A healthy democracy features a robust and diverse media. Australia is not that country, with close to 70% of newspapers owned by Rupert Murdoch.
John Howard’s proposed “reforms” to foreign media ownership and regulation are, despite rhetoric suggesting otherwise, destined to lead to even further consolidation of the major players.
Independent e-newsletter Crikey explains the inherent dangers:
Removing or weakening the cross-media rules is based on a myth about the current state of the media. The government’s main rationale for introducing the new laws is that “new media” is rapidly assuming dominance over “old media”, thus making cross-media regulation redundant. We would argue strongly that this is not the case. Firstly, the old media still totally dominate the flow of serious information in Australia. The arrival of websites and blogs may have added more numeric voices to the debate, but they are minute blips on the information radar compared to the societal and political influence that is wielded by newspapers or talk radio. Moreover, as a statement of fact, the biggest news and current affairs sites on the internet are overwhelmingly owned by the old media companies.
Removing or weakening the cross-media rules will result in fewer journalists and diminished journalism. The new laws are constructed for industry consolidation, which is likely to result in acquisitions by existing media owners of existing Australian media assets. Based on previous experience in the media industry, this is likely to be a highly competitive process, resulting in high prices being paid for perhaps the last opportunity to acquire valuable strategic assets. To justify the prices paid, buyers are likely to be forced to cut costs and, inevitably, journalism will be impacted by such a cost reduction process. Which raises a crucial question: is journalism simply another product in the marketplace, or does it have a direct connection to the quality of the public debate? And if it does, how can a government justify laws which treat it just like any other consumer commodity? If good journalism is vital for a functioning democracy, and there are identifiable threats to the viability of quality journalism in Australia at its current levels, is it the role of the federal government to introduce laws that are likely to accelerate that trend?
Suffice to say, most of the mainstream media have remained mute during this vital debate.