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Is our News Limited?

In Britain, the phone-hacking scandal has put Rupert Murdoch's media empire under unprecedented scrutiny. 

Questions are being asked about News Corporation's influence over British democracy - its capacity to make and break prime ministers and to set the policy agenda of the day.

In Australia, similar questions must also be asked. News Limited controls 70 per cent of our nation's print media, representing the greatest concentration of media ownership in the democratic world.

The question for politicians and the community in this context is whether this huge concentration of media ownership and dwindling diversity is  in the public interest. We can all argue about what constitutes media bias and what doesn't, but with less and less diversity of media coverage and opportunities for journalists to dig deeper into an issue, proper scrutiny of policymakers of all stripes and persuasions is in fact limited.

The Greens have of course been very public in our desire for a real and robust media inquiry to examine the  media landscape and the impact ownership make-up is having on quality journalism and the delivery of information to the broad and diverse Australian community.

The terms of reference for our proposed inquiry, which will look at how to make the complaints mechanism easier for the public, as well as issues of media concentration, will be voted on this week in  Parliament.

The response from some sections of the media (namely News Limited) has been unsurprising. Of course it would prefer that no one was talking about it or questioning whether the shrinkage of media diversity is delivering the news and information our communities deserve and need. 

Opponents to such an inquiry resort to arguing that it will kill off freedom of speech in Australia. Give us a break. Rather than some road to Damascus conversion of Murdoch's empire to freedom and transparency, the argument against such an inquiry is a strategy of the Right designed to keep the public nose and interest out of their business model.

No one is suggesting that journalists' work be vetted or censored, but we need to consider how ownership affects the news we all consume and how the public can raise issues of complaint when they believe they have been misled or misrepresented.

It is totally legitimate for there to be a public debate about the concentration of media ownership. The fact the News Limited press moved swiftly to slap this down, demonstrates precisely why we need this inquiry.  Like any corporation, News Limited doesn't want any scrutiny of its domination of the market - it will always act to protect its commercial interests.

Rather than being about censoring journalists, a debate about media ownership is essential to protecting our democracy. With greater diversity of media ownership, comes the potential for greater diversity of views.

The flagship News Limited paper, The Australian, for instance has recently declared war on the Greens and wants to see my party "destroyed at the ballot box". This isn't some lunatic conspiracy theory; this is the self-declared agenda of the newspaper. 

In his essay for The Quarterly, Robert Manne has highlighted the paper's ideological opposition in other areas, such as climate action and the mining tax and there is speculation News Limited wants to see a change of government. Tony Abbott's dismissal of the inquiry should be considered in this light.

In a media market dominated by one or two players, an agenda such as this can have a disproportionate influence on the politics of the nation. I suspect my blog today will annoy those pushing the News Limited agenda, and I expect to see their wrath for daring to question the status quo, but an inquiry that considers how more voices can be heard can only be good for democracy, allowing the people more participation rather than less.

First published in The National Times on September 13, 2011.

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