Keeping The Bastards Honest
By Lawrence Gibbons Sydney City Hub
23 November, 2000
Richard Walsh, co-founder of Oz in the 60's, editor of the Nation Review in the 70's and now a trusted alternative media advisor to the City Hub, forwarded the latest edition of the media industry newsletter, Media Flash to my attention.
In it Ash Long, Media Flash's editor, publisher and web master was making a zero hour plea entitled "Do Miracles Still Happen In Australia?" If he did not raise $85,000 immediately, his newsletter would go bust.
Each week Media Flash (www.mediaflash.com.au) provides free, online insiders' information about Australia's media industry; an industry that is dominated by a handful of multi billion dollar corporations.
While Long frantically struggles to keep his head above water, Australia's large media conglomerates are raking in record crops of cash. Australian-based News Corporation is the largest publicly listed corporation in the land.
With almost $70 billion in assets, the Murdoch owned juggernaut has more market capital than NAB and ANZ combined. Kerry Packer's PBL is a small, local, family owned business by comparison. But with $9 billion in assets, PBL is still larger than QANTAS and the NRMA combined. Worth a mere $3 billion and with just one third the total capital of PBL, the supposedly small, struggling Fairfax organisation has more market capital than the Seven Network ($1.7 billion) and the Ten Network ($1 billion) combined.
And they call it "free" speech! These are the guardians of the public trust; the elite few who decide how the democratically defended right to free speech will make them money. You can count the well-funded keepers of Australia's Fourth Estate on one hand. As any undergraduate journalism student knows, it is the executives, owners and large shareholders of a few large conservative conglomerates, which decide what will and what won't be presented as news to the rest of us. In the name of market share and audience and sales and profits, news budgets are continually slashed.
And it becomes increasingly impossible for the rest of us to become informed, responsible members of a democratic society.
In flat, matter of fact prose, Ash Long's Media Flash describes the internecine wars, the power struggles, the bloodless coups and the bitchy backstabbing bullshit that occurs in the back rooms and the boardrooms of Australia's media organisations.
Long's web site does nothing less than chronicle the dying days of mass reach investigative journalism in Australia. Who were the brave souls among us who fought the good fight, who refused to accept the shrinking news budget at "our" ABC, who worked at the Herald and still had the balls to complain about the insulting, patronising, light and breezy, new, easy to read format?
Long turns the investigative gaze of the media onto the media itself. The media industry once believed it was its sacred responsibility to watchdog the practices and abuses of other corporate citizens. Now the industry believes it is its responsibility to deliver profits and that serious news is not profitable.
Who is keeping an eye on the watchdog while it snoozes? The ABC's exceedingly short weekly show "Media Watch" looks more and more like a segment of Bloopers. Fairfax does an excellent job of covering its own businesses dealings. The Sydney Morning Herald and the Australian Financial Review promote their own corporate performance with boundless vigour.
If you want to know why Fairfax is really struggling, read a News Ltd publication. Or better yet, read Ash Long's web site. Ash Long couldn't have chosen a more appropriate week in which to reveal his financial woes as a journalist.
This was a sad, sad week for the dying art of journalism in Australia. Ash Long's email followed the resignation of Jeff McMullen of 60 minutes, who left Channel Nine after being paid $350,000 a year by Kerry Packer, proving that the good money is in bad journalism. On his way out the door he loudly objected to how free the old man had been with his chequebook. Every week for many miserable years, after cashing his check from Channel Nine, he complained (like the rest of us) about the editorial integrity of the show. Like Jana Wendt, Jeff went from the ABC to commercial television only to discover what the television viewing pubic already knew: 60 Minutes is sensationalistic, unintelligent, tabloid trash.
It was also the week in which the official eulogy for investigative journalism in Australia was delivered by Eric Beecher, Text Media's CEO, at the annual Andrew Olle lecture. Eric Beecher opened and quickly shut the Eye, a fortnightly publication that promised to deliver a new breed of Australian journalism.
The first issue of the Eye promised to produce: "The kind of journalism that digs underneath and around the edges that reveals interesting and important things about Australia that do not get covered in the millions of words produced each day by the rest of the media." In the end, the Eye only succeeded in digging itself an early grave.
The Eye closed because Eric Beecher was either unwilling or unable to continue spending Text Media profits on costly investigative pieces. It is always cheaper to cover events than it is to uncover the news. Fluffy feel good pieces are easier to churn out then critical, engaging prose. And there is more money to be made producing promotional pieces for real estate agents and glossy circulars for grocery stores.
In the end real, old-fashioned, kick-em-in-the-guts journalism proved too costly to produce. Eric Beecher killed his favourite son because the little bastard ate too much. Now he was delivering the eulogy.
In the world according to Beecher, no media organisation in Australia big or small will ever again fund serious journalism. According to Beecher we have embarked on a Brave New World in Australian journalism. "To paraphrase Sam Goldwyn, the old days are gone forever."
In Beecher's words:" "Journalism and serious media, like many other elements of the best of the 20th century, has been systemically transformed from something that had institutional status into a commodity. The era of the privately-run family dynasties in Australian media is over, and the era of benign governance of the ABC is over. The old-style media barons like Frank Packer, Keith Murdoch, Charles Moses and Warwick Fairfax senior had real fun as they ruled their empires paternalistically and autocratically, without barely a thought for shareholders or stakeholders or returns on equity.
For the Packers and the Fairfaxes, power always seemed more important than money, although they also made sure there was more than enough of the folding stuff available to support their personal lifestyles." Seen through Beecher's rose coloured glasses, the media barons of yesteryear were benevolent dictators, who never used the power of the press to protect their own financial interests. Beecher no doubt also believes that politicians were once more noble and that young people used to be better behaved.
Unfortunately, free speech has always been controlled by an elite few. In the good old days, media barons broke the news to sell newspapers. Nowadays newspapers report small, insipid trivial matters with bigger and bolder fonts. They bury the news and wonder why they fail to sell newspapers.
Is it any wonder that over the last 25 years, daily newspaper readership in Australia has declined by 38%? Name another business in Australia that has seen as much erosion as the daily newspaper industry? And yet profits continue to soar. The big bucks are tossed around with boundless stupidity and Eric Beecher wants his share.
That a newcomer like Beecher, a journalist turned media entrepreneur, should found an independent media company and throw in the towel on funding a quality journalistic enterprise in less than a year is the only true disappointment. No one who launches a new, credible journalistically serious publication seriously believes that it will become profitable in less than five years.
While there are still a few among us who actually believe an audience for independent, intelligent, irreverent media exists and is capable of making money, Beecher's pessimism is understandable. It is hard to remain optimistic when news of shrinking news budgets becomes commonplace.
How can you not grow resigned to the inevitable extinction of "serious" journalism? We have been transformed into gullible consumers who would rather pour over publicist generated press releases and clip coupons than read the news. Those of us who still read the "Ten Minute" Herald searching for real news appear to be an ever-shrinking market segment.
At the "quality" end of the media market, Fairfax has learned the same lesson as Eric Beecher: There is more money to be made writing about real estate investments, upmarket cafes and chic home decorating tips then there is in paying an investigative journalist to uncover corruption among political friends, advertisers and financial investors who hold shares in your large media corporation. The financial analysts and well-paid media consultants argue there are not enough of us to justify producing costly, intelligent, investigative news.
Apparently the ignorant masses really do want to read about Nicole Kidman, whose latest film will be either produced, released or screened by a subsidiary of the same large entertainment conglomerate that conveniently owns either the newspapers or the television stations. Call it vertical integration or call it the loss of critical thought, they don't make news like they used to. Can investigative journalism survive the transition from gritty newsprint to the, glossy realm of mega media entertainment conglomerates?
As Eric Beecher pointed out in his Andrew Olle lecture, when all is said and done, many media corporations are publicly listed corporations. They have responsibilities to their employees and to their shareholders to remain financially viable. Increasingly they believe that there is not a large enough audience for serious journalism to warrant the expense of operating newsrooms. They think we are incredibly stupid. And the more we continue to read their papers and watch their television shows, the more we prove them right.
Can Ash Long survive, never mind thrive, while pursuing the once noble art of journalism? If he is to do so with limited funds, there is probably no better place for him than an offramp on the Information Super Highway.
As Eric Beecher can personally attest after publishing the Eye, producing a quality print publication without the resources of a billion-dollar corporation is a horrific endeavour. Perhaps the brave new world of the Internet is one of the last great hopes for free speech in the modern world. Online publishing, unlike its print and broadcast counterparts is a relatively inexpensive endeavour. There are no trees to cut down, no paper products to recycle, no oil based ink chemicals to consume, no expensive government licenses to acquire, no large ticket, high tech cameras and editing machines to operate. The Internet is public broadcasting at its most democratic level.
Now that the hype behind the Internet boom has subsided and the media has gone from talking up Internet investments to bemoaning the fact that no one can possibly make money on the net, it has returned to the hands of those of us who only ever used it as an information source. While the media moguls feed us bullshit in print and attempt to seduce us on the screen, ever increasing numbers of us tune out and log on in search of the news and information for which we are starved.
We are no longer passive recipients of infotainment. We are in the driver's seat as we actively search for news and information among the millions of pages that are posted online for free.
And yet even producing an Internet web page costs money. Even an investigative journalist with the burning passion of a poet and the online technical skills of a computer geek must eat. Watchdogging the watchdog is a full time pursuit. Ash Long amassed $85,000 worth of debts pursuing his dream.
How many among us are brave enough to put everything on the line in pursuit of the truth? If Ash Long was brave enough to do so, should we not support him? Should we as a society, depend on a few large media conglomerates to provide us with credible and critical information about their own dealings as they invest less resources pursing the news in order to entertain us mindlessly?
If each City Hub reader sent $10 to Ash Long, he would have a $750,000 budget with which to build an independent, investigative media company. For the cost of the three beers many us will drink at the corner pub while complaining about the lack of media diversity in Australia, we could subsidise an alternative media outlet.
Needless to say, not every City Hub reader will send $10 to Ash Long. Many of us will not be bothered. But if one in ten readers were to skip the Herald for two weeks and instead send $10 to Ash Long, he would be financially solvent. If enough of us were passionately interested in supporting independent, investigative journalism and in keeping the bastards honest, the media conglomerates might even take notice. Who knows? Maybe there really is an audience for intelligent, critical, independent journalism in Australia after all.
Ash Long can be contacted at 0417 123 095 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Funds can be deposited directly to: Ash Long, Westpac Bank of Melbourne, Eltham, Victoria, 033-031, 19-9940. $50 voluntary subscriptions can be signed online, securely, by credit card at www.mediaflash.candela.com.au Donations, large or small, can be made by credit card at www.ash.candela.com.au (use account number 000001).