There has never been a time when media literacy was more important than it is now. The ubiquity of social media, the complex interaction between these platforms and professional mass media, the ‘fake news’ phenomenon and the high concentration of media ownership make the current news media environment particularly difficult to navigate.
Diversity of media voices strengthens democracy. Unfortunately, generations of federal politicians from both major parties have seen to it that diversity has been incrementally narrowed so that now Australia has only three big media voices: Murdoch’s News Corporation, Nine Entertainment, and the ABC.
The fact that the Senate is conducting an inquiry into media diversity testifies to the political salience of this issue. It was established on a motion by the Greens after a petition organised by the former prime minister Kevin Rudd, calling for an inquiry into the influence of the Murdoch media in Australia. It garnered more than half a million signatories, one of which was another former prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull.
The Murdoch media has become a reliable publicity arm for the government.
It says a great deal about the intimidatory power of the big media companies that while these two men were in office – and in a position to do something about media diversity – neither went near it. On the contrary, Rudd established a close friendship with the then editor-in-chief of The Australian, Chris Mitchell, and in 2017 Turnbull made changes to the ownership laws that empowered the big players even more. It enabled, for instance, the Nine organisation to take over the old Fairfax newspapers.
The Morrison government is unlikely to do anything about this either. Indeed, the Murdoch media has become a reliable publicity arm for the government, and in return the government has shelled out $40 million to Murdoch for the improbable purpose of covering under-reported women’s sport. It is a stretch, given the federal government’s record on gender issues, to believe that the under-reporting of women’s sport is one of its policy priorities.
Meanwhile, the successive Coalition governments of Tony Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison will have cut the ABC’s budget by an estimated $783 million in real terms by 2023, according to a report by think tank Per Capita. There is plenty of evidence to support the proposition that this is punishment for the type of journalism the government does not like. The clearest example came in 2018 when the public broadcaster lost its then managing director, Michelle Guthrie, followed by its then chair, Justin Milne, within the space of a few days.
Milne resigned after revelations he told Guthrie to sack high-profile presenter Emma Alberici and political editor Andrew Probyn because the government “hated” them. Milne denied this amounted to interference in the ABC’s editorial independence.
The hollowing out of the ABC – it cut another 250 jobs in June 2020 – has serious implications for Australian democracy. For decades it has been by far the most trusted news source in the country, and now it is also the most popular.
In February 2021, the ABC news website was the most-viewed in Australia, reflecting people’s reliance on it during the Black Summer bushfires of 2019–20 and the subsequent coronavirus pandemic. Moreover, citizens outside the capital cities are relying increasingly on the national broadcaster for their news as regional newspapers shrink or disappear under the combined pressures of the pandemic and the internet.
Navigating this torrent has become an essential life skill for people of every age, but especially the young.
The internet brings many blessings, but also many curses: hate speech, echo chambers, fake news, and a deluge of material the reliability of which is impossible to assess. Navigating this torrent has become an essential life skill for people of every age, but especially the young.
What is the source of this material? What is the evidence to support it? Does the language used invite me to draw certain conclusions? Whose interests are being promoted? Skills in asking and answering these questions will help them to make sense of the world and to discern, from this babel, some semblance of empirical and contingent truth.
The global tech giants cannot be relied upon to exercise the necessary gatekeeping. Their job is to maximise profits by maximising advertising, and that means maximising eyeballs, regardless of truth, taste, decency or the public interest. This was exemplified by Facebook’s recent, if temporary, banning of reputable news sources from posting on the site.
Young people have been weaned on this stuff. Getting them to understand its strengths and weaknesses presents educators with a challenge the complexity of which is matched only by its urgency.