After Fairfax: what’s the price of a free press?

The shocking news from Fairfax – 1900 job cuts and press closures in Sydney and Melbourne – comes like a bolt from the blue.

I’m lying. It was entirely predictable. Australia’s oldest newspaper group has been run by dolts, social climbers, profit gougers, chancers and failed business types for at least 30 years.

Fairfax has been dying on its feet through greed, laziness and incompetence. Its fortunes were based on the William Caxton, fifteenth-century model: originally this involved printing presses and gentlemen artisans performing highly skilled work to produce reading for the well educated.

When the model moved into newspapers it relied on vast tonnes of newsprint and advertising revenue from classifieds and display advertising. This income paid for the journalism and overheads while the sales from circulation provided a tidy profit.

The microchip, computers, the internet, digital technology and instant globalised communication, all developed in the last two decades, have killed the paper-and-ink model.

Fairfax’s owners and directors (and other boneheaded newspaper proprietors) concluded that the new technology had killed journalism as well. So they began to dick around with the content of papers, dumbing down the journalism in the stupid view that it would arrest the decline in circulation.

But it was the decline in classified and display advertising – the drying-up of the ‘rivers of gold’ – which was largely responsible for falling circulation – NOT JOURNALISM.

People who paid for advertisements bought papers to see their ads in print and people who wanted to buy goods and services bought papers to see what was on offer and to check the prices that were being asked.

Papers were a printed supermarket for advertisements. When the advertising shrunk, so did the circulation.


Cornerstone of democracy

So what now? Schools and universities are filled with students who are taught that a fundamental element of democracy is a free press. Along with the right to vote, the freedom of religion and the freedom of expression, the freedom of the press is a cornerstone of the Western democratic system. We regard the principle so highly that in recent years the West has invaded other countries to demand that they establish democratic institutions and embrace a free press.

Given that freedom of the press is such a vital element of democracy why do we leave it in the hands of Rupert Murdoch or invite Gina Rinehart to become a proprietor?

To enshrine the democratic values of a free press costs money and I believe that the next model for twenty-first-century media will involve public money.

(Would someone take smelling salts to the editorial boards of The Australian and the Australian Financial Review? They seem to have fainted).

In the past Australia spent public funds to create a rail network, a telephone system, a national bank, a postal network and an airline and we are currently spending billions of dollars on a National Broadband Network, so why not establish a publicly funded model to maintain a free press?

There are public media enterprises in Western Europe and they have been successful. The arguments about political interference by politicians have proved groundless: an impenetrable firewall has been constructed between politicians and the public trustees.

We currently entrust the ABC board with the spending of huge sums of public money to maintain one of the finest public broadcasting organisations in the world. Surely a similar superstructure – corporatised and commercially competitive – could be developed for the new media?

There are journalists, academics, politicians, lawyers and technical experts capable of producing a publicly funded model so that the industry is placed on a viable footing to take its rightful place in our national life and culture.

Can we all stop worshipping the free market (which is in its death throes all over the world) and concentrate on a publicly owned, independently structured and commercially based media industry?

Utopian? I haven’t read anything better on offer.

Alex Mitchell

Alex Mitchell is former state political editor of Fairfax Media's Sunday newspaper in Sydney, The Sun-Herald, and author of Come The Revolution: A Memoir (NewSouth Books, 2011).

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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  1. ‘publicly funded’ -‘impenetrable firewall’ -you can’t be serious. Why not have the balls of your conviction and get a media outlet for all these unemployed journalists by privately buying it? – The ACTU could buy Fairfax – well at least the Age -really – a better Utopian vision? – buy it!

  2. The trouble with suggesting a public funded media model is that people are so saturated with the values of capitalism – private ownership for profit – that it isn’t understood. People have forgotten Qantas, the Commonwealth Bank, Telstra etc were all once publicly owned and that a properly regulated, structured and managed public enterprise can and does work. Patrick McCauley’s idea of the morally, politically and socially bankrupt ACTU buying Fairfax (“well at least The Age”) isn’t serious. A debate on the public ownership model (i.e. like the NBN) is the urgent need.

  3. Yet the powerful unions still act as if they should determine managerial policy in private companies such as Qantas and Fairfax – why not buy in – seriously.
    The ABC reminds citizens minute by minute – day by day – what a public funded media model looks like – and whether you like it or not – at least half – probably more like two thirds at the moment – don’t like the bias. If you want to have a free press the first thing you have to do is to have free speech – the last census recorded the greatest rise in indigenous identification ever recorded yet the debate as to the reasons behind this Herculean rise will be censored – this is not free speech – so – no free press

  4. Yeah! Race baiters have no free speech in this country! And that’s quite a fetching tin foil hat you’re wearing, Patrick!

  5. If such a model is to be seriously considered, a viable and comprehensive answer to the objections raised by many in the media concerning government influence will have to formulated and advocated.
    One possible answer might be that influence is fine, so long as it is: a. publicly disclosed and b. balanced either by countervailing interests or minimised in some fashion.
    For example if a news outlet replaced Fairfax as publisher of The Age or created an alternate newspaper funding could come not only from government but a number of civic-minded wealthy citizens and a mix of advertising/reader subscriptions.
    Couple that with either a prescriptive foundational governance document which allocated all those funding the outlet a say and a stipulation that much if not all of what was discussed at a given meeting of these representatives had to be made public say through recording and publication of the recording of a meeting on a website as well as minutes of the meeting and the public might, just might have a model for information sourcing and publication that could work.

  6. Should I not show an interest in targeting tax payer’s money to the indigenous disadvantaged? – allowing isolated aboriginal children to learn to read and write? – rather than paying Anita Heiss $90,000 to promote racism? A Free Press needs free speech – including allowing journalists to discuss issues around aboriginality – you have to learn to be insulted (even wrong) and know that you cannot be diminished.

  7. Citizen Shifrin’s comments are valid. The first opponents of an alternative model to the so-called capitalist free press (surely an oxymoron) are journalists concerned about political interference and control. As Shifrin suggests a legally binding (or legislative) deed could be drafted to enshrine editorial independence and avoid the bullying of the ABC that John Howard, Richard Alston, Alexander Downer and Philip Ruddock regularly engaged in. For the record, a proposal for a publicly-funded newspaper was submitted to the Whitlam Cabinet in 1975 but events overtook its consideration. The proposal was put forward by the head of the newly-created Communications Department whose permanent head was Jim Spigelman, now chairman of the ABC.

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