In defence of independent media

The Conversation

The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald have maintained editorial independence since the foundation of the newspapers. It is an important principle of all great newspapers, but it is a principle that will almost certainly be snuffed out this week.

Gina Rinehart is expected to take control of the paper almost immediately. A spokesman for her has already said that the board should establish an appropriate direction for editorial policy. What can we expect? Opposition to the Emissions Trading Scheme, which is already law. Opposition to the Minerals Resource Rent Tax, which is already law. Policies that will support unbridled profits of great mining enterprises, perhaps polices not far short of those supported by the Tea Party and the Republican right in the United States. If this comes to pass, Australia will be effectively without independent print media.

Governments could not have stopped the failure of The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald in their old form, because management has made serious mistakes. Instead of running the enterprises as one, they thought they could establish separate enterprises, one for the print media and one for the internet, or new media. This led to lack of strength on both counts and loss of advertisers, loss of support. These mistakes are directly attributable to incompetent board management.

Does it matter who owns our newspapers? Does it matter who controls the media? In far off days, which I am old enough to remember, Prime Minister Bob Menzies went into the federal parliament to prevent a British company buying four radio stations. He said it was wrong for people who do not belong to the country to own such a powerful instrument for propaganda.

The new owner of The Age certainly belongs to this country, but the principle Menzies enunciated carried with it further implications. Media should not be under the direct control of special interest groups whether they belong to this country or to other countries. That is why we need diversity of media ownership. That is why I stood on the back of a truck with Gough Whitlam overlooking Fitzroy Gardens long years ago, to try and prevent the Fairfax empire falling into foreign hands. A foreign owner has interests that are not ours. A mining magnate has specific industry interests that are not necessary those of Australia.

To say that it does not matter is to deny responsibility. What are governments to do? At the very least they could have preserved rules that would maintain diversity of media ownership. Those who own television stations should not own the print media. There should be a limit on the number of stations that any one person or corporation can own.

The economic rationalists might say that this will lead to inefficiencies. They are only concerned with the economic bottom line. A democracy is concerned with much more than that. A dictatorship could be more efficient than a democracy on that basis. You don’t need to pay all the politicians. Freedom and diversity have a cost. The economic bottom line does not always determine the best outcome. If it did, we would have no opera, no ballet, the arts would atrophy. The poor would be further impoverished.

For some time, Australian governments seem to have suggested that it does not matter who owns the print media, or for that matter television, perhaps a more powerful instrument for propaganda.

On many things, the political parties are at odds with the interests of Australians and with the views of many many people in Australia.

What can we look forward to? In present circumstances the print media espouses the most conservative economic policies. Policies that will enhance the obscene wealth of those who are ready extraordinarily wealthy, that will probably bind us even more tightly as a client state of the United States. No competition, no diversity, making it harder for people to make up their own mind, because people will not be given the choices as they were once given the choices. So much for Australia’s print media.

How much can new media, social media, the internet, Facebook or Twitter, The Conversation or advanced schools of journalism make up for these deficiencies? Certainly the internet makes it possible for people to read half a dozen papers each morning, or more, including journals that maintain high standards, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, the Financial Times or those with another language, French or German papers. Here we can find diversity. It is more and more readily available, it will certainly mitigate the coming lack of competition that will be evident in the Australian print media.

The Conversation and Crikey are probably Australia’s best efforts so far at overcoming the deficiencies, the narrowness of ownership and policy of the print media. Foxtel, although expensive, enables a great variety of news services and of commentaries to be readily available to Australians.

Two things are responsible for the destruction of Fairfax. Incompetent board management that has not understood the business it was running, together with governments that believe that ownership of powerful instruments for propaganda is of no account.

There are many countries that maintain nationality provisions for the ownership and control of important media within their borders.

There are no supporters however, for such policies amongst Australia’s current politicians. That may not matter if other forms of media can come to have greater and greater influence – but if politicians still believe the print media has a significant influence on policy and opinion, then we will be seeing policies sold to the highest bidder.

I was speaking to a couple of Americans from Los Angeles only two weeks ago. They told me that they feared their Presidential election would be bought by the candidate with the most money. Democracy for sale. We have not progressed quite as far as America, but we won’t be far behind.

Malcolm Fraser was Prime Minister of Australia from 1975-1983. He reads The Age on his iPad.

This article first appeared on The Conversation. Republished with permission.

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Look at all the right wingers attack the man, not the ball! (In defence of independent media, June 19).
Fraser has presented pretty much what most thinking folk believe to be true - access to information is important, especially via the written word, where analysis and argument can be more effectively communicated than via audio and video.
So, it is entirely reasonable to be apprehensive about the unfolding move towards a single voice (Murdoch's) and a few echos (Gina, Bolt and Plimer, to name 3).
We seem to be in for a rough ride for the next few years, until (I hope) better structures emerge on the Web for disseminating facts, opinion and analysis, which are the primary three legs of the information revolution.
At present, on-line information appears to me to consist of many opinions, few and disconnected facts and very little analysis. Here's hoping that the balance is improved before dead tree news disappears entirely, as it appears bound to do.
Why doesn't the Federal Government establish a public broadcaster that promotes this diversity? Oh, whoops, they already do (In defence of independent media, June 19). Nothing to see here, move along!
It strikes me as strange that a former prime minister overlooks a simplest real life fact: someone has to determine/control the contents (In defence of independent media, June 19).
Who can say that "an independent editor" would be less inclined to push their ideological agenda than the owner?
So, what is the difference, Malcolm?
I agree with Mr Fraser about the incompetence of the Fairfax Board and management – they were well placed to lead the digital age and are now very belatedly trying to catch-up (In defence of independent media, June 19).
However, The Age (the one I used to read) not only suffered from digital reader inroads, but forgot that the reader is its market. It gave up diversity of views to become a trendy and often self-righteously sneering propaganda sheet for the left. That is of course its right, but it lost a lot of readers like me who used to rely on it for a range of perspectives. That is the market talking.
I now read The Australian – I disagree with many articles but at least I get a wide variety of views.
And if I were an Age reader, I would welcome someone with money that would help keep it going, even if she wants to make it more commercially viable by attracting back readers like me.
Mr Fraser, are you advocating some form of control of media that attacks existing laws? (In defence of independent media, June 19.)
Under our system of government, paying the admission price of majority of equity allows the owner editorial freedom.
If readers do not agree they may say so, including by not purchasing the media output. Don't lose faith in the system.
Malcolm, another reason for the failure since the board doesn't control content, is that Australians are turning away from the Age and Sydney Morning Herald, and maybe that has to do with content or the physical size of the actual paper they are printed on (In defence of independent media, June 19).
If the people are speaking with their feet, who are you to demand that the status quo must be maintained, that Australians are dumb and can't determine that one journalist is from the right and another is from the left. And just why does left leaning journalism have some extra right to exist, we probably wouldn't be commenting if Gina was after the Murdoch press. Journalists of all persuasions only have the rights endoured by the people, and that is, the people, buy what is being printed and said, because they the are intelligent and and can decide good from evil, so give us that right, not legislate for what politicians like, as those within the Greens or Labor would have us beleive. Let's not fear the very fear itself.
I agree with Y. Volpert and add that yesterdays standards were applied to a media (print) which was the ONLY source of news that had depth. Sure we had wireless, howver we did not have the diversity taht we have today. Social media twitter, facebook and all the independent electronioc media provides and provokes tremendously the range of thought and intellect, much more than that of the print media alone.
Malcolm, we must embrace provocetive thought and independence if we are to have a mentally healthy and well informed society, and this I believe, is best achieved by having as many different types of media presenting as many differentview points as possible and this means not just mandating every publication's content as if the Governm,ent was the school master and the readership the pupils. The Government has its chance through its owned media to present what slant (and it does) through the "independent journalists it selects for employment without spreading their control any further.
We grown ups are capable of deciding what we want to read, it is called democracy.
Cheer up Malcolm! The ABC will still be around to offer (tax payer funded) left wing progaganda (In defence of independent media, June 19).
Malcolm, part of the problem you claim to identify is that governments of all persuasions make sweetheart deals with the press so why can they get virtuous now (In defence of independent media, June 19).
Alan Kohler pointed out recently that when he was an editor, Conrad Black was his owner (In defence of independent media, June 19). Black came and went and Fairfax is Australian owned again. Soon it will be owned by the Receiver. Everything changes - even Murdoch will change. Get used to it.
The Age and SMH lost readers due to its left leaning content, end of story. Trying to prop it up as it is pure folly. (In defence of independent media, June 19.)
The era of journalism, may have ended, its sad. However the internet allows people to access information, as they need it. It could be the destruction, of language skills. That's certainly one way to control society (In defence of independent media, June 19).
Lost Pants Man, you should be ashamed of writing such gibberish. There is plenty of diversity in this country (In defence of independent media, June 19). There's left of centre from the ABC, slightly left of centre from Fairfax and slightly right of centre from The Australian, although the Oz also gives a more diversified view with its commentary page publishing numerous articles from Labor politicians (e.g. Swan and Emerson). The wankers that attack the Oz always forget that it recommended voting for Labor in 2007.
Why is a media outlet independent when the editorial slant is obviously left, and not independent otherwise? (In defence of independent media, June 20.)
The reason Fairfax is such a basket case is because the editorial is not objective, largely biased to the inner city left and generally unreadable. It is precisely their editorial style that is the problem.
Would Malcolm have a problem if Therese Rein owned a percentage of the company?
Very interesting article. And as usual deep thinking and probity by our former PM (In defence of independent media, June 20).
Thank you.
We in this country continue to be fed with what Murdoch chooses and decides we ought to be fed.
I believe this country has been unbelievably "controlled" by Rupert. He has kept out/stamped out free thinking for years. In so doing Murdoch has:
1. controlled us;
2. kept the level of reading and understanding and probity at a lower level across average populations;
3. dumbed us down;
4. subtly and slyly controlled free thinking and played a big part in electing governments;
5. given us "average" journalism. An excuse to sell advertising space.
I picked it soon after arriving here in S. Australia in the late 80s. We have played into his business model. The cost of press advertising for example is phenomenal. He has tacitly gone along with many, many things. As long as it brought in his return.
Well said, former PM.
I agree with you Mr Fraser (In defence of independent media, June 20).Gina Rinehart's tekeover of Fairfax is not an investment in that company to make it profitable but a blatant grab at a very large piece of Australia's independent media to gain influence to advance her mining interests. This would be to the detriment of Australias democracy and free speech.
Malcolm, you should perhaps get a ladder if the grapes are too high (In defence of independent media, June 20).
Malcolm. I'm approaching 60 years old and my father still thinks I don't know how to think for myself (In defence of independent media, June 19). Your fatherly concern is overbearing and boorish.
This is yet another reason why we would be better off with non-partisan government (In defence of independent media, June 23).