I read with considerable interest today that the wealthiest Australian acquired a significant percentage of Fairfax Media shares last night.
Not surprisingly, the response to billionaire mining magnate Gina Rinehart’s purchase has resulted in fundamentally different responses from the left and right sides of Australian politics.
Greens Senator Scott Ludlam has stated that concentrated media ownership by individuals is unhealthy for democracy, while Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey said: “It arguably does not matter who owns the media company” (Rinehart’s Fairfax push ‘dangerous’).
Clearly both politicians cannot be correct on this issue and my money is on Senator Ludlam.
As the modified saying goes, there are three things that are certain in life: death, taxes and the fact that Gina Rinehart is not purchasing shares in a media company to reduce her influence in Australian affairs.
In any event, who owns the media matters.
According to Harvard’s Maria Petrova: “Mass media, being the most important source of information on public affairs for the majority of population, provides a convenient means for manipulating public opinion” (Inequality and Media Capture).
Clearly, information reported by the media plays an important role in shaping public attitudes about political parties and policies like taxation, welfare, education, health and the environment.
And the interests of ultra-wealthy members of a nation often are at odds with the interests of the majority of other citizens, such as Australia’s resource super profits tax; which is why the issue of who owns the media is such a critical issue for democracy.
Two decades ago, Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky developed the ‘propaganda model‘ to explain US media behaviour. This analytical framework is not popular in media circles because it is the contention of this model that the media produces systematic propaganda in order to “serve the ends of a dominant elite” (Manufacturing Consent).
In short, it is the position of Herman and Chomsky, both highly accomplished scholars, that mainstream media serves an anti-democratic function in society.
Since policies of right-wing political parties also serve to protect the interests of this same dominant elite, it is entirely predictable that the Joe Hockeys of the world do not consider concentrated media ownership to be a problem; neo-liberalism ideology and concentrated corporate media basically serve the same masters.
And I know a few things about media serving the interests of the dominant elite that I didn’t learn from reading.
I was formerly employed by corporations in the Canadian broadcasting industry for my specialist knowledge of the cable-television industry and its regulation by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC).
The CRTC is a quasi-judicial regulatory tribunal that operates at arm’s length to Parliament and has been granted extensive statutory authority to regulate broadcasting and telecommunications in Canada. This federal regulator is under the control of commissioners who are appointed by the prime minister of the day, and these individuals wield significant power, including deciding which citizens are legally permitted to own broadcasting companies.
Professor Matthew Fraser is an expert on Canadian media and the CRTC and he has publicly alleged that the federal regulator was totally captured by industry interests by the late 1980’s and is cursed by institutionalized corruption (The Man Who Won’t Do Lunch).
Unfortunately, Fraser’s damning assessment that the CRTC is plagued by institutionalized corruption is correct and the problem has ignored by politicians and journalists; to the benefit of influential company owners in broadcasting and telecommunications.
Furthermore, before I immigrated to Australia in 2001, I campaigned for an investigation into a scheme adopted by CRTC commissioners to unjustly enrich influential Canadian media companies by hundreds of millions of dollars, without highly influential corporations being required to do anything for the money.
Ted Rogers, a billionaire described by some as Canada’s Rupert Murdoch, was the single largest beneficiary of the unprecedented corporate welfare scheme; one which redistributed wealth from millions of ordinary Canadians to ultra-wealthy citizens at the same time that the federal government was undertaking major spending cuts to social programs.
Five years ago, Toronto Star journalist Antonia Zerbisias wrote that I had made a name for myself in the mid-90’s fighting for citizen and consumer rights against media companies and the CRTC; and she offered her opinion that I never stood a chance against the powerful corporations and their government allies (TV fund money really belongs to us).
According to the late social scientist Kurt Lewin: “If you want truly to understand something, try to change it.”
It is a matter of record that I’ve tried to change the CRTC, as documented in the correspondence of 31 May 2010 from my legal counsel Paul Armarego to Prime Minister Stephen Harper (copy).
As a result, it is fair to say that I truly understand the CRTC and how several Canadian media magnates have managed to financially exploit millions of citizens for more than 17 years without any degree of accountability, acting far above the democratic process.
Sure, dishonest politicians and bureaucrats played a major role in the sordid affair, but the main reason for its longevity is the media itself.
In fact, Toronto’s NOW magazine listed my campaign as one of the top under-reported stories by the media in 1995.
Public ignorance is an easy prey. And the illegal phone-hacking practice by numerous News Corporation journalists in the United Kingdom clearly demonstrates that the media is not perfect.
From my personal experience, journalism and media ownership definitely matters to democracy.