Trotting out nonsense at an inquiry into nothing
From a crowded field, one of the more embarrassing moments from my troubled phase as a teenage Trotskyist involved selling issues of the socialist newspaper Direct Action on the streets of Adelaide. On occasions I sold it outside Football Park, Adelaide’s home of Aussie Rules, where I hoped to capitalise on that niche readership of people who both loved their footy and loved the idea of capitalism being paralysed by its contradictions.
In hindsight “selling” isn’t the right word. On a good day I sold three copies of Direct Action. On most days I sold no copies of Direct Action. The reason I sold no copies of Direct Action is that it wasn’t a very good newspaper. It was a crap newspaper. It was preachy, dour, earnest, poorly designed, massively overpriced for what it was, and full of articles which were about as far away from mainstream sentiment as you could imagine, with discussions of whether indigenous organisations should take up arms against their oppressors, calls for trade bans with pariah nations such as the United States, editorials calling for transgender prisoners to be given sex changes on Medicare.
Today, about three million Australians will shell out a couple of dollars to but their favourite Sunday newspaper. They do so because they like and enjoy it.
It is clearly written, nicely laid out, and contains a mix of serious and light stories which relate to your daily lives. Broadly speaking, it shares your values. It wants governments to be honest, and careful with our money, it wants oppositions to put forward an alternative vision, it believes in the rule of law, public safety, it supports our troops overseas, it opposes drugs, it supports families. It enjoys movies, eating out, music and TV, it doesn’t mind a bit of gossip, and it absolutely loves sport.
Direct Action it ain’t.
The Federal Government is in the middle of holding an inquiry into the Australian media. If a camel is a horse designed by a committee, this inquiry is the strangest beast to wander out of Canberra in a while. It is wholly an accident of the fraught marriage of convenience which Julia Gillard was forced to enter into with the Greens to cling to power. Its terms of reference are absurd.
It is focussed on the conduct and concentration of newspapers in this country. It is calling for submissions from people who edit newspapers such as this one, but not from editors in the rapidly growing online news sector (such as this one, whose website, news.com.au, has 650,000 readers a day).
It is ignoring talkback radio, even though you have people rejoicing behind microphones who make Andrew Bolt look like a pinko, and networks who in the past have accepted direct cash payments from lobbyists and ordered their willing broadcasters to spruik a certain line.
Most bizarrely it is ignoring TV and commercial news programs such as Today Tonight and A Current Affair. I was reflecting on this the other night when Ray Martin was on Q and A. I have a great deal of affection for Ray, he is a very likeable bloke. He was also a very effective interviewer, who with his easy style often wrong-footed some of the canniest politicians in the business. He’s a passionate champion of reconciliation and a republic, views I also share.
That said, I struggle a bit – massively, actually – with Ray’s new status as the pure-as-the-driven-snow arbiter of media ethics. Ray’s millions were built on the Shane Paxtons of this world – TONIGHT! AUSTRALIA’S BIGGEST DOLE BLUDGER! – and a brand of reporting which relied not occasionally but daily on paid interviews, foot in the door journalism, private investigators, hidden microphones, concealed cameras, and if the ratings still went south you’d bung on a studio debate and get people to chuck chairs at each other.
There will be no scrutiny of the often bizarre excesses of the 6.30 time slot, which reached a heady crescendo a few years back with the bidding war between TT and ACA to save Papua New Guinea’s baby Wa-Wa from a long braise in a cannibal’s pot. Wah, wah, indeed.
The newspapers which three million Australians bought today are in the frame.
Much of the impetus for this scrutiny comes from the deplorable events within the UK arm of our company, News International, principally at the deservedly defunct Sunday newspaper The News of the World. In Australia our company has voluntarily set up an independent process, headed by two retired Supreme Court judges, to vet our past practices to make sure that nothing like what happened on Fleet Street has ever happened on Australian newspapers. From what has been reported the judges have found nothing of the sort. They would have had a much richer and rewarding time of it if they’d looked at commercial news radio and television here. More importantly, so would the Federal Government’s inquiry.
Instead it looks like politically-driven payback by a government which is not unpopular with the voters because of tough media coverage, but getting tough media coverage because it is unpopular with the voters.
On its opening day the inquiry heard evidence from critics of the mainstream media who have bemoaned the absence of progressive newspapers in Australia, even suggesting in line with Bob Brown’s call that the taxpayers should subsidise people who want to set one up.
There is of course nothing to stop progressive people from setting up their own newspapers, and taking to the streets to sell them. I tried it once and it didn’t work. It shouldn’t be the job of government to step in and prop up a product for which there is no demand. The people who run newspapers have to do that by serving their audience. The people who gave evidence to this committee are welcome to start their own paper. It is, as they say, a free country.
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