A common defence of Rupert Murdoch’s overwhelming dominance of the Australian media is that it reflects market forces. His papers account for 60%-70% of newspaper sales because they are popular, goes this line.
A second defence is that the multiplicity of new platforms for news and information and the proliferation of blogs make Murdoch’s stranglehold over traditional media, particularly newspapers, less of an issue for democracy.
These arguments are now well rehearsed among Murdoch’s loyal foot soldiers and were ritually recited on a recent Q and A on ABC Television by Sarrah Le Marquand, opinion editor of The Daily Telegraph.
“When people are talking about this much-touted 70% and who controls it, well I’ll tell you who controls it – the news-buying public. So if you have any issues with that, you need to take it up with them,” Le Marquand trumpeted.
The News Corp editor’s comment was made in response to a question from an audience member about the determinedly partisan stance of the Murdoch press in last year’s federal election. This coverage included deliberate distortions in supposedly straight news reports and the manipulation of photos to depict the prime minister as a Nazi.
The sophistry of Le Marquand’s response (‘the people buy it, so it must be right’) was repeated by another audience member (apparently one of the Sydney University Young Libs bused into the studio):
“The fact is people bought the papers, people wanted to vote that way. There’s nothing stopping someone starting another newspaper and selling that. It’s not so much that that the (Daily Tele) dictates the views, but they’re mainstream people’s views.”
Under this argument, journalism is merely another commercial enterprise. You start your newspaper (an industry with massive barriers to entry), hang your shingle out, hire a willing (and desperate) editorial team and begin manufacturing a view of the world that suits your proprietor’s commercial and ideological imperatives.
If people don’t like your brand of journalism, they can buy one that fits their prejudices more neatly. And if they can’t find one, they go off to the bank manager and build one from scratch. If they can’t do that, they start a blog and broadcast to the world what they think.
The Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull, also on the Q and A panel, is a disciple of this view – that the multiplicity of voices in the digital space makes Murdoch’s traditional media dominance less of an issue and, in any case, his power and influence is over-rated. If people don’t like Murdoch’s editorial line, they can DIY.
This all sounds extremely reasonable, apart from a few small points. One of them is that news is not a product and the Fourth Estate is not purely a commercial enterprise. Call me old fashioned, but journalists have civic responsibilities beyond their obligations to their employers.
And just as the news is not a product, readers are not merely consumers. They do not “buy” the news but rely on it to help them make decisions as citizens. Yes, sales departments will seek to maximise audiences to sell to their customers (the advertisers). But the priority (and obligation) of journalists is to put the public interest first. If you’re not doing that, you’re not a journalist.
Putting the public interest first means employing the standards and principles of the profession – exercising an obligation to accurately report the truth, being primarily loyal to citizens (not consumers), being an independent monitor of power and giving a fair hearing to all.
The currency of journalism is not sales or page impressions or television ratings. The currency of journalism is TRUST. And the reason we are having the discussion about Murdoch and his newspapers is the erosion of trust, the perversion of news values by the market and the loss of journalistic independence.
As to the other point, that the proliferation of blogs and Twitter feeds make up for the dominance of the News Corp tabloids and shock jocks, when was the last time a leading political figure gave an interview to, say, Crikey or Independent Australia or even The Guardian?
The News Corp tabloids, along with commercial television and radio, continue to set the news agenda in Australia. You don’t see Tony Abbott or Bill Shorten knocking on Bernard Keane’s door.
This humble blog, for instance, gets about 35 thousand impressions a month. The Daily Telegraph receives about 54 million a month. I’m sure Crikey receives a couple of million a month, but its audience remains too small and narrow to justify much attention from politicians.
So it is not just the number of voices, but the comparative clout. Any analysis of media that overlooks relative power in terms of scale, influence and reach is disingenuous at best and dishonest at worst.
But don’t take my word for it. Also on the Q and A panel was the veteran British journalist and broadcaster Andrew Neil, himself a former editor of Murdoch’s Sunday Times and one who well knows the capacity for his former employer to accumulate power to an unhealthy degree.
“You’ve allowed big organisations to get too big in controlling the news,” Neil said. “When you allow companies to get too big, to be owning television stations and newspapers and radio stations, it is anti-democratic because then they start to control the politicians and they start to control the police and before you know it they are controlling the government as well.”
In the final analysis, the traditional media’s business model may be busted, but the accountability structures still reflect the old world. That may be changing, but digital media advocates should not kid themselves.
There may be a multiplicity of voices. But some voices still speak much, much more loudly than others.