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Drunken Displays, Media Moguls

The Australian media is a mess

By Bede A. Moore

SYDNEY, Australia—If you had to pick, shenanigans and shambles are pretty good words to describe the Australian media of late. Over the past year, the government, corporations, and individual journalists have all fought hard to degrade the reporting business in this country, some making a public spectacle of themselves, while others negotiated in cabinets and board rooms to quietly erode the diversity of the nation’s media coverage.

For those who value pluralism and a strong press, it was a grave set of developments. Now, as laughter subsides from the latest incident of tom-foolery, Australians are left to ponder the bleak outlook for 2007 and fear the future of the country’s besieged media.

At the very least, 2006 managed to end on an amusing note as a couple of tired and emotional journalists fought to personify the industry’s most ubiquitous trait: self-importance. “Fought,” because that’s exactly what the two of them did, made all the better by the fact that they scuffled on stage at the country’s annual Walkley awards for journalism, an event deemed so important it is beamed live nationally on free-to-air television.

The black tie affair came to an unexpected climax as former Murdoch journo, Stephen Mayne, concluded announcing the winner of the “Best Business Report.” Mayne, lately the founder of the popular political (read: rumor-filled) website, “Crikey!,” was still standing on the platform when a member of the audience bounded onto the stage and began yelling at him.

“You are an absolute disgrace, you, you are an absolute disgrace,” shouted Murdoch national political correspondent Glenn Milne, showing the articulate streak that had him employed. The drunk, disheveled reporter then threw Mayne to the ground, jabbering abuse all the while, before security guards leapt onto the stage and dragged him away.

Not to be outdone, a beaming Mayne quickly got to his feet and strutted to the microphone. He victoriously thrust his hands in the air and surveyed the audience. “Ladies and gentlemen, I have an announcement to make on behalf of Rupert Murdoch,” Mayne said. “That is the former Sunday Telegraph political correspondent Glenn Milne…sponsored by Fosters.” The crowd erupted in laughter.

In exquisite tabloid fashion, Milne blamed his behavior on a combination of migraine medication and alcohol. And not only was this hackneyed excuse accepted, his Murdoch employers attacked their former colleague, the hapless victim.

Humorous as the incident might have been, it’s sadly characteristic of the crisis Australian journalism is fast entering. Mayne, Milne, and the Murdoch press are in one incestuous relationship, but now, thanks to the government’s new media laws, the world of Australian journalism looks like becoming even more inbred.

This year also saw new moves to relax media ownership laws, which previously sought to restrain media moguls enjoying market dominance in Australia’s small and widely separated capital cities. As justification, the Howard government claims the changes are necessary for the betterment of the country’s democracy, a position plainly contradicted by what followed.

The issue of cross- and foreign media ownership dates back to the 1940s in Australia, when the government first attempted to ensure a diversity of sources. At present, the country has a highly independent public broadcasting network spanning radio, television, and now the internet. This exists together with licensing controls on private media that ensure proprietors must be either, “queens of the screen” or “princes of print,” but not both in any one market—the cross-media laws. Foreign ownership was even more tightly controlled.

During their decade-long reign, the Howard government has considered amending the law in 1998 and again in 2001, but both times they backed down. Still, the issue remained on the table, and when the Minister for Communications, Information Technology, and the Arts, Helen Coonan, introduced a bill to parliament this March, it came as little surprise.

Coonan’s bill essentially effects three large changes. It will relax cross-media and foreign ownership regulations, lessen the powers of the independent Australian Competition and Consumer Commission in favor of a government-controlled body, and increase the potential for new digital services to be delivered to the market.

The changes aren’t all bad, as some restructuring of the current system is unquestionably required. The government, however, has cleverly packaged the reforms such that they will line the wallets of their favorite news corporations, further ensuring the continuation of the conspicuous editorial support Howard already receives from the Murdochs, amongst others.

By reducing the limitations on ownership, the government will give these media moguls the right to purchase larger slices of the media pie, and conceivably the opportunity to single-handedly dominate the press in any given market. It’d be a little like having Fox as your only available “news” sources in the U.S. Naturally, Howard insists otherwise, but, as they say here in Australia, the proof is in the pudding.

Ironically, it was Murdoch’s own newspaper, The Australian, which last week reported the incredible frenzy of cross-media share trading that has occurred in preparation for next year when the laws will take effect. And, surprise, surprise, they’re all buying strategic stakes in each other, and there’s no sign of any new media.

It’s just a shame John Howard doesn’t have pills and booze to blame.

Bede A. Moore ’06-’07 is a history concentrator in Winthrop House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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