What’s thrown over the fence and into the garden every day? … Is the paranoia about Murdoch unhinged?

Do you want to hear about how Rupert Murdoch lactates black oil for politicians to suckle?  There’s a podcast for you.  Are you currently subscribed to News Corp news but don’t know how to cancel your subscription?  The Chaser set up a service to cancel your subscription for you.  Do you think that Rupert Murdoch has too much power over The Australian media?  Well, former Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, and previous GetUp! campaign director, Sally Rugg, have a campaign to establish a Royal Commission inquiry into Rupert Murdoch just for you.

At some point we should ask if something that looks like an unhinged, irrational obsession actually is an unhinged, irrational obsession.  After all, holding inquiries into media companies that say things that we don’t like is usually more familiar in repressive autocracies rather than liberal democracies…

… indeed, this is exactly the argument being run against holding a Senate Inquiry into ABC and SBS complaints handling. ABC and SBS are public entities, but they don’t have independent oversight of their complaints process.  The Chair of the ABC, Ita Buttrose, has claimed that holding an inquiry into the ABC is ‘political interference‘.  Elsewhere, the Chair of the ABC made the claim that it was ‘highly unusual‘ for a legislation committee to inquiry into an agency; last year, the same committee held an inquiry into Australia Post.

The fact that this debate fractures down partisan lines should give everybody a bit of warning that they need to think through the issues carefully.  When is it appropriate for parliament to inquire into a media company?  To what extent should the ABC play by the same rules as other statutory agencies?  To what extent should the ABC play by the same rules as other media companies?  How comfortable are we about parliamentary inquiries that smell a lot like they’re motivated by partisan attacks?

Here is the argument about an inquiry into News Corp in its entirety.  The ownership of media outlets in Australia is regarded by some to be highly concentrated in one company, News Corp.  This level of concentration is considered to be unhealthy and, therefore goes the argument, coercive State powers are needed to fix the media ecosystem.

News Corp owns only one television station in Australia (SkyTV) and, unless you are highly addicted to political content, you don’t know anybody who watches it.  News Corp owns a lot of newspapers: somewhere in the ballpark of about 140 newspapers (in June 2019, Fairfax owned a similar number of publications).  Again, unless you are highly addicted to political content, you don’t know anybody who can name more than about five newspapers.  Newspaper readership in Australia is shrinking rapidly.

So News Corp owns a significant proportion of a media type that fewer and fewer people are consuming, and it owns one TV station that practically nobody watches.  Awkwardly, News Corp could rebut the argument that it owned too many newspapers by merging more newspapers together reducing both the overall number of newspapers but also increasing the ownership share of other companies.  And it’s that last sentence that should make more people wonder about the ‘media concentration’ argument.

GetUp! produced a report co-authored by a former ABC senior executive that tried a slightly different argument: that News Corp simply had too much share of readership. Of the people who read a newspaper in metropolitan Australia, 59% of them read a News Corp newspaper.  But, again, should we care?  Melbourne’s most read newspaper, The Herald Sun, had an ordinary readership of about 500,000 readers about a decade ago; now it’s about 300,000 and shrinking.  The population of Melbourne is about 5 million, so we’re talking somewhere in the ballpark of about 15% of the Melbourne population reading the Herald Sun.

The argument goes that the real problem with News Corp isn’t the size of the direct audience but, instead, the size of the indirect audience.  If News Corp makes an editorial decision to run some story, then radio and television will pick up the story and run with it.  But it’s difficult to see how this is a problem with News Corp and not a problem with those derivative audiences.  Let’s say the Herald Sun runs an ‘African gangs’ story on its front page.  We all know that I think there should be serious consequences for running that kind of story, but nobody’s compelling the other media outlets from running derivative content based on that editorial decision.

The fanatical, borderline obsessive, focus on News Corp is both weird and unhelpful.  Even if we stay away from the deeply cooked conspiratorial end of the commentary (and the above example of Rupert Murdoch lactating black oil isn’t even in the territory of crazy outliers for deeply cooked takes), the fact that we talk about problems with Australian media first through the focus on News Corp and then broaden the perspective to look at others means that we don’t really have a serious discussion about the quality of media in Australia and how to fix it.  In my recent post about the toxicity of social media, I provided examples of quite horrific content that was going to air in Australian mainstream media, with none of the examples being from News Corp; yet the overwhelming response from people who clearly didn’t read the piece was to dichotomise the discussion as News Corp v Social Media.  This obsession is unhealthy and it obscures the real problem.

Australia needs a Royal Commission into the media industry.  Self-regulation is a conspicuous failure, and market forces are clearly not regulating content appropriately.  Unless we have good grounds for doing so, we shouldn’t be holding inquiries into individual media companies.

Author: Mark Fletcher

Mark Fletcher is a Canberra-based PhD student, writer, and policy wonk who writes about law, conservatism, atheism, and popular culture. Read his blog at OnlyTheSangfroid. He tweets at @ClothedVillainy

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