Discuss the free speech justifications for cross-media ownership laws in Australia and consider whether these laws are relevant in the age of increasingly diverse media sources. Consider the arguments for and against the current proposals for reform. When Paul Keating made his famous remark about restricting media barons power so they could only be 'Queens of the screen or Princes of Print', he was referring to the division of power under law that would make sure no-one media conglomerate could own both a newspaper and a television station in the one city. The emergence of a liberal government and changing societal structures has seen the debate about media cross-ownership raise its head again as parliament sees a proposal that would allow ownership across mediums. Proponents for the bill argue that free speech justifications are nonsensical in the age of increasingly diverse media sources, however those against the bill worry that it will create a monopoly and lead to an undesirable concentration of power in the hands of elites. The year Paul Keating uttered those fateful words, the landscape of media ownership was seemingly transformed.
Since that time however, the powerful media moguls and organizations have sought to instigate a change in the media cross-ownership laws that would lift restrictions. In Australia, the three major media stakeholders are Kerry Packer, Rupert Murdoch with News Limited and the Fairfax Group (Pilger 1998). These three singular conglomerates combined, together produce the majority of media output in Australia. They form over 80% of magazines, newspapers and television that the public watch and therefore have a huge impact on shaping public opinion (Ward 1997). The proposed legislation that is being put forward by Communications Minister Senator Richard Alston would allow media moguls to be able to move across mediums and own both newspapers and television stations in the same city. This would allow Fairfax, and the Murdoch empire whose ownership of Australia's papers has grown from one third to two-thirds of all papers in the last fifteen years to move into television, as well as allow Channel Seven head Kerry Stokes and Channel Nine's Kerry Packer to pursue it's ambitions in other mediums (Media Watch 02/06/03).
However Senator Alston justifies this by arguing that changing the media laws would allow for progress and advancement for media companies, avoiding unnecessary cost-cutting even claiming it is even necessary for a 'healthy democracy': 'Quite clearly what you don't want are Australian media companies shrinking and cost cutting simply because they don't have the scope to expand and achieve economies of scale and scope that are available to other players. And if they can bring in foreign capital and expertise then I think that's a benefit as well. A healthy and dynamic media sector is very much in the interests of ordinary Australians and of course so much has changed since these rules were introduced for blatantly political purposes by Paul Keating some fifteen years ago' - Insiders, 28 July 2002 (Media watch 2/6/03) Some analysts however, believe that the relaxing of media laws would lead to a "free-for-all" situation, a media bidding war, with the most powerful players outbidding all to create a hegemony, creating a level of concentrated power at the apex of our communication systems that will see a greater homogenization of opinions and viewpoints (Ward 1997). The heightened concentration of power in communication industries, in the hands of elites, already sees the increasingly compromised integrity of our media.
This can be seen as a result of the commodification of information which limit the media's ability to provide meaningful forms of discourse and the transformation of information and news as big business (Osborne 1995). Increasingly diluted by corporate imperatives information mediums have morphed into industries that treat 'community members' as 'consumers' (Bacon 1998). As Wendy Bacon comments in 'Fatter profits and thinner stories as granny goes to market', the philosophy of those who control media conglomerates is to increase profits and in this way the marketplace of ideas is no different from any other marketplace. This has seen an increasingly blurring of advertising and editorial content and dumbing down of material (Bacon 1998).
By allowing these laws to pass, opponents of the bill believe that such a situation will only worsen, with the imperatives of big business and profit taking over and infiltrating the news, at the expense of free speech and editorial independence. This would see a situation where media conglomerates exercise vast control by determining what does and does not make it on the front page or the news (Wheeler 1997). This 'marketplace' would often resort to manipulating and manufacturing 'issues' to play to the highest common denominator, and supporting and advocating the interests and companies of its owners or both (Bacon 1998). As journalist Joanne Applegate once commentated: 'Everywhere, journalists walk a daily tightrope towards their deadline, with news as news on one side and news as entertainment on the other.
It's always been a delicate balancing act. But, because news, like the movies is a business that has to sell, the sirens on entertainment on the rocks below call ever more shrilly'. In this way the major media and communication outlets would become increasingly commercialized and do anything to cement itself as the most effective tool for social control or influence for the masses (Wheeler 1997). Many argue that free speech justifications for media-cross ownership laws are irrelevant in an age of increasingly diverse media sources. As Senator Alston argued: 'You " ve got the ABC. You " ve got Pay TV.
You " ve got extensive roll outs of SBS. You " ve got Internet websites galore. So there's a plethora of new information sources out there. We ought to recognise that these sorts of changes and permutations are going to occur in the marketplace, try and facilitate them with an eye to the public interest'. - Sunday, 21 April 2002 (Media Watch 02/06/03) However what can be seen with these 'alternative's sources is that they are increasingly compromised by financial imperatives and governmental pressure, (especially in the case of the ABC). Pay TV also has failed to make any kind of lasting impact on the general audience.
The major media players rule the roost and this can be exemplified by their huge circulation: Fairfax. 21.4 per cent of the capital city and national newspaper market; . 22.8 per cent of the Sunday newspaper market... 18.1 per cent of the suburban newspaper market...
15.4 per cent of the regional newspaper market. Channel Seven Kerry Stokes as Chairman of Seven Network Ltd has an audience share of around 72.1 per cent, through his ownership of five metropolitan and one regional television licenses. Channel Nine Kerry Packer's Public and Broadcasting Limited, which owns Channel Nine and the Australian Consolidated press, has a combined audience share of 51.5 per cent of the viewing population and 41.5 per cent share of magazine circulation. Packer's PBL owns over 65 magazines, and three metropolitan and one regional television stations. It also has a considerable stake in Pay TV owning 33 per cent of Sky News, 25 per cent of Foxtel. News limited.
67.8 per cent of the capital city and national newspaper market. 76.1 per cent of the Sunday newspaper market. 46.6 per cent of the suburban newspaper market. 23.4 per cent of the regional newspaper market (Figures from the Department of the Parliamentary Library: web) Thus what can be seen is that although diverse and alternative sources of information are available and exist, both on the internet and independent publications, they only work as a bandai d (Media Watch 02/06/03).
They can not be an effective antidote to the barrage of mainstream homogenous press, they can in no way compensate for the huge circulation and power that the mainstream press, newspaper and television exercise over the hearts and minds of the general populace. So in spite of the fact that alternative sources of information are flourishing as thousands of people flock away from traditional sources of information, exasperated as they are by the more and more blatant propaganda and lack of transparency from the major news sources, the circulations of these major media players are still incomparable, and alternative sources dwarf in comparison to these monoliths (Ward 1997). Thus while diverse media exists, i.e. the al-Jazeera network, Green left Weekly, and crikey. com to mention a few, they do not provide any real threat or challenge to the major media players, ratings, revenue or power and are merely bumps in the road to what will be complete hegemony of the media landscape if the proposed media law changes take place (Pilger 1998). Similarly proponents for breaking down media constrictions argue that plurality of opinions is more important than the qualms of ownership. As Senator Alston stated in 1997: 'diversity of opinion is more important than diversity of ownership'.
Australian Financial Review 21 March 1997 (Media Watch 2/6/03) However when pressed to describe how this editorial independence can be maintained in the face of a single ownership situation, Alston was evasive arguing 'separate' newsrooms was enough to ensure balanced reporting. 'What we " re saying is you " ve simply got to ensure that you have a separate process for doing it (each newsroom). That doesn't tell you what news items to pick or what order to put them in or what emphasis to give them. It's simply saying if you own both a television and a radio station then you don't want a single point of news selection. ' - Lateline, 22 May 2000 (Media watch 2/6/03) However to what extent this ideal situation can be maintained is debatable. Opponents of the bill argue that monopoly of ownership will necessarily lead to monopoly in opinions, pointing to the coverage of major world events- like the war in Iraq by Rupert Murdoch's papers.
This major world event in which a diversity of opinion and balanced and fair reporting would be essential was a crucial test case and some believe a premonition of things to come if the laws are passed. The war saw all 173 of Murdoch's worldwide papers all fervently and zealously pro-war '... singing from the same hymn sheet... none... has dared croon the anti-war tune. Their master's voice has never been questioned. ' - Guardian, 17 February 2003 (Media watch 2/06/03) Therefore the honesty and transparency that should be essential elements of communication mediums- if they are to be responsible for providing a forum for informed and thinking community will be thoroughly compromised. The result will be a public that is and will continue to be misled and disillusioned with what they see as an increasing spread of distortion, bias and inaccuracy in the print media (Ward 1997).
Already, historically there is a widespread apathy and weariness of journalists and journalism in general among Australians that does not need to be documented. Ironically this very apathy combines to create the very self-regulatory and laissez-faire environment of media and its owners that leads to the public's desire for greater censorship and regulatory controls (Keane 1991). This would be favourable, unless it wasn't misdirected against the media as opposed to the conduct of the media's owners. This all combines to make Australians more vulnerable and susceptible to the goals and aspirations of those in power (Wilcox 2001).
The urgent need now is for tightening of restrictions, and for a greater transparency across all communication mediums. This would of course be an impossible task, however this task has not even been attempted with any great strength (Wilcox 2001). Journalists, the very people whom the public relies on to keep informed of the issues, especially in this landmark legal drama that could see the transformation of the media landscape, are themselves bound. They are put in the difficult position of arguing a position in a paper, which is against the imperatives of the paper's owner. In this way owners of huge media conglomerates can dictate the issues that are put on the public agenda and have a terrifying amount of power over the general populace (Osborne 1995). The debate, or lack of debate on this crucial issue has been revealing, if not dis quietening, and only serves as a glimmer of the future, if the laws pass, which will see the increasing control of ideas and silencing of critics which go against the imperatives of their bosses.
One thing is certain that as we become a more media-driven world and increasingly look to the media to decide who to elect, what to buy and know what's going on in the world- Media and communication mediums will continue to grow. That is why this debate about media laws is crucial for the continued health of democracy and free speech in this country. If the laws pass, it will only see a continued slide down a slippery slope of news as farce and the construction of those in power. The control of the industry of information and opinion is one which is most sought after and valuable powers, thus the right to use and run it must be judiciously guarded This is particularly important with the rise of democracy in western countries, as favour over the 'hearts and minds' of the populace become increasingly important to those in power.
Books. Pilger, J. 1998, Hidden Agendas, Random House, London, UK.
Ward, I. 1997, Politics of the media: Ownership and Control, Ch.
6, Macmillan, Australia. Wheeler, Mark. C 1997, Politics and the mass media, Cambridge, Massachusetts Blackwell Publishers Journals.
Wilcox, Peter 2001, Newspapers and the terrorism war;
news priorities, public duty and the bottom line, Australian Journalism Review, vol. 23, no. 2, December pp. 7-20 Articles. News? That's Entertainment, Walk ley Magazine, July 1998.
Bacon, Wendy, Fatter profits and thinner stories as granny goes to market, Reportage, 1998 Websites.