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?
Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.
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