There has been much debate in the media, between our politicians, on the Twitter and Blogosphere, and even between Australians themselves over Gina Rinehart’s entry into the media landscape, and what it will mean for Australia’s democracy. Her historical political activism, obvious business and personal agenda, decision to buy into a media company with a dim outlook but great political and public clout (Fairfax Media), and refusal to sign said company’s charter of editorial independence, have all fuelled the fears of the public and politicians alike. However, rather than turning her into some kind of bogeyman, we must remember both what Rinehart really is (an incredibly savvy and determined businesswoman with a lot of money at stake), and what the Australian media consumer has become (a diverse mob with a short attention span who increasingly demand reality TV, gossip, scandal, and other sensationalized and dumbed down content).
Now, Rinehart is obviously making a land grab at Fairfax precisely because it is an institution with great influence over public opinion and is much feared by both politicians and public figures alike. The manner and timing in which she has conducted this acquisition has made that self-evident. However, Fairfax Media will only keep these powers (and will only return to commercial viability) if it can both retain and grow its large and diverse consumer base. If Fairfax becomes obviously partisan or starts noticeably pushing the agenda of its board members, it will jeopardise both its reputation and the customers that subscribe purely for its quality and neutrality (like me for instance). In other words, if Rinehart pushes Fairfax towards the Fox News model, both the clout and commercial future of Fairfax will be jeopardized. As Murdoch’s “The Australian” has shown, our media market cannot support media segmented on ideological lines. We are simply not big enough to maintain a “conservative echo chamber” and “liberal media establishment”. It may work in America’s deeply divided and (relatively) huge media market, but it is not feasible here. So, if Rinehart does not want to risk her rather large investment or the rather large public clout it has bought her (for rainy day use of course), she will have to make Fairfax play to the audience. Fairfax will have to follow the rest of what used to be called the “serious media” down the yellow brick road long ago forged by the likes of “A Current Affair” and “Today Tonight”. Fairfax and Rinehart will have to follow the trend.
What is this trend? Well, it can best be exemplified by the recent quarrel between the federal Liberal Party leader Tony Abbott and Liberal Party benefactor and mining magnate Clive Palmer. What happened? Well, at a meeting last week Palmer confronted Abbott and requested that the Liberal Party no longer allow registered lobbyists to hold key positions within the party. In my opinion it is a sensible suggestion, one that all parties should embrace, and, if embraced, something that will be very good for our democracy. Most importantly, it is an idea that deserves considerable media attention and the corresponding public debate. Instead, what we got was wall-to-wall TV and print coverage of an alleged physical altercation and exchange of harsh language (which may or may not have included swearing) between the two men. Press conferences were held, apologies were given, and the media dined on this utterly ridiculous and insignificant “scandal”. Whether on the “serious” ABC or Sky News TV programs, in the “serious” newspapers”, or elsewhere, focus was put entirely on the altercation, and Palmer’s suggestion was relegated to background information or throw away lines. The idea was completely drowned out. In other words, because of the Australian media consumer’s love of scandal, what could have been a gain in the running of our country was lost. New ideas, important information and significant debate gave way to sensationalism. Quality journalism was forsaken in the quest for ratings. Can we reasonably expect a Rinehart run Fairfax to be able to buck this trend? With the announcement that the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age are switching to “compact” or “tabloid” format, it may be argued it is already happening.
The biggest threat to our democracy is not a mining magnate purchasing three board seats on one (largely metropolitan) media conglomerate; mining magnates have been directly purchasing politicians for years. Even if Rinehart was able to work out a business model similar to Fox News, a business model that would allow her to both wield the power of the media and benefit financially, she would be counterbalanced, and not just by the other Fairfax shareholders and board members. The move would would cleave the Fairfax consumer base; and the Murdoch media, the (non-Fairfax) radio stations, the network TV stations, and the publicly funded media would all be left to offer a counter narrative and pick up the slack. In short, the real threat to the health of our democracy is not the dominance of one media conglomerate or one media baron with an agenda, it is the overwhelming shift away from real reporting towards sensationalism. Sensationalism that is engulfing both public and private enterprises. Sensationalism that is stifling new ideas, important information, and significant debate. Sensationalism that is cutting progress off at the knees.