||Issue No. 131||12 April 2002|
Interview: Cross Wires
International: Two Tribes
Activists: Beneath the Veil
Unions: Terror Australis
History: A Labor Footnote To The Royal Funeral
Economics: Private Affluence, Public Rip-Off
Review: The Great Hall of the People
Poetry: Waiting for the Living Wage
Satire: Israel Recruits NAB To Close West Bank
The Locker Room
Week in Review
A Voice for the Shareholders
Noses in the Trough
Memo: Carmen Lawrence
Police: Make the Boss a Woman
Baby Faced Brogden
Workers Online - Aoteroa
Interview with Peter Lewis
Where is the media ownership debate up to at the moment?
As you know the Federal Government has introduced draft legislation that is very dangerous for diversity in two ways. First, because it would allow a further concentration of ownership of the media. Second, because they're also proposing to intervene, or to be able to intervene in quite an active way, in the editorial operations of newspapers that's something that both journalists and newspaper employers would be very concerned about.
What sort of new rights are involved there?
They're proposing that through the Australian Broadcasting Authority they would be able to make judgements about whether there was separation of newsrooms in different parts of a media empire. We that that's an industrial issue. It's not appropriate for the Government to be using that as a device to determine rights of publishers.
What would supporters of the changes to laws say the advantages for Australia in freeing up media ownership laws?
I'm not sure they say there are any advantages. What they do say is that there just should not be media specific laws. There's been a global campaign by many media employers to argue that the media shouldn't have any special regulation in ownership. Rather, it should be governed by the general laws that cover trade practices or competition law. We've always argued that the special nature of media and the role that media plays in both the democratic and culture lives of the nation, means that they do need special rights, special requirements.
Wearing your other hat you are President of the International Federation of Journalists, where have the inroads overseas been made?
The three areas of greatest concern at the moment are first, what's happening in Canada. Recently almost all the newspapers in Canada have been taken over by television companies. So we're seeing the end of separation of ownership there. The effect of that has been in Canada a quite serious concentration of diversity. CanWest which controls the Ten Network here is now the largest newspaper publisher in Canada and is imposing a rule that says :- This is the editorial that is going to be run in every newspaper right across Canada today and it will not be altered. These are the opinion pieces that are going to be run right across Canada and without any variations. Now Canada, like Australia is a diverse country. The difference between say Montreal and Winnipeg are enormous and yet you've got one company saying - we don't care where you live, we want you to get the same news and information. And that's a very serious development.
Second, in the States the newly appointed Federal Communications Commission which is chaired by Colin Powell's son, is walking away from sections on cross-media ownership in the United States.
And third a there's the serious development that we're seeing in Italy and also in Thailand where media corporations are actually taking over the government. We've got Berlusconi - a major media owner in Italy becoming the Prime Minister and similarly in Thailand where you've got Thaksin Shinawatra again, the largest media and communications owner in Thailand becoming the Prime Minister. Now I think that's bad for political life, but I think it's also bad for the media. Because then media, or media companies become involved in things other than what should be their main game.
The situation here not quite extreme although the major media players do have a huge influence on the government. How difficult is it as a union leader to have any influence in these companies when they are so strong?
There is no doubt that the media corporations do have a lot of influence over politicians in Australia. I think it's equally true to say that there are a lot of politicians who resent that and resist that. And this isn't necessarily a divide between the parties more its a divide across the parties. We know from talking to them that there are significant members of the back bench of the Liberal Party and most people in the National Party who are strongly opposed to any further concentration of ownership. We tend to think about concentration of ownership in terms of what it means in Sydney or Melbourne, but if you look at what it means in country towns it has a far more serious impact.
If you have the local paper, the local TV station and the local radio station all run by the same company, then the interests of the town tends to get squeezed out because there is no competition. Particularly when you have those companies tending to be part of chains, as they are recently in Australia, and as they are for example in the United States, then the interests of the local town just get totally ignored because of the overriding economic interest of the chain. There's no alternative voice to challenge that.
What's happened in newspapers and also radio in a lot of country areas, is a consolidation of production so that papers over most of Northern NSW for example, are all being produced and printed in one centre and then trucked out to those towns. The same with radio. News for a lot of country stations is being produced in one centre and then just sent out to the various outlets. So that sort of localism in country towns that newspapers and radio are supposed to produce, simply is not happening.
On the other side of the coin and as someone who obviously has an interest in the long term jobs for his members, do you have any sympathy for comments from someone like James Packer that unless their freed up and allowed to build a big international media company, their just going to pull over in the long term?
There is no evidence that the larger media corporation is the stronger the jobs are. In fact the reverse is the case. Journalists and other media workers have suffered as a result of concentration of ownership. I'll give you a direct example, we had a price war in the early 90's over the price war between the various papers in Fleet Street. The economic squeeze that they put on companies was then felt in Australia because the companies then had to squeeze more resources out of their Australian outlets.
Another example is the Super League war, where the money that media corporations were putting into the Rugby League - totally separate really from mainstream media - largely came out of their mainstream media. Now that wasn't money that was sitting around in a box not doing anything. That was money that had to come out of other resources. So concentration of ownership actually results in less jobs and less resources for journalists as for other media workers.
Closer to home there's been unrest at The Sydney Morning Herald recently, what can you tell us about the concerns within that paper?
What we're seeing among the analyst community is a quite mindless love affair with cost cutting and there's now enormous pressure being put by analysts on all corporations including media corporations to cut costs. Now you can't actually apply that formula anywhere, and you certainly can't apply it to media corporations that depend on quality to attract leaders. And there isn't a direct financial equation that says I'll have to spend an extra $10million on quality and then I'll get an extra $10million in income, but you need to invest in quality to maintain readers or to maintain TV viewers or radio listeners.
What's happening at Fairfax is that the management are responding to that pressure from the analyst community to cut costs and the journalists quite rightly, are resisting that because they see that not just in the short term their jobs are at stake but the long term viability of the company is being damaged by that pressure. If people have to choose between low cost alternatives in the media, all the evidence around the world is that they end up choosing none of the above. People don't have to buy a newspaper and if people don't believe they are getting a quality publication they won't go somewhere else or they won't keep buying a low quality publication. They just buy nothing.
So are there concerns that this is all part of a paving the way for the future sale of Fairfax to Packers once the laws allow it?
I think it's more about trying to push up the share price and it's about the sense in which the share price has become this sort of "Holy Grail" for Australian corporations, that when people talk about share holder value, really what they mean is their price. They don't actually mean long term value for shareholders and having a viable company. It's purely in the interest of responding to desk jockey's in the central business district, pushing up the share price in response to demands for cost cutting. And the journalists take the view that they've got a much better idea of what the long term interest of the company than the financial communities analysts.
So overall, it's a fairly perilous time to be a journalist in Australia?
On the news side, there's a lot of enormous interest for journalists. There's a lot of challenges for journalists in reporting what's going on around the world and in Australia to the Australian community. But it's unfortunate that we're seeing at the governmental level and at large the corporate level, a failure to understand where the long term interests of media lie and also what the broader social, cultural, democratic interests and role of the media are.
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