Monday, January 24, 2011

THE FOURTH ESTATE - Diversity and the Democrats - Rohan Rivet

02 December 2002
Updated 16 December

AN INTERESTING idea the Democrats have, to drive the government into restoring funding to the ABC, when the government’s deepest instincts are rather to starve the thing to death if only that could be done. Really... more money for the ABC?

Well, discussions about that have been foreshadowed between the Democrats and the government and some may have taken place by the time this article appears. The government has a problem, which is to squeeze the latest version of its media ownership legislation through the Senate, and it may need Democrat votes to do this.

There is, however, a difficulty: the Democrats are irrevocably (it would seem) opposed to the legislation as it stands. They oppose it for what it proposes, and oppose it for what it doesn’t propose. And it doesn’t propose, amongst many other things, more finance for the ABC, which is not concerned in the legislation, that being designed only to change the rules governing private media ownership.

The Democrats are reported to be asking for $100 million: $80 million extra for ABC funding, $20 million extra for SBS. The most recent account that I have seen (Australian, November 18) says the government is sticking at $18 million, this to improve radio broadcasting to remote areas.

One might think that if the bill was concerned with media reforms in the public interest, rather than changes to help some great proprietors, $100 million, together with some promises about future funding, would be a cheap price to pay. However, there is more than the money at stake. The Democrats will also require changes in the legislation, and this is where the affair becomes rather odd. There is a chasm between the government’s legislation and the Democrats’ media policies, and it is impossible for this writer at least to see how it could be bridged. The government cannot abandon the main thrust of the legislation, which is to repeal the foreign ownership rules and allow easy exemption from the cross-media restrictions, even though the outcome is widely foreseen as still greater concentration of media ownership and power, and more foreign control.

All this is surely anathema to the public interest and to Democrat policies. Is there really much to be talked about? And yet...

Let us imagine that there is a chance the minister, Senator Alston, could, within the limits, entice Senator Cherry, the Democrats’ spokesperson on communications, a certain distance, then spring out with a much greater offer for the ABC. Would the Democrats be tempted to settle if the legislation still held significant dangers? How heavily would the ABC weigh here?

The answer should be, not at all; and indeed the ABC should never have been brought into the argument, thank you. It has no part in the legislation. Its case is unique and justified, it belongs on its own, and to associate it with the stand against the media ownership legislation can only weaken that stand by inviting confusion over priorities and compromise over fundamentals.

The point here is that the needs of the ABC and the needs of the rest of the news media cannot properly be traded against each other. If the media legislation were allowed through in any negotiated form that still expressed the government’s intentions, it would rearrange the commercial news media, to the public harm, for years ahead, in ways that would be difficult to unwind. There is only the Senate to prevent this. The ABC, if it gained no relief now, would stand a much better chance than would the commercial news media of early rescue from its troubles. The ABC’s financial outlook could be changed at short notice. The problem there is a vindictive and narrow-minded government, but that can change.

THE DEMOCRATS’ media policy paper put out early last month by Senator Cherry is headed More voices, more views. The accompanying media release is headed “Media policy must put diversity first”. This is a field where ideas to achieve such ends have been easily buried under the vested interests of a few people - principally Rupert Murdoch and Kerry Packer - and by the pitiful performance of governments in the face of this. The country needs a few populist politicians to shout about these things, though what hope they would have of being reported, or of surviving if they were members of a major party, is another matter. One should not forget the case of Ian Macphee, the front-bencher whom John Howard banished in the late eighties for the crime of opposing Rupert Murdoch, and who later lost party endorsement. And he was not a populist but a genuine liberal.
The Democrats do have some ideas and good intentions, but some of these would benefit from an indication of ways and means. It is refreshing, for example, to see “the encouragement of new entrants” into the media given major importance. The Democrats see newspapers as still the key to media diversity, for the news and investigative journalism they generate (and, surely, even perhaps primarily, for the comment, analysis and opinion the better ones provide every day).

Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide are capital cities cut down to one daily newspaper each, and the Democrats would encourage another paper by allowing an exemption from the existing cross-media laws, which they continue to support. (Hobart would benefit from a second paper also, but is generally thought too small a city to sustain another.)

Thus someone launching a new paper in, say, Brisbane, Perth or Adelaide would be able to buy a television or radio station in the same market, if one were available. This is a proposition that might hold attractions for some existing newspaper proprietors, including provincial owners ambitious to get into the capital cities, but it would mean a very heavy investment indeed.

A careful policy of special provisions to encourage more print outlets is sound in principle, and might usefully be directed to practical help for newcomers who do not have the finance or ambition to enter television but merely want to set up a newspaper. Ideas for specific aid would certainly be heretical to the present government. But its narrow market ideology won’t prevail for ever.

The Democrats’ present proposal is a much more limited one and by no means the outrageous idea that it has been painted, but it does leave questions for the Democrats to answer.

The government’s legislation, when last sighted, would simply abolish the foreign investment rules for the media, leaving the Treasurer free to decide without limit on investment proposals from foreign sources. The Democrats oppose this; they believe our three commercial television networks would be too vulnerable to takeover by foreign media companies. They also think foreign newspaper proprietors tend to maximise profits by cutting editorial resources, so reducing quality: the mark of the absentee landlord. They would be willing, however, to raise the existing levels of foreign investment considerably, to a uniform 35 per cent in television and metropolitan papers, while keeping it at that existing figure for pay TV. Limits for individual investors would be left unchanged. The idea is to take greater advantage of foreign money without risking foreign control. One wonders, nevertheless, whether those figures really would eliminate risk of control, and also whether, short of control, such heavy foreign influence might still prove exercisable in political ways.

The only case where, in the present extreme circumstances, more foreign control of the press might in my view be acceptable would be in the establishment of a few new newspaper titles in the single-paper cities. Further foreign control of the established press should continue to be barred.

The Democrats’ manifesto covers more aspects of the media than I have been able to mention here. For all the shoddy presentation - it would have benefited greatly from some proof-reading, checking and revision - it does suggest the need for a more comprehensive view of media policy than we are accustomed to government providing. It seems odd to deliver so broad an answer to a very specific piece of legislation, but the central theme, the need for greater diversity and the failure of the present legislation in that respect, comes through.

The parliament went into recess on 13 December without the government presenting any media bill for debate. It is said
that the legislation will now be brought down in February, leaving more time for negotiation. But never count on it. The
government’s timing of major media legislation is tediously unreliable.

Rohan Rivett

Having at last seen Black and White, the film version of the Stuart Case mentioned mentioned here before, I have to say that, so far as its portrayal of the late Rohan Rivett is concerned, it is a sad, indeed cruel, mistake. This is not the fault of the actor. One can live with a film Rivett who doesn’t look, speak, or behave like the man himself - that may be unavoidable. The pity is that Rivett, who was a great editor-in-chief of the Adelaide News, should be deprived of the proper credit due to one who inspired and led the paper’s crusade for justice to Rupert Max Stuart. Instead, Rupert Murdoch, who controlled the paper at the time and played a much less significant part, has had greatness thrust upon him. The film takes a great many other liberties with the Stuart case. It uses the old formula - “Based on a true story” - but that cannot excuse everything.

The myths multiply. On 30 October, the ABC’s 7.30 Report carried an item described as “A tale of two Ruperts: the media mogul and the man he saved” - meaning Keith Rupert Murdoch and Rupert Max Stuart. Introducing it, Kerry O’Brien said the case “caused an uproar in South Australia - fanned by then-fledgling newspaper proprietor Rupert Murdoch”.

Yet the journalist who prepared the item, Murray McLaughlin, reported with strict accuracy, “The News and its editor Rohan Rivett campaigned on Stuart’s behalf”. How did others get it wrong?

Rupert Murdoch reminisced a little in the report: “Well, I remember being tried for treason...” Another myth. Mr Murdoch was never tried for treason. His company, not himself, was charged on nine counts of libel, including seditious libel. No mention of treason. Rohan Rivett was in peril in person, charged with the same nine counts, and like the company cleared of all. This did not fit into the film either.

David Bowman is a former editor-in-chief of the Sydney Morning Herald. A version of this article appears in the December 2002 edition of the Adelaide Review