Only The Sangfroid

Mark is of fair average intelligence, who is neither perverse, nor morbid or suspicious of mind, nor avid for scandal. He does live in an ivory tower.

These are his draft thoughts…

I am frightened by the crowd, for we are getting much too loud… You don’t want a #MurdochRoyalCommission

The Press Freedom Index produced by Reporters Without Borders has always been a bit silly.  For example, one of the questions is ‘How difficult is it to launch an independent private media company in light of the following constraints?’ with one of the scales introducing more information that this includes ‘tax reporting procedures’.  Pay your taxes, media companies.

Reporters Without Borders are ideologically driven.  Perfectly fine–they are an advocacy outfit.  But it has always seemed quite strange to see ‘Journalist arrested for actually committing a real crime’ on the same spectrum of infringements against press freedom as ‘Journalist disappeared for writing criticism about the government.’

This gets me rather neatly to the petition produced by former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.  For some time now, Mr Rudd has engaged in vitriolic criticism of the News Corp press, the Australian media company that is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s US company.  Mr Rudd was toppled by his own party in 2010 after his party found him extremely difficult to work with.  He then toppled his successor after whiteanting her and became Prime Minister.  He then lost the next election in a landslide.

Far from blaming his political party for their lack of cohesion, Mr Rudd appears to think that the main culprit for his leadership embarassment was Murdoch.  This rhetoric appears to have resonated with a segment of the public — especially the Boomer Left crowd — and, within only a few days, the number of signatures on Mr Rudd’s petition for a Royal Commission into Murdoch as received some 225 thousand signatures.

Again, I feel like I’m in some kind of alternate universe where dogs talk and birds have human pets, but here I am defending journalism again.  My core message in this post is that Australia has a problem with its media industry generally.

Let’s start somewhere nice and familiar.  We need a political culture that has a clear, crisp idea of what it wants from its political media.  And ‘political media’ here can be quite broad.  I think it includes political art, for example, which no reasonable person could really describe as ‘thriving’.  One issue that’s caught my attention recently (and I really want to do a podcast on it) is the affordances of the environment for political behaviour.  I think it’s important that it is extremely easy for Coca-Cola or McDonalds to promote a new product in our public spaces, but extremely difficult for minor parties and independents to do the same thing.

We then move into the penumbra of one of my core interests: ‘How do people develop legal intuitions?’  But here we are interested in how they form political intuitions.  The usual answer is that they get them from media.  Once upon a time, people were almost forced to consume at least some political media.  You would have to actively avoid seeing a newspaper, a morning news bulletin, or an evening news bulletin in order not to consume some political media.

Back in 2005, the Herald Sun — the paper with the highest circulation — had a circulation figure of about 550 thousand.  As of 2018, it barely scraped over 300 thousand.  Across the board, newspaper readership has declined.  On the same timescale, circulation figures for the Age and the Sydney Morning Herald both dropped by more than 50%.

Numbers are going the same way with television.  It wasn’t that long ago that, if you were going to watch television, you were forced to watch whatever the station had chosen to broadcast.  In Australia, it was extremely common to discover that there was nothing on.

Now, in the glorious age of content streaming, there’s always something on.  You are able to come home from work, flick on the television, spend fifteen to twenty minutes deciding what it is that you want to watch while simultaneously checking social media, and completely and utterly miss the scheduled news bulletin that would air a minute and a half prior to discovering whether or not the final briefcase held $2 million.

The news is depressing.  You’ve had a miserable day.  Why not watch the latest episode of What We Do in the Shadows instead of discovering that people you hate have made decisions you either don’t like or don’t understand?

In response, Australian media companies have been doing more and more to grab your attention.  The incentive is for the explosive and sensational — easy-to-understand hot takes that do not in any way shape or form challenge the reader but instead let’s them know that everything they suspect about the world is correct.  This is why media companies keep lobbying for defamation law reform: they need to be able to tell lies in order to stay profitable.  This is why media companies want Google and Facebook to subsidise them: they want profitable companies to underwrite the losses made from paying the salaries of Andrew Bolt, Peter FitzSimons, and Joe Hildebrand.

You might wonder: ‘Mark, what does any of this have to do with Rudd’s petition?’  And you’d be right: this was drafted quickly on the fly and a better structure would have made that clearer.

Rudd’s attack is unambiguously on Murdoch.  It is disingenous for people to claim that this is about the health of the media industry generally.  What does it matter if one company owns 70% of newspapers when newspaper readership is plummeting?  We can even shift the focus online: if you have a bunch of news outlets and audiences are choosing to read the Australian instead of Independent AustraliaTrue Crimes Weekly, or any other offering from the cesspool of nonsense that claims to be independent news in Australia?

More expressly: why should the government intefere with audience share?

I’m going to go harder on this point.  The old media ownership rules were insane and reflected (to at least some extent) how the media landscape operated prior to the Internet.  It made very little sense in an era where a person in regional Western Australia could stream the same content broadcast by a metropolitan station based in Melbourne.  If you wanted cross-media content, you were similarly in trouble: online text is now frequently accompanied by video, or its journalists appear in podcasts.

It’s true that removing these rules concentrated media ownership, but it did not reduce the diversity of the content being consumed.

We can get the teeth in further.  In 2011, the Gillard Government established the Independent Inquiry into the Media and Media Regulation, chaired by Ray Finkelstein.  The report was delivered in 2012, with its core recommendation being that Australia was in dire need of real media regulation.

The Labor Government thanked Mr Finkelstein for his report and then did absolutely nothing about it.

Establishing a Royal Commission to look predominately at one media company is an extreme response.  Using extraordinary executive powers to go after your political enemies in the media is a sign of democratic backsliding, and we should be deeply, deeply worried that so many of the Left are salivating at this idea.  It is especially concerning when we already know what the answer is: better media regulation about standards of journalism instead of ownership of journalism.

Framed differently, there is nothing that a Royal Commission will tell us that we don’t already know.  There are no allegations of illegal or corrupt conduct for which we need coercive powers to interrogate.  It is just a show trial of journalists and media executives that are loathed by one side of politics.

And that is terrifying.  It should be terrifying to anybody who thinks seriously about political culture in democracy.

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