The budget is the Woodstock, or to be more age appropriate, the Big Day Out of Australian journalism. Busloads of hacks descend on Canberra and surrender their mobile phones for the privilege of being locked up for six hours in the company of public servants and sheaves of forward estimates. (One gets one's thrills where one can find them in the media these days).
But regardless of the no-expense-spared overkill of the annual fiscal carnival and the apparent low barrier to entry, Crikey took years to be recognised as a legitimate news organisation. A decade later, and despite the established players now belatedly seeking to reinvent themselves as digital natives, one senses the notion of what is and what isn't media is not as clearly defined as it was..
Think of it this way. If costless publishing now allows anyone to be a journalist - a John Quiggin providing real-time analysis of economic events or a Piping Shrike doing the same with politics - why are the media still given special privileges? What makes Quiggin or the Shrike any different than, say, Terry McCrann or Michelle Grattan? It certainly cannot be on the basis of quality.
Traditionally, one might have argued that established media are given special rights of access to politicians, public figures and official sources because of their unique ability to reach large audiences through powerful publishing and distribution networks.
But those barriers to entry have now been broken down and as we have seen in recent weeks, the established players are belatedly scrambling to reinvent themselves. It's a stark contrast to the 20th century media model, where to be deemed a media outlet, one had to invest tens of millions in expensive printing plants or tightly held broadcast spectrum. But despite, the breakdown of their monopoly, the behemoths like News Limited still claim a special right not available to ordinary citizens. As Quiggin has observed:
"News Limited and its defenders want...to keep a whole set of special privileges acquired in the special conditions of the 20th century, including press galleries, press clubs, press passes, special protections for officially recognised journalists and their sources and so on. They want to maintain social institutions where refusing to talk to a stranger who calls you asking questions about your business or private affairs carries a presumption that you have something to hide, as long as that stranger is an officially recognised journalist."Of course, one obvious argument against widening the definition of an "accredited" journalist is that it can become impractical for the government, the courts and other institutions to deal with the media. The cramped press boxes in our courtrooms and parliamentary galleries can barely house the media as it is, without busloads of amateur bloggers gatecrashing the party, a point made in an academic paper this year by William Arazia of the Brooklyn Law School in New York.
"In the past, when only a small group of persons could plausibly claim to be the press, it was at least conceivable that that group could enjoy special privileges. But when everyone is the press, the notion of special privileges loses its meaning conceptually and becomes problematic to implement practically."The US at least has a constitution that recognises press freedoms in the form of the first amendment. This was later widened by the Supreme Court there to the idea of a specific freedom of the press. But Australia has no such constitutional guarantee of media freedom or even a statutory protection. Freedoms in this country operate via convention rather than constitutional guarantee. (Abjorensen, 'Not Good News: Australia's Shrinking Media Freedoms', 2007)
Against that background, it seems one currently unconsidered possibility in the current reshaping of Australian media is a crisis of legitimacy for the established media groups, which will be smaller and more ephemeral than they were in their mid-20th century pomp.
If things go well, we may see new journalistic entrepreneurs emerging from the chaos now engulfing the trade - journalists who form new alliances that challenge the redundant News Ltd-Fairfax nexus and create much wanted diversity in journalism. Some observers, quoted in the Arazia paper, have spoken of an emerging 'Fifth Estate' which seeks and deserves equal status with its traditional Fourth Estate counterparts.
But if things go badly, one can easily imagine a continued weakening in the traditional media and an inability of new digital players, because of their lack of scale and working business model, to wield sufficient power to command official recognition. The Citizen Kanes will be mortally wounded, but the emerging 'Citizen Maynes' will not yet be strong enough to replace them.
If that happens, no-one wins, except of course for the growing and malignant plutocracy now slowly tightening its iron grip on a wounded and failing democracy.
FURTHER RECOMMENDED READING:
The More Things Change, Geoffrey Barker, Inside Story
Journalism Beyond Newspapers, Andrew Elder, Politically Homeless