Australia’s mainstream media have become fixated on the looming federal election, with almost anything now likely to become “an issue” - anything, that is, except the media themselves. But this is nothing new both locally and globally. Why should organisations that rank among the most powerful corporations in the world engage in a critique of their own practices? And therein lies the problem. Media are quick to move in for the kill when “big business” is implicated in corruption, conveniently forgetting that they are themselves, big business.
It is one of the paradoxes of western democracy that the concept of media as “the fourth estate” - alongside and apart from the executive, the parliament and the judiciary - also separates media from their audiences. Apart from a few token blogs and highly mediated talkback radio or letters to the editor pages, mass media audiences have been effectively silenced when it comes to determining what they want from “their” media.
Of course, it is not “their media” at all. Commercial media is not about providing programs for expectant audiences - it is about delivering audiences as consumers to advertisers in easily digestible portions.
So what’s new? Plenty, actually, and it’s not all bad. But let’s start with the bad news.
The federal government’s recent relaxation of media ownership laws has raised barely a ripple of discontent across Australia’s mediascape. For many journalists, it seems, it’s just another story; another way of filling airtime or column centimetres.
The journalists’ union - the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance - is one of the few media organisations to attempt to raise awareness among members and supporters of the parlous state of Australia’s media policy environment.
The Alliance’s annual report on censorship and control of the Australian media highlights the speed with which the federal government moved to introduce draconian anti-terrorism laws and to re-enact 19th century sedition laws in an effort to toe the conservative line laid down by its international overlords, the United States and the United Kingdom. Restrictions on journalists’ reporting of anything that hints at the “T” word and secrecy around any intervention by Australia’s spying agencies has a chilling effect on the communication processes of a claimed “free” society.
The hypocrisy evident in federal government rhetoric on this aspect of the democratic process when compared to its actions is astounding. But where are the critics’ voices in the mainstream media?
The Howard Government argues that the decision to remove limits on foreign and cross-media ownership in Australia will be balanced by the myriad opportunities available through an expanding digital spectrum. The unanswered question is, of course: opportunities for whom? The representation of digital technologies as a panacea seems remarkably naïve, yet curiously similar to the euphoric hype which has accompanied virtually every technological innovation since Marconi’s invention of radio more than a century ago.
Another thing is constant: democratic principle remains subservient to commercial advantage. At the same time as the federal communication minister and her choir of disciples sings the praises of a diverse digital media future, the only truly independent television services in the country are being squeezed off the airwaves.
Community television began in Australia in the early 90s and has struggled in an uncertain policy regime ever since. And although a handful of stations around Australia now have limited licences, their audiences continue to dwindle because the stations all currently broadcast on the analogue spectrum. As Australians switch to digital set-top boxes and in-built digital tuners in their LCDs - albeit at a much slower rate than techno-boosters have predicted - community TV is being left languishing.
A parliamentary committee set up to explore community broadcasting in Australia in 2006 made an urgent recommendation in March this year for federal government funds to be set aside to enable community television to migrate to the digital spectrum. At the time of writing there had been no formal federal government response.
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