The Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) welcomes a forthcoming Senate inquiry investigating media diversity in Australia – but wants those partaking in that enquiry to be forthright about the goals and standards which protect and enhance public interest journalism, as well as a variety of other connected issues.
Marcus Strom, the MEAA’s federal president of its media wing, one day after the Greens advocated for and got passed a media diversity inquiry bill, said that the organisation which exists as the journalists’ union would like to have its say as a vital part of that inquiry.
“There is great disquiet in the community about the state of our media which has been heightened by the reliance on accurate and independent public interest journalism during the bushfires and COVID-19,” Strom said on Thursday.
“This inquiry is timely and we hope it will be the start of rebuilding trust around public interest journalism,” he added.
Furthermore, the MEAA – while expressing that “greater diversity would allow for a wider variety of voices to be heard and would better serve our communities” – reminds its members that the inquiry may not uncover any new battleground areas.
In addition to the role of digital platforms and the future of public interest journalism, areas such as changing newsrooms – real and virtual ones alike – caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the dramatic decline in media revenues, the impact of social media platforms such as Facebook and Google in their roles as news providers, and the challenges of reporting regional issues all demand a fresh look at the challenges facing the media industry.
“At present we are suffering a narrow ownership base, a crisis of integrity with the public and a weak regulatory environment,” Strom said.
“The financial crisis – accelerated by COVID – has further reduced diversity in media ownership. And it has further reduced the resources available to adequately fund a robust, independent media landscape,” he added.
However, the MEAA have boiled the nucleus of their wish list down to the following areas for discussion in this inquiry, where its representatives can be involved in the discussion:
- status and future roles of public interest journalism;
- concentration of media ownership;
- the impact of digital platforms;
- and the role the organisation’s “Journalist Code Of Ethics” list of standards should play in ensuring responsible journalism.
The struggle of media outlets as a whole, as well as the MEAA, to deal with these issues, particularly that of the digital entities, exists as nothing new.
In 2018, the Centre for Media Transition – a cooperative composed of the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) – issued a study paper that examined the contested landscape of all media, the impacts of technology upon it, the quality of news and journalistic content, and the roles of choice and diversity within media regulation circles.
That study concluded that conflicting evidence was occurring regarding the overall impact of digital platforms on news and journalistic content; the digitisation of the media was leading to both shorter and more emotive content as well as the pressures of a 24/7 news cycle; the evolving algorithms of news production may de-value news dissemination as a whole; and digital platforms possess a complex role as news distributors but also have a responsibility not to harm the public benefit provided by news and journalistic content.
The consequence of that report in one analysis done by Matthew Lees, a partner versed in competition law in the Melbourne-based commercial law firm of Arnold Bloch Leiber.
Lees concluded that while the news media and journalism play an essential role in maintaining democracy in the way of being advocates for public interest journalism, the ACCC – while not exactly caught in a conflict of interest, as a “media-savvy” organisation – were wedged in the compromising position of endorsing the development of policies central to the evolution of digital platforms, but also endorsed actions downplaying the importance of media diversity in applying competition law.
Lees alluded to the case in point of media mergers of the Ten Network by US media company CBS, and that of Nine and Fairfax establishing a one-banner partnership as well, events which – with major media players such as Bruce Gordon, Lachlan Murdoch and Peter Costello involved in those acquisitions – eventually saw the ACCC update its guidelines on media mergers, in the interest of consolidating media holdings instead of diversifying them.
“In the final report, the ACCC made recommendations designed to assist media businesses. However, the ACCC’s media merger decisions and public comments have downplayed the importance of media diversity in competition law,” Lees wrote in his conclusion.
“The ACCC’s final report did not canvass the differing views regarding the role of competition law in protecting media diversity, or recommend changes to competition law to strengthen that protection.
“If ever there was a time when competition law should be looking to protect the important role of news media and journalism in our society, it may be now,” Lees added.
The findings of those reports – being two and three years old, as they are – can only heighten anticipation of the Senate’s media diversity inquiry.
And while much of the focus will be on seeing it as a mandate on former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s petition which received a record number of signatures for a Parliamentary online petition, with it colloquially seen as a “Murdoch Royal Commission” focus, other issues central to the roles of media and a functioning democracy also exist at play.
Strom, meanwhile, cannot wait to see the Senate get stuck into them.
“This has produced immense workplace stress on our members who are dedicated to reporting news in the public interest. Alongside this is a heightened hyperpartisanship that is undermining public confidence in journalism,” Strom said.
“The Senate must consider these matters in its review and we look forward to contributing,” he added.
Also by William Olson:
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