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Democracy and diversity: media ownership in Australia

By David Vadori - posted Wednesday, 11 June 2014


The democratic ideal of a media which is impartial, and designed to inform citizens, is inevitably compromised as media ownership becomes more concentrated. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights unequivocally states that everyone has the inalienable right "to hold opinions without interference...". However this right is undermined as media ownership becomes more concentrated and the number of proprietors is reduced. Concentration of media ownership is frequently seen as a problem of contemporary media and society. The fundamental threat that concentrated media poses to any society is that, as the influence of privately funded media increases, the democratic capacity of the media as an instrument to inform and educate citizens is diminished. This is due to a reduction in the numberof perspectives that are available to citizens on any given issue, at any given time; and this interferes with an individual's ability to formulate an opinion, as access to information presented in an unbiased and balanced fashion becomes more and more restricted. In Australia, this problem is markedly more acute than elsewhere in the world and thus governments should strive to ensure that the Australian media is impartial and informative.

An International Media Concentration Research Project, led by Professor Eli Noam of Columbia University, found that Australian newspaper ownership was the most concentrated of 26 countries surveyed, and among the most concentrated in the democratic world. For example, News Corp titles account for 59% of all sales of daily newspapers, with sales of 17.3 million papers per week in Australia, making News Corp Australia's most influential newspaper publisher by a considerable margin. In comparison the two most prominent daily newspapers owned by News Corp in the United Kingdom, 'The Sun' and'The Times', have a combined average daily circulation of 2.6 million, or approximately 24% of the total number of all daily papers sold. Therefore, by world standards the circulation and ownership of Australia's print media is largely monopolistic and this undermines the democratic ideal of a pluralistic society in which a range of views are presented to citizens.

In Australia increasing concentration of media ownership has been a historical trend. For instance, print media ownership has shrunk ever since it reached its zenith in 1923 when there were 26 daily newspapers, with 21 independent owners. This reduction in the number of proprietors may be attributed to the relatively small size of Australia's market when compared with economies of size and scope in more traditional media markets, such as the United Kingdom or the United States. This has consistently been a restrictive factor on the competitive potential of Australia's print media landscape. However, this should not be allowed to form the basis of an excuse by which concentration of media ownership in Australia can be dismissed as something which is understandable or even unavoidable. For wherever media ownership is concentrated, commercially driven, mass-market media dominates and democracy is threatened.

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The 2013 federal election demonstrated the corrosive effects of concentrated media ownership on democracy. Individuals and corporations with vested commercial interests in the outcome of the election, such as Rupert Murdoch, the founder and CEO of News Corp, used the media to sway" voters with headlines such as: "Australia needs Tony" and "Kick this Mob [Labor] Out". These headlines appeared on the front pages of some of Australia's most widely circulated newspapers, including The Daily Telegraph and The Courier Mail. This type of media coverage is contrary to what is expected of the media in a democracy where citizens should be protected from individuals and corporations that use the media to further a particular political agenda. For example the political agenda of Rupert Murdoch at the last federal election was clearly to secure a Coalition election victory; this sort of partisanship is damaging to the democratic process as it contradicts the media's obligation to report fairly on facts and to avoid opinion wherever possible. Thus, the 2013 federal election has shown that opinion has become the defining characteristic of mainstream-media coverage, with newspapers making no attempt to conceal their political biases.

In a move to cement the prevalence of their own media empires, commercial media conglomerates have sought to stifle the growth of new-media and mitigate its ability to connect with consumers. For example, Kevin Rudd has suggested that the motivation behind News Corp's partisan coverage of the 2013 Federal election was to ensure that Murdoch-owned News Corp and Foxtel were protected from a faster broadband network, promised by Labor, which would have provided ordinary Australians with greater means to access alternative media content for free online. At present, there is an evident disparity between the power and influence of large media corporations such as News Corp and new emerging media platforms such as social-media. This disparity undermines the democratic ideal of a media which is able to present a range of views to its citizens.

The difference between the influence of mainstream media platforms, such as newspapers, and the influence of new-media platforms, such as online blogs, is evident when for instance, the reach of the Australian Independent Media Network is contrasted with that of The Herald Sun. The Australian Independent Media Network is a less well-known, but nonetheless vocal source of online news that publishes content regularly and has an audience of around 5000, whereas, The Herald Sun, an established Murdoch-owned paper, has a daily circulation of over 500,000. Primarily it is this disparity between the influence of mainstream-media and new-media that is detrimental to the democratic process, as the alternative, but equally relevant perspectives conveyed through alternative media are inevitably dwarfed by their mainstream counterparts.

Government policies over the last two decades have reinforced rather than challenged, the concentration of media ownership in Australia. Both sides of politics have shied away from moves which might increase media diversity, such as strengthening public service broadcasting or encouraging initiatives that might pave the way for smaller companies to become more significant and influential players. Successive governments have failed not only to acknowledge the public's interest as citizens, but also to protect them as consumers; their policy actions have frequently invoked free-market rhetoric, but this only obscures just how imperfectly and partially market forces operate, and masks the extent to which government policy has played a role in shaping those markets. A more direct and honest approach is needed to address the problems associated with concentrated media ownership and the government should investigate the ways it can better respond to claims of bias within mainstream media.

In order to avoid partisanship within the media, whilst simultaneously protecting free-speech and fostering the growth of a healthy democracy, measures designed to reverse the current trend towards concentration of media ownership, and encourage diversity and pluralism within the media need to be developed. Currently the primary safeguards that exist against media monopolization are the specific controls over media ownership contained in the Broadcasting Services Act 1992. These safeguards prevent the common ownership of broadcasting licenses that serve the same region. The justification for these laws is that, the effective functioning of a democracy requires a diverse ownership of the daily mass media to ensure public life is reported in a fair and open manner. However, Australia needs tougher laws to combat the undemocratic consequences of concentrated media ownership.

A report of the independent inquiry into the media and media regulation released in 2012, otherwise known as the Finkelstein report, conducted by the Hon R Finkelstein QC, made sweeping recommendations for legislative reform within the media. The Finkelstein report described the Australian media as: "too concentrated in ownership, biased, vindictive, sloppy and at times unethical in its coverage of people and events." The report proposed that a government-funded regulatory authority be created to pass judgment on news reporting. This hypothetical government-body would have the legally enforceable power to adjudicate on journalistic fairness and make the media answerable to the courts. The creation of such a body must be regarded as an important first step towards greater transparency and accountability within the media, however more needs to be done.

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Provision must be made for alternative forms of media. For example the growth of the internet has been instrumental in the development of new-media and the emergence of some new globally powerful operators. Advocates of the internet's potential to offset the power of mainstream media, claim that the internet naturally fosters an environment where a variety of views are both tolerated and accepted, and that for this reason the internet should be considered an appropriate medium through which to equipoise the influence of mainstream media. However the internet has only been an ostensible solution to the effects of concentrated media ownership and has had little measurable effect in terms of diffusing the power of mainstream media. The internet has failed to seriously challenge the influence of global media oligopolies such as Fairfax and News Corp, both which own and preside over extensive online networks. For instance, News Corp owns Kidspot.com.au, taste.com.au and homelife.com.au and holds 50% stakes in CareerOne.com.au and carsguide.com.au. Furthermore News Corp also runs websites for most of its 172 daily, Sunday, weekly, bi-weekly and tri-weekly newspapers, magazines and publications. Developments such as this ought to be considered in the process of developing policy relating to media ownership, and Governments should investigate ways that the editorial impartiality of online media can be effectively monitored and regulated.

Furthermore, besides the immediate adoption of the recommendations made by the Finkelstein Report relating to the establishment of a government-funded regulatory authority to preside over matters relating to media integrity, the government should also increase funding for its public broadcasters, instead of cutting funding as the current Federal Liberal/National Coalition Government has announced. Australia's public broadcasters provide an invaluable alternative to the concentrated and oligopolistic corporate media that dominates in Australia. Moreover, our public broadcasters are consistently hailed for their editorial impartiality, and despite claims of bias in the ABC's coverage of news and events, a recent independent audit conducted by Gerald Stone concluded that: 'As an independent observer, [there were] no grounds for concern…'. Therefore Australian governments should use public broadcasters as a model by which to monitor and scrutinize the editorial impartiality of privately owned media.

To protect democracy, governments have an obligation to detect and remove political bias within the media. It is essential that the media act as a safe-haven for political neutrality, and partisan media coverage should not be tolerated. Citizens must be allowed to form opinions free from the undue influence of corporations or individuals that express particular ideological, commercial or social interests through the media. Ultimately, Governments ought to make ensuring the integrity and neutrality of the Australian media a priority. After all, it is in the best interests of any democracy to have a robust, independent and impartial media that is free from encroaching corporate interests.

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About the Author

David Vadori is a secondary school student.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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