The Guardian • Issue #1971

Australia on sale (24 months interest-free)

How Harvey Norman buys the press

Open a copy of the Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, The Canberra Times, or almost any other Nine-Fairfax newspaper, and you will see pages of advertisements for furniture retailer Harvey Norman, often before you read a single article.

With newspaper sales on the decline and advertising space bringing in less and less money, publishers have gotten desperate to turn a profit. Harvey Norman and subsidiary company Domayne have been the biggest advertisers in the Nine-Fairfax press, and this financial leverage bears considerable influence on the newspaper’s content.

Harvey Norman has been under major scrutiny in recent months, as the multi-million dollar company refuses to pay back $22mil in Jobkeeper payments. This incident follows a series of actions by unions, demanding better pay and conditions for staff after the company brought in $462mil last year.

Very few of these incidents were covered by any Nine-Fairfax, with most coverage coming from the ABC, The Guardian (both the Party’s own paper and the unrelated British media company), and The New Daily, an online publication funded by Industry Super Holdings.

Further, Harvey Norman controversies centre around the company’s founder and owner, Gerry Harvey. In a 2008 interview, he described giving charity to the homeless as “a waste,” and said that it was “helping a whole heap of no-hopers to survive for no good reason.” Although Harvey seems to hold contempt for Australia’s needy, he isn’t above accepting charity for himself. In November last year, Harvey Norman appealed for volunteers to work in the back-to-school sales. The volunteer workers would not receive salaries, but instead vouchers for school uniforms sold in its stores, leading the Secretary of the Retail and Fast Food Workers Union (RAFFWU), Josh Cullinan, to accuse the store of targeting cash-strapped parents for free labour in a move he called “questionable and morally concerning.”

The Harvey Norman volunteer program was later cancelled but received very little coverage in the mainstream media. SBS ran a story, and the RAFFWU circulated information, but nothing was seen in any publication that received funding from Harvey Norman.

The company is unsurpassed in advertising spending, dropping $165.4mil in advertising money in 2019 alone, more than the Commonwealth government and Amazon combined.

In comparison, Clive Palmer spent $58.6mil in an attempt to influence the 2019 Australian election, and the Russian interference in the 2016 US election was achieved with only $100k USD (AU$133k) of advertising.

The Harvey Norman chokehold over the Australian press raises the alarm bells for democracy, as the nation’s biggest advertiser buys up more and more space in Australia’s newspapers and dominates the ad breaks and page margins of television and internet news. Media outlets have been reluctant to bite the hand that feeds them, with dire consequences for a fair and balanced press.

Now more than ever, Australia needs a truly free press, independent of corporate influence or the sway of money, to keep our leaders accountable and the public informed.

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