Mark Tier, Nation Review, March 19-25, 1976, p. 560.
Every now and then — particularly when elections are on — there are statements that there is a terrible bias in the media, and that something should be done to correct it. Such statements are indubitably true. There is a bias in this article, in this newspaper, and in you, gentle reader, as well. Perhaps we should do something about that while we’re at it.
That may seem trivial, but it is usually forgotten when people like Donald Horne charge the Murdoch press with “vendetta journalism” (quite true) and suggest that something should be done to control the “excesses of the press”. Oh, let us not doubt Donald’s intentions — to bring Truth and Honesty to the Murdoch press. What, after all, could be more commendable? (Perhaps a little intelligence …?) But how would it be done?
There is only one way: government controls. A voluntary press council would have little effect. During the election campaign — and ever since — the bias of the Murdoch press has been widely criticised in most media — and such criticisms have been reported even in the Murdoch papers themselves. Did that stop Murdoch from continuing his campaign? Would a voluntary press council order to cease and desist have had any effect? I think not.
Mandatory censorship of some description would be required. If a government gave this power to a press council, whose interests do you think such controls would serve? Such a council would have heavy representation from the media proprietors themselves, as well as journalists, the government perhaps, and [????] supposedly representing the public. Do you think the Herald and Weekly Times and Fairfax groups would have failed to seize the opportunity to silence or castrate their competition? Especially, in this instance, when they could have enlisted the support of the journalists and public’s “representatives”?
Perhaps we should appoint Donald Horne as “Guardian of the Public Interest”. That would be okay if you preferred Donald Horne’s opinions to Rupert Murdoch’s — or Richard Walsh’s — but what if you didn’t? And what would happen when Donald Horne finished his term of office? Who would be appointed? Perhaps, more germane at this time is: who would Malcolm Fraser appoint as “Guardian of the Public Interest”? Rupert Murdoch?
Perhaps we could have a disinterested law, arbitrated by the courts, with all the words such as “excesses of the press” defined objectively so we know it will be fair. A party feeling itself wronged could seek an injunction through the courts against a newspaper or TV station. I would suggest that the first people to seek an injunction under that sort of law would be the Festival of Light, against Nation review. Who can deny that too much Mungo MacCallum is definitely excessive?
No, I think the suggested cures are worse than the disease. Any board given government powers, whether it be the egg marketing board or the press censorship board, tends to be captured by the interests it is supposed to regulate, increasing, not reducing, their power. Would you like to increase the power of the media proprietors? — because that is what would inevitably happen.
A highly illustrative example is the broadcasting control board’s decision to introduce FM radio on the UHF band — a move which was initiated and supported solely by Australian manufacturers of radio equipment; which would have led to a lovely captive market for them. Thankfully, the Labor government established a series of inquiries and finally made a rational decision. But after three years, FM radio is just now being established.
And whose interests do you think the broadcasting control board was serving by alloting the international VHF-FM band to TV channels 3, 4 and 5?; simultaneously refusing to consider introducing FM radio to Australia. You, the potential FM radio consumer? Not on your nelly. It sought to effectively prevent FM radio from ever being introduced, to keep it nice and cosy for commercial radio.
The press critics ignore what might happen if they were successful. But they have also ignored some other interesting developments. The Fairfax group made a conscious decision to orient the National times to the left as a marketing exercise. The Financial review staff have been left relatively free to push whatever ideas they felt like pushing. Thus we have the spectacle of two Fairfax publications “indoctrinating” the establishment with their leftish ideas (hardly radical but hardly Liberal party either). Meanwhile the Sydney morning herald and the Sun advertised themselves as “unbiased” during the election campaign — and they made sure of it by totting up the inches given to each party — while former readers of the Australian (whose readership was 55 percent Labor supporters would you believe) deserted it in droves.
One definite result of Murdoch’s “excesses” was to diminish forever the influence of the Australian among the left-oriented of Australia’s elite. Next time around, the Australian will be preaching mainly to the converted — presuming it lasts that long. And one should not fail to mention the bias of the ABC — which has a significantly larger audience than the Australian’s 144,000 circulation.
The suggestion solutions of the Donald Hornes of this world are misguided and misdirected — though their criticisms are not. One gains the distinct impression that their main gripe is that the power of the press is being exercised by Rupert Murdoch instead of Donald Horne — or whoever. Why exchange one wouldbe kingmaker for another?
Even so, there is no doubt that the Australian media is controlled by very few hands. Why not ask the question: for what reason is the Australian media in too few hands? And what should be done about that to widen media ownership?
The simplest way to disperse ownership of newspapers would be to reduce income tax. Income tax pushes up the cost of labour. Newspapers — and all media in fact — are labour intensive industries. Reducing income tax would reduce the cost of labour and would increase the profitability of newspapers. Papers such as Nation review would be more viable; would be more able to expand; and it would become easier to establish new papers.
With radio and television the answer is even simpler. How did the press proprietors come to own so much of television and radio? The government handed it to them on a platter, and then restricted competition at both radio and television, prevented cable TV and FM radio from existing at all. It is hardly surprising that radio and television are highly profitable — though the gloss has come off TV since the increased requirement for Australian content.
Why not abolish licensing? Let anyone start a station and take their chances? San Francisco, often compared to Sydney, supports about 100 radio stations and 10 TV stations. Ownership and control of these media are highly diffused.
2MBS-FM and 3MBS-FM have shown what is possible. Let’s have more!
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