A third day’s hearing of Australia’s Senate inquiry into media diversity has delivered more than just the opinions of its witnesses.
Coverage has ranged from the dismissive Strewth in The Australian – in which Olivier Caisley assumed former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull would “be highly critical of News Corp Australia, the publisher of this newspaper, which he blames for his removal from The Lodge” – to the detailed ‘RMIT Factcheck’ on the ABC site.
After trawling through a variety of statistics, the latter appears to come to the same conclusion as ACCC chair Rod Sims, that as digital media delivers a wide range of opinions and – as an ACMA survey found – “36 per cent of people never read newspapers at all”, it was questionable whether there was a problem.
The trouble is that governments tend not to see it like that, and there is plenty of evidence of the leader of the day, this one included, doing whatever they are told by the most strident and loudest print media.
RMIT Factcheck principal researcher David Campbell acknowledges this, quoting another former prime minister, Kevin Rudd, from earlier in the inquiry that “each story published online or broadcast over the airwaves ‘finds its point of origin in a print story, often a Murdoch print story’.”
On Monday Turnbull largely agreed, claiming that the influence of the “very political” media interests of Rupert Murdoch was “vastly greater on the Coalition than it is on the community at large”.
Campbell points to audience areas in which Nine Entertainment – which of course, has an FTA television station as well as its former Fairfax print mastheads – outreaches News Corp in Australia, but the point is not just about reach but how it is used.
Inquiry witnesses have told chair Sarah Hanson-Young of a variety of incidences in which they believed balance was lacking, and she says she has much more to hear. Among Monday’s, US climate expert Michael Mann told the hearing he assumed no Australian experts were giving evidence because they feared being pilloried by News’ media.
Monday’s hearing also learned of the problems of covering local news, both for regional TV stations and for residents in regional areas, many of which are increasingly becoming ‘news deserts’ as print titles are closed.
In what we like to think is a democracy, these are important problems deserving considered advice, but Greens senator Hanson-Young’s difficulty will be in framing solutions which have the proverbial snowflake’s chance of support from the government of the day – of whichever persuasion that is.
Tweaking with the tax system to boost public funding for public interest journalism might be possible, but don’t expect backing for former daily newspaper editor Andrew Jaspan’s suggestion that we clip Google’s and Facebook’s ticket for ten per cent – or he estimates, $600 million – of profits.
Regional TV chiefs Andrew Lancaster, Ian Audsley and Alistair Feehan can probably whistle for the reduced regulation they believe might make local news broadcasts viable.
And the power Turnbull says Murdoch wields “like a political party”? As he says, the genie was let out of the bottle with then treasurer Paul Keating’s decision to allow News to buy the Herald & Weekly Times company in 1987, and it isn’t going back any time soon.