MEDIA DIVERSITY: If media diversity is so important, how did we get here?

Should we have more diverse ownership of the media? Yes. Are we going to get it? No. Does it matter? Yes, at the moment, but maybe not so much in the near future. Why? Because it could be that the proposed changes are shuffling the deck chairs on the media ownership Titanic as it slams into an iceberg of technological and social change.

If we’re lucky, and those who are concerned for diversity of ideas put enough effort into trying to make the cards fall the right way, the ownership of large media corporations might become far less relevant to the effective functioning of our democracy.

Thanks to John Ditchburn

The media is important because everyone makes decisions that affect their lives on the basis of information the media communicates. An effective media that expresses a diversity of ideas and keeps all levels of government accountable is essential to the good functioning of democracy. These days, when large national or transnational corporations have considerable political influence and economic power, an effective media is essential to keep big business accountable as well. This applies particularly to the media companies themselves, who these days are often integrated in partnerships with other large corporations, increasingly on a transnational basis.

Given this vital role of the media in democracy, a diversity of media ownership is important to ensure that a small number of owners don’t have undue political influence; and/or limit the agenda for public discussion; and/or disenfranchise minority or alternative views.

This is not a new issue in Australia. Diversity of media ownership has been an issue ever since, in 1953, the Menzies government set up a Royal Commission to investigate how television should be set up in Australia, only to grant Australia’s first television licenses to the newspaper barons of the day just a month or so later, leaving the Royal Commission to sort out the details.

Since then, while there have been some exceptions, Australian federal governments of all persuasions have tended to make decisions on media ownership laws with more reference to the vested interests of established media and communications players than to the interests of Australian citizens or, as we are more commonly referred to these days, consumers.

28 years ago I attended a conference held at the University of New South Wales to canvass the proposal that Australia establish a new communication satellite system, a system the late Kerry Packer was particularly keen on because it would allow easy distribution of television content across the whole of Australia. Large numbers of people at the conference expressed concerns about the impact the satellite would have on the diversity of content on TV and on the diversity of media ownership. People from the bush were particularly concerned that the proposed AUSSAT satellites, now owned by Optus, would decimate local content on TV in regional Australia.

And guess what? They were right.

Over the three decades since that conference, people concerned about diversity and democracy have been railing against the concentration of media ownership, and most of the time, with the exception of Paul Keating’s introduction of the current cross-media ownership laws, it’s been a losing battle. The concentration of media ownership has slowly but surely increased.

When the cross-media ownership laws are changed, as inevitably they will be, some new players might come in from Australian or overseas but the overall number of major media owners across TV Radio and Newspapers is likely to decrease.

In a speech to the National Press Club last year, the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts, Senator the Hon Helen Coonan, spelled out the Government’s intention to reform the current legislation to allow mergers between newspapers and commercial TV and radio stations within licence areas but only to the point where there would be a minimum “four voices in regional markets and five in mainland state capitals.”

If we reach, or get close to, these limits in the upcoming mergerfest, we are likely to see a significant reduction in the diversity of media voices in our capital cities and some of our more populous regional centres.

Also on the downside for viewers is the Government’s intention to take the power to issue a fourth commercial free to air license away from ACMA and return it to the Government, so we are very unlikely to see any new commercial TV stations after the current moratorium expires on 1 January 2007.

On a positive note, the Minister foreshadowed the possibility of “specific measures such as quotas … to ensure that levels of local content are preserved” with such quotas likely to apply to levels of local news and current affairs and to be administered by ACMA.

She also foreshadowed an easing of restrictions on the free to air datacasting licences to allow the possibility of new players to provide subscription TV or narrowcast channels or DVB-H services.

The Minister indicated that the Government might “eventually move to a point where we remove multi-channelling restrictions on broadcasters”. This could see existing free to air broadcasters start up some additional channels at some point down the track. They wouldn’t be separate voices but at least they would be more potential outlets for the work of Australian screen producers.

There’s always a chance we could end up with more players on the periphery of the television market. While this would be a good thing, even if some new media players are more progressive than others, it probably won’t make that much difference to what’s available to watch on our televisions or read in our newspapers.

Because of the start up costs involved, multi-million dollar corporations will inevitably own any new media outlets. The presence of more large media corporations in the game is certainly preferable to a situation in which we have fewer owners, but at the end of the day the owners will still be multi-million dollar corporations. While some might have broader agendas than others, their agendas will surely always reflect their interests, which may not always align with the interests of the public, of effective democracy or diversity of content.

On a day-to-day basis, major factors limiting the agenda of public discussion and diversity of ideas available in the mainstream media include:

– the economic, technological and production value structures that are an entrenched, if not unavoidable part of multi-million dollar television and newspaper production;
– the associated deadline time limitations, and the conditioned “news” values and production values of producers, journalists and editors.

Who ever owns newspapers TV or radio companies and their associated online news sites, the journalists and producers move round between all the different mainstream outlets and tend to share the same overall ‘news values’: they have all been trained in similar production cultures.

Australian voices telling Australian stories and reflecting Australian culture in our media are seen as desirable by everyone, across all political parties and even across all television and cinema company executives. But the raw economics of relative production costs in Australia compared to product that has already paid for itself in the USA or the UK means Australian content is up against it in the face of improved return to shareholders or declining funding for public broadcasters.

But the future might not be as bad as it looks. Traditional concerns about the concentration of media ownership could soon be washed away by the tsunami of new technologies. Next week, a look at how these new technologies, and the phenomenon of the Pro-Am Movement, is changing the way citizens consume media, and undermining the revenues on which traditional media players rely.

This is an edited extract of a speech given by Andy Nehl in September 2005, at a Fabian Society Forum with Julianne Schultz, Editor Griffith Review and Mark Scott, Editor, Sydney Morning Herald, on the topic of the importance of diversity of media voices in light of the Federal Government’s proposed changes to media ownership laws.