Public interest vs profit: the fight for quality journalism

If financial viability becomes the benchmark for saving a newspaper or television program then not even The Australian is immune from the axe.

The fact is that important journalism often needs subsidies to survive. It’s a message Peter van Onselen should keep in mind when writing of privatising the ABC.

Many important stories aren’t commercial. They don’t hook the masses and drive revenue. They may cost more than they earn. But they play an important role in our democracy and society.

What would happen in a fully privatised, commercially-driven news landscape?

These stories would be sidelined or simply not done, trends tell us. Democracy and our society would be the poorer.

Peter van Onselen in The Weekend Australian said the ABC should be privatised to “remove a government-funded goliath that is interfering with the market in the media landscape”.

“Invariably, government-owned entities are less efficient than privately owned ones. That is because they can afford to be,” he wrote.

What he, perhaps conveniently, didn’t say is that The Australian, according to industry analysts, costs more than it earns and is propped up financially by owner Rupert Murdoch’s broader publishing, film and television interests.

Star Wars, Planet of the Apes and Glee help keep The Australian afloat.

News Corporation shareholders in June, it’s anticipated, will vote to split the entertainment and publishing streams into two separate publicly-traded companies, partly to make the newspapers such as The Australian more financially accountable.

“If van Onselen’s over-simplified, inconsistently-applied free market economics were imposed on The Australian he may not have a press platform from which to express his view.”

Mike Smith

The commercialisation of journalism in Australia, particularly in the past five years, has impacted negatively on the quality and breadth of programs, publications and stories. It has been at the expense of comprehensive coverage of politics and current affairs.

In July 2008, the Nine Network axed its high-profile award-winning Sunday current affairs program. At the same time, Nine also closed its weeknight news and current affairs program Nightline.

Nine’s Director of News and Current Affairs at the time, John Westacott, acknowledged in a public statement that the decision to close the programs was a financial one.

“There is no joy or feeling of professional achievement to end programs with such illustrious histories,” Westacott said.

“During its 27 years on air, Sunday has been at the forefront of ground-breaking and award-winning television, much envied for its journalistic bravery and professional diligence. Its demise is very disappointing for all of us.

“But today’s realities impose much tougher cost and performance benchmarks across the media industry than those of the past, and sadly there is not sufficient economic appeal for a loss-leader like Sunday, as good as it has been for Nine and television journalism.”

The rise and fall of Sunday is, to a significant degree, traceable to the ownership of the Nine Network. 

Sunday never delivered huge ratings but Nine’s former owner, the late Kerry Packer, understood its importance and value and backed it personally with his deep pockets and influence as boss. (Packer was for many years Australia’s richest man, estimated to be worth up to $7 billion.)

He also knew that the program underpinned Nine’s brand at the time as the commercial leader in news and current affairs.

For many years, Nine front man Ray Martin hosted the federal election TV debate between the Prime Minister and Opposition leader.

Packer died in December 2005 and his son, James, took over the business empire. James, it seemed, was not interested in subsidising loss-making journalism and cut loose the media side of the business.

He also, unfortunately, gave no or very little thought to safeguarding the future of the journalism gems he was selling by matching them with a suitable new owner. The top dollar was his bottom line.

In June 2007 he sold an additional 25 per cent of PBL Media to existing private equity partner and venture capitalist CVC Asia Pacific, giving CVC a 75 per cent stake in PBL and, therefore, full control of the Nine Network, as well as NBN Television, ACP magazines and substantial interests in, ninemsn, myhome and Australia’s Sky News TV channel.

Venture capitalists exist, first and foremost, to make money. The importance and value of quality journalism is not on their radar. In the hands of venture capitalists, a loss-making program like Sunday never stood a chance. At the stroke of a CVC accountant’s pen, Sunday was gone.

Excellent and important journalism vanished.

Andrew White in The Australian last October said: “…(James) Packer left the (media) industry with billions in cash in his back pocket, while CVC is in retreat with nearly $2 billion of losses from one of Australia’s biggest private equity wipeouts.

“James Packer has shown a ruthless streak in his attitude to media that belies the family’s long and storied history in newspapers, magazines, broadcast and pay television and more recently the internet.”

Andrew White

Shortly after CVC axed Sunday, the Media Diary in The Australian reported the following:

“The last feature broadcast on the Sunday program before it was axed by the Nine network to save money has won a United Nations Media Peace Award. Jane Hansen’s Behind The Razor Wire was awarded first prize in the Increasing Awareness of Children’s Rights & Issues category as well as a Highly Commended in the Best TV Current Affairs category.

“Hansen told the awards dinner on Friday night that the issue of children’s rights had been pursued by Sunday for seven years. Nine has no interest in quality current affairs any more, preferring to spend money on personalities like Sam Newman who was reportedly signed up for a $3 million contract recently.

“The UNAA Media Peace Awards judges commented: “This program highlighted the cruelty, inhumanity and long-term damage to children held in Australia’s detention centres. The report used interviews with child victims and psychiatrists to demonstrate what was described as ‘bordering on state-sponsored child abuse’. The reporters gave the former minister ample opportunity to justify his position but his response only served to underline the contrast between humane policy and political expediency. The policy of detention of children ended prior to this program but the report was a commendable postscript to a questionable episode in Australia’s human rights record”.

This trend in broadcasting spread to the print world in January 2008 when Australian Consolidated Press axed The Bulletin.

Founded in 1880, The Bulletin was Australia’s longest-running magazine. Over the years, its tone and format changed – not surprisingly given its 128 years span – but throughout this time it kept a focus on politics and current affairs.

The significance and influence of The Bulletin can hardly be overstated. It played a key role in the evolution of our democracy and system of government, reporting on and campaigning for the country’s transition to a federation in 1901.

From 1984 it was published with the respected and influential world news magazine Newsweek.

There has also been a decline in front page coverage of Australian federal elections over the past 30+ years.

I surveyed the front page leads of Australia’s five most influential metro daily newspapers – the national broadsheet The Australian, the two Sydney papers The Sydney Morning Herald and The Daily Telegraph, and the two Melbourne papers, the Herald Sun and The Age – for each day of the four change-of-government federal election campaigns since 1975.

The change-of-government elections are, generally, the most newsworthy campaigns.

I surveyed the front page leads of the five papers for each day of the 1975 (Whitlam to Fraser), 1983 (Fraser to Hawke), 1996 (Keating to Howard) and 2007 (Howard to Rudd) campaigns.

The results, which I presented at the Walkley Foundation Annual Public Affairs Convention in Canberra in 2009, were as follows:

Herald Sun: During the 1975 election campaign, 62.5 per cent of the Herald Sun’s front page leads were on the election. This dropped to 60 per cent in 1983, 51.4 per cent in 1996 and just 31.7 per cent in 2007.

The Age: During the 1975 election campaign, 79 per cent of The Age’s front page leads were on the election. This, overall, fell to 73 per cent in 1983, 77 per cent in 1996 and 59 per cent in 2007.

Sydney Morning Herald: During the 1975 election campaign, 75 per cent of the SMH’s front page leads were on the election. This jumped to 90 per cent when Hawke ousted Fraser in 1983 then fell to 71 per cent in 1996 and 68 per cent in 2007.

Daily Telegraph: During the 1975 election campaign, 68.8 per cent of the Daily Telegraph’s front page leads were on the election. This dropped to about 55 per cent in 1983 and stayed at about this rate in 1996 and 2007.

The Australian: During the 1975 election campaign, 86 per cent of The Australian’s front page leads were on the election. This figure rose steadily to 92 per cent in 2007.

The financial comfort of Rupert Murdoch’s extended business interests, in effect a subsidy, enables The Australian to focus on loss-making stories on politics and government.

When Kerry Packer died, the loss-making Sunday program was thrown to the market wolves and mauled to death.

When Rupert Murdoch dies, will the new controller of his publishing empire continue to write a blank cheque for The Australian? Time will tell.

The dynamics of commerce, to which van Onselen and The Australian say they subscribe, threaten their own mouthpiece, and all stories that are not commercial.

First published ABC 29 May 2013. Author Mike Smith. Photo: ABC.

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