The Australian media is one of the least diverse in the world. At what point does the dominance of a single player become so great that our democracy is at risk? How, at a time of accelerating convergence in media and the slow death of traditional business models, can we encourage a multiplicity of voices while preserving and encouraging press freedom? And why is no-one asking these questions in the mainstream media space?
When the global financial crisis exposed excessive risk-taking by deposit taking institutions operating under an implicit (and now explicit) government guarantee, respected economist John Quiggin said that if this public subsidy was to continue, banks should return to being basic public utilities. Why, after all, should these institutions indulge in dangerous speculation, privatising the profits and socialising the losses, while creating massive exogenous effects in the real economy from their casino-like behaviour?
While not having recourse to taxpayers' money in a crisis the way the banks do, the mainstream media nevertheless operates under a kind of public subsidy through a regulatory system that works against the entry of new players and encourages monopolistic behaviour that circumvents reasoned debate.
The dominance of the Murdoch press (it controls 70 per cent of the metropolitan newspaper market and its only major competitor Fairfax is struggling for survival) is such that Australia languishes at 41st position in the world in terms of media diversity. The dominance of one company - and one individual - in our media landscape has real costs for our democracy as we are now seeing, with The Australian and the Murdoch tabloids in Sydney and Melbourne regularly using their dominance to press the commercial and ideological imperatives of their owner.
In the meantime, with the national broadband network set to accelerate the development of new media platforms and opportunities for content creation, Murdoch and other established players are pushing for a monopoly in pay television through Foxtel's $1.9 billion takeover of Austar.
All this is happening at a time of increasing disillusionment with our media and our politics, resulting in what former Labor Minister Lindsay Tanner has described as a dumbing down of democracy - the mindless reporting of predictable political utterances, the obsession with conflict over substance (the fight itself rather than the issues), the twisting and distortion of public interest issues to fit a pre-determined narrative and outright lies and manipulation of public opinion.
No less than that bible of conservatism, The Economist magazine, has this past week laid part of the blame for the banality of Australian political discourse on a media obsessed with short-term biff, opinion polls treated like TV ratings and the 'Punch and Judy show' of the daily story cycle that is largely a media creation. While some of The Economist's prescription is questionable (it still ritually adheres to the Washington consensus), it rightly slams Australian politicians for dragging their feet on climate change and failing to use the opportunity of prosperity to widen the discourse behind xenophobic hysteria over refugees. Perhaps this debate is so circular because a concentrated media would rather keep pushing those buttons than talk about bigger possibilities.
The next great hope for increased diversity is the federal government's public review of media policy, now underway. The intention of this inquiry is to look at how regulation needs to change to accommodate the rapid convergence of media and communication technology to ensure the public goods of an open and diverse media are protected. But anyone who has witnessed the evolution of Australian media ownership laws and regulation will not be holding their breath for any significant change out of this review. It is a brave politician, after all, who stands in the way of a Murdoch, Packer or Stokes. And attempts at tighter regulation usually backfire.
In the mainstream media space, one can only hope that an enlightened entrepreneur (Eric Beecher perhaps?) makes a bid for the Fairfax radio stations, now up for sale. In a market saturated by right-wing shockjocks and newspapers that ritually co-opt the public interest as that of narrow corporate interests, it seems hard to believe there is no commercial place for a progressive media outlet.
But if there really is no possibility of a media that is both commercial and responsible, perhaps we should be looking at not-for-profit ventures like US investigative journalism venture ProPublica that serves the public good by employing the traditional journalistic values of accuracy, balance, context, fairness and publicly spirited inquiry. That, after all, is what a properly functioning democracy demands from the media.
Irrespective of the commercial ambitions of media proprietors, the journalism they fund plays a vital function in a democracy. And for that reason, it should be a public good in itself, like banks. People need and want reliable information from trusted intermediaries. If the government insists on regulating media ownership, it should ensure that licensees and owners meet certain public interest tests. The question is how do you enforce those without threatening press freedom. Alternatively, the government could get out of the way completely and let market forces prevail. But we saw what happened when banks were allowed to run amok.
If this is all too hard, if we cannot imagine what journalism could be beyond the partisan Murdochracy we are now imprisoned within, then the Fourth Estate really will be a Failed Estate.