Mr Denmore on journalism as a public good (and Rupert Murdoch as Satan)

Government regulation of the media acts like a public subsidy, argues Mr Denmore. It makes it difficult for new players to get a foothold and "encourages monopolistic behaviour that circumvents reasoned debate." So what is to be done?

One possibility is to hope a white knight buys into the market. Mr Denmore suggests Eric Beecher could make a bid for Fairfax’s radio stations. But:

… if there really is no possibility of a media that is both commercial and responsible, perhaps we should be looking at not-for-profit ventures like US investigative journalism venture ProPublica that serves the public good by employing the traditional journalistic values of accuracy, balance, context, fairness and publicly spirited inquiry. That, after all, is what a properly functioning democracy demands from the media.

Irrespective of the commercial ambitions of media proprietors, the journalism they fund plays a vital function in a democracy. And for that reason, it should be a public good in itself, like banks. People need and want reliable information from trusted intermediaries. If the government insists on regulating media ownership, it should ensure that licensees and owners meet certain public interest tests. The question is how do you enforce those without threatening press freedom. Alternatively, the government could get out of the way completely and let market forces prevail. But we saw what happened when banks were allowed to run amok.

Mr Denmore’s chief complaint is News Ltd’s dominance of the marketplace. In a comment at Larvatus Prodeo last year he argued that commentators like Dennis Shanahan, Piers Akerman, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and Janet Albrechtsen "are just paid glove puppets for the News agenda." He suggested that "the government should be doing what it can on the policy front to hurt Murdoch’s business interests" because hitting their hip pocket is the only thing News Ltd understands.

This entry was posted in Journalism. Bookmark the permalink.
Subscribe
Notify of
guest
24 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Andrew Norton
10 years ago

But newspapers, the key Murdoch outlets, are not regulated. I’d prefer the Murdoch press was less partisan – but don’t share the assumption of Mr Denmore that people just passively absorb and believe everything they read or hear in the media. And I certainly don’t favour the government deciding who should report the news or how they should do so.

Mr Denmore
Mr Denmore
10 years ago

My point is that governments already meddle in media markets by making barriers to entry so high and by allowing market dominance by not enforcing the principles of the Trade Practices Act. The biggest public policy failure in terms of media regulation was the Hawke government allowing Murdoch to take over the Herald and Weekly Times in 1985. Everything else flows from that.

Andrew Norton, I don’t believe everyone passively absorbs everything they read and hear from the media either. But as a liberal, you would have to agree that markets do not properly function under monopoly power. The market we have in media is an information market dominated by a single player.

So where else do people get information and on what basis do they make decisions?
Murdoch operates under a subsidy in the sense that governments are afraid of liberalising the market to encourage new players.

Andrew Norton
Andrew Norton
10 years ago

There are no government barriers to entry in print media. News Ltd does not have much control of electronic news media, nor obviously Fairfax, so we are way short of monopoly. There are too many tendentious stories in News Ltd papers, but they do generally publish contrary views – as do the more left-leaning media.

Lloyd
Lloyd
10 years ago

They may weell publish contrary views Andrew and give a platform to people like Philip Adams and a raft of ectremely good cultural critics but the relentless pummeling of Labor and the consistent editorial stance taken by The Australian, the Daily Telegraph, Sun Herald et al does little to instil confidence that they operate independently and don’t have a darker agenda.

Anyone who follows media in Australia can see the group think that emanates from the News Ltd stable. It’s at times so blatant it takes yourt breath away like the response to the last budget and the ‘Westpac joins carbon tax revolt’ debacle.

Mr Denmore
Mr Denmore
10 years ago

Andrew, there ARE government barriers to entry by virtue of the fact the federal government has not embraced its own trade practices act in allowing Murdoch to monopolise the capital city press markets.

My point is that good, basic journalism (reporting, not opinion) is a public utility. People need unbiased, accurate and fair reporting in order to make decisions. They can’t get that at the moment. It’s not something the market will fix.

Tel
Tel
10 years ago

People need unbiased, accurate and fair reporting in order to make decisions. They can’t get that at the moment.

Please describe one primary source of information that people should have access to but cannot get access to because Rupert Murdoch is hiding it from them.

Ken Parish
Admin
Ken Parish(@ken-parish)
10 years ago

“the federal government has not embraced its own trade practices act in allowing Murdoch to monopolise the capital city press markets.”

To the extent that this is a reference to the Herald and Weekly Times takeover (and comment #2 suggests it is), it’s worth pointing out that the TPC’s failure to oppose that takeover/merger was NOT a failure to embrace its own TPA but rather that the Act at the time (1985) employed a test of “market dominance” rather than “substantial lessening of competition” in a given market. The TPA was tightened to adopt the latter test in 1993, largely as a result of the Herald and Weekly Times experience.

Then ACCC boss Allan Fels explains in this document:

I would like to discuss the application of competition policy to the media. The Trade Practices Act now applies in full to the media whether it be TV, radio, newspapers, magazines etc. Moreover, the new merger test which prohibits mergers that are likely to have the effect of substantially lessening competition in a substantial market unless authorised has applied since 1993. One reason for changing the test was the recommendations of the House of Representatives Select Inquiry into the Print Media which recommended a change of the test. One matter often cited as a reason for the change of the test was the fact that the Trade Practices Commission did not oppose the Herald and Weekly Times takeover by News Limited. I believe that the application of the new test would have been likely to have affected that merger although there is room for more than one view on that subject. [ The Commission views the newspaper market as regional in character, that is consumers in any one State have a choice of local newspapers but not of interstate newspapers with some exceptions such as the Australian.

There would probably not at that time have been a problem under any test with News Ltd taking over the Herald newspaper in Victoria since this was merely replacing one competitor with a new one in the Victorian market. However in both South Australia and Queensland there might well have been a problem. At the time of the acquisition News Ltd owned The News in Adelaide and The Sun in Brisbane. Both these papers competed against the morning newspapers, The Adelaide Advertiser , Courier Mail and the Herald and Weekly Times. When News Ltd proposed to take over the two morning newspapers, the then Trade Practices Commission expressed the view that this acquisition would create a position of dominance in those two markets.

News Ltd was able to respond by selling off the two evening papers. It was able to argue successfully that given the existence of these two evening newspapers which it no longer owned that it could not be said to be dominant in those markets. If however the test had been a substantial lessening of competition it is possible there would have been objections under the Trade Practices Act to this solution. The reason was that on balance there would have been a lessening of competition. This was because News Ltd sold its newspapers to owners that were a far weaker competitive force in the market than either itself or the Herald and Weekly Times.

Mr Denmore
Mr Denmore
10 years ago

Tel, I didn’t say primary sources weren’t available. I said we need fair and balanced and accurate reporting. People don’t have time to read Hansard, for instance, to track what’s going on in federal parliament. They can’t attend every court case. They can’t read every ASX release. They can’t be in Afghanistan with Australian soliders or listen to submissions at government inquiries.

They form opinions based on what is in the news media. And the news media is overwhelmingly dominated by a single company whose standards of reporting are atrocious. That is bad for democracy.

Murdoch’s partisan newspapers often influence everything else, because the ABC ritually runs their chosen narrative, while commercial television and radio echo the right’s talking points.

We are now in a situation where as Chomsky said, a corporate media is manufacturing consent for its own ends. And no politician is brave enough to take them on.

Mr Denmore
Mr Denmore
10 years ago

Thanks Ken at 7 for the clarification. I remember that was section 51, the ‘substantial lessening of competition’. In any case, it was inadequate protection against market dominance in its original form and allowed Murdoch to control most of our metropolitan print media.

Andrew Norton
10 years ago

I’ve just been having a look at Sally Young’s How Australia Decides. According to her 2007 figures, the news media with the greatest reach are in this order: Local ABC radio, Herald-Sun, 60 Minutes, Seven News, Nine News, A Current Affair, Daily Telegraph, ABC tv news, SMH, 7.30 Report, Ten News, 4 Corners, Age, Courier-Mail, West Australian, 2GB, 3AW.

There is a long tail of shows/papers with a reach of less than 500,000.

The figures are national, so some are bigger relative to their local markets than this list suggests.

Mr Denmore’s claims of a Murdoch monopoly or even Murdoch domination are clearly an exaggeration; more people watch TV news than read tabloids.

Mr Denmore
Mr Denmore
10 years ago

Andrew Norton, television and radio follows the agenda set by print. That’s the way it has always been. And it is even more so now with television and radio news much thinned in recent years and their independent reporting capacity reduced.

If you read this parliamentary paper on media ownership in Australia, you’ll see that Murdoch (as of 2006) controlled 68 per cent of the capital city and national newspaper market; 77 per cent of the Sunday newspaper market; 62 per cent of the suburban newspaper market; and 18 per cent of the regional newspaper market.

He also has a half share of the national news agency AAP, which supplies copy to papers around the country. And he has significant interests in pay television through his share of Foxtel (which is in the process of becoming a monopoly provider through its takeover of Austar).

Of the list of organisations you provide, only the News Ltd and Fairfax papers are serious news breakers. The ABC tends to follow the papers and ABC local radio has very little, if any, journalistic resource.

Fairfax is in the process of culling its sub-editorial ranks, so its capacity for delivering quality product in the future must be seriously questioned.

If you had ever worked in television news, as I have, you would know that its diet is car crashes and crime stories. It relies on the foreign agencies for news outside the country and sticks rising stars in its London and LA offices to wrap together agency pictures and do standups in front of landmarks.

Australia has one of the most concentrated media markets in the world and the dominance of News Corporation is bad for our democracy.

murph the surf.
murph the surf.
10 years ago

“Australia has one of the most concentrated media markets in the world and the dominance of News Corporation is bad for our democracy”
Yes and this ties in neatly with your near constant refrain that voters are all idiots and motivated by nothing other than venal self interest.
But who is responsible – your idiots who vote and sometimes support parties and opinions you don’t approve of or people who pander to idiotic choices?
For all the effort you put into maintaining the integrity of this argument it does ,just a little , you know just a smidge , appear that it’s his organisation’s ideas rather than his dominance you disapprove of.

Andrew Norton
10 years ago

But the sillier News Ltd beat-ups often don’t get reported at all by other media – they like presumably a large share of readers make their own news judgments.

I watch Nine news sometimes, which seems pretty balanced from a partisan perspective in its coverage. True, only the bigger stories get covered – but this matches the general public’s interest in politics, which is only modest.

And despite its occasional beat-ups, the Herald-Sun is actually pretty good by tabloid standards in covering a large number of stories in a reasonably balanced way.

And for all their faults, News Ltd papers cover genuine issues that would otherwise not get much coverage. My own area of higher ed relies heavily on generally pretty good reporting in The Australian. The Age can’t decide whether it is interested in higher ed or not, the SMH generally offers only the very biggest higher ed stories and a few parochial stories about Sydney unis.

Mr Denmore
Mr Denmore
10 years ago

murph the surph, I have no problem with Murdoch or anyone he employs holding opinions that are contrary to mine. I DO have a problem with reporters dressing up ideology as straight news, omitting facts, distorting facts, presenting opinion as fact and failing to providing context or balance.

I am a journalist first of all. And all I am insisting upon is a return to basic standards of the craft. Murdoch’s editors can fulminate all they like about inner-city elites and green vandals and hand-wringing politically correct progressives on their editorial pages. But the news pages are for news.

I think that is a fairly reasonable argument, don’t you?

Tel
Tel
10 years ago

So Murdoch has no particular monopoly over primary sources (and I’m presuming that everyone has the same basic mobile phone hacking skills), but your argument is that he has a monopoly over people willing to rummage through those primary sources and print up their interpretation of what they discover.

When you say, “They can’t …” what you actually mean is, it isn’t convenient and most people don’t bother because they want to get on with their lives. Rather than, “can’t attend every court case” it would be more accurate to say “don’t attend any court case” nor even scan austlii for the summary.

People need and want reliable information from trusted intermediaries.

Well, obviously they don’t want it badly enough to want to pay for the service, otherwise newspapers would not be going broke all over the place. But let’s run with the idea that they do want to pay for a trusted intermediary.

Is it possible to reliably outsource trust and offload all verification onto someone else? I’d argue, no it is not possible. Suppose I hire a guy so I can ask him about every decision I need to make whether I can trust this or that, suppose he always says “yes”, is he ripping me off? I could ask him and he would tell me to just trust him. Suppose I hire two guys, one always says “yes” and the other always says “no”… I need to hire a third consultant to figure out which of the first two I should believe, and she just flips a coin.

Nor does it help to bring the government into the picture, because without some fundamental basis for trust, the government is no more or less reliable than the consultants. Only when there is a basis for trust can I make a decision, and that basis must surely come from me, and from my own assessment of the situation.

Nor does it help to bring in an “expert” with qualifications, after all, the qualifications are merely some statement by some person that I should trust some other person, but that makes my wonder why I should trust the issuer of those qualifications? Presumably they too have qualifications, and it’s turtles all the way down!

It doesn’t even help to have a variety of “independent” sources and take an average across that… because you have no way to test which ones are genuinely independent. Most likely they all read News Limited. Even disagreement can in theory be staged; although some of them make such a specialty of being disagreeable that it would take some considerable effort to stage. Example in question…

http://eureferendum.blogspot.com/

I do believe that Richard North is a genuine independent intermediary, who owes nothing to Murdoch, nor to any government. Then again, I also suspect that both Murdoch and most governments would be more than happy to shut North down if they could figure out how.

Mr Denmore
Mr Denmore
10 years ago

Tel, I’m afraid I don’t understand my point. Murdoch controls most of the print media in Australia. His papers set the agenda for radio and television. Ergo, most people (who have neither the time nor inclination to check primary sources) rely on his distorted world view for their news.

Murdoch’s papers (even according to the private views of many of my former journalistic colleagues) ritually misreport news, twist facts to suit the News Ltd agenda and occasionally just make stuff up.

The market won’t provide an alternative because the business model in mainstream media is broken and no-one can find a way of monetising news any more, now that it has separated from the advertising that used to support it.

The ABC might formerly have provided an alternative. But it has been got to by Howard era culture warriors who also want it to reflect the Murdoch world view and that is clearly the way it is heading.

The point of my post was that there is a public and social utility in a straight, accurate and trusted news service irrespective of the fact there is no paying market for it.

Mr Denmore
Mr Denmore
10 years ago

Pardon me, “your point”.

Marks
Marks
10 years ago

While I understand Mr Denmore why you passionately believe that news is a public good, I cannot agree that there is any reason for Murdoch to play by those rules.

He is a businessman who makes his money by putting out certain information (propoaganda if you like) to willing purchasers. I don’t see that Murdoch is any more duty bound to tell the truth or give all the facts than blogs of the left or right. It is his media organisation, he can grind whatever axe he wants.

Even if I were to agree with your proposition that news is a public good, it is not clear why Murdoch should produce it all – the ABC yes, but where is the duty on Murdoch?

What I do object to with Murdoch and his press is that it does not declare that it is axe grinding, telling half the truth etc, and is therefore misleading and deceptive conduct.

I also accept the premise that people do need to be informed in a democracy.

So perhaps the answer is for the government to ensure that there are no impediments whatever to competition, and that unfair competition is stopped, and that perhaps imbalanced/untrue reporting without disclaimer should be regarded as deceptive behaviour from a Trade Practices perspective.

Thus, for example, if Murdoch wants to fulminate about pink batts without providing all the relevant information, he can either be prosecuted for misleading and deceptive conduct, OR, he can provide a disclaimer saying that he has not provided all relevant information. That way, he can still preach to the converted, and they can keep saying, ‘Pink Batts, yerrrr’, others who wish to know more can go look for themselves, and those who disbelieve can tune out.

Incurious and Unread (aka Dave)
Incurious and Unread (aka Dave)
10 years ago

Let us suppose that people by newspapers because they want to obtain information about current affairs.

Under this assumption, and in a competitive market, it would be hard for any newspaper to succeed that did not accurately report the news, as this would be quickly found out by its readers, who would switch to a more accurate newspaper.

Under this assumption, then, competition would solve the problem of media bias and distortion.

But is the assumption reasonable? Perhaps people buy newspapers to have their prejudices confirmed and their behaviour justified. In this case, competition will not improve accuracy. It might actually worsen it, as each newspaper will find a market niche by pandering to a particular type of prejudice.

Arguably, this is a description of the blogosphere.

So, be careful what you wish for.

Mr Denmore
Mr Denmore
10 years ago

Marks, I fully agree Mr Murdoch is entitled to run his businesses how he and his shareholders see fit. He is a businessman and it is his right to advocate for those causes that fit his commercial and ideological imperatives.

What you need to understand is the difference between the rights of media owners and the rights of journalists, or at least those who describe themselves as such. Call me old fashioned, but while media outlets are entitled to their own opinions, they are not entitled to their own facts.

All I am asking for is a return to news pages being the home of news and editorial pages being the home of opinion. Not radical, really.

Incurious and unread, I agree with you that we are moving to a media environment where everyone chooses the outlet that best reflects their own prejudices. Murdoch succeeds by coopting the interests of big business with those of “ordinary people”, casting the “liberal inner city elites” as the bad guys.

Ultimately, though, reality intrudes. And we as a society succeed best where there is a trusted common space – where facts are respected and fairness prevails. That’s the traditional function of journalism. At least, it’s why I became one and it’s what I was taught.

Marks
Marks
10 years ago

Mr Denmore, perhaps we are talking at cross purposes a little. Or more to the point, perhaps part of the misleading and deceptive nature of News Ltd is that it purports to have journalists working for it.

I agree with you that journalists (ie as professionals) would act as you suggest. However, Murdoch does not employ journalists – he employs writers who write what he lets known he wants written. The problem is, he calls them journalists and they call themselves journalists. I suggest to you that no matter what they call themselves, journalists is something they aint. Tring to tell them they should improve their standard of journalism is like telling a slug it should act like a fish because they happen to be in an aquarium.

Wanting News Ltd papers to be truthful is a bit like expecting the late lamented “Melbourne Truth” to be truthful.

And just as the Melbourne Pravda was merely a fount of information on the nags and such wondrous devices as ‘The Bullworker’ with nobody seriously taking notice of any of the ‘journalism’ therein, so too, the Murdoch press is merely a fount of information straight from Murdoch. Talking about those working for the Murdoch press as being journalists is just like saying that those writing for the Melbourne Truth were journalists…oh right!

The only difference being that most punters (and staff) who read the Melbourne Truth realised what a rag it was and did not take either it or themselves seriously. Some readers of the Murdoch press and its staff still take themselves seriously…but as with the late lamented Melbourne Pravda, that too will pass. I suggest that the key to this is actually pointing out to the rest of the media that take up Murdoch’s stories that this is akin to reporting what was said in the Truth. Maybe that might give them pause to think.

Tel
Tel
10 years ago

Sorry if I beat around the bush a bit, you are not the only one to have a go at me for that; but then again equal numbers of people regard me as clumsy and unsubtle so there’s probably some art to communication.

Since you express a preference for bluntness, here it is: your concept of “trusted intermediaries” cannot work, it will never work, and it is fundamentally busted from the ground up.

No person, for any sum of money, can successfully pay another person to tell them who or what to trust. Each individual needs to make that decision in their own personal way, based on their own direct life experience and whatever data (as close to primary data) they may have access to… this is the only way it can work. Government regulation fixes nothing.

What Dave (#19) points out is that most people work on the principle of an “untrusted intermediary” where they filter the information past their own personal opinion to see if it fits. It’s perfectly logical to do this.

In my life I have generally needed to work for my money (other than the special cast of parents). When some investment advisor tells me that I can get excellent returns of free money at very low risk, this does not mesh with my existing life experience; so I treat such a person with extreme suspicion. This is of course pure prejudice… I have no way of really knowing whether the deal is honest or not, but prejudice saves time and effort, that’s why it is so universally popular.

Another example of an “untrusted intermediary” is google — it will find stuff for you, but it doesn’t always find what you want, and it will never be able to interpret what it finds. Yes the untrusted intermediary can be useful, but ultimately you need to put the actual effort into reading and understanding the information that you get back.

Same could be said about Wikipedia — it gives you a bootstrap for your research, but you use it at your own risk. Even the references Wikipedia often links to are opinionated, that’s just life in the age of information warfare.

All I am asking for is a return to news pages being the home of news and editorial pages being the home of opinion. Not radical, really.

Ahh, but that’s not what you want.

You already accepted that primary sources are available to the public at large. You don’t want journalists to deliver raw facts, you want them to deliver digested and interpreted facts. Needless to say, interpreted facts are subject to interpretation, and never completely neutral. A diversity of readers who have a diversity of life experience, require the interpretation to be cast in the light of their view of the world.

Patrick
Patrick
10 years ago

In my experience News Limited is actually slightly better than the SMAge, so what do you propose we do with them?

Or are you only upset by journalism that runs counter to your own ideological preferences?

I hate media bias too, it is one of my favourite bête noires, but I am not so silly as to propose doing anything about it.

Mr Denmore
Mr Denmore
10 years ago

Tel, I want journalists to report the facts. It’s pretty simple. That means I don’t want them saying ‘Westpac chief joins carbon tax revolt’ when she didn’t or ‘Carbon Cate Outrages Australians’ when she didn’t.

I don’t want spin and opinion and pre-cooked ideology dressed as news on the front page. This is not hard. This is not complicated. Journalists have been doing it for years.

Patrick, I’m speaking as a journalist. I don’t care whether you are a libertarian or a social democrat. News is news. Opinion is opinion. Yes, there will also be an element of interpretation. But good journalists get the facts right before they start spinning.

This is a craft issue, not an ideological one.