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  • Writer's pictureBronwyn Kelly

Let's secure media diversity and democracy in Australia

Australia's parliamentary Senate is currently holding an inquiry into media diversity in Australia. The inquiry has been prompted by the fact that over 500,000 Australians signed a petition launched by former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd calling for a royal commission into Rupert Murdoch and the excessive control he has over Australia's news media.

Rudd has called Murdoch a "cancer on democracy" and clearly many Australians agree. They agree that news media business ownership is too concentrated in Australia. We have an oligopoly problem in news and public interest journalism - one which is effectively a duopoly because it is dominated so heavily by two media businesses, Murdoch (News Corp) and Nine.

The Senate is obviously trying to straighten out the mess created by governments that have relaxed cross-media ownership rules when they shouldn't have. The problem has been brewing for over a decade, but it was the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government that really let it get out of control when, in 2017, they removed the “two-out-of-three rule” which had until then prevented news businesses from owning all three non-digital platforms – print, radio and television – in one geographical market. Nine then rushed to acquire Fairfax and now Nine and Murdoch each own print, TV and radio businesses in the same market. Australia now suffers one of the most concentrated media markets in the western world. It's not the way to assure a well-functioning democracy. It's a major threat to democracy.

Still the tendency in Australia has been to blame the digital giants, Google and Facebook, for the obvious sins of the government in their creation of cross-media ownership problems in the non-digital media realm of print, TV and radio. Google and Facebook have their faults but news media concentration is not one of them. On the contrary, the digital platforms including Google and Facebook are shaving off the market power of the concentrated non-digital news oligopoly. They are the only thing standing between Australians and the Murdoch media in his incessant drive for power. They are being blamed for the current job losses in journalism but the real culprit in that regard is Murdoch himself and the Coalition government that has attacked the budget for the ABC. This is something the Senate Inquiry needs to understand if the inquiry into media diversity in Australia is to have any prospect of helpful outcomes for our democracy.

The Founder of Australian Community Futures Planning, Dr Bronwyn Kelly, has made a submission to the Senate Inquiry on media diversity in Australia, offering some clarity on the cause of our problems in digital and non-digital platforms in the information market. This submission calls for the establishment of a collaborative planning process for development of a regulatory framework for all players in the information market - those in non-digital news media, and those in the broader information market. The fact is that our news media and journalism itself are in transition from the pre-digital to the digital age and this is an unavoidable disruption to their business models that, depending on how we handle it, can go either way for democracy.

ACFP has submitted that democracy can only benefit if governments step up and do something they haven't yet bothered about - they haven't sought to engage Australians in discussion about the best way to set up an ethical and fair information market in the digital age. And they haven't looked at how media business ownership should be structured in that market to safeguard our open democracy. As a result they are developing silly, anti-competitive market interventions to prop up Murdoch and allow him to dominate not just the non-digital platforms of print, TV and radio, as he does now, but the digital platforms as well.

This anti-competitive intervention is being wedged onto Australia's information market in the form of a "News Media Bargaining Code" developed by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (the ACCC), who really should know better. Safeguarding democracy they are NOT. In fact, if the most preposterous version of the Code proposed so far - the "exposure draft" - is adopted by parliament it could pave the way for Murdoch to acquire a search engine - which means he would control not just most of the news we read but the means of how we search for news online as well. His domination of our democracy would then be complete. We would have reached the peak (or nadir) of plutocracy.

It might be argued that this prospect is remote, but it's not. We are verging towards it without protection. There are currently no regulations in place to prevent it and, for as long as we have a regulatory vacuum on this, Murdoch can indeed move in that direction. It would be "Goodbye democracy!" if he did. The Senate must wake up and stop it.

ACFP's submission makes two important suggestions to prevent this impending dystopian nightmare: (1) establishment of a national community engagement process of collaborative planning for an ethical and fair 21st century democratic information market; and (2) introduction of legislation to prohibit greater market concentration via cross-media / cross-platform takeovers.

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