OPINION: by Tim WallaceNews Weekly
Dangers in cross-media monopolies
, June 1, 2002
The speech by Australian Financial Review editor-in-chief Michael Gill at the newspaper's Christmas party in 1999 is memorable less for what he actually said - his softly spoken words, what with the prevailing wind and the clinking of glasses, being lost to most - than the much more audible summation provided by reporter Hans van Leeuwen for the benefit of those at the back. "We're all getting pay rises," Hans boomed out to much cheer. "And we're all going to be on TV."
At the time the latter joke seemed to have greater basis in reality. The dot-com bubble hadn't burst and convergence talk had currency; the AFR
was leveraging its brand into television with the "AFR
Market Wrap" program on CNBC; and not a few reporters were being asked to record short segments on digital equipment for download from the website. Being on TV was less remote than a pay rise.AOL-Time Warner deal
Now that Internet mania has subsided, and along with it the boom times media organisations experienced in general, the strategies which convergence seemed to demand are less compelling. The biggest deal clinched in its name, the merger of AOL and Time Warner, is looking - surprise, surprise - more and more a failure, with a $US54 billion loss in the last quarter and a plummeting share price.
Yet the bright light of television continues to hold a moth-like attraction for Fairfax, as chief executive Fred Hilmer made clear last month when he fronted up before the Senate Committee inquiry to cross-media ownership reform to explain why it was a good idea to let media moguls be both princes of print and queens of the screen.
He based much of his argument on quality, a concern which less charitable Fairfax staffers reckon is something new for Hilmer, who admitted at the time of his appointment that he was no great newspaper reader, with his statements since then suggesting nothing has changed.
"In the debate you rarely hear the word quality." Hilmer said. "I have heard the word diversity so many times that it has become almost non-diverse. The argument about diversity has degenerated into an argument about numbers. That is, if we have more numbers, we will have a better media industry that better carries out its policy goals. I think that is an absolutely false position. Diversity without quality is meaningless."
Hilmer reportedly thought his Parliament House outing "good fun". It was certainly courageous, in the full political sense; not only for his frank assessment that deregulation would see the number of major media players shrink to eight or six or even four but also his rebuke to the committee that how Fairfax structured its editorial operations was no-one's business but its own, and that it would go to court to protect those processes from government scrutiny. These statements should see the reform proposal killed stone dead.
Why is jumping into bed with a TV network so desirable that Hilmer is prepared to hold out as a carrot the implausible prospect of launching a newspaper in Brisbane if things go his way?
For starters, there is the attraction of the advertising synergies. Less benign, from a community perspective, is the bean-counter's craving for editorial synergies. "Any network that we combined with would have stronger content as a provider of news and a number of other programs." Hilmer told the committee, and then, responding to Senator Stephen Conroy: "What we would have is a richer and deeper pool from which the people who make editorial decisions can draw."
There are clear synergies between metropolitan newspapers; that there is a journalistic fit between such papers and a commercial TV network is less immediately obvious. Aside from cross-promoting of a few products and personalities like Laurie Oakes, who lends gravitas to Kerry Packer's Nine Network and to Kerry Packer's Bulletin
, any large-scale crossover seems marginal without a radical up-shift in the seriousness of commercial TV (Ross Gittins compering Budget Big Brother
, perhaps) or a down-shift in the style of broadsheet newspaper journalism (maybe Rove writing op-ed pieces).
What aggregation certainly won't enhance is the quality of reporting on the commercial interests of media owners. Last year's report from Bond University's Centre for New Media Research and Education noted: "It is broadly accepted that news producers will be influenced by their proprietors' commercial interests". Which is to say, don't expect to find a scorching critique of Hilmer in a Fairfax newspaper.
If Fairfax partnered Channel Nine owner PBL, how would its newspapers report on issues to do with gambling? What about football coverage if its interests were aligned with the Packers and Murdoch in Foxtel?
An expanded minefield of owner interests through which journalists feel obliged to tread lightly cannot but diminish a media organisation's ability to deliver quality journalism. It doesn't take a management degree to figure that out. Hopefully Hilmer's pointed comments to the Senate committee will ensure the Senate knocks this proposed change on the head.
- Tim Wallace is a freelance journalist - firstname.lastname@example.org