a national publishing house?

In her book The Content Makers, Margaret Simons points out that Rupert Murdoch kept the Australian, that unflinching champion of market forces, even though it has lost money for most of its existence. Even today, it’s still probably not profitable enough to survive as an ordinary investment. In other words, the Oz remains alive despite not because of the market — it’s subsidised by Murdoch as a vanity project (or ideological hammer). Simons continues:

Kerry Packer kept The Bulletin going, his main instruction to successive editors being ‘make me proud’. Similarly, when he began the high-quality Sunday program on Channel Nine, his instruction to journalists was to ‘make me a program I can be proud of’.

Back in the day, that was, after all, the point of being a billionaire tyrant: you had sufficient dough that you could spend some accruing a veneer of culture. Anyway, the point is that much of what we think of as quality journalism took place in relative insulation from the market, even in the private sector. Which is why, as we come to terms with the digital revolution, we need to start talking about state ownership of media.

I’ve mentioned this before in the context of the imminent collapse of newspapers. New technology offers a dazzling new array of ways of disseminating information and yet, rather than access to more and better news, we will, in all likelihood, face an impoverished media landscape, with most newspapers both downsizing and focusing more and more on infotainment. Compare the rise of radio and television. Rather than just hoping that the private sector would use these technologies for the public benefit, the government, under popular pressure, created the ABC. No-one trusted the market to deliver the kinds of services that the community needed.

You see where this is going? Insofar as privately owned newspapers perform useful social functions (informing the populace, monitoring the political process, etc), why shouldn’t the government take over this role if, as seems likely, the papers cannot adopt to the new media environment? Why not extend the ABC to fund, say, investigative journalism and serious political commentary and everything else that the newspapers are gradually shedding? After all, you can see this already happening in embryonic form — the ABC websites are some of the most popular in the country, and they basically publish print journalism.  So why not establish fully-fledged ABC newspapers (either in print or online format) to take on the functions that the privately own pressed can no longer fulfill?

Now, the idea of a government owned newspaper generally conjures up visions of Pravda — a totalitarian organ expressing the latest effusions from Chairman Rudd. Yet no-one (other than hardcore wingnuts) thinks of ABC radio or TV in that light. Indeed, according to Simons, between 85 per cent and 93 per cent of the audience think that ABC news and current affairs is balanced and even-handed. Even more interestingly, the ABC is trusted by 66 per cent of Australians, which, as Simons says, doesn’t sound that startingly until you realise that only 40 per cent trust the government, 31 the public service and 33 the churches. In those circumstances, extending the ABC to encompass print journalism doesn’t sound so crazy.

But we can take the idea any further. At present, the publishing industry is reeling, with the productivity commision’s recommendations to allow parallel importation coming on top of the slow-burning challenge from digital technology. No-one really knows what the industry might look like in five years and, not surprisingly, many writers are very pessimistic. Again,  you can see the classic capitalist contradiction. We have now a technology capable of disseminating the written word in ways that could not have been imagined even two decades ago. And yet for those who work with words, the technology promises to make life harder rather than easier.

In that context, we need new proposals. So why not a government publisher: an Australian Publishing Corporation, if you like? After all, we face a future in which no-one knows which of the new publishing technologies will be flashes in the pan and which will be the foundations of reading for decades to come. In that context, we need both writers and publishers to be able to experiment, without starving to death. A state-run publishing house could identify and nurture literary forms seen to be at risk. But it could also trial new methods of producing, disseminating and publicising literature, using the new technologies as they came to hand.

This is not supposed to be a proposal for a post-capitalist society, so much as an immediate demand around which to mobilise. After all, in the context of the various stimulus packages, the expenditure involved scarcely seems ruinous. And besides, as I say, we’ve seen this movie before, in response to both radio and television. After all, in the wake of the GFC, why would anyone trust the future of culture to the free market?

Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

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  1. Or why not appeal to a new age of venture capitalists and philanthropists to fund new magazines like The Australian, The Bulletin, etc, and new publishing ventures? It does not necessarily follow from the examples given about the generosity of capitalists like Packer and Murdoch that state-run media/publishing is therefore the way to go.

    To me, an expanded private philanthropy sector seems hugely preferable, since it avoids at least some of the inevitable problems with public sector – conflicts of interest, boards being stacked by governments of the day, unaccountable bureaucracies, endless ideological battles over the organisation's very existence (most of which have already happened with the ABC.) And of course there is always the risk that we may end up with a few Pravda-like organisations that exist merely as propaganda vehicles for the state: it's happened before.

  2. Hi Tim,
    It's interesting, though, that the sprogs of the billionaire tyrants are much less interested in funding loss-making prestige projects than their fathers. I think that age has gone — under neoliberalism you make profit for profit's sake.
    But even if one could find these philanthropists, all the tensions you describe take place on philanthropic boards, too. It's true that, with a state run publishing house, there would be conflicts of the sort we've seen with the ABC. But you would hope that the public pressure that led to the creation of such a body would also prove capable of maintaining some control over it.

  3. An Australian Publishing Corporation might be useful up to a point. But what about books and writers critical of the government and even capitalism? Sure the ABC might be seen as even-handed compared to Commercial Television but it hardly voices opinions to the left of Far-Left.

    Excuse me for seeming inward looking, but as a writer myself either commercial publishing or nationalised publishing seems an unlikely avenue for a progressive writer such as myself.

  4. Hi Benjamin,
    As I said, I'm not suggesting that the idea would solve all the problems faced by writers. Ultimately, capitalism will prove as incompatible with culture as it is with, say, the ongoing sustainability of the planet. But one needs to put forward some immediate proposals in the light of the productivity commission. Which is what this is intended to be.
    In any case, you need to be careful not to cultivate marginalisation. There are plenty of progressive writers who are published by commercial firms and receive government funding. China Mieville, for instance, is published by Random House, which turns over close to three billion dollars each year; he'll be speaking at the Melbourne Writers Festival (at, amongst other things, an Overland event), which receives substantial state funding).
    The extent to which a publicly-owned publisher would accept radical texts would depend, amongst other things, on the degree of pressure upon it, much as is the case with the ABC today. Furthermore, having that kind of infrastructure in place would make the creation of the kind of writers' groups and co-operatives and so on that alternative writers have depended upon in the past much easier than would the scorched earth landscape left by the free market.

  5. I'm seeing Mieville at the MWF. Can't wait.

    I agree with you and I guess there is always a market for progressive writers – progressive readers so they need to tap into that.

    I'm still grappling with the ideas within literature and cultural circles, especially since the productivity commission's report.

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