Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Rupe's staunch lieutenants warn that the sky will fall

The picture on the right is how News Ltd editors see in their mind communications minister Stephen Conroy's proposed Public Interest Media Advocate, which is one legislative measure the minister announced yesterday in Australia. Flagship masthead the Australian today carries a whole slew of terrifying stories that make Conroy out to be some sort of Stalinist ogre intent on muzzling free speech in an uncontrolled Orwellian frenzy. Please note that all your freedoms will be severely curtailed from the point where Conroy's reforms pass through Parliament (if they ever do). Well, not, really. My advice to anyone who wants to know what the media reforms mean is to avoid a News Ltd paper entirely because there seems to be an excess of Chicken Littleism running around their offices since Conroy went public with his legislative agenda. I would read the stories but the outraged tone and the convoluted grammar it produces are too difficult to negotiate in comfort. So go instead to the Conversation, where you can read some views owned by experts in Australian media.

Conroy's proposals stem from the Convergence Review and from the Finkelstein Inquiry but they seem pretty mild, especially when compared to what Finkelstein recommended. With approximately 70 percent of Australia's print media, News Ltd no doubt has a few worried managers thinking about what Conroy's proposed public interest test means for them and their boss, octogenerian Rupe, who also owns part of Sky News Australia (pay TV channel) and Foxtel (pay TV service). Rupe's son Lachlan sits on the board of free-to-air TV channel Network Ten; Ten has been running a fair amount of editorial sourced from News Ltd offices in the recent past and this is likely to increase. With a lot to lose News Ltd can hardly be blamed for running violently counter to Conroy's views, but it's just not journalism. It's made up of text but if you read the fine print on the label you see that it also contains nuts.

The ABC has been more measured, even though their story is a bit misleading as it seems to suggest Conroy plans to implement two media oversight bodies, where in fact there is only one. Fairfax has put up a reasonable story that initially focuses on whether the government is really committed to the reform package going through Parliament. Compared to the News Ltd assault, Fairfax seems to have no opinion for or against the reforms, which is refreshing.

One thing that keeps cropping up in these stories is the existence of media diversity in Australia as a result of the internet. It's true that there are a number of online news sources such as Crikey, Independent Australia, New Matilda - to name just those involved in the areas of politics. But their traffic remains weak compared to the established majors. Compare traffic at Fairfax's Brisbane Times, which is effectively a start-up in a city that also has the News Ltd vehicle the Courier-Mail, a player for generations, with traffic at the Sydney Morning Herald. We're talking an order of magnitude different. (You can compare traffic at these Fairfax sites because the company's new website design shows pageviews for leading stories on a daily basis.) Legacy converts to volume, there's no question. The influence of a newspaper like the Daily Telegraph strongly overshadows that of a website like New Matilda. It's just not a point that you can reasonably contest.

From what I can recall there are about seven parliamentary sitting weeks before the federal election in September. Labor's cross-bench allies have voiced concerns about the proposed legislation, and we'll see if Conroy and Julia Gillard can get their critical approval before tabling the laws in Parliament. It's all up in the air at the moment. Besides, it's a lot less than many people have been hoping for. 

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