While the government went to Christmas chuffed with its strongest policy charge since John Howard gained office, one long-standing Liberal policy that has failed to make it to the Senate thus far is the abolishment of cross-media laws.
Despite rumours Communications Minister Senator Helen Coonan wanted them passed by Christmas, the government’s media reform plans were announced and then altered this year, yet failed to materialise in the legislation rush of the last month. But, make no mistake about it. No one doubts they’ll breeze through next year - judging by how quickly and easily the other long-standing Liberal policies passed the Senate.
The cross-media debate extends back to the Hawke Government. Discourse around the issue of diversity and the public interest, however, goes back to the days of radio’s development in Australia - with the Broadcasting Act 1942 enshrining “the general interests of the community” as one reason for radio regulation. As new media forms were introduced, new laws - such as the “two-station” rule for television licences - came into effect and reinforced the special obligation media owners have towards the “public interest”. In the 1980s, under Communications Minister Michael Duffy, the current cross-media restrictions were introduced. The debate surrounding them has raged ever since.
The arguments have been well canvassed for many years and are addressed by a recent ABC media report. Generally, they go along the lines of economic benefits for scrapping the laws versus the need to maintain diversity. One of the key arguments against the laws - and the issue I choose to develop here - is the claim traditional media forms (print, radio and television) are no longer as influential because new media technologies allow people to gather their information elsewhere. The Internet is the obvious one, but pay television and emerging mobile technologies are further examples.
This argument has been the key weapon of those who’d like to scrap the cross-media legislation. They contend the great fear espoused by the status quo activists is a loss of journalistic integrity, as fewer owners dictate content. It sounds good on paper. After all, newspaper circulation has been declining and the popularity of Internet news sites, blogs and other information sources has risen to become a significant force in the media landscape. Closer examination, however, reveals that while alternative information sources have huge potential, they are insufficient in Australia to be used as the key justification for scrapping cross-media laws.
There’s no denying the increasing importance of the Internet as a news information source. The last time the cross-media changes went before the Senate, in 2003, AC Nielson reported 1.4 million Australians visited a news website in the week leading up to the Iraq war. This figure has probably increased in the subsequent three years, but as Swinburne University lecturer Trish Bolton recently pointed out in The Age, “Most of us who go online to access news do not travel far. Hit rates for News Ltd, Fairfax and ninemsn far outnumber [other] online alternatives.”
There are a plethora of blogs and independent news sources are out there, but their significance as primary news sources pales in comparison to the online news sites providing mostly the same content as more traditional media. It’s not hard to imagine why. The average blogger or indymedia producer doesn’t have the access or resources of the mass media to break stories, or to report them as thoroughly. I’ve worked on community radio’s national radio current affairs program, The Wire, and have seen how reluctant key political figures are to talk to the show, even though it reaches audiences across the country over the CBAA’s satellite.
Why on earth they’d talk to alternative news producers on the Internet - where audiences are more dubious - is beyond me. Though you would think that if an alternative news source did have the capacity to compete with the mass media, the government would actively encourage them. Hence, it was most puzzling when Crikey! was shut out of the budget lock-up this year. Despite being a new player able to compete on political issues, it was hampered from being a budget news source this year. This calls into question the government’s seriousness about the new technologies argument.
For opinion and analysis, the Internet is more fertile. The demise of Margo Kingston’s Webdiary recently, however, is a worrying presage about the viability of alternative news sources - especially seeing it encouraged a form of audience participation unseen before in Australian media. Its demise evokes Eve Vincent’s (On Line Opinion) claim of an “endemic reluctance” for business to back independent media initiatives in Australia. While Kingston has bowed out, the argument that blogs and opinion sites have the potential to act as news sources - and even create news - can still be made. (The news story of how conservative bloggers exposed American newsman Dan Rather’s documents on George W. Bush’s military service as forgeries is a good example.)
No such event has happened in Australia, yet. Presently, blogs and alternative media sources don’t have the access to provide adequate news services. Nor do they have the audience size to be considered an alternative to the existing mass media. Yet these sources constitute the bulk of what the government claims are eroding the dominance and influence of the traditional media.
To suggest that new wireless services or pay television provide greater diversity is a joke. The majority of third-generation mobile content is entertainment rather than news - with the exception being updates from Sky News. Sky News is owned by Murdoch, Packer and Stokes. You’d be hard pressed to argue a broadening of diversity there. The same goes for Foxtel. These services provide a proliferation of news services, but not of editorial diversity and really can’t be held as reasons to scrap the laws.
Certainly the Internet offers the best chance for alternative media to develop into a real force in news in current affairs in Australia. A true alternative to content controlled by a handful of proprietors and owners will surely emerge down the track. However, as of the end of 2005, the alternative media in Australia is not sufficiently well developed to justify scrapping cross-media laws in 2006.