As citizens in a democracy we rely on the media to scrutinise the actions and decisions of those in power. We therefore need media that is independent and diverse; capable of putting the public interest above the interests of media owners — whether those owners are governments or shareholders. As members of the ‘imagined community’ we call Australia, we also need the media to provide spaces of national conversation: communication channels through which Australians in our myriad differences can find what we have in common by learning about and talking to each other.
The failure to reinvent Australia’s media policy to meet these needs in a new media age is putting the health of our democracy at risk.
Media ownership in Australia is amongst the most highly concentrated of all OECD countries, and this concentration is growing. Funding of Australia’s public broadcasters, the ABC and SBS, has decreased in real terms to an unprecedented low over the last ten years, as has legislative support for independent and community media. The public broadcasters have been corporatised and their boards stacked with political appointees that in some cases are hostile to the organizations they are directing. Both private and public sector media have also succumbed to the canker of managerialism that has empowered management, bureaucracy and marketing over content creators within institutions. The curtailment of creative and journalistic freedom is now apparent in the quality of media produced.
If any nation is in need of effective, reliable and low cost communications and media, it is Australia, where our friends and family can live thousands of miles away within the same country. Yet instead of creating media and communication policies that meet Australia’s unique needs, our current political leaders have given us an unfortunate mix of badly implemented deregulation and unresponsive protectionism. It is impossible to find any consistent principles in the Coalition’s media and communications policies. On the one hand communications infrastructure has been sacrificed on the twin altars of privatisation and the maximisation of profit. On the other hand, despite the rhetoric of market solutions, the Australian media market is a protected cartel where existing players’ profits are buttressed by government regulation.
This is a particularly pressing problem in the ‘new media age’, when traditional news sources, such as newspapers and television, are being supplanted by new media technologies. While, at present, the majority of the news and journalism we consume still comes from the daily paper or the nightly news, the future is digital, and the community is beginning to move decisively in that direction (despite government coddling of free to air TV). Australians are increasingly getting their news and information online or on-demand: the audience that turned the television on at the end of the working day and rarely touched the dial before bed time is largely gone.
This change in audience behaviour is part of a generational shift towards narrowcasting (the targeted dissemination of content to a narrow audience, rather than a ‘broad’ or mass audience), and away from the old broadcast model of programming widely popular content to gain as large an audience as possible. The evidence suggests audiences like to participate or interact with their media, rather than just passively consume it. The old ‘static’ audience is rapidly being replaced by troops of highly mobile, technologically savvy consumers, whose loyalty is to themselves and their own tastes, rather than to any monolithic media ‘voice’. As such, they cannot be relied upon to provide the kind of mass audiences that have driven commercial media for more than 50 years.
But Australia’s current Media and Communications Minister, Senator Helen Coonan, relies too heavily on the new media revolution to excuse her government’s failure to regulate the media in the public interest. Answering critics of her widely condemned Media Discussion Paper, Meeting the Digital Challenge, on ABC Radio in March this year, she argued that the proposed legislation would foster increased diversity in the Australian media, saying ‘What I think we have to recognise is that the whole landscape for media has changed – people now get news and diversity from hundreds, if not thousands, of unmediated additional sources.’
New technologies do indeed have the potential to increase media diversity and put more media power in the hands of citizens. But they can also reproduce — or even extend — the influence of monopolies. Control of the multi-national media organizations which produce much of the content carried by this dizzying array of new media platforms remains largely in the hands of the same few companies. New media success stories are being snapped up by old media giants (for example News Limited’s recent acquisition of MySpace). Coonan’s ‘thousand unmediated sources’ — the armies of bloggers and online ‘citizen journalists’ — are heavily dependent on the existence of the one search engine: Google. And while many online media outlets are becoming serious competitors to ‘old media’ in their own right, most still look to the better-resourced mass media outlets to break stories and set the news agenda at the national and urban level.
In addition, the implications of the rise of ‘narrowcasting’ and niche media for democracy are still unclear. Some argue that the fragmentation of audiences could lead to a ‘nation of tribes’, in which people are less likely to come across ideas they disagree with and less trustful of those unlike themselves. Others point to the success of websites like Wikipedia, in which disconnected individuals with widely divergent views manage to create a constantly renewed and negotiated ‘consensus’; or to research (for example this study by the Pew Internet Research Centre) that shows that heavy internet users are actually exposed to more viewpoints on political issues than other citizens. Certainly narrowcasting of the sort encountered on Radio National, or specialist websites, books and magazines can provide content of a depth increasingly absent in mass media.
Most democratic countries guard against the abuse of media power with policies such as monopoly controls, local content rules, and the maintenance of independent public and community broadcasters. For the most part, these policies were originally designed with the old ‘mass media’ world in mind. The challenge now is to update these policies so that they can fulfil their original purpose: ensuring that the media’s influence over our cultural, political, and economic life is dispersed widely and exercised responsibly.
Unfortunately the current Australian government is facing this challenge with one hand held over its eyes and the other firmly in its pocket. Overall, the Government’s policy continues to encourage oligopoly and discourage competition and choice for consumers.
The Centre for Policy Development seeks to redress this situation by providing a platform for new ideas by our fellows, staff and others on the future of the Fourth Estate in Australia. As noted in the discussion paper Reclaiming our Common Wealth:
‘No democracy can be sustained without diverse and dissenting voices. The government must encourage media diversity through lowering the entry barriers for new players, reviewing existing licenses, and placing funding for public broadcasting on a secure footing’.
As well as the values and principles outlined in Reclaiming our Common Wealth our research into media policy options will be underpinned by the following assumptions:
- No one form of media ownership or production can meet all the needs of citizens in a democracy. Public, commercial, non-profit/‘independent’ and community media each have their own strengths and vulnerabilities, and the health of each should be fostered by a comprehensive media policy;
- Media regulation needs to guard against undue influence by either governments or shareholders over media content;
- The existence of media which has a legislated responsibility to put the public interest ahead of the interests of media owners or managers is necessary in a democracy;
- A cohesive society cannot exist without media that fosters communication between as well as within different communities of interest;
- In a democracy, media should encourage audience participation as a way of drawing on the talents, ideas and perspectives of the broadest range of citizens;
- The benefits of new media technologies cannot be realised effectively or equitably without widespread, affordable access to high-speed internet and telecommunications.
The Centre for Policy Development is calling for the submission of research and discussion papers on the future of Australia’s media policy. These papers will address:
- public broadcasting;
- telling Australian stories and the representation of diversity;
- media ownership;
- community and independent media;
- new media and internet regulation.
Australia‘s public broadcasters: ideas for discussion is the first paper in the series.