Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The media disaster, and also Fairfax

Troubled times for the Australian media, with dramatic job losses from Fairfax, and a fight over board seats leading to Paul Kelly appearing on Sky television looking very serious and important in order to deliver his opinion on the matter. It's a concern in this day and age that Paul Kelly is still allowed to appear in public looking serious and important in order to deliver his opinion on matters. Some say that it's time for the government to step in and make legislative changes in order to prevent it from happening in the future, while others say that it's up to the media themselves to be responsible and not allow Paul Kelly to appear in public looking serious and important in order to deliver his opinion on matters. A decade ago, I remember sitting in a flat in Annandale watching the television with a friend when Paul Kelly appeared looking very serious and important and delivering his opinion on matters. My friend snickered audibly and said, 'Train, let's hope we never end up like that.' It was good advice, but unfortunately Paul Kelly pretty much stayed that way for the next ten years, and shows every sign of continuing to look serious and important in order to deliver his opinion on matters for many many years into the future. Well, he's perfectly welcome to do it in front of his mirror at home, is all I can say. Just please, Paul - spare the rest of us. It's time to stop inflicting us with your looks of serious import and important seriousness.


Turning away from this ongoing disaster to much more cheerful matters, we can now look at the implosion of Fairfax. The company has been in the habit of delivering five free copies of their local Melbourne rag, The Age, to a cafe near my work every morning, which, when I first learned about it, struck me as being a rather unsustainable practice. Pretty much anyone with half a brain in their heads can have seen their current troubles coming from miles away, which is perhaps why the current Fairfax board didn't. Several of the Greens made one of those completely meaningless statements politicians like to do today, saying that it was important to protect the independence of the media, which is why they proposed a law in order to stop the Fairfax board making editorial decisions. In order to protect the independence of the media, politicians have to interfere with the media, apparently. Ben Eltham, writing in New Matilda, came to the conclusion that in order to protect same, the government should pay Fairfax money ('modest... $100 million a year'). One of the problems Fairfax has had, of course, has been various multi-media news sources directly funded by the government - ABC, SBS, and The Conversation among them. So the solution to a problem partially created by the distribution of public money is the distribution of more public money. So apparently the way to preserve Fairfax's independence is government interference, followed by dependence on the same government. Figure that one out.


Meanwhile, Fairfax's coverage of Fairfax's ongoing demise has been positively surreal, with a report by Fairfax reporters on a letter sent by Fairfax reporters to the incoming management of the Fairfax board, Fairfax reporters reporting on strikes by Fairfax reporters, and plenty of factual Fairfax front pages on the grim days ahead for the newspaper company.


In the unlikely event of Tim Blair taking over a prominent Fairfax editorship, I suggested a brand name change yesterday: TIMBLAIRFAX. In the same spirit I've been tossing a few other brand name ideas around:







Tim said...

Government funding and independence are compatible, the obvious example being the ABC. The ABC gets a lot of money from the government, but the government isn't allowed to tell the ABC what to print. Because the ABC doesn't have to worry about where its money's coming from, it doesn't have to worry about offending people. If it wants to criticise the government, it can do so without being interfered with -- despite the government being pissed off about it. Cuts to the ABC are usually electorally unpopular (I think), which suggests that most people understand the importance of having a government that ponies up without interfering.

As media's extremely expensive, other outlets simply don't have the same freedom. For example, if Seven receives money from (say) a Phillip Morris subsidiary, its financial ties will affect its ability to present a story on (say) plain packaging of cigarettes.

Superficially, it sounds paradoxical that government-funded media can be independent from government itself. But it's true nonetheless, because running a proper media operation's so damned expensive. Corporate-funded enterprises have to watch what they say about governments to a greater extent, to avoid upsetting their paymasters.

The above only works, of course, if the government plays by the rules of independence established in the first place. Fortunately, Australia's government seems to, by and large - otherwise, the ABC would have been hobbled long ago.

Maybe I'm missing something in your argument.

TimT said...

Greetings Tim! (Now my only concern is... which Tim? I know a lot... and I can only really rule one out...)

At a quite simple and obvious level government funding does not make a media organisation independent from government... by definition, since in the very act of receiving that funding they become 'dependent'.

Now, beyond that definitional level I'll grant your argument has some plausibility, but it's a strangely vulnerable independence that these government-funded media organisations get. Neither major political party really trust the ABC; the last time the Howard Government were in power there were plenty of challenges to the ABC to provide 'balanced' coverage (they still grumble about it). Labor whinge about it too. The result is of course stuff like Q&A... a panel with a superficial balance delivering set speeches at one another, never reaching a point where they can genuinely persuade or dissuade one another, and so never really cutting to the truth. Most times I prefer bias, actually. (It's not as if I've ever expected friends to lack bias.)

And there's always the possibility that, at some point, a government will either cease funding for the ABC/SBS/The Conversation altogether - or threaten to do so unless the organisation provides what they view as 'balanced' coverage. It's a pretty precarious sort of independence in the end, IMO. (I know of several examples that have occurred just in the last year of public-funded arts groups which have been left in a bad way because their funding has been withdrawn, so it's not as if this sort of thing doesn't happen.)

Thanks for stopping by! I don't usually do political posts; it's too exhausting arguing about these things day in, day out :)

TimT said...

Oh wait it's you Tim isn't it! (TR, I mean... the Cranky Crackpot, Kill Your Darlings Theatre Reviewer, etc). Controversy aside, how's it going? I'm loving the 'Cheese' picture post on 'Thus Raked Zarathustra'. Such a goose, I should have worked it out before...

Email: timhtrain - at -

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