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Parliamentary Inquiry into Media Diversity: Personal Submission

Senator Hanson-Young recently posted a tweet about the Parliamentary Inquiry into Media Diversity currently happening in Australia, part of a growing movement to improve the dismal state of Australian media concentration.

And what can I say? I had some time. Here’s a quick write-up that I submitted to the Inquiry.

Summary

This submission is a personal perspective that represents only my own views. I am an Australian citizen who grew up in rural Australia, moved to Melbourne, and now work within the technology sector. This is an issue that I feel represents one of the foundational flaws in our nation, and so I feel compelled to write to you today.

This submission covers:

  • A personal experience of media concentration in Australia
  • Views on the impact of said concentration on Australia
  • Proposals for the mitigation of these impacts

The proposals outlined are, in summary:

  • Increasing the labour power of journalists within media corporations in order to resist top-down influence.
  • Creating a market structure that discourages monopolization and conglomeration within the media.
  • Increased transparency around branding that communicates the conglomerated structure of Australian media to consumers

Personal Experience

I grew up in Albury, on the border of Victoria and New South Wales. It is a moderately sized town that most Australians have at least driven through at some point. In my youth, I had several sources of news available to me, but saw the diversity of those choices disappear before my very eyes. The Border Mail, the largest local newspaper, was acquired by Fairfax Media in 2006. It was the last bastion of somewhat-independent newspapers in the town. Additional choices like the Herald Sun (News Corp), The Age (Fairfax/Nine), The Australian (News Corp), The Daily Telegraph (News Corp) seemed to supply a range of choice, and yet I saw a uniformity of tone, perspective and opinion stretch across them.

When it came to political and controversial ideas, I often learned of the opposing views through alternate means such as friends and family, literature, or less accessible news media not found in newsagents or consumed by my community. In the early 00’s, internet news was still a nascent phenomenon and I did not have consistent access to the internet.

I vividly recall believing that WMDs had been discovered in Iraq, and that belief being a significant factor in the community’s support of the war. This narrative – now shown by history to be a lie fabricated from whole cloth[1] – was manufactured to generate the basis of support necessary for Australians to tolerate the invasion. I believe that this was an example of top-down editorialization by the monopolizers of Australian media to achieve a desired goal. In retrospective analysis, the gaping flaws in this narrative stand bare. It is difficult to believe that had rigorous investigative journalism been carried out and listened to, that we would have thrown ourselves so eagerly into the breach.

When it came to election-time, the papers spoke little of policy and much of character. Political struggle was often framed as a conflict between good and evil, with editorial content dominating the front page and often being indistinguishable from supposedly more detached pieces. Scandals were hyper-focused or ignored, depending on the utility of that scandal to the goals of the paper. My family and friends in rural Australia especially could not tell you much about the policy of the party they disagreed with, only speculate on its moral character. 

I felt vindicated when I learned of Australia’s dismal Print HHI[2][3], an indicator of media concentration. We are better only than Egypt and China in our ranking. A market is considered highly concentrated if it has an HHI of 2,500 – Australia is at 4,200!

Consequences

There are some, I imagine, who will ask why media concentration matters. They will often evoke the “marketplace of ideas”, and propose that Australians either want their media arranged as it is currently, or that it is the inevitable consequence of allowing a just freedom of the press and freedom of the marketplace. Yet even the most avid believer in any free market will acknowledge the existence and explicitly non-free nature of monopolization. A market dominated by monopolies is no market at all. The distinction between a media landscape dominated by a few state institutions and one dominated by a few private institutions is, for the common Australian, a matter of semantics. Either allows a small portion of individuals to control the information streams of an enormous amount of the population, and nobody in the history of humanity has ever used such power altruistically.

We have seen the consequences of this arms-race of radicalization and propagandization across the world. The United States and United Kingdom have perhaps never seemed more divided in living memory. People no longer disagree on values, solutions, or ideology, they disagree on fundamental facts about the world. When disagreement occurs on such a fundamental level, compromise and consensus are impossible. It is an abstract symptom, with many causes, but the creation of controlled narrative being prioritized over the delivery of inconvenient journalism is a central component.

It is human nature to believe ourselves to be logical, objective, unable to be easily swayed or manipulated. We wish whole-heartedly for it to be true, and that is the first warning sign to be sceptical of any belief. In reality, as any con-man will tell you, it is the person who is confident in their own infallibility who is the easiest mark. The unfortunate reality of our primate heritage is that there are mind-viruses out there, just as transmissible and virulent as physical ones. Pernicious, insidious and powerful ways of shifting the mind to entirely self-contradictory, violent, dehumanising perspectives. Such mind-viruses find fertile earth when the information streams of individuals can be fully controlled, and shrivel in the light of investigation, discussion and criticism.

If we do not begin to turn the tide on media concentration, we will see a narrowing of the discourse in Australia. The Overton window will shift to a position of comfort for those who control it. We will continue to see the growth of radicalization, of a divergence of our shared reality, and an improvement in the ability to manipulate and control.

Solutions

Empower Journalists

Democracy is not a concept confined to the walls of Parliament and the voting booth. It is a political philosophy which must infuse every part of our lives if we wish to maintain a just and free structure of power in which to come to consensus. A belief in democracy is fundamentally based on the idea that wide consensus generally makes better decisions than narrow consensus.

I do not believe that any Australian journalist originally sets out to create propaganda, construct a narrative, or generally engage in manipulative practices. Few begin their careers with such goals, even the most acerbic and ideologically motivated. The goal of any reform cannot be to sideline strong and heartfelt opinions in the name of unachievable objectivity. 

Politically-motivated editorial control almost universally comes from those who control the organisation, either the majority shareholders or private owners. The issue is not a single journalist expressing a controversial or even wholly incorrect view amongst a plethora of views – it is in the organised coordination of such views, the construction of a coherent yet misleading narrative, and the persistent enforcement of said narrative across a media conglomerate.

Empowering journalists involves giving them real and untransferable power over the actions of the wider corporation. I propose that media corporations require substantial worker-elected representation on the board of directors. Such an initiative – referred to as Codetermination – has precedent in Germany, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and United States. Giving journalists increased democratic control over their workplace makes it more difficult for the owners to mandate or influence narratives.

Discourage Media Conglomeration

It is little use in breaking up monopolistic media conglomerates without addressing the market conditions that led to their arisal. Such a tactic amounts to treating symptoms but ignoring cause, and will just kick the can down the road by a decade until conglomeration occurs again under some other banner. But what are the market conditions that led to such widespread and aggressive acquisition?

  • Small news organisations struggle to make profit and can easily fold in times of financial stress, making acquisition attractive to small owners
  • Large media conglomerates have multiple, diversified revenue streams that give them a far larger base of stability to weather financial stress
  • The collapse of print media has turned it into a loss-leader, maintained mostly for political influence and so unattractive for new entrants to the market
  • Mergers of media organisations are not sufficiently prevented from reducing market competition

To address these issues, I propose the following:

  • A large reduction in company tax rate for independent news organisations that are not a part of any conglomerate, and are majority owned by the journalists who work within them.
  • A moderate reduction in company tax rate for newsagents and other print media selling businesses that stock said independent news
  • A flexible, very low interest scheme for lending startup capital to nascent news organisations, allowing them to raise capital without diluting ownership.
  • A mandated minimum HHI, where any acquisition or merger that would increase the HHI above this level is rejected out of hand.

Transparent Ownership

I believe that much of the complacency many Australians feel about media concentration is due to the opaque nature of many conglomerates. For the average Australian picking up a newspaper from the stand or viewing a news website, it is very difficult to tell who the ultimate owners of that brand are. Media conglomerates and news organisations have an especially critical duty of transparency to their readers about whose interests they represent. And yet, it is currently difficult without engaging in some internet searching and Wikipedia page reading to ascertain exactly who controls what.

I propose that news organisations be required to explicitly and uniformly declare which organisation(s) owns them on any web page they host, program they create, and newspaper they print. A consumer should be able to clearly identify the owners of a news organisation from the media it produces. This would involve explicit declaration and prominent display of majority stakeholders in the case of publicly held companies, and private owners in the case of privately held companies.

Conclusion

The way we learn about the world shapes our minds and our actions. It is an awe-inspiring amount of power to control the information a person consumes. The central premise of a free society is that the accruement of power over others must always be exchanged with a responsibility to use that power in an ethical manner. Thank you for your time and attention.

[1] Man whose WMD lies led to 100,000 deaths confesses all, The Independent, 2012

[2] https://www.investopedia.com/terms/h/hhi.asp Herfindahl-Hirschman Index (HHI)

[3] Australia’s newspaper ownership is among the most concentrated in the world, The Guardian, Nick Evershed 2020