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Issue 21: Australia's mainstream media is broken



December 8 · Issue #21 · View online
Your weekly wrap of national affairs, society, culture and politics, published by UnionsACT.

From the editor
I have the pleasure again this week of introducing another guest writer to SundayFocus. Media critic Tim Dunlop’s piece on the shoddy state of the Australian news media echoes many of the sentiments our readers have expressed in our Facebook group, so I hope it’s something you can relate to.
Also this issue we have good environmental news and some inspiration from the reliably rebellious French, plus some not-so-good news from Australian parliament and the front lines of the emissions trading history wars.
I’d also like to ask, as I tend to do, for you to please forward this issue to people who might be interested in brazenly left-wing reporting and urge them to consider subscribing. We’ve also created a Gift Solidarity Subscription and a Yearly Gift Solidarity Subscription – perfect stocking-stuffers for the whole family!
Enjoy the issue.
Guy Mosel, Editor

Australia's mainstream media is broken
by Tim Dunlop
Photo by Elijah O'Donnell | Unsplash
Photo by Elijah O'Donnell | Unsplash
Over the last 20 years, Australian media has had to deal with the realities of digitisation and the rise of social media. These closely related events have undermined the advertising business model that most media had depended on, and the effect of that has been devastating for journalism.
But the digital revolution has had another impact on the media, too. Once, the mainstream media was the only place most of us could find out the sort of information that we broadly call ‘news’ – everything from what was happening internationally to the performance of our local football team.
That virtual monopoly no longer exists.
Journalists are no longer the only game in town, and their authority is constantly challenged by alternative sources of (often expert) information, and by an audience no longer consigned to passive readership.
We have entered a period which, in my book, The Future of Everything, I call ‘fusion media’, a situation in which new media platforms such as Google, Facebook and Twitter coexist with the old media of television, radio and newspapers.
This new space brings together amateurs and professionals in a way that wasn’t previously possible and creates new and different relationships of power between the media and its audience and, most importantly, between the media and politics.
Even before digitisation, Australia had just about the most concentrated media ownership in the democratic world, with News Corp controlling a massive slice of our print media (around 70 per cent).
But since digitisation and the weakening of traditional media outlets we have seen even greater consolidation. Most recently Fairfax was consumed whole by the Nine Entertainment Company, an organisation that also owns the Macquarie radio network and Pedestrian and basically operates as a media investment fund.
In a small market like Australia, this sort of ownership model tends, almost inevitably, towards conservative news coverage and we are increasingly seeing this happen with Fairfax, once a news organisation that you could rely on to be relatively centrist in its reporting.
The fusion media phenomenon also encourages media companies to deliver niche news offerings: it’s easier and more profitable to target and build a niche audience that is animated by a handful of issues, than it is to attract a smaller percentage of a general audience.
That’s why many News Corp mastheads, particularly The Australian, have positioned themselves as unabashedly – and often laughably – right wing, eschewing any attempt to appeal to a broader audience.
It’s not all bad, of course. The entry of The Guardian into the Australian market in 2013 provided some much-needed diversity. Its editorial position is broadly progressive, providing singular coverage of topics such as climate change, asylum seekers, and domestic violence issues.
Australia is also home to The Conversation, one of the most innovative and successful media start-ups of the last 20 years anywhere in the world. Funded by a combination of government grants and contributions from universities and readers, it draws on the expertise of university academics who work with journalists to produce in-depth content.
But the ABC, under constant threat of revenue cuts by successive conservative governments, now tends to offer up bland, populist offerings like Q&A, and remains wedded to outdated techniques of ‘balance’ and ‘gotcha’ (see 7.30) that are simply untenable in the fusion environment.
Overall, it’s hard to be satisfied with Australia’s news media. There are some undeniable bright spots, such as the Fairfax investigative unit and the ABC’s Four Corners which continue, by and large, to hold the powerful to account.
Yet in general, Australia’s media is tepid and unadventurous, if not outright conservative or right wing.
What is needed is a complete rethink, not just of the business model, but of the basic craft of interviewing and reporting, as well as a willingness to make journalism more transparent to an audience increasingly being asked to directly fund their work via subscriptions and memberships.
What does all of this mean for Australian democracy? Well, if a functioning democracy requires a diverse and fearless media, and we no longer have a diverse and fearless media…
Do the math.
Tim Dunlop is an author, speaker and analyst specialising in media, politics and the future of work. He’s the author of three books, including Why the Future is Workless and The Future of Everything. You can follow him on Twitter and support his work on Patreon.
The week in review
Bad news… The Morrison government’s obsession with its precious surplus continues with an announcement this week that the number of government departments would be reduced from 18 to 14. The Department of Communications and the Arts was one of the victims, merged into a super department with infrastructure, transport and regional development. (Yes, we’re confused too.) The PM said, “I expect, frankly, all department secretaries to be realising maximum efficiencies for how they run their departments every single day of the year. That’s their job.“ Actually, Scott, their job is to deliver essential services to the community, but whatever.
Good news… Super fund members increasingly want to be sure that the investments their funds are ploughing their money into are socially and environmentally ethical. A new survey has found that nearly nine in 10 fund members valued positive environmental, social and governance (ESG) objectives in superannuation. In related good news, companies that have pledged to source 100 per cent of their electricity from renewables now make up nearly 25 per cent of the value of the Australia Stock Exchange.
Bad news… From hero to zero. Jacqui Lambie was basking in the the left’s praise barely a week ago when she voted with Labor and the Greens to reject the Ensuring Integrity Bill. Yet on Wednesday she was in tears as she backed the government’s repeal of the medevac law, which has been used to save more than 170 asylum seekers from their island hellholes on medical grounds. Find out more about the repeal vote in The Saturday Paper. As for the Ensuring Integrity Bill, the government is having another go at getting it passed, pushing it through the lower house again on Thursday.
Good news… Trust the French to remind us of the enduring and unmatched power of fraternité. France has once again been brought to its knees by mass strike action with over a million people taking to the streets to protest Macron’s attack on pensions. It’s the biggest strike action in France in a decade, and another dramatic statement against the neoliberal agenda of the country’s deeply unpopular president, Emmanuel Macron.
Bad news… The ALP chose the 10-year anniversary of the defeat of Rudd’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) to punch leftward, laying in to the Greens for, as Albo put it on Twitter, making "the wrong call”. Unions broadly supported the CPRS at the time and many people still think the Greens ought to have voted for it regardless of their reservations. Others disagree, and as Bernard Keane in Crikey points out [$], Gillard’s ETS, written with and supported by the Greens, was far superior and was actually working until Abbott scrapped it.
Perhaps both sides should just get over it and start working together to save the planet from fiery doom? Just an idea.
Why the Christian right worships Donald Trump
How big tech is dragging us towards the next financial crash
Labour races the clock in momentous UK elections
For your bookshelf
Tell Me Why: The Story of My Life and My Music, by Archie Roach
The Future of Everything: Big, Audacious Ideas for a Better World, by Tim Dunlop
This Is Not A Drill, by Extinction Rebellion
"Solidarity Forever" t-shirt
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