Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 3, 2021

Adelaide Writers’ Week: The Rise of Independent Media, with Peter Fray, Margaret Simons and Michael West, hosted by David Washington

The state of our media is something I’m always interested in, so I was pleased to sign up for the session featuring

  • Peter Fray from Crikey, with many years of experience with all the major Australian newspapers;
  • Margaret Simons, Walkley award winner and media analyst, also on the board of the Public Interest Journalism Initiative; and
  • Michael West from the independently funded;

They were in conversation with David Washington from In Daily live-streamed from Adelaide Writers’ Week.  (The session was actually yesterday, but the sessions are available for a short time afterwards.)

I’ve reviewed four books by Margaret Simons  but the one most relevant to today is Journalism at the Crossroads. It was published back in 2012, but as I say in my review the book remains relevant because of its basic premise, that quality journalism matters, and that new technologies provide opportunities for it to survive.

The conversation began, of course, with Murdoch and made reference to Kevin Rudd’s call for a Royal Commission into the media, not to mention the battle with the Tech Giants Facebook and Google and the news blackout that Facebook imposed.  Peter Fray talked about the journey from traditional media to independent media, and how the business model of newspapers is broken and has been for a while.  What interests him is that there is an audience for independent journalism.  For years this was not thought to be so, but as Margaret Simons commented, independent media has been rising and falling throughout her career.  (She mentioned The Nation Review.)  What’s different now is that it’s easier to offer independent media, but the issue is assessing the credibility and reliability of what’s on offer.  A massive transfer of power has taken place because these new media are paid for mostly by subscriptions or donations, whereas in the past it was advertising that paid for it.  West said that being funded by audience subs gives him great freedom to write.

It’s only the new tech tools that enable this, but the irony is that the old media is no longer viable because of them.  West is very anti the government’s media code because it affected his traffic considerably.  A sobering reminder of how much power these tech giants have over the distribution of content.  But (he says) we should remember that they don’t ‘take’ the news’, people ‘give it to them.

The conversation then moved to defining what ‘independent media’ actually means.  Independent usually means small and not funded by Channel 9 or Rupert, but nobody is totally independent.  Personal, affiliate and revenue relationships always have the potential to compromise matters.  But the audience is quick to recognise any breach of independence.  There is a cosy relationship between the big players and smaller ones who live off them—this is especially true of the Canberra gallery and major players in Sydney and Melbourne and in part that makes you a propagandist for that point-of-view, often government press releases so the story gets written the way the government wants it.  By the time the actual detail comes out, the next day the agenda has already been set for the 24/7 news cycle by the government.

At the time of writing this, the Australian media is waiting on the cabinet minister at the centre of rape allegations to make his public statement.  That this is going to happen has been headline news all day.  Clearly, the timing is being massaged so that the news breaks at a time that’s favourable.

Ok, back to the festival….

There was discussion about the culture and management of mainstream journalism.  All agreed that, although there can still be good journalism, the model for journalists has been broken.  Commercially these remaining big media businesses are more dependant than ever on their advertising, and the big corporates have major bully power.  Mainstream media won’t go after corporates, and the ABC self-censors. There was mention of a certain female ABC journalist who was thrown to the lions because she dared to tackle one of Australia’s corporates and, under pressure, the ABC didn’t support her.

This benefits indies, because the public knows when this is going on and they want to read outside this protected bubble.

What are we losing?  Margaret Simons says it’s wrong to celebrate the death of mainstream journalism and the loss of its integrity, but the problem is primarily caused by a lack of resourcing. Stories that are wrong, which would have been ‘fixed’ by sub-editors in the past, get through time and again.  What determines trust is the number of sub-editors employed, monitoring getting the names right and the tone of the story.  Everyone makes mistakes, but these gatekeepers against errors have gone.

Not only that: the capacity to take on anyone powerful will always depend on size and revenue.

Diversity?  Margaret Simons demolished recent claims by Newscorp that there is diversity in the media landscape.  Australia has one of the most concentrated media in the world. The rise of indies is now easier, but Australia is no media haven of diverse media.  There is an increasing willingness to pay, because we know we have to pay for it.  The ABC has given us the idea that media is free but it’s not.

How do we explain how much power Newscorp has? It used to be true that you couldn’t win political power without Murdoch, but that hasn’t been true for about  15 years.  Queensland Labor had a good win despite the campaign against them by the Murdoch press.  Not all politicians recognise this and so some of them still enable Murdoch.

But Rupert’s political power is not entirely gone because he still sets the agenda e.g. on climate change.  This happens via The Australia, Sky News and other portals, and the fracturing of rural Australia from the rest of us is a worrying sign.

Michael West talked at length about his disapproval of the recent digital media code to force Facebook and Google to prop up dying corrupt media organisations. But Margaret Simons and Peter Frey while acknowledging some of what he said, have a different point-of-view.  Simons says the issue goes back to the first years of this century.  We haven’t had a proper media policy for decades and most governments have removed regulation to give the big media players a free hand.  There’s a lot wrong with the code,  but anything that helps with funding public interest journalism is better than nothing.  Australia has used competition law and not copyright law as elsewhere, on the grounds that things are not fair.  Google and Facebook do receive a flow in value though that can’t be quantified, and this is all very untidy, but what’s been achieved is that FB and Google have been forced to the negotiating table. The code is not a long term viable solution, and it’s not her preferred solution, but some providers have benefited.  (These include the ABC, The Guardian and other smaller players).  The next natural step is that FB and Google will hire their own journos though that will take a while and that will make Murdoch look puny.  Michael West was very amusing in his rebuttal of this argument, but his body language became hostile (puffing out his chest) and he seemed determined to have the last word.

David Washington got things back on track.  Simons talked about the major issue of how we regulate these new players when they deny being publishers and then when pressured reverse that position.  The rest of the world is watching.

NB: The discussion moved along very briskly and I sometimes lost track of who said what.  I hope I haven’t misrepresented anything that was said, please let me know if I need to correct anything.

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