AUSTRALIA is home to some of the most brilliantly trashy tabloid newspapers in the world. They are produced by journalists who, quite justifiably, take great pride in their expertise at being able to turn out all the trivia, gore, scandal and sensationalism which the lowest common denominator of Australian society seems to want.
Australians consume tabloid newspapers at a startling rate — morning, afternoon, evening and weekend. It seems the formula is a combination of any of the following — bums, tits, football, racing, big-money competitions and lottery results.
Where there is competition between tabloids, it is fierce. Millions are poured into promotion. And news of circulation success has been known to push aside a lead story as editors sing the praises of their readers for their wisdom in making his or her newspaper the best read in town.
If this is what the reading public wants, that’s fine. The real tragedy of the Australian popular press scene — and most of the rest of the print and electronic media scene for that matter — is it's ownership.
In 1903 there were 21 daily newspapers in Australia’s capital cities, published by 17 proprietors. Today there are still 17 newspapers — but only three proprietors. They are the Melbourne-based Herald and Weekly Times Ltd; the Sydney-based John Fairfax Ltd; and the ubiquitous Rupert Murdoch’ s News Corporation.
All Australian daily newspapers — with the exception of one owned, but not editorially-controlled Fairfax publication, Melbourne’s The Age — have their editorial attitudes ordered from the top.
These newspapers, with rare exception, go out of their way to present favourably the policies and actions of Australia’s conservative establishment; and unfavourably the policies and actions of those organisations which claim to represent the less privileged in society.
The attitude of two of the three big proprietors went on record last year during hearings of an inquiry into the state of ownership of newspapers with ‘substantial circulation’ in the state of Victoria.
Known as the Norris inquiry, it was ordered by the now-defeated state Liberal government after ‘foreign’ (non-Victoria) raids on the Herald and Weekly Times fortress. The raider was Rupert Murdoch.
H & W survived, but at enormous liquidity costs to both H & W and Fairfax which came in to give H & W a hand. At the inquiry Bemie Taft, joint national secretary of the Communist Party of Australia, a party which today has no parliamentary representation at federal or state level in Australia, cross-examined Tom Farrell, John Fairfax’s assistant general manager.
Taft: Do you generally support free enterprise?
Farrell: It may be, but that is not a stated policy of the company. It may appear that in our editorials we frequently come down on the side of free enterprise. It is not in any directions to editors or stated policy.
Taft: Would you say that you generally support the political parties that seem to be more closely aligned to the free enterprise system?
Farrell: It occurs more frequently than the other way round, but I remind you in 1961 the Sydney Morning Herald (the Fairfax flagship) surprised a certain part of the Sydney community by supporting Labour.
Taft:...You have to go back to 196] to show that?Farrell: That is merely 20 years. We celebrate our 150th birthday this year.
(Mr Farrell had earlier made a statement in which he had noted that followers of political parties in West European countries ‘provide a market for a newspaper’. He added: ‘The same diversity of political opinion does not exist in Australia...')
Taft: In the light of that statement would it not be reasonable to expect that the more or less 50 per cent of theAustralian population that supports the Labour Party should find that attitude reflected in the media of this country?
Farrell: It may be an expectation held by some people, it may be reasonable, but it is not realised.
Taft: I know it is not realised.
Farrell: The population of this country apparently find the present newspapers satisfactory because they buy them in large numbers... The fact is that Australians by and large, are not strongly politically orientated and they will not, in my view, buy newspapers which display strong political affiliations. . . Support for one political party.., is of very little concern to the average Australian... Now, support foe one football club or another would be a different matter.
Taft: Could it be argued that part of it is due to the influence of the newspapers who reinforce certain positions?
Farrell: Yes, it is a completely circular argument. It is possible that newspapers reflect public opinion. It is possible also that they may influence them.
Mr Farrell at one stage recalled a very cynical editor in Boston, at the end of the last century, when journalism was not a very honourable trade on the east coast of America Farrell told the inquiry: ‘He (the editor) said.., that nobody ever went broke in the newspaper industry by underestimating the public taste. Now I do not think that applies here or anywhere in Australia at the present time...'
So, what does the Australian public get in its popular press these days? As an extreme and overt example of media manipulation, Keith Windschuttle, in Fixing the News, Critical Perspectives on the Australian Media, a book he co-edited with Elizabeth Windschuttle, cites the 1977 publication of a cartoon by the Sydney Morning Herald just after ultra-leftists had murdered the pilot of a hijacked Lufthansa aircraft: ‘It compared these killers with striking power workers in Victoria’s La Trobe Valley — tradesmen who were on strike because they were earning less money than window cleaners. The press does not publish material like this every day, but given half a chance of blaming striking workers for death or injury, the press will do it. All strikes, according to the media, are bad and should be ended as soon as possible. The main subject of press coverage of strikes is the harm they are supposed to cause an unspecified group commonly known as ‘the public’. Strikers are reported as criminals.’
Perhaps it comes as no surprise that the Norris inquiry noted with concern the concentration of ownership of the Australian press. The two major dangers, it said, were the loss of diversity in the expression of opinion and the power of a very few men to influence the outlook and opinions of large numbers of people and, consequently, the decisions made in society. It is also no surprise that nothing has been done about it
Bob Hawkins is a New Internationalist co-editor based in Melbourne.