Features Australia

Down the social media rabbit hole

17 June 2017

9:00 AM

17 June 2017

9:00 AM

‘Whatever it is I’m against it,’ Groucho Marx sang in the 1932 film Horse Feathers.
Bill Shorten’s Labor Party is singing from the same song sheet in its opposition to the Turnbull Government’s changes to media ownership rules. And, as with the Marx Brothers movie, its argument for trying to torpedo these changes is horse feathers.

Shadow Communications Minister Michelle Rowland has made it clear that Labor will not agree to changing the two out of three rule that prevents a company from controlling radio, television and print in the one market. She rejected arguments from media bosses that these laws needed changing because they were introduced in a pre-Internet age.

Labor seems to hold the fond belief that maintaining competition rules written in the 1970s will preserve a media industry that is on its knees.

Labor’s justification for its intransigence on this issue is underpinned by an historical paranoia about the evils of a concentration of media ownership. This has its roots in the decision by Rupert Murdoch to campaign, largely through the Australian, against the floundering and inept Whitlam Government in the lead-up to the 1975 election.

Through selective amnesia this ignores the fact that Murdoch supported Whitlam’s election at the 1972 poll.

Over the years Labor has consistently chosen to ignore the impact of market forces on the growth of the media industry, preferring to come down on the side of party politics.

The threat facing traditional media in Australia and elsewhere in the world is not from a concentration of ownership but from the impact of rapidly advancing new communications technology — particularly social media.

And in reality, although media editors and CEOs would not concede this- publicly at least, the Government’s media reform package which includes a reduction in broadcast licensing fees and a reduction in the number of events on the sports anti-siphoning list, amounts to little more than throwing a lifebuoy to a drowning man. Labor’s policy substitutes an anchor for the lifebuoy.

The stark reality for traditional media, and especially newspapers, is that the emerging market is simply not interested in what it has to offer.

The transition to digital platforms has led to a growth in audience levels in News Corp and Fairfax publications but has not stemmed the rot and consequently both organisations have embarked on their own major editorial cutbacks in recent months.

News Corp publications, specifically the Australian, have the support of a proprietor with ink in his veins, deep pockets and a communications empire largely built on electronic media. But it is anyone’s guess how long these publications will survive post-Rupert Murdoch.

Murdoch’s commitment can be summed up in a comment he made more than 30 years ago when he sold the New York Post newspaper. ‘I suddenly realised that I had not lived in a city where I did not own a newspaper since I was 22 years old,’ he quipped. He bought it back in 1993 and it is still in the News Corp stable.

Fairfax has not had a proprietor since young Warwick took over in 1987 and then pulled the rug from under its feet. It will be interesting to see which, if any, of Fairfax’s print titles survive should either of the two current takeover bids succeed or even if they don’t.

Media tragics believe, or at least hope, that the digital titles of papers such as the Australian will survive even if the hardcopy versions do not. But the problem is that content on these platforms is provided by the journalists who produce the print versions and unless there is a dramatic upswing in on-line advertising or readers are prepared to pay or pay more this simply will not happen.

Traditionalists who have grown up with newspapers simply cannot believe there could be a world without them. They will tell you that the youth of today who rely largely on social media are ill-informed. But it is all relative. In other words they believe they are adequately informed.

And political parties ignore this message at their own peril. Just ask Theresa May’s Conservatives.

An unexpectedly large turnout of young voters strongly driven by social media campaigning played a significant role in the swing to the Labour Party.For instance, the blue-ribbon seat of Canterbury, held by the Conservatives since 1918, fell to Labour with a swing of nearly 10 per cent.

The key to social media is that it is instantaneous (not finite like print) and peer-driven. Content is still king — a philosophy which has been a cornerstone of Murdoch’s philosophy and success. But on social media the reader creates the content and then shares it with anyone who is interested. The challenge for print in trying to enter this arena is to surrender the traditional role of editorialising — something that has been fundamental to newspapers since their inception.

At the same time the commercial television networks are not immune from the increasing cost pressure involved in maintaining their own news gathering services. And it seems only a matter of time before they will be forced into some form of news-pooling arrangement to keep the wolf from the door.

Meanwhile, lurking in the background is the ubiquitous Australian Broadcasting Corporation with a secure taxpayer-funded future no matter what and with no need to worry about advertising revenue or market share. In fact, if share of voice across the media landscape is any guide, the ABC has to be seen as a glaring example of concentration of ownership.

Unsurprisingly. this does not ruffle the Left, which is quite happy for people such as Leigh Sales to use a 7.30 interview with Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, to attack President Trump’s ‘egocentric and intemperate’ tweeting about world affairs.

If Labor had any real concern about the future of the commercial media in this country, and in particular traditional media, it would take the shackles off otherwise it will not be long before the industry disappears down a social media hole.

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