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The Death of the Investigative Journalist: Channel Nine’s Takeover of Fairfax

The Yes Minister series portraying the skulduggery of Whitehall during the Thatcher years throws up a salient reminder how certain things do not mix. Should the art portfolio be slotted alongside television? Probably not, but politics is politics. Civil servants will intrigue and seek to influence the minister of the day for their own advancement. The minister either resists or is duly house trained.

The idea that Australia’s Channel Nine network should be consuming the longstanding press entity that is Fairfax Media in an incongruous commercial merger raises a similarly awkward question. Not that Channel Nine doesn’t do journalism. It does, just of a frightful, ambulance chasing sort.

The deal would see the creation of a media behemoth in what is already one of the world’s most concentrated media landscapes. Nine’s free-to-air television network would be linked with the ongoing concern of Fairfax’s The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, its radio assets (Sydney’s 2GB and Melbourne’s 3AW), the streaming video platform Stan and the real estate portal Domain.

Reassurances given about the continued independence and quality of that press entity are meaningless. Nine chief executive Hugh Marks is undeterred. “We just needed to reassure the creators and journalists that their world wasn’t going to change. It’s all about how a bigger scale company can take their work and generate more revenue.”

Marks, in slanting the emphasis towards generating revenue, ignores the actual practice of meaningful, investigative journalism. Head entities with the dominant running concern have a habit of heaping their values upon subordinates. Cross-pollination, of the more sordid kind, is bound to happen, and it is the very sort that is bound to be lethal to a certain species of effective scribbling.

The marketing fraternity simply see promotions and deals, the empty hum that comes with entertainment platforms. Former Australian treasurer Peter Costello and Nine Entertainment chairman advances the most crude of corporate lines: “This is the opportunity to build a media company for the digital age, growing revenue with complementary streams and in a position to create growth opportunities for both sets of shareholders.”

Forget the informative, hard-hitting journalism; this is brand appeal, an issue centred on “data solutions”, “premium content” and stock value. The role of the Fourth Estate here is singularly less important than that of the commercial estate, of which Nine has been inhabiting with some discomfort of late.

David Waller of the University of Sydney sees the prospects of cross promotion. “By combining different media – TV, print and online – they’ve got a greater scope to get more people to see the message.” He further sees the emergence of various hybrid progeny: existing stars will branch out; day time television specialists may find their way into radio, and radio shock jocks into television. It does not seem to bother Waller that quality might well be the most conspicuous casualty.

Australia’s media and press landscape has had a problem with diversity for years, stuck in concentrated monochrome. Even praise for Fairfax has to be qualified. While there are excellent pockets of striving reporters with tenacious burrowing skills, there are the recyclers and the plodders. “For the most part,” notes Stephen Harrington of the Queensland University of Technology, “we have seen a real evacuation of hard-hitting political journalism from TV in the last 20 years or so.”

Such a merger supplies another crude nail to the coffin of Fourth Estate activities. The state’s democratic health, opines former Fairfax journalist Andrea Carson, “relies on more than a A$4 billion merger that delivers video streaming services like Stan, a lucrative real estate advertising website like Domain, and a high-rating television program like Love Island.”

Former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating, in giving the proposed merger a generous rubbishing, was sharper than ever about the implications. Channel Nine, he warned, had “never other than displayed the opportunism and ethics of an alley cat.”

Had Australia a viable, operable protection of free speech enshrined in its constitution (it has, as it were, an anaemic variant called an implied right to communication on political subjects), such a merger would be legally damned as an affront that would actually restrict rather than expand discussion on public interest matters affecting the country. But such issues ride poorly in such quarters as that of Channel Nine, where what is supposedly interesting to the public has preferment over what is in the public interest.

In light of this merger, gritty, informed reporting can go hang, and those unwilling to go along with the management line are bound to either adapt or leave the arena. The focus will be on other papers and outlets, those considered resolute outliers, to gather the principled survivors.

The optimist may venture another less likely prediction: that Fairfax’s investigative vigour might find its way into Nine’s moribund programs that qualify as foot-in-the-door journalism. Imagine 60 Minutes moving beyond lamentable gossip and suburban rumour? Or the content skimpy A Current Affair adjusting from bread-and-circuses horror stories of entertainment to matters of intellectual substance? All terribly unlikely, but some will dare to dream.

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  1. Elizabeth Kelly

    Bureaucrats have infinitely more impact on legislators that some suspect. For example, most Bills are produced by the bureaucracy and not properly, if at all, read by those we elect. A number of politicians have openly admitted on questioning that ‘we don’t read that crap’. Given that the salaries we pay the drongoes is the highest in the world, we are entitled to expect much better.

  2. Julian Donn

    I cancelled my subscription yesterday.

  3. Graham McCorry

    Let’s sell the Fairfax quality papers to Jeff Bezos – if he can afford to run the Washington Post at a loss in the public interest, he can easily afford to do the same for the Australian public interest.

  4. etnorb

    The only plus that I can see of this takeover is that at least Mudrake still does not hold a complete majority of newspapers in Australia. But what of The Age & The Sydney Morning Hearld’s much touted “individualism”? We have to wonder if anything coming from the Nine chiefs will hold true once they get their grubby hands on the papers? Great article, Dr Kampmark!

  5. Phil

    Australia has always had a strong anti-intellectual bias and this grubby commercial merger will simply feed the bias. No national good will come from this. It’s what I have come to expect from Australia – an intellectual backwater.

  6. Roscoe

    Julian Donn, I cancelled my subscription on the first day of the announcement, was rung up by someone from the Herald and offered a 50% discount if I stayed, I wondered then why was I paying so much before, but I said thanks but no thanks

  7. Shogan

    I actually cancelled my subscription a week before the announcement because as a pensioner I just couldn’t afford it anymore & I too was offered a 50% discount to stay but I said thanks but no thanks too & I would certainly have cancelled when the take over was announced anyway.

    I cancelled my Murdoch subscription 10 years ago & when they rang me to find out why I just told them straight out because I don’t agree with you or Murdoch’s view of the shit you publish.

  8. John O'Callaghan

    Just read an article in the SMH by John Hewson where he called Bill Shorten a liar and called on Turnbull to get Abbott back in cabinet to step up the “kill Bill” routine again.
    Almost every comment slammed Hewson for such a biased piece on calling out your opponets as liars and spivs and charlatans,and already the standard of journalism has dropped at the Fairfax stable… and they hav;nt even signed the contracts yet!

  9. Christine Farmer

    Agree absolutely, Phil. It’s a tragedy that this is happening. Just possibly the deal won’t be allowed to go through, but on the grounds that money always seems to win, it’s not very likely. The Age is not the paper it once was, and print media is certainly in an era of decline, but Fairfax has been the best we have had.
    We are going to need organisations like AIMN even more if we are to have any idea of what is actually happening in the world. Interesting, and alarming, that the emphasis is on the value to stockholders being greater under the new regime, but nothing about the quality of the journalism being improved. But what could we expect?
    How did Turnbull get away with altering the media ownership laws with so little scrutiny?

  10. Egalitarian

    And right on queue Nines; A Current Affair does another story on the unemployed and how much they are costing the government. They are relentless. It’s not journalism; its persecution.

  11. paul walter

    All goes back to whatever Fifield did that persuaded Xenophon to vote for the media legislation in the Senate.

    This legislation also allowed Fifield to sit on the Guardian over changes to funding rules.

    All of this coincides with the dual citizenship nonsenses and the possibility that Xenophon was a target, but maybe this is jumping the shark.

  12. New England Cocky

    In these excellent comments no-one has mentioned the effect of this unfortunate takeover on the numerous regional mastheads.

    Many regions newspapers owned by Fairfax media are running very close to a financial loss, so expect to see the emergence of “regional dailies” merging many small publications spread over a large geographic area.

    So in N NSW it seems likely that the Tamworth Northern Daily Leader (NDL) will survive because it is a six day daily in a prosperous city, and will become the spine of a New England “regional daily” drawing copy from Tenterfield, Glen Innes, Inverell, Armidale and all the other small towns of the region.

    This will mean that local newspaper offices could be closed and staff paid an allowance to work from home and communicate by Skype with “head office”. (Bit of a shock for the locals that, using 21st century technology in the modern world).

    Already local masthead have a reduced once, twice or three times a week publication. So, it seems likely that the publication date for the local paper will remain the same, the “local news” will be received in the NDL.

    So, Tenterfield Star may be Monday, or moved to the better located Queensland Border Post paper, Glen Innes on Tuesday and Thursdays, Armidale, home of the oldest local press, Wednesday and Friday, Inverell Possibly Monday and Thursday. A 12 page supplement would do the trick at considerable financial savings.

    Sadly, the smaller mastheads, now produced in the larger centres, would pass into oblivion, as many predecessors have done.

    Overall, this may be a positive improvement on the present abysmal standard of journalism produced by some of the local papers.

  13. Wayne Turner

    A wet dream for the coalition,who made this possible by changing media ownership laws in parliament ie: Relaxing the media ownership laws.

    The main stream media is the main reason this poor excuse for an alleged government ever get in power (Libs and Nats getting in power that is.).With the MSM the cheer squad for the coalition.

    With 9’s chairman being former Liberal federal Treasurer Peter Costello,with the SMH nothing bad will ever be said about this government. Add to that,it’s why the coalition continue to attack and cut funding to the ABC and SBS. The coalition want all the MSM 100% of the time,to be 100% pro the coalition,and 100% anti-Labor and 100% anti-Greens. This is the end goal of these fascists.

    The mediaocracy is almost complete… 🙁

  14. corvus boreus

    i just perused a borrowed copy of this morning’s Faifax/Channel9 Herald.
    There was much speculative opinionizing about the alleged tyranny of Emma Husar and the supposed ‘ALP crises’, but nary a word about how the PM has been caught cold flipping unauthorized brown-bags of GBR funds to his oil magnate mates.
    Thus sounds the official death knell of another body of traditional journalistic information, leaving us with political propaganda, trivial pablum and all the vagarities of the online alternative-media..
    There truly is a war being waged for the control of our minds.

  15. diannaart

    A few commentators have stated that, at least, NINE isn’t Murdoch. There’s a difference?

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