Dastyari's noisy reconnaissance

Flamboyant Labor senator Sam Dastyari can't be accused of avoiding one of the more contentious public policy debates at a time when the media landscape could be likened to a World War I battlefield.

After engaging in a week of trench warfare with mixed results, bloodied Fairfax journalists have returned to work to find the terrain littered with spent ammunition and the odd booby trap.

As the guns fell silent for the moment, Dastyari, at the head of a posse of fellow senators, including independents Nick Xenophon and Jacqui Lambie, and Scott Ludlam of the Greens, initiated a select committee on the worthy subject of the "Future of Public Interest Journalism".

Terms of reference include the following: the committee will inquire into and report on "fake news, propaganda, and public disinformation, including sources and motivation of fake news in Australia, overseas, and the international response".

 

  In 1983, 90 percent of American media were owned by 50 companies. Now that proportion is owned by just six, including Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. Photo: Robert Carter

In 1983, 90 percent of American media were owned by 50 companies. Now that proportion is owned by just six, including Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. Photo: Robert Carter

What is fake news, for a start?

We might dismiss Dastyari's hearings as something of a "noisy reconnaissance", even a diversionary tactic given the sensitivities of media reform for both sides of politics.

Hearings will coincide not only with an extraordinary level of media disquiet in this country over further job cuts (these are not restricted to Fairfax: News Corp has its own convulsions) but with the likely imminent arrival in the House and Senate of legislation that, if passed into law, would remake Australian media.

No one pretends, least of all Communications Minister Mitch Fifield, that proposed changes – including most contentiously getting rid of the "two out of three" rule that prevents an individual or a company owning newspapers, television and radio stations in a single market – will not have far-reaching consequences.

 

  What workplace mistakes can derail your career in a major way? Photo: Wolter Peeters

What workplace mistakes can derail your career in a major way? Photo: Wolter Peeters

Removal of the "reach" rule that limits broadcasters to 75 per cent of the market will also play into what promises to be a media churn.

As Fifield put it in a speech to the National Press Club a year ago, "Our current media regulations are a pair of cast iron shackles on competition to the detriment of traditional Australian media companies."

In other words, the minister is bent on putting an end to a structure defined by Paul Keating in his memorable turn of phrase as one in which you could be either a Prince of Print or a Queen of Screen, but not both.

That was a generation ago, before the internet, social media, the voraciousness of Google and Facebook in gobbling up advertising dollars and content for which these behemoths do not pay, put to the sword existing business models.

The question is what is be done about an outmoded media structure without risking further concentration of traditional media in what is one of the world's least diversified markets?

Fifield would say: What is the justification for keeping a rule that pretends there are only three media platforms? Why retain a rule that pretends the internet doesn't exist? Why on earth would some Australian politicians hold our own companies hostage to rules that do not apply to their international competitors?

These are reasonable questions.

Dr Andrea Carson of Melbourne University has no doubt that if the "two out of three rule" goes then a media free-for-all will result, along with further consolidation of traditional media.

She cites the American example as a cautionary one. In 1983, 90 per cent of American media were owned by 50 companies. Now that proportion is owned by just six companies, including Rupert Murdoch's News Corp.

Irrespective of your view of Murdoch being enabled to enlarge his media footprint in Australia to include newspapers and broadcast media in one market, what is needed is a transparent debate about the pros and cons of the sort of reforms being proposed.

Debate should focus on diversity first and foremost since change involved in getting rid of the "two out of three rule" – if carried – will alter the media landscape irrevocably for generations to come.

Needless to say, Labor and the Greens oppose the Fifield legislation in its present form, and specifically removal of the "two out of three rule". The government will need 10 of 12 crossbench senators to get its legislation through. Those numbers rest on a knife edge.

This brings us back to the Dastyari inquiry into public interest journalism. The committee will look particularly at the "role of government in ensuring a viable, independent and diverse service".

Given the latest developments, governments have a poor record in enabling an environment that would foster a vibrant news media.

What Dastyari and his cohort might usefully do is give attention to the sort of tax incentives available in the US to encourage philanthropic and private sector support for public interest journalism.

They might look particularly at requiring the Google and Facebook pirates to pay their fair share of tax, a portion of which could be set aside to provide tax relief for "public interest journalism".

That might be regarded as a reasonable response to a media crisis that will certainly not be solved by heavy-handed government intervention, or inaction for that matter.