Australia’s digital media inquiry suffers from a public interest deficit.

Is the government-ordered inquiry is about re-invigorating quality journalism — or protecting the country's flailing print duopoly?

By James Rose
Splice Australia

In December 2017, Australia’s conservative government requested an inquiry into the impact of online competition on local, traditional media the first of its kind in the world. Treasurer Scott Morrison asked the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission to assess the role of search engines, social media platforms and other digital content aggregation platforms, and then report back to parliament by mid-2019.

The terms of reference include “the impact of digital platforms on the supply of news and journalistic content and the implications of this for media content creators, advertisers and consumers.”

But is this about re-invigorating quality journalism? Or is it about protecting the floundering business models of Australia’s tightly held (and likely to be further concentrated) media interests, particularly the domination of print by Fairfax and News Corp, the latter of which has long had a cosy relationship with conservative governments?

Signs of still life

The first clue is in the body that was asked to conduct the inquiry. The ACCC is not a media organization and would not be equipped to delve into how journalism is done, and funded, in the digital age.

As the name suggests, the ACCC is about ensuring commercial competitiveness, not about examining the health of the media industry.

If the government truly was concerned about the Fourth Estate and its future, then the inquiry might have been run through a parliamentary committee, a Royal Commission, or impossibly but more interestingly through the country’s main media union, the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance. All of which would have allowed for a much more open and a far deeper investigation.

There was already a Parliamentary Select Committee inquiry into public interest journalism held last year. Denuded somewhat by the departure of its three parliamentary initiators (all subsequently left the parliament for unrelated reasons), the committee reported its findings earlier this year.

The report recommended, broadly, that public interest journalism has value and should be encouraged through various means, including taxation policy, public broadcasting (but not “public print”), digital media literacy and media freedoms.

However, this inquiry, remarkably perhaps for one which purporting to be investigating digital literacy, didn’t directly investigate the role of online aggregators such as Facebook and Google or their impact on media content and the dissemination of ‘fake news’. The committee did, however, receive submissions from both companies.

This oversight was despite the fact that the link between the digital duopoly and the undermining of public interest journalism is often made. A spokesperson for the MEAA says “there is no doubt they have had a corrosive effect on public interest journalism,” adding that “companies like Google and Facebook take no responsibility for the decline in quality journalism.”

Public interest deficit

A further indication of the likely direction of this inquiry is the names of those who have made formal submissions to the process. Of the 57 submissions to the inquiry the ACCC says it has published (I counted 64), only 12 or about 19 percent are from individuals. The rest come from companies, lobbies and other institutions.

Media consultant Denise Shrivell wrote recently that the imbalance between corporate and wider public participation in the inquiry undermines the ability of the ACCC to get to the core of the crisis in Australian media: a lack of public trust in major media companies.

It is clear that the problem is not just that the dominant media operators are failing because of spiralling advertising revenues, but also due to a mass exodus to online content produced outside the echo chamber of Australia’s mainstream media.

The media landscape

The real issue emerges, therefore, of the threat this trend poses to quality journalism in Australia, already undermined by years of cost-cutting and staff layoffs.

The elephant in the room in this inquiry is Australia’s narrow media spectrum which remains so despite the entry of some new digital players from major mastheads such as the Guardian to smaller operators like New Matilda and the power it wields.

Such factors surely work to relegate public interest journalism to lesser status as vested commercial interests continue to dominate the media landscape, even as the global online giants also play their part.

A public forum held in Melbourne last month as part of the inquiry was poorly attended, suggesting Australians are either uninterested in the process or unaware it is happening at all.

That is perhaps, at least in part, because mainstream media outlets would rather control the process, as evidenced by the approach of News Corp in covering the forum. The Rupert Murdoch-owned company sought to draw a competitive distinction between traditional and digital media brands, focusing on concerns about consumers feeling ‘bullied’ by the online media giants.

And overall news coverage of the inquiry has been relatively scant.

A public space for audiences to better engage with, and to influence, existing media outlets and outputs, appears to remain closed off as this inquiry process comes to an end.

This raises questions about whether the government-ordered inquiry into digital media is really about addressing the concerns of consumers or about those of Australia’s ensconced media giants.

James Rose is a journalist, author, and consultant based in Australia. Follow James Rose on Twitter.

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