2003 that his paper would run Keating’s piece, but without the criticism of Hilmer. Suffice to say, we’re still waiting.
Fast forward to after the 2004 Federal Election and Mark Scott was speaking to Gerard Henderson’s status-quo enforcing think-tank, the Sydney Institute. He said that the SMH should maintain a non-partisan middle-ground and fight against media moguls who use their power to further a corporate agenda. Noble aims indeed, though far from reality at Fairfax. To even gain an entry-level job as a journalist with Fairfax requires experience in the corporate world, ideally a handful of university degrees, and vast amounts of world travel. I should know, I was a Fairfax trainee in 2003. How this is supposed to allow reporters to connect with any readers other than, as Scott boasts, “the educated and the affluent; the informed and the influential; the intellectual and cultural constituencies in Sydney”, is anyone’s guess. The majority is therefore ignoring the product. Scott sounds proud of his company’s elitism though increasing numbers of people are turning away - circulation of Fairfax papers is diving.
Despite the rhetoric suggesting otherwise, and some convincing arguments that current cross-media laws need improvement, impending changes would restrict access to voices deemed inappropriate or uncomfortable to the media masters on matters as far ranging as private defense contracting or multinational companies' relationships with government.
One only has to look at countries such as America, Britain and Italy where media moguls have pressured government into easing ownership restrictions and the results are not, as claimed by our (mis)educated moguls, greater diversity. Quite the opposite, in fact. And this is exactly what they want. If you doubt the reality of media convergence, read Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman on the current struggles in the US.
How is all this relevant to alternative media in Australia? Understanding the incestuous web and collusion between the major media players, and witnessing the increasing emasculation of ABC and SBS, independent and online resources are more essential than ever.
The last years have seen a steady decline in the public trust towards the mainstream media. An increasing split is occurring between those, still in the majority, who rely predominantly on a handful of sources for information, often TV news or radio. A small but growing group picks and chooses from a wider selection, such as newspapers, blogs, online forums, TV current affairs and radio. Journalists long thought to be the last word on a particular topic may be nothing more than a starting-point for discussion. Their supremacy is being eroded, their agendas greatly scrutinised and challenged. A recent study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project in Washington reported that blog readership in the US was up 58 per cent in 2004, still only around one quarter of web users. 62 per cent still didn’t know what a blog was but this figure should dive in the coming years.