Back to the future for Australia’s media laws

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What sort of civilised democracy actively tries to discourage diversity of opinion?

What sort of civilised democracy actually wants to limit its citizens’ access to ideas and facts and entertainment?

And what sort of fools look at the major information and technology trends since the 1980s and think to themselves, ‘I know — instead of more information and personalised expression through more outlets and mediums than ever before, let’s put limits on everything except profit.’ It is the equivalent of being offered a choice between the Opera House and a Meriton apartment block – and choosing the latter.

No prizes for guessing the answer – the Australian Commonwealth Parliament. No prizes for guessing that the eighty per cent of journalists who told Roy Morgan they opposed the changes didn’t turn their opinions into any meaningful backlash. No prizes for guessing that the people who returned four Howard Governments and continue to think Kim Beazley is a nice guy were too distracted, selfish or stupid to care.

But what do I know? I’m just a whinging ex-pat lefty. That’s me alright: swanning the globe reading The Guardian, The New York Times premium articles and Crikey, while glancing at my eight BBC channels or 500 cable channels. Too busy even to consider the hundreds of digital radio stations I might switch on in England if I fancied; tapping away on two megabits per second wireless broadband (which costs me just forty cents per day and will soon be provided free by my local council), while eating a Cornetto in my bed in London. What would I know?

Not much — but enough to be certain that pure bile will sustain me for long enough to get through this piece. No special experts or statistics needed to pad this article.

Seeing as I am no expert — merely a rational, outward looking voter and wage-earner — it’s much better to leave tricky stuff like media policy to men more interested in “boning” their journalists than utilising said journalists’ Masters degrees in international relations. Much better to put our faith in a Minister whose principle claim to fame is that she was prepared to give up her beliefs and betray her former allies to jump ship to John Howard’s faction and secure better positioning on the Liberal’s 2001 Senate ticket (link here and here). And why stop at the $300m or $400m or $2 billion annual profits made by poor molested Fairfax and Nine and News Limited? Hell no, let’s put all media companies in the same league as Telstra’s whopping $4.5 billion profit. They need the competition – which they certainly aren’t getting in the mobile and broadband markets.

The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age are enough to put you to sleep these days. Who wants to read a lifestyle supplement laced with accidental news items? And their decent young journalists are literally dripping away each month. It’s usual for only two or three of the Fairfax cadet groups that started in the late 90s to remain today. Can you imagine how much worse they’d be if Channel Nine — a magnet for more pension-aged viewers, managers and stars than even the Moran Nursing Home group – owned them?

Crikey co-proprietor Eric Beecher is spot on when he says that ‘good journalism helps define the character of societies. Its absence leads to societies that are more mediocre in every way.’

You reader, are right to be worried then by the implications of these new laws. They may not lead to less entertainment. They will not, on their own, substantially change already low viewer figures or circulations. But they will lead to less good journalism. They will stop a few extra synapses twitching in our brains. And they are fundamentally backward looking and unfair to the many new players and voices itching for a stake in the national consciousness.

The inescapable truth is that if we are as a nation are to have any reasonable shot at successfully addressing the challenges before us – in a future dominated by the rise of India and China and a truly competitive and global economy – we need access to the most varied number of opinions and ideas possible. Variety and competition eventually breed quality and robustness.

The greatest crime of the Australian media elite — legislators, regulators, managers and hacks alike — is that they are too god damn boring. And sadly, the dwindling interest of the young in the mainstream media is a permanent un-virtuous circle that discourages any media leadership from putting any non-entertainment media content in their direction.

According to Simon Moss from Vibewire Youth Services: ‘the media hasn’t grappled at all with how young people engage with information. They struggle to understand how the world works.’

So, apparently, do government MPs. Here’s Peter Lindsay — one of the two that bothered to respond to a recent Crikey survey about media law reform: ‘More choice is not necessarily in the consumers’ interests. Australia is a small media market so more channels would deliver more cr*p.’ Thanks Peter, for that slightly softer rendition of the Chinese Government’s arguments against Google. But isn’t it us that should decide what is crap or not? And, to re-skate over a thin piece of ice – isn’t what we have now already crap anyway?

What the hell is Plan B?

You can kiss innovation goodbye under the new ‘A’ regime. Of course we’ll see the odd technological upgrade; and we earn too much for award-winning arthouse work not to find a home. But you won’t be seeing many citizen reporters, readers’ panels, multi-channelling start-ups or cohorts of fist-banging young columnists. That’s good news for niche websites and bad news for the country at large.

It’s back to the future in 21st century Australia. Someone get me a gramophone. I think I want to spike myself with the needle.

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