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Issue #1519      21 September 2011


Media inquiry will not get far

The federal government is to hold yet another inquiry into the Australian media. This time the government is said to have caved into pressure from the Greens to conduct a probe into the dominance of newspaper monopolies and the political bias they show. The Greens are right. The Murdoch press, in particular, runs an editorial line throughout its publications that is hostile to the Greens, action to address climate change and opponents of “let it rip” resource development. Murdoch dailies have screamed that the inquiry is a witch-hunt designed to shut down dissenting opinion.

The hyperventilating editorials about reporting “without fear or favour” and big brother controls over the media can be ignored. The Greens might have been able to press home an advantage to hold an inquiry – an opportunity presented by the still unfolding phone-hacking scandal involving Murdoch newspapers in the UK – but this inquiry appears doomed to be added to the pile of other probes successive governments have held into the media in this country over the years.

The obvious reason for this likely failure is that the media monopolies in Australia hold such enormous power. They are not merely mouthpieces for giant corporations, they are giant corporations. In addition, they can influence public opinion and steer approval for or against government policy like no other force in society. The classic demonstration of this arrogance of power was given by the late Kerry Packer when he appeared before a House of Reps Select Committee inquiry into the print media in 1991. He treated the parliamentarians on that panel like naughty school children for daring to suggest that some controls should be put on media acquisitions.

The arrival and proliferation of new media, such as online newspapers and the blogosphere, has not substantially changed this lamentable situation.

The fact that Murdoch’s News Limited can own 70 percent of the Australia’s newspapers is a scandal. But Communications Minister Stephen Conroy has been quick to respond to media speculation about the inquiry that there will be no consideration given to breaking up the newspaper giant to ensure greater diversity of opinion. The focus will be on the “grey areas” of regulation thrown up by the more traditional media’s convergence with new online forms, the need to beef up media codes of practice and the regulatory authorities overseeing the media.

At the moment the broadcast media are overseen by the government’s Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA). A major plank of ACMA’s charter is to promote “self-regulation” of the sector. The print media are supposedly controlled by the Australian Press Council – a body established by the newspaper owners themselves. It has a reputation for extremely light intervention in the face of complaints. Self-regulation is the neo-liberal byword in Australia’s heavily monopolised media and that is not about to change with this latest inquiry. Suggestions that ACMA and the Press Council should be rolled into one government appointed body with teeth are not likely to get up.

An opportunity for some public scrutiny of the workings of powerful media is a good thing. Submissions from trade unions and other community organisations will contain ideas for implementation when the balance of forces in society shifts away from the monopolies and in favour of the people. But until such a shift occurs, we should expect little from the latest government inquiry into the press. There has been talk about mechanisms for the quick response to complaints and the publication of corrections or retractions. That would be a worthwhile but a very minor outcome given the size of the problem of media concentration and bias in Australia.

Success in the quest for media diversity will come when the left and progressive forces in Australian politics become stronger and more united. Ultimately, a government of people’s unity will legislate for media that reflects the actual character of the Australian people. As the program of the Communist Party of Australia points out “… the best way to break up this monopoly is for the mass media to be owned and run by the democratic and progressive organisations such as trade unions, environmental, cultural and community organisations. Such organisations would be encouraged and assisted to run media outlets. These changes would bring about a greater degree of progressive views from the media.” An inspiring goal. Let’s work towards it.

Next article – Attacks on construction workers and their rights continue

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