April 19th 2003

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: Iraq: winning the peace

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Foreign debt binge threatens economy

Ethanol a solution to air pollution caused lung cancers

Wider focus needed on Murray Darling water controversy

ENVIRONMENT: Federal bushfire inquiry's challenge

TRADE: Safeguarding our $800m wheat contracts

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Why shouldn't everyone have the bomb? / Strategic history / North Korean blackmail

MEDIA: Journalism becomes a commodity

LETTERS: Nationals misrepresented (letter)

BOOKS: Globalization and its Discontents, by Joseph Stiglitz

EDUCATION: Iraq: the view in the classroom

DRUGS: United Nations body slams Sydney injecting room

BOOKS: The Marriage Problem: How our Culture has Weakened Families, by James Q. Wilson

BOOKS: Tolkien's Christianity: J.R.R. Tolkien's Sanctifying Myth, by Bradley J. Birzer

FILM REVIEW: Ned Kelly (2003)

Books promotion page

Journalism becomes a commodity

by Tim Wallace

News Weekly, April 19, 2003
Newspaper articles about real estate might seem an odd place to begin a defence of journalism as the fourth estate. The issue of who is buying luxurious abodes in ritzy suburbs is not, after all, especially central to the workings of democracy.

Last month, however, journalists at Melbourne's The Age got very hot about property, staging a 24-hour strike over Fairfax management's decision to replace editorial space on the front page of Saturday's "Domain" section with an in-house promotion for real estate services offered by the company. To the journalists it was, to use a few clichés of the craft, the thin edge of the wedge and a straw to break the camel's back, a move they saw as blurring the line between advertising and editorial and compromising the newspaper's credibility.

The dispute highlights the tension at the heart of commercial media organisations, as journalists seek to adhere to their professional code of ethics - in particular, to not allow advertising or other commercial considerations to undermine accuracy, fairness or independence - while proprietors and their managerial agents seek to maximise profits.

Due lip service is, of course, paid by the latter to the concerns of the former; but when media executives insist on calling journalistic endeavours "advertising platforms", those at the editorial coal face cannot help but feel the media's public-interest role is taking a back seat to commercial interests.

As John Singleton put it at a media forum (which also included Fairfax chief Fred Hilmer, News Ltd chief John Hartigan and Murdoch Magazines head Matt Handbury) held on the same day as the Age strike: "I know it's vulgar but the truth is that we're all in advertising."

According to Eric Beecher, the former chief executive of Text Media and a former editor-in-chief of the Herald & Weekly Times, "money, budgets and profits have become the biggest issues on the minds of most senior editorial executives in Australia - people whose equivalents 10 or 20 years ago were almost totally preoccupied with covering stories and breaking news".

Delivering the Andrew Olle Media Lecture in 2000, Beecher said this:

"Journalism and serious media, like many other elements of the best of the 20th century, has been systemically transformed from something that had institutional status into a commodity.

"The old-style media barons like Frank Packer, Keith Murdoch, Charles Moses and Warwick Fairfax senior had real fun as they ruled their empires paternalistically and autocratically, without barely a thought for shareholders or stakeholders or returns on equity...

"Well, the fun is gone. The people who manage today's media companies are employed to be commercial. They have MBAs and marketing degrees, and as highly qualified employees they are not the people to blame personally for what is happening to journalism and the media industry and the ABC.

"If you want to apportion guilt, blame a system that demands growth and profits and lower costs from every public organisation, regardless of whether it produces journalism or germicides."

These issues lie at the heart of the current debate regarding cross-media ownership laws.

A year ago, in The Age, Communications Minister Richard Alston outlined his case for why such laws should go in.

"In the absence of any compelling public-interest justification, cross-media rules constitute an unacceptable restraint of trade. Diversity for diversity's sake is not enough. Guaranteeing diversity of entertainment options can safely be left to the marketplace,'' he wrote.

"The only legitimate public interest lies in maximising the diversity of news and current affairs so that the population can be exposed to a wide range of competing news sources, faces and opinions - the essential prerequisites for an informed citizenry in a modern democracy."

Had the good minister been more concerned with the public interest and less with the purity of his vision of the media as just another industry, he might have played ball with the four senators whose votes he needed - Meg Lees, Shane Murphy, Brian Harradine and Len Harris - and agreed to amend the Trade Practices Act by classifying print, television, radio and pay TV as part of the one market (thereby limiting the grave risk of mssive media consolidation). But this he has not been prepared do to, on the basis that competition law should apply universally. Which is to say, the Government chooses to see the production of journalism as no different to that of germicides.

Thus the push to do away with the cross-ownership laws has faltered, at least for now. Media companies are thereby prevented, according to Senator Alston, from "pursuing business strategies that reflect new media realities". Last April the Minister was pointing to those new realities as being the driver behind the AOL-Time Warner merger. AOL is now struggling under $US27 billion of debt, and its stock price has dropped 75 per cent since acquiring Time Warner in January 2001.

If that's the reality Australian companies have been prevented from embracing, shareholders should breathe a sigh of relief.

  • Tim Wallace is a freelance journalist - twallace@today.com.au

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