Christopher S. Warren
The ongoing dispute between Kevin Rudd and the Murdoch press surrounding his petition for a Royal Commission into Australian media diversity reflects that monopoly, for-profit capitalism has failed to create a media environment that meets the needs of the Australian public. Let’s pay special attention to what is happening in regional Australia. There is a dual movement happening here – a monopolisation by the Murdoch press on the national scale, and a consolidation by News Corp withdrawing from local and regional scales. Where independent regional papers exist, they have been downsizing their operations or are collapsing because they are struggling to remain profitable. The decline of local regional media has been consistent with the social and economic decline of regional Australia as a whole.
At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, regional newspapers were being decimated by the crisis. In my hometown, the local Cootamundra Herald has been downsizing operations for years, and it suspended production during the pandemic. A significant fraction of local regional papers shut down, and townships lost critical conduits of information – in the absence of local obituaries, it wasn’t even possible to learn who in their communities had died. This crisis has further damaged the coherence of regional communities.
News Corp is consolidating its position, shutting down 125 regional papers and rolling out 50 digital-only sites. Local communities are resisting this through establishing their own local papers. This should be very instructive for everyone in the ALP as those resisting News Corp are not bound to win. We ought to consider information as an essential service, and local papers and publications an integral part of our social fabric. It is not something that should depend on the logic of profitability and market forces. We must imagine a new model for democratically controlled, publicly funded local and regional media. This is a policy issue, and we must recognise and form a real position on that. There are a range of policy options. State and Territory governments could directly finance or underwrite the formation of local media through cooperative models. We could ensure public funding for local independent papers that already exist but are struggling to turn a profit. We could inject substantial funding into the local ABC units that do ABC Local Radio and instruct them to produce local papers as well, or we could generate new ABC units in every local government area to produce print and digital papers. Any coherent economic recovery plan out of COVID-19 is going to require substantial public investment in all spheres of life. A robust local media landscape outside the hands of plutocrats and the corrupting influence of the profit motive can be part of a joined-up response to Murdoch monopolisation and the social and economic decline of regional Australia. It would also create a range of skilled local jobs in regional Australia. This could create some great opportunities for printing workers, admin workers, journalists, graphic designers, web developers, social media folks, as well as everyone associated with logistics and distribution. Journalists reporting on these townships would live within them, spending their income in local businesses with flow-on benefits. We need to be mindful that people access information differently and a lot of older people still rely on print media. Pursuing a local and regional media strategy will have a strong digital focus but we should also produce enough print copies to satisfy the demographic who prefer print. Yes, this might be an expensive endeavour. There is a live debate as to how constrained the fiscal policy of any Government is and as to how problematic budget deficits are. Even assuming a budget constraint, the $158 billion in tax cuts the Coalition decided to dole out to the rich in 2019 would probably go a good way to financing this. Beyond that, we could find some cash lying around for it if we ended fossil fuel subsidies, or reduced expenditure on war machines. In any case, the social and economic return on investment will be quite high. This investment may produce a virtuous circle of economic development in regional Australia through the multiplier effect. There is one final insidious dimension to the confluence of regional economic decline and the consolidation of News Corp power for us to consider. We should worry about the long-run political orientation of these communities if they primarily have the Daily Telegraph on their shelves and in their algorithms to inform them about an increasingly turbulent world – frankly, the regions taking a fascist turn under those conditions isn’t off the cards. It’s why this needs to be a priority.
Christopher S. Warren is an ALP member and CPSU delegate in his workplace