Coonan the Barbarian


From the sublime to the ridiculous. After what many considered to be the best ever Andrew Olle Media Lecture John Doyle’s 2005 address for the event’s 10th anniversary   came last week’s cringe-making effort from Senator Helen Coonan. Listening to Coonan’s ‘digital migrants’ spiel, it was hard not to think that Olle, who had one of the sharpest analytical minds of any Australian journalist, must have been turning in his grave.

The decision to invite the Communications Minister to deliver what has arguably become the pre-eminent annual media lecture in Australia was suspect to begin with and, in hindsight, it was a mistake.


Coonan’s speech, while not overtly political, reflected all too well the laissez -faire , often craven, approach of her Ministry to media governance. The address was clearly designed to offend no one and promise nothing. In this, it succeeded brilliantly and so, was reduced to little more than a series of statements of the bleeding obvious.

It was difficult to discern the central argument of Coonan’s lecture, although she helpfully explained that the ‘theme’ she had chosen was ‘ an integration plan for digital immigrants.’

‘ Everyone born before the mid-1990s could be classified as a digital migrant,’ Coonan said, before adding the remarkably shrewd observation that such people were, ‘ living in a world that did not exist when they were born.’

She lamented the ‘lost generation’ of ‘fickle consumers’ that’s come out of the communications revolution, and devoted a good part of her speech to reminding us of how much more difficult it was these days for politicians to ‘get the eyeballs and ears’ of the populace, now that the ‘static audience’ of yesteryear was no more.

The ‘integration plan’ Coonan went on to present offered little by way of cogent analysis or insight, relying on old statistics and tired platitudes about the promises of ‘citizen journalism.’ She sat firmly on the fence when it came to predicting the future of old media in the face of the online onslaught, reassuring the assembled moguls that ‘for the moment the internet remains a voluminous addition to traditional media rather than a wholesale replacement for it,’ while admitting to a suspicion that ‘the rise and rise of the internet and the transformation to a broadband economy is the closest we have come to the media industry’s Armageddon.’ Contradictory? You decide.

Coonan took pleasure in gently warning her audience (which consisted of some of the nation’s best journalists and media figures) that ‘undeniably we are moving to a new world of journalism [which]will no longer be, as I have heard it put by one, œa sermon it will be a conversation. ’

But again, the careful Minister was sure to have a bet each way: first, a nod to the democratising force of the internet for the young ABC video journalists at the front table:

In more recent times, information distribution became the domain of those who could afford to own the airwaves. Now anyone with a fast broadband connection and a laptop can create a movie or a blog and share it with the world.

And then a reassuring pat on the shoulder for the old media dinosaurs up the back:

It is true that credibility, authenticity and quality are important qualifications when it comes to a critical assessment of online material. This is why many of the most popular news and opinion sites are linked to influential and established sources such as newspapers and television stations.

Thanks to Bill Leak

Coonan assiduously avoided any mention of the limitations currently imposed on Australian media consumers by the broadband speeds that Rupert Murdoch last week called a ‘disgrace:’  there was no talk here of the Government’s role in opening up the ‘brave new world’ to Australian citizens. Instead, she delivered a pedestrian sermon about the influence of unruly online media on political life, offering nothing her audience hadn’t heard a thousand times before.

Being boring, of course, is not a hanging offence. But if the Communications Minister is given the privilege of delivering the Andrew Olle Memorial Lecture, thereby inevitably politicising the event, surely the least we could expect would be a robust defence of her Department’s role, and an outline of the Government’s intentions for future media policy that had regard for the interest and expertise of her audience. Coonan gave us no such thing.

In fact, the Minister displayed a clear ambivalence about the limits of her own job, asking ‘is it for politicians or the media industry collectively or individually to create the œstructures of authority  for the publication and distribution of news and information?’

While we might agree that government censorship of creative content is undesirable, surely it is the role of governments to regulate and ensure access to essential communications infrastructure, including online space. Moreover, there is a clear role for ‘politicians and the media industry’ in building that infrastructure and providing educational opportunities for disadvantaged children, for example, and other ‘digital migrants.’ Even the most hardened free marketer can see the benefits of getting on board this particular gravy train.

Rupert Murdoch, of course, has cottoned on to it. His News Corp has identified a huge potential market among the illiterate poor in countries such as Libya, Argentina, Brazil and Nigeria, and has joined a crack investment squad of US media companies focussed on developing this huge new market. Murdoch told a meeting of News Corp investors in Adelaide last week:

There are six billion people on this planet today and it won’t be long before there are eight, and a big percentage of those people are illiterate, particularly computer illiterate. If these people can be educated to use this [technology]and join the world economy, it will make a huge difference, not least, of course, to media.

Our Communications Minister, however, seems only to see threats in the new media landscape. Coonan recognised the growing power of the moguls in a late swipe at Murdoch for ‘setting a trend for takeovers of online communities,’ but offered nothing by way of prescriptions for curbing such power and fostering the true potential of 2 1st century media. The only ‘saving grace’ she could offer was that ‘barriers to new entrants on the internet are only limited by the imagination and imagination is in plentiful supply.’

There wasn’t much imagination on show in the 2006 Andrew Olle Memorial Lecture. Let’s hope they ask John Doyle back next year.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.