News and Media Research Centre, University of Canberra
The Australian media landscape has been through 12 months of upheaval marked by takeovers, closures, job losses, and a leadership crisis at the national public broadcaster. Amidst the gloom, a philanthropist bearing $100m emerged offering hope.
Media ownership in Australia contracted further at the end of 2018, when the broadcaster Nine Entertainment Co. took over Fairfax newspapers. Under the deal, Nine promised the flagship mastheads of the Sydney Morning Herald, the Age, and the Australian Financial Review would remain editorially independent. So far, 92 jobs have been lost. Nine has since sold the Fairfax stable of more than 160 regional papers, including the Newcastle Herald, the Illawarra Mercury, the Canberra Times, the Land and the Examiner, to a former Domain CEO, Antony Catalano. Global job shedding by Vice and BuzzFeed were also felt in Australia and NewsCorp has let go more than 60 staff in the past year.
Politically, internal federal government infighting resulted in a change of Prime Minister and subsequent resignations of female MPs over claims of bullying and sexism. The leadership instability in federal politics was echoed at the helm of the public broadcaster when the Managing Director of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Michelle Guthrie, was sacked by the board without notice. The Chair, Justin Milne, resigned not long after amid allegations he had called for the sacking of journalists who were unpopular with the government, and thereby had undermined the editorial independence of the ABC. This sparked a Senate Inquiry into political interference in the ABC. To restore calm, the Prime Minister appointed an icon of Australian media, Ita Buttrose, to chair the public broadcaster and win back the trust of staff and the Australian public. In good news for the public service broadcasters, an inquiry rejected complaints that the ABC and the SBS were undermining the commercial news sector and found that Google and Facebook were a bigger threat to competition. In other broadcasting news, the 24-hour subscription channel, Sky News, is attempting to broaden its audience by screening on the free-to-air television channel, WIN.
Just how to deal with the impact of Google and Facebook on the news and advertising industries is the subject of an ongoing inquiry by the Australian Consumer Competition Commission. Preliminary recommendations include tighter monitoring and regulation of the way platforms use news, and greater transparency about the use of consumer data. A range of tax incentives and subsidies are also being considered to improve the financial footing of journalism. The media industry is keenly awaiting the final report to government which is expected at the end of June 2019. In the wake of the terrorist massacre in Christchurch New Zealand, the parliament passed new laws cracking down on social media platforms if they host violent extremist content.
Journalism standards have also made headlines. BuzzFeed found itself at the centre of a costly defamation case for allegedly ‘slut shaming’ a federal MP. A further 36 journalists and news were summoned to appear before the court for their reporting of the conviction of Cardinal George Pell on historic child sex abuse charges. A suppression order prevented the reporting of the conviction until a second related case had been resolved. The Victorian Director of Public Prosecutions sent letters to 100 journalists, editors, and news outlets for breaching suppression laws and alleged contempt of court.
Amid the job losses, takeovers, and instability, there have been some positive developments as well. The federal government began rolling out its regional innovation funding for local news initiatives, including scholarships for 60 young people from regional areas to study journalism at university. Before Christmas, a $100m philanthropic body, the Judith Nielsen Institute for Journalism and Ideas, was established to champion, foster, and fund journalism initiatives and improve public discourse. Independent media brand Crikey also launched a new ‘inquiry’ journalism initiative employing 12 investigative reporters. These initiatives have provided glimmers of hope in a time of uncertainty and contraction.
Podcasts continue to be popular in Australia, particularly amongst the under 35s (43%). The highest award for journalism excellence, the Gold Walkley Award, went to Hedley Thomas from The Australian newspaper for an investigative podcast series called ‘The Teacher’s Pet’ about an unsolved murder. It had a global audience of more than 27m listeners. For a traditional newspaper journalist to win for a piece of audio journalism marks the massive transformation of the news industry away from single to multiplatform reporting.
TV news remains strong and steady in Australia and continues to be a significant source of news, while newspapers continue to fall, and social media stagnates. Online, increasing numbers of Australians are using their mobile phone to access news, widening the gap between mobiles and computers.
Trust in news has fallen 2% globally, but in Australia it has dropped 6% from a high of 50% in 2018. Turmoil at the ABC with accusations of political interference, combined with community concern about the takeover of the Fairfax newspaper stable by Nine Entertainment Co. and overall political instability, may have contributed to this fall in trust in news. Other data shows trust in politics down in 2018.1
- M. Evans, G. Stoker, M. Halupka, www.thepolicyspace.com.au/2018/04/272-trust-and-democracy-in-australia-democratic-decline-and-renewal ↩