Media Influence Strongest When Their Interests are at Stake



In considering the commercial media as “special interests” in Australia’s democracy, three threads need to be disentangled:

  • media as influential in public policy-making generally;

  • media as influential in the political process, and,

  • media as influential in public policy-making as it affects their own material interests.

On the first, in Australia there is scant evidence that the media are important in the policy-making process.

The Victorian Agendas project, undertaken by Melbourne University’s Department of Political Science in 1990-1993, set out to identify the individuals who comprised the influential policy-making elites at the Victorian State level across six policy fields – economics, transport, education, health, the environment, welfare. In broad terms, the findings accorded with those of John Kingdon in his study of the policy-making process in Washington in which he wrote of the policy elites riding high above the media storm.

In Victoria, media people were almost entirely absent from the policy elites. Moreover, there was hardly any similarity between the media agenda, as judged by the issues and topics written about, and the policy-makers’ agendas as revealed in the researchers’ interviews.

However, as many other scholars have found, the media can be influential in moving issues up the policy-making agenda by according them prominence. A recent example is the issue of institutional response to child sexual abuse.

After a series of high-profile but apparently disconnected cases of mainly Catholic priests being convicted of paedophilia, a reporter on the Newcastle Morning Herald, Joanne McCarthy, began to connect the dots. She gained the trust of victims, the assistance of a well-informed NSW police officer in the Hunter Valley region, Detective Chief Inspector Peter Fox, and input from some committed politicians and plaintiff lawyers.

Over six years she pieced together a picture of criminality and cover-up on a scale previously unimagined. The political pressure built up until Julia Gillard in her final days as Prime Minister responded by establishing the present royal commission. On her last day in office, Ms Gillard wrote to Joanne McCarthy saying her work had been decisive in getting the royal commission established.

The Newcastle Morning Herald’s relentless attention to the issue, its sustained exposure of individual cases and its revelations of the harm done created a climate of opinion in which it became politically imperative to prioritise the issue and develop a response.

However, that is a relatively unusual case. Much more common, when considering this second thread of influence – influence over the political process – is the “bushfire” effect. This is virtually a daily occurrence.

Typically it starts with a story that creates a politically painful crisis in the Minister’s office. The matter might be trivial in the policy sense, but politically it has to be managed and swiftly extinguished. What has to be watched with these cases is that if they start to become a pattern, they may be seen as a sign of ministerial or government incompetence, and then the media sniff blood and the political stakes go up sharply.

However, it is the third thread – the media as influential in pursuing their own material interests – where their influence is strongest.

To take two examples, one negative, where the media are resisting change, and one positive, where the media are pushing for change.

In July 2011, at the height of the News of the World phone-hacking scandal in London, Julia Gillard as Prime Minister, announced what became known as the Finkelstein Inquiry into media standards and regulation. It recommended a statutory authority to establish and uphold professional journalistic standards. This report fed into the contemporaneous Convergence Review, which rejected a statutory authority except as a last resort, and proposed instead a statute-based self-regulator.

The media coverage of this matter was hysterical. The Government went to ground. In 2013, six months out from an election, the Communications Minister, Stephen Conroy, produced an ill-considered set of proposals that disappeared without trace under the avalanche of the 2013 Rudd leadership revival.

The positive example, where the media are pushing for change, is playing out now. There are four policy issues in play:

  • the 75% reach rule, which says no one licensee can reach more than 75% of the population;

  • the two-out-of-three rule, which says that no one licensee can own a TV station, a radio station and a newspaper in the same market;

  • the payment by commercial TV licence-holders of 4.5% of gross revenue as an annual licence fee, and

  • the anti-siphoning rule that says a whole raft of big sporting events must be shown on free-to-air television.

The main issues of contention are the reach rule and two-out-of-three rule, because a change to either or both will lead to mergers and acquisitions from which inevitably there will be winners and losers.

However, the real losers are likely to be regional and rural audiences who will see their local TV news services reduced or wiped out. It is already starting to happen anyway, but unless the National Party starts making a fuss, this is unlikely to carry much weight with the Government.

The main policy and political game here is to avoid making an enemy of the media industry.


Photo credit: Jon S via Flickr

Denis Muller

University of Melbourne

Published Date
December 24, 2015