OPINION: by Tim WallaceNews Weekly
Media diversity: should the market decide?
, May 18, 2002
Perceptions of institutionalised media bias, insofar as they inform the wider debate on media policy, tend to be allied with arguments for greater power to be given to the market. The significance of other journalists on the decisions journalists make, for instance, is used as an argument to unwind cross-ownership laws, while staff-capture at the ABC, to the alleged detriment of its role as a national broadcaster, is advanced as cause for privatisation.
The latter view has been argued most forcefully by the Institute of Public Affairs which in its 1999 report Whose ABC? The ABC, Staff Capture and the obstacles to accountability
argued that the problem with the ABC was the lack of "real" ownership, by which was meant capitalist ownership:
"Individual members of the public expended no personal wealth specifically to become 'owners' via the agency of the Commonwealth. They gain no direct personal benefit (such as increased personal wealth) from any increase in value of the organisation. Conversely, they suffer no personal loss if the organisation loses value. They therefore have no personal incentive to follow, either directly or through agents specifically responsible to them, the fortunes of the organisation. It is 'ownership' without any personal gain, risk or effort."
The IPA, of course, has a preference for capitalist models of ownership over all others. (Indeed it regards one of the benefits of demutualisation as enforcing the disciplines of "real ownership".)
Yet the argument for privatisation of the ABC as a solution to "staff capture" sits oddly with the case for slackening cross-media ownership laws advanced by Australian Broadcasting Authority chairman David Flint and taken up by the Federal Government. To Flint, "real ownership" seems to have little influence on editorial decision-making processes that are dominated by journalistic culture.
Flint based his call mid-last year for a review of media ownership laws, on a study conducted by Bond University's Centre for New Media Research and Education, which he said showed media proprietors had less influence over content than might have been thought. What was the point, he asked, of laws regulating ownership - domestic or foreign - in order to limit editorial influence when the greatest influence came much more from media producers?
Asked by The World Today
if this meant there was no need to be concerned with laws affecting cross-media or foreign ownership of Australian media, Flint replied: "That's ... one of the conclusions that I would draw from this."
The study, "The Sources of News and Current Affairs", from which Flint drew such a big conclusion incorporated a survey of 100 news producers (across television, pay TV, radio, newspapers and the internet), a series of semi-structured in-depth interviews with "20 key news producers and experts", and finally a national survey of 1620 adults.
It is an interesting read, intended to provide a map of the organisation and structure of what it calls the news and current affairs production industry (which is narrower than the media, but wider than journalism).
Particular focus is placed upon the perspectives of news producers, linkages and affiliations between news and current affairs services, ownership and control, and the extent to which news and current affairs media influence community views. It contains no claims so bold as Flint has been prepared to read into it.
The report notes the significance of other media practitioners on the editorial decisions made by journalists. Those surveyed agreed a herd, pack or club mentality operated, particularly in the Federal Press Gallery but also perhaps in other specialist areas and among journalists generally. Ownership interference, while sometimes explicit, was more often described as a subconscious pressure which led to self-censorship. Some news producers reported no experience of ownership pressure.
These points, when allied with the finding that media producers as a collective group hold views that are less conservative, if modestly so, than those of their audiences (being slightly to the left of the wider community on social and political issues but to the right on economic matters), seem to be the basis for downplaying the importance of diversity of ownership.
But the diminished prospect of explicit editorial control by proprietors should be seen as only part of the argument for limits on ownership aggregation. Commercial considerations, as the survey shows, are by far the most significant influence on the news product. As Professor Mark Pearson, one of the survey's authors, told the Senate Standing Committee on Information Technologies in 2000: "We have a whole shift in media outlets - a shift in attitude towards the bottom line, circulation and ratings while still flying the flag of public interest and free press."
The fruits of media aggregation - reliance on fewer sources for content, the unwillingness to report without fear or favour on the owner's commercial interests, the increasing amount of "lifestyle" journalism, infotainment and cross-promotion - are evident enough. While Flint might be right that the current "diversity" of media ownership is guarantee of editorial diversity, it is difficult to see how giving more power to the market will make the situation better rather than worse.