Australia’s high concentration of media ownership is eroding its democracy, getting in the way of critical action on issues like climate change and limiting what stories get told, media experts have warned.
The warning comes as former prime minister Kevin Rudd called for a royal commission into media concentration on Saturday, launching a petition to Parliament that amassed thousands of signatures within hours of going live.
Australia’s media landscape is dominated by two players – Nine Entertainment, which owns the The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald mastheads among others, and News Corp, owned by former Australian Rupert Murdoch, which controls between 60 and 70 per cent of the metropolitan market.
Mr Rudd decried the sheer concentration of the Murdoch empire, and pointed to News Corp mastheads’ support for the Liberal Party in the past 18 elections.
Murdoch has become a cancer, an arrogant cancer, on our democracy,” Mr Rudd said.
“I’m calling on the Parliament to establish a royal commission into the abuse of media monopoly in Australia, and particularly by the Murdoch media, to make recommendations to maximise media diversity ownership for the future lifeblood of our democratic system.”
Mr Rudd has had a long-running feud with News Corp, which used its mastheads to hound him during his tenure as prime minister.
A petition to Parliament is essentially a request for action, but it does not mean the sitting government has to implement its requests.
Columnist and UTS academic Jenna Price explained the way in which some media companies wielded their influence.
“We can see in some publications there is an un-journalistic desire to choose who should be in power, as opposed to providing readers with evidence,” Dr Price said.
“Opinion pieces are one thing, but reporting should be evidence based.”
Mr Murdoch’s influential newspapers and television stations have been widely criticised for spreading misinformation about climate change during Australia’s out-of-control bushfires.
The Australian has repeatedly argued that this year’s fires are no worse than those of the past – a claim that scientists have dismissed as untrue.
Dr Price said News Corp’s coverage on issues such as climate change had been concerning.
“You can understand how frustrating the Murdoch empire’s position on climate change was for James Murdoch, who had direct power. Imagine how the rest of us feel,” she said.
“We see story after story in the Murdoch papers saying there is no such thing as climate change, then that arsonists were responsible.
“There’s never any apology or correcting the record.”
News Corp has also been pursuing Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews over the issue of the state’s coronavirus lockdowns, she said.
“Every story in The Australian is about ‘Dictator Dan’, it would be like the NZ publications going after ‘General Jacinda’, but there the coverage has been more considered,” Dr Price said.
Her dream royal commission on media ownership would also focus on tabloid commentators and the ways in which they target and bully individuals they dislike.
“I want a royal commission into the stream of columnists who should have to make amends for their fact-less columns,” Dr Price said.
The only content they have is malice.”
News Corp did not respond to The New Daily’s request for comment.
Denis Muller, who previously worked for Nine papers and is now a senior research fellow at the University of Melbourne, said a royal commission into media concentration was “long overdue”.
There have been inquiries into media concentration before … but they all went nowhere because politicians are frightened,” Dr Muller said.
“Not just of Murdoch, but of all the main media proprietors. The need for an inquiry is more pressing than it’s ever been before.”
Dr Muller said the Murdoch influence was not just apparent in Australia.
“If you look at the two democracies in the most trouble, the UK and the US, in both the Murdoch empire is dominant and has been an active player in preferring right-wing governments,” he said.
“When you have power like that which is not accountable you impair your democracy.”
The only ways to break up the monopoly would be for Mr Murdoch to divest his assets, or for the government to support more independent regional mastheads, Dr Muller said.
“You get diversity from the ground up. You won’t get it straight away at the metropolitan level.”
But not everyone thinks a royal commission into media diversity is a good idea.
Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance president Marcus Strom said “the issues are clear already”.
Pointing to the closures of media companies like BuzzFeed, Vice, The Huffington Post and local outlets, Mr Strom said the success stories for media companies in Australia outside the News Corp/Nine duopoly were far and few between.
“Google and Facebook need to pay their share, we need more support for suburban and rural media, and the government needs to restore funding to public broadcasters,” he said.
The Australian public has paid the price for the nation’s highly concentrated media sector, he said.
“This hyper-partisanship in newcomer outlets … that just erodes confidence in the media,” he said.
“We need more voices to strengthen our democracy.”