Select one of the three major themes in Australian thinking about
media,communication and information identified by Osborne & Lewis
(1995) and explore the ideas that underpin it. Explain when and where
these ideas emerged in history and say something about why they
have had an ongoing influence in this country.
Osborne and Lewis state that “a preeminent theme in Australian thinking about the use of communication is the extent to which it has been viewed as a form of control” . There has been concern in recent times of the enormous power communication holds as an agent of societal control. This is due to a number of factors, such the ‘media mogul’ dominated media, which promotes a very conservative view and does not allow for alternate opinions to be voiced. The wide-reaching capabilities of the media, particularly electronic media via the Internet allows for the influence to spread across the entire country to remote areas and therefore heightens a sense of societal control. Although there have also been calls for harsher and more defined regulations to be set down on the media industry in light of its influence, the concepts of free speech and censorship have existed ever since the introduction of the mass media. With the current trends in Australia moving towards “an essentially corporatised system of public communication” , concerns about the extent to which media and communication controls society will continue to be of relevance in Australia.
The very basis for Australia, that is colonialism and settling a new land, formed the foundation for the media of the nation. In 1803, The Sydney Gazette, a government publication, became the first Australian newspaper to be circulated in the colony. It dealt with legal news, farming news and other areas of interest for the colonisers. Of course, it was aimed only at educated white colonials and not indigenous people or convicts. Despite starting as a government controlled newspaper, by 1824, the year that The Australian was started, all government ownership of the press has ceased and private owners were involved. This was a sign of things to come and is the root of current problems with dominant ownership of the press. Although by 1923 there were twenty-six metropolitan dailies owned by twenty-one proprietors, this balanced industry was not to remain and by 1983 there were only three major owners in the press industry. In 2001, two major media companies dominate the Australian press – NewsLtd, and Fairfax. A government controlled media is not possible in a democratic society, however a media industry controlled by media moguls with widespread influence is hardly a better option, and results in a greater and more centralised control over society.
The ‘media-mogul’ dominated industry presents enormous problems and certainly contributes to the fear of controlling power held by the media. The fact that one person, family or company could control the majority of newspaper media that is being fed to society is consistent with the growing fear of social control. Rupert Murdoch, and his company NewsCorp, currently owns more than half of the newspaper industry in Australia, as well as about one-third of British newspapers. He also has film, TV, newspaper and publishing interests in the USA and owns Star Television in Asia. NewsLtd, the Australian subsidiary of NewsCorp, publishes 67.8 per cent of the capital city and national newspaper market; 76.1 per cent of the Sunday newspaper market; 46.6 per cent of the suburban newspaper market; and 23.4 per cent of the regional newspaper market. Fairfax owns and controls 21.4 per cent of the capital city and national newspaper market; 22.8 per cent of the Sunday newspaper market; 18.1 per cent of the suburban newspaper market; 15.4 per cent of the regional newspaper market. This total domination by two companies over what information is provided to Australians via the press is disturbing and further enhances the notion of the powerful control of the media over society. Although the situation is not uncommon in other nations, particularly the USA where Murdoch owns controlling interests in a variety of media formats, the concentration of media ownership is more pronounced in Australia than in any other modern Western society. Therefore, this form of communication is a controlling influence in society because when there are little alternative news sources, the public is vulnerable.
Despite an obvious dominance by NewsCorp and Fairfax in the Australian press, the alternative press attempts to limit the control of these corporations. An alternative publication can be defined as one which “provides a new and clear alternative to mainstream journalism; it covers general news and political issues; it is not owned or affiliated with a major chain; and it is not the official publication of a major political party.” One aim of the alternative press, aside from providing another view on current political and social news items, is to give a voice to minorities, such as Indigenous and Aboriginal peoples, women, migrants, youth and the aged who are largely excluded from the mainstream media. An alternative publication, The Green Left Weekly claims that they are not just the mirror of News Limited and they stand for an unbiased, full coverage of current events. “The establishment media mainstream seek to maintain the existing power relations in society; the alternative media have to challenge and change those relations.” While it can be said that alternative publications such as these do provide an alternate point of view, the question arises: is it any less controlling in society? and indeed, is it any less biased? Claims that the alternative press is unbiased and pushing for change and reform only reinforce the notion of media as a controlling influence in society.
Despite existing Australian laws preventing any one person or company from having controlling interests in more than one media outlet, for example newspapers and television, the increased interconnectedness between nations, in particular between the USA and Australia, has seen this occur regardless. The Media Ownership Regulations in Australia state that “the major effect of the laws is to prevent the common ownership of newspapers, television and radio broadcasting licences that serve the same region.” The purpose of the legislation is to encourage diversity in the ownership of the most influential forms of the commercial media: the daily press and free-to-air television and radio. However, when international corporations become involved, this becomes increasingly difficult. Also, regulations involving news content on the Internet are not well-established and therefore many companies have a controlling interest in either television, radio or print as well as online ventures. This results in a greater domination of the news and therefore control of society.
Osborne and Lewis see that “in the late 20th century, it is the corporate global sector, aided by satellite, cable and computer technology that is expanding the control function of communication in Australia.” Thus, because Murdoch was able to utilise expanding technologies he is the considered to be “only media mogul to create an to control a truly global media empire.” The motivations behind controlling interest in media are also cause for concern. On the one hand, there is the desire to inform and educate a society. However, the driving force behind these media empires is the almighty dollar and a quest for more information and more control over society. When Kerry Packer wanted to purchase the Fairfax network in 1991, parliament passed the Broadcasting Amendment Act to prevent him from doing so. The news, as presented in a variety of ways, is shaped by society. As the Australian population continues to grow the sales of mass media undergoes the same growth. Mass media is financed due to the massive influence both the print and electronic media has on Australia’s society. However, it is also shaped by the bias and the quiet censorship employed by mainstream media in order to remain in a position to exert control. That is, “media outlets owned by a corporation will support government directly, mute criticism of it or withhold from the public information that could damage or embarrass it.” The government then abolishes or waives official media regulations in return. Clearly, the regulations for media control and ownership need to be addressed to lessen the societal control.
Government regulations regarding the media are substantially different during times of war. The media is required to censor various information deemed counter-productive and in some cases publish propaganda-like articles to further the government’s will. The distribution of information and mass media during the world wars significantly altered the way that Australians viewed communication. The propaganda machine put in place by the Nazi regime in Germany during the second world war in particular contributed significantly to the notion of a potentially dangerous and controlling media. However, despite the obvious and damaging effects of the Nazi propaganda, more benign but equally biased war messages were being delivered to the Australian population by the media at the same time. The wars were portrayed as fun and games, and the devastation and death of the reality of war was seldom expressed in the press. Lost battles were covered up and small victories were the focus of a heightened sense of celebration to ensure morale remained high for the war effort. There was a broad view that, during the wars, in the inter-war years, and beyond the mass media exercised a powerful and persuasive influence over society. This is largely due to the sheer amount of information provided to the public by the media. The governments’ control of the media during the wars has relevance today as they censored the news as they saw fit to prevent anti-war sentiment arising.
A perfect contemporary example of how the various facets of the media in Australia can control society can be seen in light of the terrorist attacks on the USA in September 2001, and subsequent coverage of the ‘War on Terrorism’. All newspapers, radio stations and television stations were biased in their presentation of the facts. By presenting wall-to-wall coverage of the event, the media controlled society simply by deciding what they should view and think. This type of media coverage available only in this ‘technological age’ has a profound impact and control over society. However, it was not the excess of the coverage that was the main controlling factor. The manner in which the information was presented was extremely biased and definitely in favour of the USA. The mainstream media has largely ignored or downplayed public questioning of US actions, and protests against continual bombing of Afghanistan. For example, a number of protests were held across Australia to demonstrate anti-war feelings on October 8th, 2001 and yet the major daily newspapers did not cover this at all. Ultimately, mainstream media presents the views that the government wants to put forth in a bid to ensure regulations are not tightened on the media. In the US, the CEO of CBS Dan Rather stated that “George Bush is the President. He makes the decisions, and, you know, I’m just one American, wherever he wants me to line up, just tell me where.” This blatant statement enforces the notion that the media falls in line with the current government.
The issue of bias and censorship, particularly during times of war is further evidence of the controlling influence of the media. Repeated showing of a message from Osama bin Laden over all major US television news networks, in which he urged more violence against Americans, resulted in the decision to edit all further messages from bin Laden and other terrorist groups as the White house had “reservations of allowing bin Laden such access to American television” . Similar control over the media is also evident in Australia regarding what is shown to the public of the ‘war on terrorism’. The mainstream media clearly support John Howard’s stance on supporting the US ‘war on terrorism’ and as such have not published any articles condemning his actions or the actions of the US. Little coverage of anti-war protests and saturation coverage of the terrible and tragic side of the attacks on the US use emotion to sway society thinking. For example, the media in Australia presented snippets from personal accounts of the terrorist attacks in America and personal reflections on those who were lost. In contrast, the personal stories of those killed in the US bombing raids on Afghanistan are not told. Therefore, the media’s discretionary power of deciding what to feed to the public, which is largely influenced by an understanding between the media and the government, allows information and communication to be a controlling influence in Australian society. Racial tension can be created by the media’s heightened sense of the news.
Unlike in the US, where the notion of free speech is a fundamental part of the psyche, free speech has “rarely been a sustained aim of Australian governments, the commercial media, the public sector broadcasters or the universities” . This is significant because it is partially responsible for current thinking toward media communication and information. Censorship, freedom of speech and the public and community right to know are all issue which come into play when discussing the control of the media. “Truth has no inherent power to prevail against the arrogant censor. Truth requires liberty of the press as its ally. No special laws should exist to hamper the freedom of newspapers, journals, books and pamphlets to print facts and advance opinion.” This view, while noble, is not representative of the current situation in Australian media. Although the media is a self-regulatory body, the unspoken control of the government and powerful companies over what is produced in the media ensures that freedom of speech is not entirely possible in the mainstream media. The media can be threatened with libel and defamation suits if they dare to produce something unflattering about someone who is powerful or rich. So, this results in mostly tame journalism, with the media too afraid to speak the truth as a whole for fear of being sued. Thus, the notion of freedom of speech is not essentially relevant in the Australian media, and as such the censored facts control and bias the society.
A final component of the media as a form of societal control that needs to be addressed is the issue of the wide-reaching capabilities of the modern media. With the advent of each new technology, the media’s control has been ever further reaching: the printing press allowed the mass publication of news; the radio allowed news to be broadcast to more remote areas; television added a whole new dimension to news. However, it is only with today’s satellite, computer, and wireless communications technology that the spread of the media has erupted. Although this may be perceived to be a good thing due to the spreading of knowledge to remote parts of the world, it further enhances the idea of the lack of a balance for information. The poor polling of the “One Nation Party” in some areas can be directly attributed to the mass media’s influence on the public; likewise its success in the more rural areas can be attributed to support from the media in those regions. It is evident that the differences in the information people receive can create differences in society. “The media is making the difference. I think there has to be because we are getting fed different stuff. A sure way to prove your bloody point is to feed us different information and we’ll be different.” This perspective is indicative of the control by media held over particularly rural and regional society in Australia. By feeding the community information which is decidedly different to that of the urban communities, the media is creating a social divide between rural and urban Australians. Thus, the media’s control over Australian society is enhanced by the diverse and far-reaching influence they maintain.
The Australian media and industries of communication and information can be seen as exerting control over the society. Although this situation is said to reflect other western societies in the world, such as the USA and Britain, advances in technology and the various changes to the Australian culture have led to changes in the way in which the media operates and thrives. To an extent, the media helps to inform society and keep the population up to date in matters of interest that affect them. However, the growing control of the media influence over society has become a matter of concern. It is important to acknowledge, however, that it is not only the media which controls the society, but also various other elite forces including government and big business. While more channels for information communication become available, there are less and less controllers of this information. It is vital that consumers of the media realise that the media is owned and controlled by particular groups who make sense of society on behalf of others, and thus have a controlling influence. In conclusion, if the media is analysed for its motives and values, it can become an informative source, rather than a controlling one.
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