[Published 7 Feb on ABC’s The Drum Opinion.]
Gina Rinehart’s evident intention to own large chunks of our media is focussing many minds on the question of media ownership. However most of the discussion does not properly recognise the special role of the media in our society, and canvasses only variations on concentrated ownership by very rich people, usually with an implication that ownership by government is the only alternative.
The media are the means of social conversation in large societies. They deserve to be accorded special status, like the courts. Ownership could be widely distributed among those served by each outlet.
Rinehart’s move is obviously intended to allow her to push her miner’s message. That message would be something like “What’s good for me is good for mining and what’s good for mining is good for Australia. If you don’t do as I say there will be no jobs.”
While Rinehart’s focus is a bit narrower than Rupert Murdoch’s, it is not different in kind. Murdoch regards his media as instruments for a political campaign boosting the likes of the Tea Party in the US. Not that has Fairfax been blameless either. Its outlook is strongly conservative, and it is well populated by far-right commentators like Gerard Henderson, many of them groomed by right-wing think tanks.
The bias of commercial media, and now even the ABC, strongly distorts the political and social climates in Australia. We have become a more selfish, divided, fearful and materialistic society over the neoliberal era of the past three decades.
One perspective on our current state is that, despite the lip service paid him, Robert Menzies would be disowned by both modern major parties as being too leftist. He was pragmatic when necessary, but he was also far from being a free-market fundamentalist, as his record attests.
Economic performance in Menzies’ post-war social-democratic era was actually much better than in the neoliberal era, even aside from the recent financial crash. The evidence is straightforward and readily available. The fact that it is virtually unknown in our mainstream media precisely illustrates why we need much more open, diverse and balanced news and commentary.
To properly appreciate the role of media in a modern society we need a much longer perspective. For most of our history human beings have lived in small groups. Our repertoire of social behaviours is strongly tuned to keep such small groups functioning through face-to-face interactions. Language is a distinctively human ability, and is a key part of this social repertoire. Evidently the repertoire works, because it kept us surviving and thriving for a great many millennia.
However as we developed settled agriculture we started to live in larger groups. We could not then interact with everyone face to face, and our socially-regulating behaviours, including spoken language, became less effective.
We have developed partial technical remedies for this problem, first writing, then printing and now broadcast and electronic media. These at least allow us to communicate among large numbers, and across large distances.
Until recently mass communication has been expensive and one-sided. The internet is touted as a solution to both these limitations, but the fact is that big media organisations also dominate the on-line environment. Although there are smaller outlets and many personal blogs, they command only tiny audiences in comparison.
So we have never really solved the problem of accomplishing good social communication, broadly defined, in large societies. Mass communication is still dominated by a few people with a very limited range of views, and the situation is not fundamentally different from the age of the Pharaohs.
We cannot keep our society healthy and we cannot conduct a wide-ranging political discourse in this situation. Our supposedly liberal-democratic society has always fallen well short of the ideal, and we are sliding again towards authoritarian control. To avoid this fate we need other options.
An alternative to concentrated media ownership, either by rich people or by governments, is to require media outlets to be owned by the people they serve, or at least by many of the people they serve. For example, your local TV station could be owned by people in your city, with no-one allowed to own more than, say, 0.01 percent. That way there would be at least 10,000 owners, each of whom could have a democratic say in the governance of the station.
Media also deserve to be accorded special status in our society, acknowledging how fundamental the social conversation is to the health of society. No-one (yet?) has suggested our law courts should be privatised. Courts are granted considerable independence from governments and parliaments. Media should be similarly protected from domination by governments or small groups. A requirement for widely distributed ownership would help to ensure this.
There would be challenges in moving to this model and getting it to work, and internet outlets would require some particular arrangements. However such challenges are quite surmountable, and remaining deficiencies would be small in comparison to the present sad state of affairs.
It would then be far harder for small groups to dominate and control our social and political conversations. We have been foolish indeed to have allowed them such power over us thus far.