Reporting on the Rules

In July this year, Nine Entertainment and Fairfax Media announced that they would be combining to become Nine. This represents one of the biggest media mergers in the country’s history, and Australia’s already squeezed media will soon have just four major players: News Corp, Nine, Seven West Media and the ABC.

Fairfax runs The Age, the Sydney Morning Herald, the Canberra Times, and the Brisbane Times, as well as a string of other regional outlets. This year alone, Fairfax has reported on war crimes committed by Australian soldiers, worker exploitation, and abuse in prisons. However, the merger raises serious questions about the capacity for Fairfax to maintain this kind of quality investigative journalism - including investigative journalism partnerships with the ABC - when sharing a platform with programs such as A Current Affair, a show guilty of defamation, racism, sensationalism, and dressing advertising up as journalism.

The struggles of Fairfax have largely been reported as the inability of the company to compete in a digital age. However, these struggles can also be set against a broader picture of neoliberalism and its impact on the media landscape. Fairfax has suffered from a series of cost-cutting measures, shedding 500 staff over the past decade. Journalists from The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald went on illegal strikes against the job cuts in 2016 (illegal thanks to Labor’s 2009 Fair Work Act, which mandates that employees cannot strike outside of enterprise bargaining periods), and again during the 2017 federal budget. Meanwhile, Fairfax chief executive Greg Hywood received a total pay package of up to $7.2 million in 2016..The merger will potentially see further job losses, while Hywood is likely to receive an $8.2 million redundancy.

The merger has been allowed as a result of liberalisation of media ownership laws passed by the federal government last year. Previous restrictions on media ownership included the ‘two out of three rule’, limiting companies to just two platforms - TV, radio or newspapers - in the same city, and the ‘reach rule’, which prevented single TV broadcasters from reaching more than 75 percent of the total population. The package of changes also included a $30 million hand-out to Murdoch-owned Foxtel to increase coverage of women’s sports, as well as relaxing laws that helped to ensure free-to-air channels had first access to major sporting events. The changes were passed with the support of the then Nick Xenophon Team (in exchange for a $50 million regional and small publishers innovation fund), as well as One Nation (in exchange for a ‘competitive neutrality inquiry’ into the ABC and SBS).

The Nine-Fairfax merger is the first major merger under these new rules, resulting in further concentration in an already squeezed landscape - the consolidated Nine, and NewsCorp, will be the two largest media platforms in Australia.

The merger represents the perfect storm of neoliberalisation - the combination of weakened media ownership laws that allow for bigger and bigger private companies; restrictive industrial action laws that prevent strikes; and the concentration of corporate power that cut workers out of decision making. After decades of a declining labour movement in Australia - its power decimated by the Accord, and further weakened by industrial legislation passed by both the Labor and Liberal governments - unions have found themselves as shaken by-standers to this and other major corporate takeovers and sell-offs. The Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance organised the strikes in 2016 and 2017, and is now calling on the ACCC to block the merger, on the grounds of media concentration and the quality of journalism. The ACCC has launched an informal review into the impacts of the merger on competition, media diversity, and the impacts on the depth and variety of issues covered.

The merger represents the perfect storm of neoliberalisation - the combination of weakened media ownership laws that allow for bigger and bigger private companies; restrictive industrial action laws that prevent strikes; and the concentration of corporate power that cut workers out of decision making.

A profit-driven media landscape is compromised not only in its journalistic integrity, but also in its ability to produce cultural products that are niche, avant-garde, or take some kind of artistic risk. As Mark Fisher wrote,

“It was the public service-oriented BBC and Channel 4 that perplexed and delighted me with the likes of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy, Pinter plays and Tarkovsky seasons; it was this BBC that also funded the popular avant gardism of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, which embedded sonic experimentalism into everyday life. Such innovations are unthinkable now that the public has been displaced by the consumer.”

Small pockets of this media culture still exist - for instance, local Brisbane community radio station 4ZZZ is known for producing experimental, non-mainstream content, and held its recent fundraising drive around the theme of ‘Keep Brisbane Weird’. However, as the public is more and more displaced by the consumer - inevitable in a media landscape where profit is the key consideration - weird content is likely to disappear from our screens, newspapers, and radios.

This is, of course, already happening: many media outlets have traded deep investigative journalism and experimental expression for commercialisation and sensationalism. This is often be justified in terms of giving people (that is, consumers) ‘what they want’, but in fact the opposite is true: alienation from the media has never been greater. Many of today’s mainstream media outlets are looked upon by the general public with scorn as either elite, out-of-touch institutions, peddlers of ‘fake news’, or tabloid fear-mongerers. They are not, of course, entirely wrong. The profit-driven logic of today’s media landscape - of which the Nine-Fairfax merger is only the latest symptom - is largely incapable of producing truly media products that represent people’s voices and speak to their experiences.

How could this be fixed? Tighter media ownership laws - although crucial - are not the only ingredient. Other measures are necessary to restoring greater democratic control over the media landscape: for a start, substantially expanding funding of publicly-owned broadcasters (in a recent speech, UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn suggested that this could be funded via a tax on Facebook and other tech companies). The Nine-Fairfax merger also raises important questions around the kinds of decisions that profit-driven boards make, as opposed to the kinds of decisions staff - who make the products on which a company is based - would make, given their own interests. If given the choice, would the the journalists, technicians, camera people and editors who make and run the core of the business at Fairfax have come to the same conclusion as the corporate bosses who orchestrated the merger? Policy proposals in the UK and the US have sought to find ways to challenge corporate power and give workers a meaningful stake and say in how companies are run - UK Labour have proposed ownership funds that would create worker ownership over companies; in the US, the Democrats have proposed an ‘accountable capitalist bill’ that would mandate worker representation on boards, similar to decades-old co-determination laws in Germany that have been successful in helping workers resist job cuts. In the media industry, some actions toward greater democratic control of companies could include expanding the Guardian’s model of journalists electing chief editors across all media companies; or creating democratically-elected positions on the ABC Board of Directors.

The merger announced earlier this year elicited initial reactions of concern and even outrage, but these seem to have died away relatively quickly. One of the depressing things about capitalism is - to quote Mark Fisher again -  the way it “seamlessly occupies the horizons of the thinkable”. The concentration of corporate power, the decline of quality journalism in favour of media that parrots the interests of capital, and the inability of ordinary people to do anything about it - all these things seem almost inevitable, just part of an unstoppable logic over which we have no control. But it’s worth remembering that media can, and should, represent a lively and vital part of our democratic and cultural lives: a way of speaking truth to power, of holding those at the top to account, and of experimenting with novel and exciting artistic forms. Measures to preserve and expand democracy within the media are worth fighting for - not only to defend what the media is, but to (re)imagine what it could be.

Amy MacMahon is an organiser and sociologist living and working in Meanjin/Brisbane, with interests in community development, social work, climate and food justice and feminism.

Joanna Horton is a writer and radio producer living in Brisbane. Her work has appeared in Overland, StylusLit, The Millions, and The Toast, among other places.

Photo by Jeremy Galliani on Unsplash