Democracy under threat

According to the Sydney Morning Herald (link via Tim Blair), Communications Minister Richard Alston is on the verge of clinching a deal with the 4 Independent Senators which would see the effective abolition of Australia’s current foreign and cross-media ownership laws, albeit with some minor concessions to the Independents which sound on their face to be almost meaningless. Here’s a link to a Parliamentary Library rundown on Australia’s current media ownership laws.

If it’s really true that Alston is close to clinching a deal in the Senate, it’s no exaggeration to say that this represents a devastating blow to the future of democracy in this country. Scrapping of the existing rules would almost certainly mean that all electronic and print media would rapidly become completely dominated by just 2 major players: Packer and Murdoch. Fairfax would certainly cease to exist in any meaningful form, as would any other media group of any significant size. As Murpack already dominates cable TV, the implications should be obvious.

Given that Kerry Packer is already living on borrowed time with a dicky heart, while Murdoch is in his seventies and can’t live forever, it’s highly likely that the overwhelming majority of Australian media will fall into foreign hands in the reasonably foreseeable future. Jamie Packer does a convincing imitation of the village idiot. He’s almost bound to do a “young Warwick Fairfax” at some stage and bet the farm on some hare-brained scheme, or give it all away to Ron Hubbard and the Scientologists.

Not even the US, home of rabid neo-liberalism, has gone anywhere near as far as Alston’s plan to deregulate media ownership almost completely. They retain foreign ownership rules, which is why Rupert Murdoch had to take out American citizenship before he could buy Fox. Moreover, while they’ve just relaxed cross-media ownership rules to an extent, a single owner can still only achieve audience reach of 45% of the American population.

Alston’s plan is a crazy and frightening prospect. Australian Internet news will also necessarily be dominated by Murpack. Any argument that bloggers or independent Internet-based news sources can somehow provide diversity of news and current affairs coverage is either wishful thinking or deliberately misleading propaganda. The cost of media technology and the ability of large media proprietors to achieve economies of scale by leveraging content across a wide range of media formats mean that this is an industry with huge entry barriers and therefore extremely susceptible to monopoly (or duopoly) control.

In this context, the ongoing campaign to abolish or “gut” the ABC by the Tories and their pundit and blogosphere apologists takes on a particularly sinister tone. This situation exposes the neo-liberal “invisible hand” of the market mantra for the pernicious nonsense it is. Does anyone seriously think that an Australia where citizens’ ability to exercise democratic freedom of speech is totally controlled by 2 billionaires (or even worse by 2 foreign mega-corporations) is in the public interest? Australia would then have just about the greatest concentration of media ownership of any western democracy except Italy, where Silvio Berlusconi owns just about everything and overtly runs the joint as well (see OpenDemocracy for lots of articles on these issues). Australia would then have ceased to be a liberal democracy in any meaningful sense. I wonder when the lefties are going to wake up and start focusing on this vital issue instead of carrying on with an interminable and largely pointless carping monologue about Iraq and WMD.

Just to pre-empt the inevitable rightie response, this should not be seen as a left-right issue. Freedom of speech and diversity of viewpoint are core liberal-democratic values irrespective of one’s views on social democracy versus “market forces”. Even Hayek didn’t argue that regulation is never justified. It’s only some of his less thoughtful neo-disciples who take that approach.

Update – Tim Dunlop’s on the case as well. He has contact details for the 4 Independent Senators, so you can write to them and protest/lobby. Wake up! Do it! This is bloody important, for crying out loud.

Update 2 – Gary Sauer-Thompson thinks I’m over-reacting. I think he’s missing the point, as I argue in his comment box. Gary places his faith in an article by Michelle Grattan in today’s Age newspaper. He especially emphasises a supposed safeguard whereby there would be “a prohibition on owning a TV licence, a radio licence and a newspaper in one market.” However, unless there’s more to it than Grattan explains, that would do nothing to stop Packer buying Fairfax and Murdoch buying the Seven Network, thereby both controlling a newspaper and TV station (though not a radio station) in each capital city. Of course, Packer would only have newspapers in Sydney and Melbourne to start with, although there’d be nothing to prevent him from muscling into other markets as well (and Murdoch probably wouldn’t try to stop him as long as they could carve it up between themselves). If that isn’t a duopoly I don’t know what you’d call it.

Update 3 – The comments on Tim Blair’s blog are also worth reading on this issue. One particularly incisive one was from “Mork”, who stressed the importance of decent anti-trust laws (Australia’s are nowhere near as strong as US equivalents). He also pointed out (as did Michael Jennings) that there’s no technological (spectrum) reason why several additional free-to-air TV licences couldn’t be issued. The only plausible reason that hasn’t happened is that it would displease Murpack, who already have disproportionate influence over the two major parties because they already enjoy something not all that far from duopolistic control. Some of my concerns about relaxing regulatory controls would be satisfied if there were more TV licences. As I’ve emphasised, my major concern is to ensure diversity of media voices through having several strong industry participants rather than just two.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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Rob Schaap
2022 years ago

Onya, Ken! As you say this is an easy one for any democrat. Let e-mails from Ozplogistan fall on these Senators like rain!

Gary Sauer-Thompson
2022 years ago

Ken
I suggest you read Michelle Grattan’s commentary piece in today’s Age.

bailz
bailz
2022 years ago

Alston should stop worrying about this shit, and actually do something about why Australians are getting raped over broadband.

Robert
2022 years ago

I’d suggest focussing any campaign on Meg Lees; apparently she is wavering.

Homer Paxton
Homer Paxton
2022 years ago

Anyone who has even studied high school economics will tell you an oligoply is the WORST outcome you can get.

Ironically a monopoly would be far better because, let us say Murduch.R., would be forced to have a variety of opinion much like a monopoly brewer has differentiated beer to maximise profits.

Ron Mead
Ron Mead
2022 years ago

“Even Hayek didn’t argue that regulation is never justified. It’s only some of his less thoughtful neo-disciples who take that approach.”

Ken, if I wasn’t such an insensitive type, I’d be tempted to believe you were having a shot a me (among others of course) in that sentence.

What a strawman argument this is! Of course Hayek didn’t argue that. In fact regulation in electronic media was essential to ensure that only one user could use a particular broadcast band at any time in any given location. Broadcast bands were a very scarce resource. With technological advances these sorts of physical regulations have become far less necessary, and the regulations currently in place serve only as an act of censorship, preventing the free use of resources that have become much more plentiful with advances in technology.

Newspapers (alone) are not subject to anything like the control exercised over the electronic media. Packer for example could own all of the print media in the country if he were interested and the present owners were willing to sell at his price. It’s only the restrictions placed on electronic licences that prevent him doing so. Newspapers have never been subject to this restrictive control in the same way as electronic media because printing presses have not been a scarce resource for some centuries. Electronic media is rapidly approaching the same level of lack of scarcity, so the restrictions are nothing but a limitation on competition.

This government has used the present regulations to favour the investments of the present holders of free-to-air TV licences by prohibiting broadcasting on the internet. This is the true scandal. Technology is fast rendering these licences commercially obsolete and its only improper government regulation that protects them from competition. It is commercial censorship.

Ron Mead
Ron Mead
2022 years ago

Homer, I understand that oligopolies are departures from pure competition, but my understanding is that the latter is quite rare in any capitalist economy. I’ve seen a number of discussions on the characteristics of oligopolies but haven’t yet come across a serious text maintaining they are the worst possible outcome, even worse than monopolies.

In fact oligopolies can provide intense competition to the benefit of consumers. Most major industries in Australia are oligopolistic, and this often leads to better outcomes re economies of scale and thus cheaper goods and services than the extremes of fragmentation in conditions of pure competition on the one hand, and the outright disregard of consumers’ interests exhibited by monopolies.

Geoff Honnor
Geoff Honnor
2022 years ago

But….Ken.If the future of democracy in this country is dependent on preventing Murdoch and Packer from owning papers and TV in metropolitan consanguinity – or some future Indian or Thai media mogul from so doing – then God bloody help us. And let’s not be in any doubt that the debate about this legislation – whatever it’s in-principle aspiration – is pretty much going to be – inevitably – about Messrs Murdoch and Packer. As indeed was Keating’s motivation for going there in the first place.

But….how is it that plucky little fascist-hegemon defying NZ has it’s entire non-public media in the hands of capitalist foreign devils and yet still manages to be trumpeted as the harbinger of a free-thinking internationalist independence? Where do they get these “let’s be different” notions from? Murdoch, Packer, Fairfax, Tony O’Reilly and Conrad Black have the place sewn up between them.

Media control has been a controversial, doom prediction-laden soup of contention since the first Gutenberg Bible was delicately lifted from the press, but legislation has ultimately never prevented the basic human drive to find out out, analyse, disagree and contend, from going there.

I think the whole picture around how information is gathered distributed, understood, interpreted and ultimately utilised is in a huge state of change; and that too has been pretty much the consistent picture since the 16th century.

I don’t think that the current legislation guarantees anything other than the warm glow of an ideologically-correct “feel-good” tokenism.

Ron Mead
Ron Mead
2022 years ago

Once again Geoff has been able to express the real situation far better than I could. Right on, Geoff.

Niall
Niall
2022 years ago

And after all the outcries, the real answer to the problem is…..what? Vote the bastards out? then what?

Michael Jennings
2022 years ago

I don’t have any huge problem with foreign ownership of at least some of the media. The problem in Australia is the stunning lack of diversity of ownership. I’m not against the abolition of foreign media ownership rules in principle, although in this case they would lead to an increase in diversity as Rupert Murdoch would probably increase his holdings in Australia. However, the foreign ownership restrictions were used a few years ago to allow Kerry Packer to tell Conrad Black to go and get stuffed. I think this was a very bad thing, as Black’s presence increased the number of media owners in Australia from two to three, which was an improvement.

Ron Mead
Ron Mead
2022 years ago

Everybody seems to be leaving the ABC out of the number of media owners. The owners are of course the staff of the ABC. Proprietorial influence is much greater in this empire than in either the Murdoch or Packer empires.

Jason Soon
Jason Soon
2022 years ago

If only one of those regulations were abolished while the other was not *then* it would be a real disaster and quite contrary to liberal principles as it would promote favourtism. Imagine if only cross media ownership rules were abolished. Kerry Packer would own everything, he would face no competition in bidding from foreign moguls. In any case I’d rather foreign ownership rules were abolished than cross media rules. As a general rule foreign proprietors have less of an interest in domestic politics – does Murdoch invalidate my rule? Not at all, look at how he caved in to China’s regime and look at how he cozies up to Blair – foreign moguls are primarily interested in advancing the politicans who advance their *commercial* interests, not in promoting their personal ideologies. Remember in the end both Packer and Murdoch are after the money. If their programming is crass, populist-conservative, etc that’s because much as you might wish it weren’t so, that’s how most of middle Australia is like.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Jason,

I agree. If I had to choose between relaxing foreign ownership and cross-media rules, I’d choose foreign ownership for exactly the reasons you suggest. I think diversity of media voices is much more important than maintaining exclusively Australian control. The reason I strongly oppose the current proposal is that it would inevitably result in further media ownership concentration, with Packer probably buying Fairfax and Murdoch Channel 7.

Relaxing foreign ownership rules while maintaining cross-media rules might actually strengthen diversity, in that strong foreign owners (e.g. Conrad Black; Tony O’Reilly) could turn Fairfax and the Seven network respectively into more formidable competitors for Murpack.

Ron Mead
Ron Mead
2022 years ago

“Relaxing foreign ownership rules while maintaining cross-media rules might actually strengthen diversity”

Then again it might not. This is just the sort of unpredictable mess that regulators get into when they tamper with the market. Why should we have to choose between cross media restrictions and foreign ownership restrictions. They are both as irrational as each other.

Geoff Honnor
Geoff Honnor
2022 years ago

So – personalities are the issue? Not principle?

Geoff Honnor
Geoff Honnor
2022 years ago

“If their programming is crass,populist-conservative, etc that’s because much as you might wish it weren’t so, that’s how most of middle Australia is like.”

And Jason, how do “foreign owners” – other than former Australian citizens of course – ameliorate this regrettable state of affairs?

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Geoff,

I thought I’d expressed myself quite clearly, but obviously not. Diversity of ownership is the issue. I would oppose further concentration into the hands of effectively just 2 owners irrespective of who they were. Surely that isn’t too difficult to understand.

As for Ron’s comment, while you couldn’t guarantee that relaxing foreign ownership rules while manintaning cross-media rules would necessarily strengthen diversity of ownership, you COULD guarantee that it wouldn’t make things worse in those terms. On the other hand, abolishing both sets of rules would more probably than not DIMINISH diversity. Unless you see deregulation as a religious issue to be adhered to as a matter of faith irrespective of its probable results (or see sucking up to Murpack as in your immediate political interest irrespective of any long-term principle), abolishing both sets of rules just doesn’t make sense.

wbb
wbb
2022 years ago

Geoff asks why democracy is imperilled by concentration of media ownership. If he doesn’t understand this then there is no point having a discussion. That is the whole and only point. The foreigner aspect is a diversion. If one bloke gets to decide what the public gets to know then the public may as well put their voting cards in the recycle bin. The bloke owning the presses is soon going to have some powerful and generous friends and the journalists are going to have a lot less to write about. Does Geoff imagine voters are informed about the issues through the ether?

wbb
wbb
2022 years ago

.. and Geoff even proves the diversity is good point with the eg of dissident NZ which has says has 5 owners. A distinct competitive advantage in the race for democracy compared with Australia’s grand total of three.

mark
2022 years ago

“This is just the sort of unpredictable mess that regulators get into when they tamper with the market.”

Do you honestly believe that the magical market will provide for diversity in the media?

Scott Wickstein
2022 years ago

Why would Kerry Packer buy Fairfax? Their historic ‘rivers of gold’ are not running quite so fluidly as of old, and what makes everyone think that Little Kerry is just dying to sell out to Rupert?

There’s too many assumptions here.

Another assumption is that media owners can affect how people vote. Can someone please supply evidence in support of this proposition? I don’t see how this endangers ‘democracy’. I certainly would need a bit more persuading that this endangers our ‘liberal democracy’ – in so far as we are a liberal democracy at all. Will I lose any rights? Oh, sorry, I don’t actually have that many to start with…. but seriously- what right will I lose if Kerry Murfax dominates Australia’s media.

As usual, Bailz is on the money.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Scott,

Everything is for sale at a price. Murdoch would almost certainly want the Seven Network, because it fits neatly with his existing cable interests and he could leverage existing worldwide programming from Fox etc at minimal cost. Accordingly he can afford to pay a premium for the network, because he can probably make bigger profits out of it than anyone else. I agree Packer is somewhat less certain to buy Fairfax and there may conceivably be another buyer (e.g. Black or O’Reilly), which would be good. However, as with Murdoch, Packer is in the best position to maximise profit from Fairfax, because he already has a national media infrastructure and can pump content into Fairfax at a lower cost than anyone else (while culling the existing Fairfax journalistic staff to save money).

The push to abolish cross-media restrictions is not occurring in a vacuum; it’s happening because Murpack have been lobbying for it aggressively for years. They haven’t been doing it for fun. They intend enhancing their existing duopoly position by growing and achieving better “horizontal and vertical integration” (ie complete dominance). I frankly don’t understand how you could imagine otherwise.

Your apparent questioning of whether media shapes public opinion anyway is even more difficult to credit. William Burroughs’ Babboon summed it up when he said “Does Geoff imagine voters are informed about the issues through the ether?” Media proprietors can exercise significant influence over how people vote simply by controlling what news is presented and how it’s portrayed. You form your political perceptions from the information you have, and if that information is slanted to favour the interests of 2 mega-tycoons that’s a major worry.

If you think people’s perceptions are not shaped by what they see, hear and read in the media, why do you reckon corporations (and governments) spend billions on advertising? I suggest the recent Iraq war and the differences between US, UK and Australian public attitudes provide quite a graphic example of the power of media in shaping public opinion. Americans were vastly more pro-war than either British or Australians; a high proportion of Americans believed Saddam was responsible for 9/11 and/or unquestionably associated with Al Qaeda etc etc. Although there were no doubt other factors at play (e.g. the impact of 9/11 itself), this was in large measure because the US media (even the NY Times) was in general much more supportive of Bush and much less critical than either the Australian or British media. Media proprietors seem to have seen it as their patriotic duty not to be too critical or probing of the Administration in wartime (even though it was a self-determined war).

I must say I find it quite astounding that intelligent, thoughtful people like Scott, Geoff and Ron Mead could be so complacently sanguine about the prospect of media duopoly. It really is a major threat to democratic freedoms and we should all be fighting it.

Geoff Honnor
Geoff Honnor
2022 years ago

“Geoff asks why democracy is imperilled by concentration of media ownership. If he doesn’t understand this then there is no point having a discussion. That is the whole and only point. The foreigner aspect is a diversion. If one bloke gets to decide what the public gets to know then the public may as well put their voting cards in the recycle bin. The bloke owning the presses is soon going to have some powerful and generous friends and the journalists are going to have a lot less to write about. Does Geoff imagine voters are informed about the issues through the ether?
Posted by wbb at June 21, 2003 11:41 PM”

No he doesn’t imagine that voters are informed about the issues through the ether. He does have a fairly clear perspective on how this issue has shaped in the past and about the enormous cultural and infrastructural changes that are – and will continue to be – shaping it in the future.

Yobbo
Yobbo
2022 years ago

I agree with Scott.

Us poor WA types have been suffering under the tyrannical monopoly of WANEWS for nearly 20 years, and we aren’t showing any signs of turning into slobbering Packer lap-dogs. We even have a Labor government!

For 30 years WA farmers survived in an environment where the only channel they could receive was the ABC, and they still voted for Wilson Tuckey! How on earth did they know to do that?

Go ahead and sack Alston in any case. He’s a moron.

Scott Wickstein
2022 years ago

And another example of the powerless nature of the media was the republican debate in 1999. Rupert Murdoch was pumping for a yes vote, as was the ABC and Fairfax (the ‘Fin’ excepted) and despite all this media clout, the people gave a resounding ‘no’ vote.

There’s ‘anti-trust’ issues about media consolidation, and to me that is probably a bigger concern about Murdoch, in particular, then the impact on ‘democracy’, in my opinion.

Geoff Honnor
Geoff Honnor
2022 years ago

The notion that there’s a direct causative link between media ownership laws and a broad diversity of media political opinion, is quite simply, unproven – and is, what’s more, unprovable.

I accept that many people engage with the topic from a position of solid theoretical principle but I’m also aware that much of the heat in this debate is driven by a political partisanship that perceives far too many people holding the ‘wrong” opinions – and seeks to change them. Far from seeking a thousand different points of political light, the aim is to snuff the offensive ones out – or at least reduce the candle power.

trackback
2022 years ago

The Republic of Murpack

To me, here on the other side of the world, this has come as something of a surprise, though it…

trackback
2022 years ago

Media Ownership: shooting from the hip

I read this by Ken Parish. Ken is an irritable mood these days. He says: “I wonder when the lefties

trackback
2022 years ago

cross-media ownership restrictions

This judgement by Eric Beecher from Text Media is a good one. He says that: “The curtain is coming down