Torture rack for a dying media

The government's media inquiry is agonising for the industry, but it won't throw either effective regulation or financial support at the sector.

The basic problem with the media’s business model is that they’ve been giving their products away for free for so long the market price of most journalism has been reduced to zero.

At the same time the publishers’ advertising cartel has been destroyed by new competition, and the advertising customers also now know precisely what they are getting for their money (which is not as much as they thought).

As a result, both types of revenue – circulation and advertising – are in the process of collapsing; costs have to be adjusted accordingly. All of this is well known and more or less inexorable.

Attempts by News Corporation to put up 'paywalls' – that is, to charge for the journalism online – are likely only to accelerate the reduction in revenue, but at last it’s creating a brief period of delusional optimism during which salaries and staff numbers can be maintained.

What’s to be done? Not much. Find some other revenue perhaps, as Fairfax is trying to do, the better to 'monetise' its journalism audience. Apart from that it’s pretty much a classic industry disruption from new technology. Happens all the time.

Except with this one there’s sometimes a public good in some of the products, like there is with the manufacturing of large petrol-guzzling cars that nobody wants to buy. Some journalism (arguably not much) can be defined as 'quality' and worth keeping, and it may be going out with the bathwater.

So the big difference between the simultaneous media inquiries in Australia and the UK is that our one is being asked to look into the business model of the industry in question, not just its behaviour.

This is presumably only because Lord Justice Leveson has quite enough to be getting on with, what with phone hacking, corrupt dealings with police as well as specific terms of reference directed towards News International, not because the Australian media is in more financial trouble than Britain’s.

The media hate being looked into, not that it happens very often, and proprietors and editors don’t like it one bit. In Britain they can’t complain too much because, well, it’s a fair cop, Guv.

Mr Finkelstein QC is assumed to be simply on a mission to nobble News Ltd, the Australian subsidiary of News Corporation, which has been such a pain in the neck for the government and the Greens, although everyone also knows that if you wanted something like that done, you wouldn’t appoint The Fink, a man who is nobody’s errand boy.

Nevertheless, Finkelstein and his partner, Matthew Ricketson, must follow their terms of reference, which asks them not only to look into media codes of practice and how the independence and effectiveness of the Press Council might be improved, but also what’s happening to the business model that has supported "quality journalism and production of news”, and how it might be supported.

It is an exquisite torture for an industry in financial trouble: a formal government inquiry looking simultaneously at whether to regulate and/or support it.

But actually I think the media is pretty safe from either effective regulation or government money. Governments rarely appoint inquiries unless they know the outcome in advance and this one is no exception.

That’s not meant to be a slight on the independence of Ray Finkelstein and Matthew Ricketson, just a belief that the government already knows it wants some statutory teeth for the absurdly powerless and compromised Press Council, and some intellectual underpinnings for its support for the ABC. That’s it. Oh, and also to give the buggers at News Ltd some discomfort for a while.

News Corp, Fairfax, Seven West, Nine, Ten and the various start-ups and foreign competitors that are making their lives miserable will be left to battle it out and sink or swim. There will be no car industry-type handouts.

They won’t be seriously regulated because they haven’t done anything wrong beyond serving the insatiable and often prurient curiosity of their customers, and the newspaper duopoly won’t be busted up because it doesn’t matter any more.

Follow @AlanKohler on Twitter


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