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With democracies at risk, how can we address the media crises?

As recent events in the United States have so forcefully reminded us, the pillars of democracy are under threat from many forces globally. One important pillar – a robust and diverse public interest journalism sector – is especially wobbly, with implications for other critical pillars, such as accountable, responsive governance, and informed, engaged communities.

It is timely, as Joe Biden assumes the US Presidency, to consider some of the concerns highlighted by the first 60-odd submissions published by the Senate committee investigating media diversity in Australia, most of which stress the importance of a healthy media ecosystem for democracy, while also calling for urgent policy action to address serious structural and policy weaknesses.

Many submissions address the needs of under-served rural, regional and suburban communities, and also stress the importance of a diverse media ecosystem for the wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and other communities who are poorly served by dominant mainstream media.

Many cite a 2016 book, Who Owns the World’s Media?, which found Australia had the third most concentrated newspaper industry of 30 countries surveyed, behind China and Egypt (since then, subsequent events have increased the Australian industry’s concentration).

Some submissions also acknowledge that the media crisis is not limited to Australia, and that lessons can be learnt from how Canada and other countries have responded.

At Croakey, we hope this post – the first in a series reporting on the submissions – may be of use for readers wishing to contribute to healthier media policy and practice, as we urged in this recent article, Converging crises: public interest journalism, the pandemic and public health, published last month by the Public Health Research and Practice journal.

The Government knows

Let’s be clear; the Government knows there are very real, significant concerns. Indeed, many are outlined in a submission by the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications, which also acknowledges the importance of the sector for democracy, saying:

A strong and vibrant news media sector is critical to the health of Australia’s democracy; an informed citizenry is a prerequisite for political, social and cultural participation.

Australian media organisations play a crucial role in informing Australians about events and developments that are important to their daily lives and enable them to participate in our democratic processes. Journalism is also vital in holding public office holders and those in positions of power to account and exposing wrong doing and injustice.

Access to a diversity of voices provides a critical safeguard against undue influence over Australia’s public discourse and democratic system, while effective competition enhances the incentive for media businesses to produce high-quality, accurate news and journalism.

A strong, independent media sector, capable of producing trusted public interest journalism, is also an important countermeasure to the increasing proliferation of disinformation.”

The Department’s submission outlines the challenges facing media organisations, especially in regional areas, and especially for print media, which has seen a 28 percent decline in revenue between 2015 and 2019.

As the figure below indicates, the hit on revenue has intensified since COVID-19, and the Department expects the COVID-19-driven downturn to have ongoing implications for the viability of many media businesses.

While much of the public focus around the inquiry has been on News Corp’s domination, especially in newspapers, the Department’s submission highlights concerns about diversity in the radio sector.

As of last October, 30 of the 105 radio licence areas were below the minimum voices threshold, including Alice Springs, Griffith, Mt Gambier, and Spencer Gulf North.

Urgent action needed

Concentration of ownership, market failures and the grinding down of public broadcasters have combined to put our media sector in an extremely perilous place at a time when quality, reliable content is needed more than ever, according to the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) submission.

“We urge all levels of government to take heed of the alarm bells that are ringing loudly right now and take steps … to address the crisis in the media sector,” says the MEAA. “A strong media sector means a strong democracy which serves all Australians.”

The MEAA says the four major newspaper companies have routinely accounted for 85 to 90 percent of industry revenues over the past five years. The four largest television companies consumed over 70 percent of all industry revenues, while radio’s four largest companies pull in two-thirds of all industry income.

“The lack of diversity in the media denies consumers real choice for quality news, it limits the job opportunities for journalists, it reduces competition for advertisers and it gives inordinate power to a few entities to influence government, business and societal decisions,” says the MEAA.

In what seems an indirect reference to News Corp, the MEAA says that in Australia, getting one powerful voice offside can have damaging consequences.

The submission says:

The power of the few is not always wielded in a responsible or ethical way. In some instances it has led to a rise in news coverage where the veracity of content is often untested and where ‘balance’ in news reporting can equate to the publication of meritless or misleading arguments.

Hyper-partisanship across the whole spectrum of the media industry is becoming increasingly common. When there are too few media voices, outlier and extreme views can be amplified and given greater credence than in a healthy, diverse media landscape.”

The MEAA cites evidence that Australians’ trust in traditional and digital media has declined over the past five years, largely because of the prevalence of fake news and doubts about media outlets’ intentions.

The MEAA calls for: law reform to prevent mergers that lead to more harmful levels of media concentration; the Australian Government to urgently progress the Mandatory News Media Bargaining Code and extend the operation of the Public Interest News Gathering program – and to follow the lead of the UK and Canada with measures such as directly funding local news, offering taxation rebates and incentives, and part-funding editorial positions.

Other recommendations include: Government assistance should be reset to ensure funding is available for new media organisations as well as traditional media companies; public broadcasters must be funded to provide comprehensive, high-quality cross-platform media content in all parts of Australia; and the wire agency AAP’s future should be sustained through regular, annual relief grants.

The MEAA also calls for regulation of media content to be strengthened and overseen by a single entity:

The current system of diffuse and usually toothless complaints arbiters must be replaced. These regulatory bodies – created in the age of thriving print and localised outlets – are no longer fit for purpose in the digital, global age.

Moreover, they lack public respect and trust. And they do little to deter bad journalistic behaviour.

We need to simplify, strengthen and enforce regulation. This inquiry should initiate a national discussion about what form this should take.

Serving the public interest – which is the cornerstone of the media’s role in democracy – must return to the forefront of media policy and practice in Australia.”

The Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia also urges action: “Given the importance of viable and diverse public interest journalism to public understanding and discourse on all aspects of our society – in health, community, business, economics and our democratic political system – there is a strong case for public policies and funding aimed at safeguarding and enhancing the diversity of media services, perspectives and representation in Australia.”

Global trends

Associate Professor Benedetta Brevini, an academic at the University of Sydney who has been involved in related policy analysis and research, says that over the past 20 years, unchecked media concentration in a number of western countries has allowed some media groups to accumulate vast amounts of revenue and influence with negative consequences for democracy.

Today’s media systems, in Australia, and around the world, are the product of decades of deregulation, and liberalisation/privatisation. She highlights the market dominance of News Corp, and says the 2012 report of the UK Leveson inquiry offers hundreds of examples of a political class “completely deferential to the Murdoch empire”.

Brevini recommends policy interventions to secure plurality of media ownership; that the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) report annually on the status of media markets; and that all politicians should have to register and openly document every meeting with media executives and owners.

For a decade she and others have argued for a levy on tech giants to support public interest journalism, distributed in a way that does not reinforce media concentration [Croakey notes that some other submissions to the inquiry raise concerns that media concentration may be further entrenched by the Government’s plans to compel digital platforms like Google and Facebook to pay eligible Australian news media outlets for use of their news content].

“The global pandemic has shown more than ever the vital role of healthy media institutions in providing information that the public can trust and in acting as interrogators of power,” Brevini writes.

Climate disinformation

Scientists have called for action to address poor reporting of climate science in Australia, saying that misinformation and disinformation on climate change have likely contributed to poor policy development, slowed climate action and created confusion within the Australian public.

Too much of the reporting on climate change is opinion based and has a negative impact on public interest journalism and democracy and creates barriers for our public to access reliable and accurate news, according to a submission by the Australian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society (AMOS), which represents atmospheric and oceanographic sciences.

In particular, the submission singles out The Australian newspaper and Sky News.

Noting the politicisation of climate coverage, the Society says many audiences think of climate change as a ‘debate’, in the community, or amongst politicians, rather than a matter of the physical world, that turns on science and not opinion.

The submission cites a recent study by University of Canberra researchers, which found that out of the 40 countries surveyed, Australia’s eight percent of “deniers” is more than double the global average of three percent. The researchers, Dr Caroline Fisher and Professor Sora Park, found a strong connection between the brands people use and whether they think climate change is serious.

Thirty-five percent of people who listen to commercial AM radio (such as 2GB, 2UE, 3AW) or watch Sky News considered climate change to be “not at all” or “not very” serious, followed by Fox News consumers (32%). Fisher and Park concluded that, in general, there are low levels of trust in climate change reporting.

The Society says that media accountability bodies (the Australian Press Council and ACMA) would serve the profession and the public interest by developing specific standards to deal with the issue of climate change, and guidance about how to meet them.

Dr Melissa Sweet is managing editor and a director of Croakey Health Media, a non-profit public interest journalism organisation. She is a member of the MEAA.

Stay tuned for the next article in this series arising from submissions to the Senate inquiry; meantime, here is Croakey’s archive of stories on public interest journalism as a critical determinant of public health.

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