The great media cave-in

It's too late for traditional media to regain their former glory in the new digital environment. And the trend to dumbing down content, borne of commercial desperation, is doing no favours for democracy.

The collapse of the Australian media industry is happening in front of our eyes. Be it printed media or broadcasting, the tumbling down of media stocks has now grown into a cascade of developments.

Channel 9 and Channel 10 have been the hardest hit in the broadcasting industry. The two major newspaper publishers have been shrinking as well and all of these developments together are now turning this into a tsunami.

This situation of course does lead to new dynamics but these are based on the reality that in the end this will lead to a further shrinking of the media industry. In this fallout we have already seen a shrinking of the pay TV market from a meagre two players to just one.

The latest announcement is the proposed takeover of Consolidated Media. If the deal goes through News will emerge with 50 per cent control of Foxtel (Telstra holds the other half), and all of Fox Sports. There is a parallel deal which includes the acquisition of the smaller but so far fiercely independent online business media company Business Spectator; which on various occasions has been very critical about the activities of News Corp.

There is no end in sight for the further shrinking of the media companies as the changes in the industry are continuing at great pace, totally beyond the control of the traditional players, who failed to take decisive action five or 10 years ago. The writing has been on the wall all that time, but the traditional players choose to ignore those messages and thought that they would be able to weather the storm. They were blinded by their ‘rivers of gold’ in revenue streams coming from advertising.

However, even if they are able to hold on to all or some of the older traditional media the inevitable further decline in their revenues will result in the inability to fund the content that people are interested in. BuddeComm strongly believes that it is already too late for the traditional media to turn around and regain any of their former glory in the new digital media environment. So it is no longer a matter of ‘wait and see’ what will happen, the situation as we have it now is it – and will only further deteriorate.

The answer of the traditional media in order to survive has been to become more sensational and even to make up news in order to appeal to some of people’s baser instincts – scandals, muck, fear, sensation; this all sells. Over the last five years or so interest in this ‘shock jock’ news has at least in some way compensated for the decline in other more balanced news reporting, which has often simply gone out of the window.

Some politicians have jumped on this bandwagon and are using this dumbing down trend to tap into the media’s frenzy for scandals and muck. This is certainly contributing to the hate element that has crept into politics: gutter press journalists love it and the two have start feeding off each other, undermining more balanced democratic processes.

As we have seen in Britain, this has created an environment of fear and intimidation that has stopped politicians (and others) from speaking up against it, since they would immediately be taken on by that same press to fuel the fire and sell more papers. Very few of the people that are speaking out are treated fairly, as that does not fit into the media’s commercial model, which is structured around sensationalism.

The developments in Britain have sent shockwaves around the globe. In the UK, the regulator OFCOM had advised that the government should review the media landscape "every four or five years” to check that there is a plurality of voices.

There is no doubt that the current developments in the Australian media landscape will require a similar response. Around the world, democratic countries are acutely aware of the need for media plurality. And the reality of the current situation is that commercial models based on competition are no longer going to secure this in a rapidly shrinking industry. Diversity and plurality certainly will not be easy issues to address. Even if that a bureaucratic or political perusal is an ideal cause of action, there is little doubt that government leadership is needed to ensure a truly free and open press.

In Australia we have seen that extremely rich people are buying into these weakened media in order to influence them to push their messages, such as opposition to mining tax and an ETS. The right-wing political bias is already very clear in the media outlets owned by Rupert Murdoch, be it in Australia, the UK or the USA. Meanwhile the Fairfax press is now being squeezed by the ultra right and super rich mining magnate Gina Rinehart. The issue has become very urgent.

While some people argue that anybody should be able to buy into the media and that shareholders will do whatever is appropriate to ensure commercial success, the issue becomes rather different if it is clearly articulated by these new owners that their reason for ownership is not its commercial success but its ability to influence opinion. While media diversity is not something that would worry the shareholders too much, the reality is that the rest of the country is very much interested in it. In the end, whether shareholders like it or not, that’s what is going to decide what the rules of this new media game will be.

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