Bad Policy For Big Media: Turnbull’s $60m Media Bailout Won’t Fix Journalism

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New Matilda won’t be lining up for government funding following the announcement of a media bailout package. Chris Graham explains why.

I learned an important lesson about myself from a close friend recently. Apparently, if something makes me anxious, then that’s what I’m compelled to go and do.

My name’s Chris Graham, I’m the owner and editor of New Matilda, the most self-defeating independent publication in Australia, and I’m a counterphobic.

One of the things that’s made me anxious recently is the passing of the federal government’s legislation to free up cross-media ownership.

Long story short, under the new laws, the ‘big media companies’ that consistently perpetrate the ‘big media scandals’ will get even bigger. You can guess what will happen with their scandals.

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The deal is as dirty as it gets, and was designed to advantage the Murdochs of the world, while smashing the Guardians. Interestingly, I remember the last debate we had on loosening cross media ownership laws a decade ago. It was fever-pitch. This time around, the battered, bruised Australian media have laid down. There’s nothing like self-interest mixed with failing business models to shut people up.

But in truth, I don’t spend a lot of my time worrying about the ‘big guys’. I do, however, spend a lot of my energy worrying about small independent publishing, in which I have an obvious interest. On that front, in exchange for his support to get the Turnbull government’s legislation through, Senator Nick Xenophon negotiated a three-year $60 million ‘innovation fund’ for small publishers. Small publishers like me. You can read all about it here.

If you can’t be bothered, here’s the précis of the politics behind it: The Turnbull government is going to spend $60 million of your taxes buying a Senator’s vote to pass bad legislation designed to advantage some of the most powerful media corporations in the world. Because political donations.

That’s how they’re going to fix the ‘media problem’ in Australia. And that’s the part that’s making me really anxious.

So, embracing my counterphobia, I’m going to go and not take the money that could come my way under the deal. I’ll return to why shortly. But first, over to Nick Xenophon.

South Australian senator Nick Xenophon.
South Australian senator Nick Xenophon.

“The media in this country is in crisis. Google and Facebook are ripping away almost $4 billion in advertising revenue from you,” Xenophon told media at a press conference after the legislation passed.

Both of those statements are true. Unfortunately neither of them shed any light on why the media is in crisis. And I think that’s a pretty important discussion we’re currently not having.

The answer is surprisingly simple: trust. Or rather, a complete lack thereof. For decades now, media as an industry has been trashing and abusing the trust of its readers, the people it purports to serve.

We’ve been filtering, sanitizing and policing opinions and stories in order to protect a system that has always advantaged us. That system is now in a state of collapse, as it inevitably one day would be.

Media profits are in free-fall, and large foreign companies (like Facebook and Google, as Xenophon notes) are soaking up billions of dollars in advertising revenue. Advertising that Australian media companies have always considered theirs, and theirs alone.

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I’m not suggesting media is not sometimes misunderstood. It frequently is. When you put out opinion and analysis for public consumption, not everyone is going to agree. And mainstream media outlets do still occasionally excel – some of the investigative reporting by The Age and Sydney Morning Herald has been outstanding. So too the ABC and SBS. The Australian’s coverage – while deeply mired in vendetta journalism – is also occasionally excellent. Their reporting around the death of Mulrunji Doomadgee is a case in point.

But if such a substantial proportion of the population thinks that what we do most days is absolute shit… well, how can 24 million people always be wrong?

Having worked in the media almost three decades, I know first hand the cynicism that pervades newsrooms around the country.

She-Male-Courier-MailThat cynicism is how the Courier Mail came up with its infamous She-male front page; it’s how the Sydney Morning Herald, for decades, kept Paul Sheehan on its books, apparently blissfully unaware that he would, inevitably, one day utterly disgrace himself and his publication with a story like this. It’s why Andrew Bolt has a column and a blog with the Herald-Sun, and an axed show on Channel 10, picked up by Sky News; it’s why the ABC delivered the most foul smear against Aboriginal people, sparking the NT intervention, then ducked for cover when their deceit was exposed.

It’s how the Sunday Telegraph came to run a nude photo of ‘Pauline Hanson’ on its front page, then pretended that honest mistakes happen when you pursue the public interest; it’s why Today Tonight journalist David Richardson pretended he was being chased out of Majorca by police, and why Richardson still, to this very day, is able to ply his trade for Today Tonight; it’s why SBS buckled and sacked Scott McIntyre for tweeting his personal, accurate opinions about Anzac Day; it’s why A Current Affair perpetrated their ‘Asian Mall Invasion’ story, and many more like it. As a side note, the reporter of that story, Ben McCormack, is currently facing court on child pornography charges.

The list, quite literally, goes on, and on, and on. Mainstream media today is at the centre of almost as many scandals as it breaks. So why do we believe that we can dig itself out of the hole we’ve created by doing precisely the things that got us there in the first place?

And by that, I mean this: deep hypocrisy. It pervades our industry, and everyone knows it.

How many media outlets have you seen rail against government handouts to Aboriginal people, the unemployed, or the disabled? That’s the staple diet of organisations like News Corp and the commercial networks. And now, how many media outlets do you see looking to government for handouts because they’re struggling?

The new media ownership laws are the Wall Street bailouts of 2008 all over again, albeit on a smaller financial scale. And of course, who could forget how the media reported the grab for cash by the greedy Wall Streeters?

Equally, it’s hard to see how Xenophon’s media fund is much better. To me, it looks like a shovel dressed up as a sugar hit that will provide an initial burst of funding to sustain some smaller media outlets for a few years. And then what will we do?

We’ll still have to go to our readers and try and convince them of the value of independent media, having just dined out for three years on the proceeds of obscene legislation designed to advantage corporations with virtually no moral compass and even less interest in journalism. I think we’re probably going to find that sales pitch hard to deliver.

This hypocrisy doesn’t go un-noticed by the broader population. Indeed it’s one of the reasons trust in the media is so low.

Modern journalism is falling apart because of the failings of modern journalism, and journalists. Facebook is just the catalyst that brought to a head a backlash that has been building for decades.

As power has concentrated more and more in the hands of major media organisations, public trust has been eroded. That is undeniable. Yet our solution has been to entrench that power in the big players even further, and then sling the little guys a few years of top-up.

That will not win back public trust.

(IMAGE: André-Pierre du Plessis, Flickr)
(IMAGE: André-Pierre du Plessis, Flickr)

What’s even more galling is that the media companies claim this is about jobs. I have enormous sympathy for the reality that more than 2,000 have disappeared from journalism in the last few years. But while it’s all well and good to talk about jobs, what we’re really talking about is self-interest, when we should be talking about journalism. Specifically, what we as industry did to it, why the public largely doesn’t trust it, and how we’re going to fix it.

To borrow a phrase from countless News Corp editorials about ‘government hand-outs’, ‘cash is not the answer’.

Change is.

And so to New Matilda.

We won’t be applying for government grants under the Xenophon scheme. I’ve made many, many stupid financial decisions, as my parents and my growing personal and company tax bill can attest. And I may well live to regret not standing in line for my share of a hand out. But I just don’t believe you inspire people to support journalism by filling out a 10-page grant application. I also don’t believe you fix modern journalism with government money, although it’s not like we couldn’t use some.

As we sit, I’m facing a defamation threat from Channel 7 because New Matilda called out Today Tonight for a bigoted Islamophobic beat-up. If the matter proceeds, we’re staring down the barrel of a million dollar lawsuit.

I don’t have a million dollars, although I have set up a fundraiser to raise $25,000.

Even so, I’ve stared down that barrel many, many times before. Two years ago, we were in the Federal Court over the ‘Barry Spurr Racist Professor’ story. At the same time we were fending off a legal challenge related to our reporting on the Frances Abbott secret scholarship story. In the past 12 months alone, we’ve had seven defamation threats, four of them in March over an extraordinary story in which we collaborated with, literally, the best journalist in the United Kingdom, Michael Gillard. You possibly never even read it, but here it is.

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We spent $55,000 on legal bills in the previous financial year, and that’s in spite of the fact that the overwhelming majority of legal work we engage is pro bono, by thoroughly beautiful humans (cue gratuitous plug) like our in-house volunteer lawyer Geoff Holland, and Michael Bradley and the crew from Marque Lawyers.

Those are the realities of small, vigorous independent publishing. This is another: based on past history, I already know what this story ‘will do’. It’ll get shared a bit on social media, people who love and support New Matilda’s work will kick in even more money (which I genuinely appreciate, by the way). And we’ll drag in an extra 20, 30 or maybe even 50 subscribers.

And that’ll be enough to keep the wolves and debt collectors at bay for another month, until I come up with some new and inspiring way (or story) to convince another tiny fraction of the country to part with their cash. That, or the ‘usual suspects’ will just keep backing us (did I mention how much I appreciate that?). And I can probably continue to do all of that until the cows come home, or the ATO shuts me down.

But here’s the thing. New Matilda needs more than that. We all need more than that.

Independent media needs to build a movement. We need to convince a critical mass of people – in our case, a piddling 10,000, see below – of the importance of ‘keeping the bastards honest’. I’m not convinced that going to some of the biggest bastards in the land with my hand out will help build that movement. It might alleviate the bad cash flow situation for a while, but that’s not how you restore faith in a failing Fourth Estate, and it’s certainly not how you build sustainability.

On that front, it’s well known that New Matilda has a pretty healthy respect for First Nations people, their sovereignty, their culture and their knowledge. There’s much to learn from Aboriginal people about sustainable and ethical relationships, both with our readership and the broader community.

The Pitjatjantjara people of the Central Desert have a philosophy called ‘Ngpartji Ngpartji’ (pronounced NUP-PAR-GEE NUP-PAR-GEE). Translated, it means ‘I give you something, you give me something’. Creating and upholding reciprocal relations has helped to sustain the oldest living culture on earth for over 60,000 years, and we hope it can help to sustain us too. We are only able to do what we do, by having a strong reciprocal relationship with our readers.

(IMAGE: Chris Graham, At Large Media)
(IMAGE: Chris Graham, At Large Media)

Even more loosely translated, it means ‘you give us money, we give you journalism’.

It really is that simple. That really is the only way that media will survive and thrive in this country – by building a grassroots movement of people who believe in the importance of a genuinely free and vigorous press.

And so this is where you come in.

If you do the numbers, it’s not that complicated. There’s 24 million people in Australia. Many of them are adults. If we can’t convince 10,000 of them of the quality of New Matilda’s journalism, of its importance and its value, then I probably shouldn’t be in journalism.

A subscription base of 10,000 equates to about $1 million a year in ongoing revenue. One million dollars can keep an awful lot of bastards honest.

We need to reach that critical mass as soon as we can, and we’ll be announcing different ways we aim to do that over the coming weeks and months. You can get involved now by subscribing here. It’ll cost you as little as $6 a month. If independent media isn’t worth that to you… well, then you’ll ultimately end up with the media you deserve.

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I described New Matilda at the top of this article as ‘the most self-defeating publication in Australia’.

That’s actually what publishing is. You frequently have to act against what you perceive to be your own immediate self-interest for the greater good. That’s also known as ‘journalism’.

I accept that maybe New Matilda takes that to extremes sometimes – counterphobia most definitely has its downsides – but I’d also argue that the mainstream media routinely goes the other way. There’s a reason why American news legend Dan Rather was mocked by his colleagues for finishing his show with the word ‘courage’.

Like I said earlier, we’re not just trying to build a subscription base, we’re trying to build a movement.

You can be part of that movement. And if that scares the shit out of you, take it from me, that’s a good thing.

So, if you’re tired of corporate and government money running the show, if you want journalism in the public interest without fear or favour or the pacifying influence of government grants, if you want to rescue Australian media from the jaws of monopoly, then take matters into your own hands. Please join us by clicking here and subscribing.

* Chris Graham is an elected Industry Nominee on the Australian Press Council, representing small publishers. The views expressed in this article are his and his alone. He Facebooks here, and tweets here.

https://newmatilda.com/shop/

Chris Graham

Chris Graham is the publisher and editor of New Matilda. He is the former founding managing editor of the National Indigenous Times and Tracker magazine. Chris has won a Walkley Award, a Walkley High Commendation and two Human Rights Awards for his reporting. He lives in Brisbane and splits his time between Stradbroke Island, where New Matilda is based, and the mainland.

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