Introduction by Croakey: A Senate committee is currently investigating a proposal for a parliamentary commission of inquiry into the Murdoch media and media diversity in Australia, and related questions for our democracy.
“Through News Corp, the Murdoch empire wields enormous power and political influence, largely unchecked and unchallenged. The impact on democracy is corrosive and has eroded trust in journalism and public institutions,” states the summary.
“Regulation of media in Australia is not fit for purpose and has not kept up with the ever-changing media landscape. There has been a clear failure in regulation as monopolies have been allowed to flourish in both traditional media and through online platforms.”
The Bill sets up a Commission with the powers to delve deeply into issues of media diversity, regulation, ethics and conduct in Australia to deliver a report to the Parliament on how best to regulate the news media sector to protect Australia’s democracy.
“Australians deserve to have confidence in the integrity of news journalism that holds governments and corporations to account,” says the explanatory memorandum. “Media diversity and local news is an important pillar for a strong, engaged and informed public. Trust and access to independent public interest journalism is essential for an accountable, honest and robust democracy.”
To date, only 19 submissions have been published on the inquiry website, with surprisingly little engagement from the health sector, given the significance of the issues at stake for the community’s health and for policies influencing health.
Australian Parents for Climate Action says in its submission that News Corp has contributed to the spread of misinformation on climate science and held back effective policy action.
“As parents concerned about our children’s future, and all having volunteered in the climate change space, we are very conscious of the damage that an unhealthy media landscape can do,” says the group.
“This is evidenced by the level of disinformation spread by the largest media companies in the country, the perceived lack of social licence for climate action that successive governments have experienced, and ultimately in the lack of climate action by Australian governments.
“We strongly support a review into Australia’s media laws with a view to reducing misinformation and disinformation, and restoring trust in science and other research. Only with a healthy media landscape can Australia hope to maintain sensible public discourse, tackle current and future challenges, and make the future bright for our children.”
Croakey Health Media’s submission to the inquiry can be read in full here, and is summarised below.
Megan Williams, Melissa Sweet, Jennifer Doggett, Alison Barrett and Kelly Dargan write:
Croakey Health Media strongly supports the recommendations for an inquiry into the Murdoch media and media diversity in Australia. We are writing this submission as journalism, health policy and public health professionals who care deeply about the importance of public interest journalism for the health and wellbeing of communities, policy and democracy.
The market dominance of Murdoch media and the company’s long history of exerting power to pursue particular political or economic objectives weakens Australian democracy and the health and wellbeing of Australian communities, institutions and civil society. To use public health framing, this company is a powerful commercial determinant of health that undermines Australia’s capacity for health-promoting policies and healthy communities in many ways.
A standout example is how Murdoch media has blocked and undermined effective climate action in Australia over some decades. It has done this directly, through its editorial focus and coverage, and indirectly through supporting the election of particular political parties and candidates while undermining the prospects of candidates and parties supporting effective climate action.
The highly concentrated nature of Australia’s news media landscape, with Murdoch’s News Corp owning over two-thirds of print media outlets, has restricted the ability of the public to become informed and engage with pressing public policy issues, including the COVID-19 pandemic and the climate change crisis. The dominance of the Murdoch media, the rise of digital platforms and overall media concentration has weakened the public interest journalism sector and resulted in a narrowly focused and biased media environment and an increase in misinformation and disinformation from digital platforms and corporate media.
Croakey supports the emphasis of the Bill on the importance of a reliable news journalism that holds both government and corporations accountable. Media diversity and local news are crucial components for an informed and engaged public. Public interest journalism is also vital in promoting health, wellbeing, and informed decision-making and a strong and diverse public interest journalism sector is vital for democracy and community cohesion.
Croakey has long advocated for policy reform to support a more diverse media landscape and to support innovation, growth and development, especially in the not-for-profit sector. Access to trustworthy, independent public interest journalism is a cornerstone of a transparent, honest, and resilient democracy.
This is especially important for communities who are under-served, poorly served or harmed by the current media landscape. Croakey supports media policies that promote innovative models and initiatives that serve communities’ specific needs, such as those of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, people with disabilities, and LGBTQI communities.
Current media regulations in Australia are outdated and unable to address the rapidly evolving media landscape, allowing monopolies to thrive in traditional and online media platforms. The current regulatory environment for media in Australia is insufficient, resulting in media concentration and lack of diversity in the mainstream media sector, which hampers the functioning of democracy and is unresponsive to community interests.
The only significant caveat that we raise about the proposed inquiry is that more productive policy outcomes may be achieved by bringing a systems approach to this analysis. The news and information system is toxic and spectacularly failing to meet the needs of diverse communities.
However, this is not only due to the market power of Murdoch media. It also reflects the market power of other corporations whose models are designed to make profit, such as Meta, Google and Twitter. These models have been found in research and court cases to minimise or invisibilise issues of public interest and public health. The dissemination of misinformation and disinformation does not occur within silos, but is part of a toxic system underpinned by the interests and imperatives of powerful corporations.
While it is important to hold the Murdoch media to account and develop a clearer understanding of their influence, impact and operations, it is also important to focus on solutions: to examine what is needed to develop and support a news and information system that is safe, reliable and relevant for communities’ needs.
Concerted efforts are needed to end the market dominance of powerful corporations such as Google, Meta and News Corp, and to ensure that all communities – geographic and interest-based – have access to safe, reliable and relevant news and information. This is particularly critical in a time of escalating climate crises and growing community polarisation.
It is also important to acknowledge that in Australia, Murdoch, Meta, Google, Twitter et al are operating upon the Country of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and therefore have a particular responsibility to ensure their cultural safety and wellbeing. Further, policymakers have a particular responsibility to ensure that First Nations peoples’ needs for safe, reliable and relevant news and information are being met.
We recommend that efforts to hold Murdoch media to account and to develop safer, more reliable and relevant news and information systems build on the expertise of First Nations peoples and organisations, public health people and organisations and wider civil society.
We encourage the inquiry to be proactive in reaching out to these sectors and groups.
Finally, we ask that the community’s right to a safe, reliable and relevant news and information environment be explicitly acknowledged in this legislation, together with the importance of supporting public interest journalism and greater media diversity.