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The Demise of Civic Journalism: The Xenophon-Turnbull Deal

It was never spectacular, but the Australian mediascape is set to become duller, more contained, and more controlled with changes to the Broadcasting Services Act. In an environment strewn with the corpses of papers and outlets strapped for cash, calls for reforming the media market have been heard across the spectrum.

The foggy deception being perpetrated by the Turnbull government, assisted by the calculating antics of South Australian senator Nick Xenophon, is that diversity will be shored up by such measures as the $60 million “innovation” fund for small publishers while scrapping the so-called two-out-of-three rule for TV, radio and press ownership. Such dissembling language is straight out of the spin doctor’s covert manual: place innovation in the title, and you might get across the message.

As Chris Graham of New Matilda scornfully put it, “The Turnbull government is going to spend $60 million of your taxes buying a Senator’s vote to pass bad legislation designed to advantage some of the most powerful media corporations in the world.”

Paul Budde of Independent Australia was similarly excoriating. “To increase power of the incumbent players through media reforms might not necessarily have an enormous effect on the everyday media diversity, but it will allow organisations such as the Murdoch press to wield even greater power over Australian politics than is already the case.”

As the statement from Senator Xenophon’s site reads, “Grants would be allocated, for example, to programs and initiatives such as the purchasing or upgrading of equipment and software, development of apps, business activities to drive revenue and readership, and training, all of which will assist in extending civic and regional journalism.” The communications minister Mitch Fifield went so far as to deem the fund “a shot in the arm” for media organisations, granting them “a fighting chance”.

The aim here, claims the good senator, is to throw down the gauntlet to the revenue pinchers such as Facebook and Google while generating a decent number of recruits through journalism cadetships. Google, claimed Xenophon in August, “are hoovering up billions of dollars or revenue along with Facebook and that is killing media in this country.”

Google Australia managing director Jason Pellegrino had a very different take: you only had to go no further than the consumer. “The people to blame are you and I as news consumers, because we are choosing to change the behaviour and patterns of (how) we are consuming news.”

Xenophon’s patchwork fund hardly alleviates the consequences that will follow from scrapping of the rules on ownership. Having chanted the anti-Google line that its behaviour is distinctly anti-democratic, his agreement with the government will shine a bright green light for cash-heavy media tycoons keen on owning types of media (radio, television, papers) without limits. The line between commercial viability and canned journalism run by unelected puppet masters becomes all too real, while the truly independent outlets will be left to their social Darwinian fate.

Labor senator Sam Dastyari saw the Turnbull-Xenophon agreement has having one notable target, and not necessarily the social media giants who had punctured the media market with such effect. “They are doing in the Guardian. You have thrown them under the bus.”

The measure is odd in a few respects, most notably because regional papers were hardly consulted on the measure. This, it seemed, was a hobby horse run by the senator through the stables of government policy. In the end, the horse made it to the finishing line.

The very idea of linking government grants to the cause of journalism constitutes a form of purchasing allegiance and backing. How this advances the cause of civic journalism, as opposed to killing it by submission, is unclear. The temptation for bias – the picking of what is deemed appropriately civic, and what is not, is all too apparent.

The package supposedly incorporates an “independence test” by which the applicant publisher can’t be affiliated with any political party, union, superannuation fund, financial institution, non-government organisation or policy lobby group. Further independence is supposedly ensured by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA), which will administer the fund.

The decision about which organisation to fund is already implied by the scale of revenue. The cut-off point, for starters, is an annual turnover of not less than $300,000 in revenue. The other end of the scale is a ceiling of $30 million, which, for any media outlet, would be impressive.

This media non-reform package also comes on the heels of another dispiriting masquerade: an attempt to import a further layering of supposed transparency measures on the ABC and SBS, a position long championed by senator Pauline Hanson. This reactionary reflex, claimed the fuming crossbench Senator Jacqui Lambie, was “the worst lot of crap I have seen”, the sort of feculence designed to punish the public broadcaster for being “one step ahead when it comes to iView and their social media platforms.”

Between the giants of Google and Facebook, and a government happy to sing before the tycoons, a small publishing outlet is best going it alone in an already cut throat environment, relying on the old fashioned, albeit ruthless good sense, of the reader. Have trust that the copy will pull you through, or perish trying to do so.


Dr Binoy Kampmark is a senior lecturer in the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies, RMIT University. He was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, University of Cambridge. He is a contributing editor to CounterPunch and can be followed on Twitter at @bkampmark.


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  1. helvityni

    There’s the old racist saying: beware of Greeks bearing gifts. My lovely Greek friends are extremely generous and they inspire me to be the same….
    When it comes to Xenophon ‘gifting’ our PM, his ‘generosity’ is appreciated, but I’m afraid not necessarily reciprocated, but maybe, just arrogantly expected…. 🙂

  2. Andrew Smith

    It’s quite weird and disturbing for one witnessing Australia, UK and USA (and innumerable less developed nations) going down this old but new path of media consolidation, autocracy, majority vs minorities, international insularisation, avoidance of innovation, hollowing out institutions and govt. while rewarding same old rent seekers, again media, fossil fuels, auto, FIRE etc. i.e. proving that oligarchs rule the roost? (in US Democrats argue whether the US is an oligarchy or a plutocracy)

  3. Max Gross

    And its… just another step to the right… Pure LNP.

  4. kerri

    All the more reason to follow Daniel Andrews lead and legislate to reform donations and donations in kind.

  5. Kronomex

    The real winner is of course The Rupert (hail The Murdoch). The Murdoch (can’t be bothered hailing anymore…such blasphemy) will not be pleased with the loss of Channel 10.

    I’m beginning to wonder if my comment, and comparison photos, months ago about Fifield being the living human version of Peter Griffin from Family Guy may, I repeat may, have had some sort of effect. He seems to have ditched the glasses and grown a beard. I can dream.

  6. paul walter

    Very few people seem to grasp the depth of Xenophon’s treachery or the likely impact of it on whats left of Aussie democracy.

    It was very sad to watch the timid treatment by Media watch, another once fearless voice, last Monday night.

    As for a choice between the telegraph and the guardian what sane or decent person would chose the former?

    Xenophon did, in a virtual act of fellation on Fifield

    Only a lunatic at best or someone evil, probably both.

  7. Peter

    I fail to understand how further concentrating media power can possibly be good for Australia, other than to usher in Orwell’s thought police of course!

  8. Ill fares the land

    It is interesting indeed to witness the erosion of those standards that Xenophon allegedly once held dear and promoted. His recent performance on a number of key pieces of legislation has amounted to treachery. He is, unhappily and metaphorically, practising a Greek sexual methodology that has existed for centuries and he is doing to Australia. How, for the life of me, is it by ANY measure of logic, a good outcome that sees already way-too-powerful media barons accumulate even more power. His claim that this puny fund bolstering regional media somehow balances the inevitable greater concentration of media power and hence opinion in the hands of a few media barons who already abuse their position defies all credibility. He seems to have deluded himself into believing that the regional media somehow represents the last bastion of independent media reporting. As is always the case, the only people who seek that level of power are the absolute last people who should be given that power – witness Murdoch, Trump, Abbott, Dutton and Turnbull (examples only).

    Unhappily, even reforms to political donations is now irrelevant. Murdoch has long been able to bring down any government, State or Federal, that doesn’t do his bidding – he doesn’t need to scurry around with devious donations. His power is now virtually absolute, as is his intellectual corruption.

    The very deliberate targeting of the Guardian is all you need to know about the independence of the media in this country and the world generally. Any dissenting voice, and especially those who do report factually how this current LNP government’s corruption and incompetence is hurting Australia, must be quashed and debased. That tells you that the LNP knows how badly it is doing its job and the last thing it wants is a credible media making the LNP’s failings public.

  9. Terry2

    It has been suggested by some that the gift of $30 million to Fox Sports allegedly to foster women’s and niche sports was a great move by the coalition and an inspired use of taxpayers money by Minister Mitch Fifield. How else can we get more coverage of women’s sports they say ?

    Others have suggested that it was a pay-off to Rupert recognising that his revenues may take a hit as gambling advertising is more sensibly regulated. Minister Mitch Fifield on Insiders with Barrie Cassidy rather confusingly suggested that FOX as a pay TV broadcaster did not pay a licensing fee and as free to air broadcasters were having their licensing fees scrapped it was sort of nice to give something to Rupert. After all, we no longer have a debt and deficit emergency and as a nation we can afford this largesse.

    Spoilers have said that if Fifield was serious about fostering women’s and niche sports it would have been far more productive to gift the money to free to air TV providers such as the ABC or SBS rather than to a pay TV company who have a relatively small following in Australia. But that’s being picky isn’t it ? After all the coalition badly need the ongoing support of Murdoch and news Corp.

    Flying in the face of the misleading and deceptive flim-flam being peddled by Fifield take the Matildas’ soccer game on Tuesday, playing Brazil. Fox Sports had an audience of 82,000 whilst the ABC coverage of the same game attracted 241,000 national viewers with no advertisements and no subscription (which drives Rupert absolutely crazy).

  10. paul walter

    ill fares “gets” it, not enough other Australians in the Lazy Country..

  11. wam

    slimey X has been a con, a collector of pensions, cash and property, from the start.

    His support comes from old wowsers whose life cannot be impinged on by politics so they have no interest in what he does between elections.
    He got elected by small party preferences on a no pokies (I am an addict and pokies in SA are the worst of my experience in qld, nsw, vic and tassie and the equal of the NT)

    This attitude is consistent with my rabbottians who just need a reference to labor’s debt every three years and away they vote again.

    Still who would accept my assessment I hope trump has 3 years because pence is far more dangerous

  12. paul walter

    wam, you and I agree on a number of things. X turns my stomach,

    Re pokies, played socially a few times, but the last time they got the better of me and I walked home. Twenty years ago that was and haven’t been near them since.

  13. helvityni

    paul, many years ago I had a meal in Chinatown to celebrate a workmate’s birthday, afterwards someone suggested why don’t we do a spot of gambling. We went in to a dingy cellar style den As usual I did not know where to put the money in, so a friendly expert put my tenner in, and got ten times more back…I shared the winnings with him… glad to be back in the fresh air after that : a never to be repeated experience… 🙂

  14. paul walter

    Yes. The secret is to know when to get out.

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