Fairfax, corporate media and a question of independence

Channel Nine’s imminent takeover of Fairfax media – publisher of the Australian Financial Review, Melbourne’s Age and the Sydney Morning Herald, among others – is the biggest development in Australian media in more than three decades.

Under the newly announced merger, Nine will acquire Fairfax shares and the resulting company will be overseen by Nine CEO Hugh Marks, with Nine chair Peter Costello, a former Liberal federal treasurer, remaining head of the board.

Former Labor prime minister Paul Keating has labelled it “an exceptionally bad development” that will reduce journalistic diversity and further winnow the field of political debate. 

“The problem with this is that, in terms of news management, Channel Nine, for over half a century, has [always] displayed the opportunism and ethics of an alley cat”, he said in a statement released after the merger was announced on 26 July.

Denis Muller, senior research fellow in the Centre for Advancing Journalism at Melbourne University, echoed Keating’s sentiments.

“If ever there was a time of grief for journalism in Australia, it is today”, he wrote at the Conversation. “Three of Australia’s best and biggest newspapers … are now subsumed into a media conglomerate whose editorial culture is characterised by mediocre journalism.”

There are elements of truth in these responses. 

First, Nine’s takeover fulfils one of the right wing’s dreams, under the pretence of “media freedom”: to take out as many critical journalistic voices as possible. The merger is happening only because the Liberal government last year overturned longstanding restrictions on cross-media ownership concentration – a move that favoured the most powerful corporations. Communications minister Mitch Fifield, a proud member of the far right Institute of Public Affairs, has championed the changes. That is suggestive of the politics involved. 

Second, Fairfax publishes articles that the Nine hierarchy would baulk at every day of the week – pieces exposing the horror of Australia’s offshore detention regime, pieces documenting the widespread wage theft occurring in retail and hospitality, pieces sympathetic, rather than hostile, to people struggling on the margins of society, for example.

If the exposés of Fairfax journalists such as Nick McKenzie – whose exceptional work brought to light evidence of war crimes by Australian troops in Afghanistan, among other things – is replaced with the “exposés” characteristic of Nine’s A Current Affair, the already questionable quality of much “mainstream” reporting will be further reduced, and instances of corporate crime and institutional abuse will go undocumented publicly.

Third, the Australian media is, in terms of ownership, already one of the most centralised in the world. Who benefits? Not people wanting a diversity of opinions. When the world was gearing up for the criminal invasion of Iraq in 2003, for example, the Murdoch media empire, which accounts for about 60 percent of  all newspaper circulation, was, almost to a fault, pro-war. 

As Robert Manne argued in a 2005 Monthly article, “Almost every Australian newspaper owned by Rupert Murdoch has supported each twist and turn of the American, British and Australian policy line”. The only exception was Hobart’s Mercury, but it changed tack within weeks, becoming a slavish supporter of US president George W. Bush.

So there are good reasons for opposing the merger. But there are also good reasons for sobriety when evaluating the record of Fairfax and the liberal media in general.

First, the potential hammer blow to truth from a Nine-Fairfax merger shouldn’t be overstated.

In all corporate media, the editors and lead journalists develop connections with and make sources out of politicians, business executives, state bureaucrats, military officers, police chiefs and other establishment figures, all of whom provide information for stories. And the managers seek advertising money from corporate sponsors, who they are then reluctant to cross.

Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman, in their 1988 classic Manufacturing Consent, noted the “propaganda model” of journalism that results. “The large bureaucracies of the powerful subsidize the mass media, and gain special access … [through] their contribution to reducing the media’s costs of acquiring … and producing, news”, they wrote. “The large entities that provide this subsidy become ‘routine’ news sources.”

Twenty years later, journalist Nick Davies found that well over half of all material published in the five major British papers was sourced from public relations companies or wire services. Just 12 percent of stories were created by journalists. In an interview in the Australian, Davies noted that politics and crime coverage was dominated by PR, “not because they are trying to sell a product but because the government and the police select what stories we should cover and with what angle and what sources”.

Despite some journalists’ valuable work, Fairfax is hardly a beacon of light in this dark web of media lies and spin. For example, a Sydney Morning Herald headline on 25 September 2002 read: “Saddam ready and able to strike. British PM claims Iraq could launch weapons of mass destruction in 45 minutes”. This was later proven to be a lie. 

You might say that that it was only one headline and everyone makes mistakes. But on 6 September, the front page led with a George W. Bush quote: “To do nothing about that serious threat is not an option”. On 10 September: “Iraq is going nuclear fast, world warned”. On 18 September: “Saddam playing tricks, says US”.

These “spinlines” too closely fit the propaganda model to be brushed aside. When there was such gravity of consequences, it defies belief that they were innocent errors. The Herald was regurgitating warmonger talking points; promoting neoconservative propaganda that was the basis for an invasion and occupation which killed hundreds of thousands and left a country in ruins. The Age did the same.

One million Clementine Ford articles calling out the daily injustices that women endure cannot atone for Fairfax’s role in giving cover for such terror and carnage and cannot with newsprint hide the dead. Fairfax may have moved on to be a leader in urbane “wokeness”, but its role leading up to the mass murder of Iraqis should not be forgotten. 

In more recent times, the Age has led the racist hysteria about so-called African gangs in Melbourne, seemingly without consideration for the broader community of people of African descent left to deal with the social backlash. 

And it sensationally covers every anti-terror raid of the Federal Police, repeating the commanders’ lines about imminent attacks, which later often turn out to be total bunkum. Again unconsidered are the victims of racist abuse, the numbers of which grow with every headline about the dire threat of Muslim extremists. 

Second, the objections that relate to diversity in ownership should also be put in perspective. Fairfax is a corporate behemoth. Its board is occupied by people such as Patrick Allaway, whose background is in corporate finance and private equity; Jack Cowin, chair and largest shareholder of Domino’s Pizza; James Millar, former CEO of Ernst & Young, one of the big four corporate accounting firms; and Todd Sampson, a director of Qantas. This is not a consortium of well-meaning, politically neutral citizens.

For all the talk of “diversity”, the owners, directors, managers and editors at Fairfax share with their rivals at Murdoch and all other corporate media a common set of assumptions about the world: that business competition and profitability should be the organising principles of society; that social classes either don’t exist or, if they do, should be maintained; that democracy is narrowly conceived parliamentary democracy; and that capitalism is a sometimes flawed but generally desirable system.

Their outlook is always in the background. You might find articles decrying poverty level dole payments, but there will be qualifiers that the unemployed must earn the right to receive their entitlements, usually misnamed as “benefits” – as though people should think themselves lucky to be alive, rather than entitled to a job.

There will be pieces condemning the treatment of refugees, but with concessions that something has to be done to maintain the integrity of national borders and stop “people smugglers” – i.e. stop people from exercising their right to seek asylum by boat. There might be editorials opposing vicious attacks on workers’ rights, but they will lecture against unions causing industrial anarchy.

(To be clearer on this last point: the Financial Review is an outright enemy of the workers’ movement, printing false stories about union corruption while promoting the interests of big capital and pushing for government cuts to social services. That this is a diverse and independent publication is laughable.)

Fairfax’s tagline is “Independent. Always”. It may be free from direct corporate or government control of its editorial policy. But this is an incredibly restricted concept of independence. Liberal outlets such as Fairfax present themselves as critical, yet they adhere to the same basic outlook as the political right. This ideological consensus undermines the talk of independence.

Yet, if John Maynard Keynes was right – when he noted, “Practical [people], who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually slaves of some defunct economist” – can anyone or any medium ever truly be independent?

Can Red Flag, for example, claim to be an independent publication? Should it aspire to be? We don’t accept commercial advertising and would never uncritically promote the talking points of government. The extent to which we can claim independence rests not only on this, but on being independent from the dominant ideas of the establishment. Socialist politics inform most of Red Flag’s articles, which take a side and make the paper’s (and/or the author’s) positions and sympathies clear: “For the working class. Always. With the oppressed, against the oppressor. Always.” 

In this regard, we are not “independent”. But the idea that any newspaper is “above the fray” of political debate is a liberal fiction. It is almost impossible to write solely in facts – politics and history deal with them, but facts always are interpreted through an ideological lens. Red Flag provides an alternative world view that challenges the assumptions of capitalist society and tries to organise resistance to it, arguing for a system built on cooperation rather than competition. Our goal is to be part of building a larger movement for a socialist society that operates according to the maxim, “From each according to their ability, to each according to their need”.

This is the difference between Red Flag and the corporate media. If Fairfax were consistently on the side of workers and the oppressed, it would be sad to see its passing. But, notwithstanding the valuable work of some of its journalists, the corporation is part of the problem.