Sam Lebovic will explore the transnational history of media deregulation in the age of cable and satellite television, focusing particularly on the intertwined histories of Australian, British and U.S. media politics in the 1970s and 1980s. Understanding the history of those decades, he will suggest, is the key to understanding the rise of the chaotic and fractured media landscapes of our present moment.
Sam Lebovic is Associate Professor of History at George Mason University, and is a 2019 National Library of Australia Fellow, supported by the Minerals Council of Australia.
Sam Lebovic headshot
Fellowship Presentation: The End of Mass Media
Associate Professor Sam Lebovic
*Speakers: Martin Woods (M), Sam Lebovic (S)
*Location: National Library of Australia
M: I almost don’t want to interrupt, such a lovely sound, everyone having a nice conversation but that clock over there is a little slow, it’s about half past now so I think we’ll get started.
Welcome to the National Library of Australia, I’m Martin Woods, Senior Curator of Maps and Research Programs here. I’d like to begin by acknowledging and celebrating the first Australians on whose traditional lands we meet and pay my respects to the elders of the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples, past present and emerging.
I should also remind people that this talk as are all our fellowship presentations livestreamed and also recorded so that you can go to the Library’s Facebook page and it should be there within two to three days.
So thank you for coming out tonight. I particularly thank our regular attendees for your support at these events. There have been a few cold winter evenings to venture out in over the past few months and your presence is warmly appreciated.
For the last few months here at the Library we’ve had a full house of fellows working on the collections which has meant a full schedule of presentations. We’ve had such a wide array of interests represented. To mention a few we’ve had Professor Elaine Hobby’s fine analysis of early woman writer, Affra Benn, Dr Yasuko Claremont’s expose of atomic bomb literature, Ellen Smith’s windows into the life and writings of Randolph Stow and Beth Moylan’s Aboriginal cultural landscapes to be found on historical maps to name a few.
Before I hand over to our speaker I would like to extend thanks to the Minerals Council of Australia for making tonight’s event possible and we – as we explain to all – at all our fellowship events, the entire research program is the result of collaborative relationships between the Library and generous donors. The partnership with the Minerals Council goes back now a number of years and as those of you have experienced past presentations sponsored by the Council will know it has supported diverse research across public and social policy, international relations, the environment, economics and industry arenas.
I should also note that after this presentation there will be a reception in the Library’s foyer and you’re welcome to enjoy the refreshments and conversation before venturing out again.
So to tonight’s topic and speaker, Associate Professor Sam Lebovic. Sam teaches history at George Mason University in Virginia and is the Director of the PhD program there. He’s an historian of American politics and culture with particular interest in mass media, demography, political economy and the role of the US in the world. Some of you will know that although originally from Sydney Sam now calls Washington DC home. He received his BA from the University of Sydney and his PhD from the University of Chicago and has held postdoctoral fellowships at Rutgers University and NYU. His first book, Free Speech and Unfree News, the paradox of press freedom in America, was published by Harvard University Press in 2016. A comprehensive history of press freedom in theory, law and practice from the beginning of the 20th century until now fundamentally the book argues that the first amendment right to free speech was insufficient to guarantee a free press.
Free Speech and Unfree News was instantly recognised as an exciting and original contribution and was awarded the 2017 Ellis Hawley prize for Best Book on the post-civil war history of US politics institutions and political economy, organised by the Organisation of American Historians. His research at the Library will form part of a new work on the transnational history of broadcast deregulation for which I think you will agree he is transnationally qualified. The work aims at giving an account of the simultaneous deregulation of broadcasting in Australia, the UK and the US. Sam's fellowship here will be followed by research in libraries and archival collections in Washington with the UK planned for 2020. At least that’s the plan.
The Library holds a great deal of material of interest to students of the media from the vast collection of industry trade journals and submissions to inquiries into deregulation to the many personal papers of broadcasters and broadcasting regulators which provide an insider’s view of the culture of the industry before, during and after deregulation. I was fortunate enough to have a conversation with Sam before tonight’s talk about his discovery of some unique and extensive materials held in the Library’s collections with a window into the golden age of deregulation, if it can be called that, of the late 1970s and 1980s. Perhaps some of us can remember that time.
But with so much material at hand Sam is on track to shed new light on the processes and decisions behind the fragmented public sphere of the post-broadcast era. Would you please welcome him to the stage?
S: Thank you, Martin. I’d also like to begin just by acknowledging the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people on whose lands we meet and I pay my respects to their elders past and present and also as Martin did, to extend my thanks to the Minerals Council for funding the fellowship, and also to everyone at the Library for making this such a remarkable place to work over the last few months. It’s been a real pleasure to be here and I’m excited to let you know what I’ve been working on.
As Martin said I'm a historian of the media and democracy, by training actually a historian of media and democracy in America but I’ve become increasingly interested in studying the processes of media transformation both here and in the UK alongside what’s happening in the US. I think historians in the media have realised if you look back at the 20th century there’s really an important shift in the 1970s, it’s really a demarcation point between two periods. Up until that time the story of the media is really a story about the rise of a few central powerful mass media companies, there’s sort of very few channels and those kind of dominate the landscape.
In the Australian case for instance up through the 1970s if you lived in a major city you would have at most four TV channels. If you lived in a rural part of Australia you’d have maybe the ABC and one commercial station. The third commercial network doesn’t get to Perth for instance until the late 1980s and that’s a similar pattern across all of the countries that I study. So in America I mean they have their distinctive flavours. In America you have three large commercial networks, no meaningful public broadcaster. In the UK you have the BBC and ITV as the two major networks.
Now that all really changes in the 1970s beginning with the rise of cable and satellite television in the US and then you have a sort of long period from 1970s through to the present in which the media begin to break apart, to fragment, you get a diversification of channels. So what I’m really interested in doing is looking at that kind of period in the 1970s and 1980s as that process begins and trying to work out what the implications of that were for democratic life. I think it’s important to do that as a kind of international study in part because the same policies and processes are happening in all three places and they’re all kind of looking at each other trying to work out what’s going on. In part because the same players are involved in all of those locations, most obviously Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp which will have kind of major holdings in all three locations. But also one of the things I’ve realised being back is that there’s important work to be done in comparing what’s different between the three locations and the way that the different polities managed those changes I think can tell us a great deal about the politics of the mass media.
So you’ll get a bit of a flavour tonight of some of the kind of transnational connections that I’m interested in that because I’m in Australia and in part because during this fellowship I’ve had a kind of middle life renewed love affair with Australian history. I’m going to focus really on the Australian part of the story and I want to really just tell you a few stories about the way that the Australian polity managed the transition in terms of media policy in the 1970s and ‘80s. The argument I sort of want to develop across all of these stories is that the transformation from the era of broadcast into kind of a post-broadcast diverse media environment was determined not as much by technology as it was by politics. The sort of political decisions had a huge impact on the media landscape in Australia and I think that this may help us think about some of the contemporary crises of the media and democracy which I’ll conclude with just a few thoughts on that front.
So story number one. How should the commercial media be regulated? It was a fundamentally important question in the 1970s and 1980s. Everybody kind of knows in those years that a major change is about to happen. Australians looking at what’s happening in the US can see cable television, satellite television. One of the things I’ve been doing here is been reading trade journals of the television industry and it’s sort of like every TV executive or advertising executive who goes on a business or family trip to the US gets to come back and write a report to say I’ve seen the future, here’s what’s happening in America, we need to get ready for a revolution that’s coming. Some of those are kind of cute and sort of quaint and anachronistic. People were super-excited about teletext for about three years which was going to be completely transformational, to be able to get 20 lines of text on your television screen.
But because there’s a sense that there’s a major change coming it’s an era of a lot of government inquiry into the media, there's something like 13 different government inquiries into the broadcast situation in Australia in the late 1970s and early 1980s and on top of that there’s also just a host of more informal public conversations about the role of the press. The first and probably most important in kicking off the process was actually the Whitlam Government invited Nicholas Johnson from the US to visit in 1974 and Nicholas Johnson was known as the Ralph Nader of the Federal Communications Commission. He was a sort of unusually radical and progressive regulator of the media and that’s who the Whitlam Government picked up to bring out and ask questions.
He issues a report that kicks off public debate in the country in which he says that ownership concentration in Australia was about as severe a problem as in any other country in the world. He looks over and sees Australia has no history of cross-media ownership regulation and as a result there are four major companies that have huge control over all the media forms in the country like Fairfax, Packer, Murdoch and The Herald and Weekly Times. He actually proposes radical surgery. That doesn’t happen, the Whitlam Government gets kind of distracted by other things and so the problem of the media is turned over to the Fraser administration - that’s an American phrase - the Fraser Government.
So the Fraser Government in 1976 establishes the first of these many inquiries into the media and this one is – a lot of the later ones will be focused on particular problems, cable television, satellite television, rural television. This one was just called An Inquiry into the Australian Broadcasting System. Anything you want to talk about. About 621 people, organisations and everyday Australians wrote into this inquiry to say what they thought the media system should look like. Then that inquiry – the Green Inquiry, it was called – actually put them upstairs here in the Library.
So one of the things I’ve been doing is been reading those 600 submissions about what people sort of thought the media system should look like. They’re a really wonderful cross-section, they range from the standard kind of handwritten note like the ABC on Saturday night had really obscene stuff and can you believe how terrible this is? All the way to sort of 100-page briefings from Channel 9 about what they thought the structure of the media system should be.
I think the most interesting thing to me reading them was the number of Australians who said that there was a really deep problem with the Australian broadcasting system and the problem was there were too many channels. You have people write in to say four colour television stations for Sydney is a gross extravagance. The Western Australian branch council of the Library Association of Australia said it’s our belief that commercial broadcasting in Australia is generally of low quality. This we believe is because there are too many stations.
Now this seems counterintuitive to us but it - actually a pretty insightful understanding of the economics of the commercial media industry. Advertising revenue is what pays for commercial television, there’s only a sort of fixed pot of advertising money. If there’s too many channels that means less advertising dollars go to each of the channels which means they’ve got to produce content more cheaply. In the 1970s the easiest way to produce cheap content is buy the cheapest stuff possible from America and so that’s kind of the way that the Australian commercial industry operates to kind of maintain a profit margin.
There are also - a lot of these people writing in like are super-insightful about the economics of television. There’s a guy from [Pensose] 13:51 who wrote this long outline of why free TV should not be called free to air TV. He was like everyone complains that the ABC costs us taxpayer money and if we don’t watch the ABC we don’t get a tax refund. He’s like well I don’t watch the commercial stations and I don’t get a discount when I go to the supermarket to buy the products that are advertised even though the cost of advertising is obviously built into consumer price. So there’s a kind of interesting grassroots sense that the commercial media is not the only way one could organise a media system.
It’s not just a grassroots sense, it’s actually proposals by a number of media critics in the early 1970s that Channel 10, the third network, should actually be bought up by the government and be converted to other uses. Nothing much comes of this. I haven’t read the internal documents so I don’t know exactly why but the sort of folk legend is that Channel 10 was all set to be purchased by the government, maybe turned over to an educational station. One of the guys who wrote in wanting an educational station was really cute, he like wanted education on TV but he said please don’t make it too highbrow. He wanted quiz shows, I think that was his idea of what educational TV was.
Anyway people were discussing buying up Channel 10 and converting it to another public station and then Number 96 hits and it becomes too profitable and it’s no longer possible so Australia loses its virginity that night and also loses the chance to have an educational TV network.
When this report comes into the Fraser Government they’re obviously not particularly interested in nationalising or reducing the number of commercial stations but they are interested in revamping the regulation of commercial television licences. Basically what emerged, the regulatory framework in Australia that was there was a group called the Australian Broadcasting Control Board and that sort of sat under the Ministry that was responsible for deciding who got licences, making sure that people who had a commercial licence stuck to their obligations to kind of provide for the public interest. But it had basically turned into a rubber stamp organisation. No licence had ever been dined in Australia. Until the Whitlam Government no-one had ever had any suspensions for abusing the terms of their licence and even then they just took a Hobart station off the air for about an hour-and-a-half, two hours ‘cause it had run too many ads, more ads than it was supposed to.
There were a few cases where it had intervened in programming, most famously forcing Graham Kennedy to record during the day after the crow call incident but apart from a few kind of heavy-handed efforts to clean up content it really wasn’t a meaningful regulator. So what the Green report suggests, and what the Fraser Government adopts, is a decision to remove the Australian Broadcasting Control Board and replace it with a new body outside the Ministry that would be an independent judicial body called the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal. Their idea for this, they sort of say explicitly this will be more like the US Federal Communications Commission.
I’m not completely sure having read the history of the FCC that they knew exactly what the FCC was. There’s a sense here that this kind of administrative reform is a blank slate upon which everyone can agree. Well this new organisation will do exactly what we want to happen. So the reformers are on board ‘cause the ABT, the Broadcasting Tribunal, says that we will have public hearings. Before anyone gets a licence renewed or before we grant a licence to have a commercial TV station we’ll have a meeting with the public and ask them to come in and tell us what they want and we’ll regulate more closely.
The commercial media who hate that idea, Channel 9 submission says licence renewals should be automatic and should never be challenged unless there’s a finding in court that there’s been malfeasance. They’re on board with the idea of an ABT because they think this is getting broadcast regulation out of the hands of the Ministry, away from the politicians and it’s the first step on the way to self-regulation. Once we’ve got that then we can put our people in charge and then they’ll let us regulate ourselves.
I think the Fraser Government’s also kind of happy because by dissolving the ABCB and creating a new organisation you get to dismiss all the Whitlam appointees and appoint your own people. So it’s going to be very sort of – there’s a lot of different factions who want this new organisation to handle the media in different ways so the staff are going to be crucially important. The report from the Ministry suggests that we should put a senior judge at the head of the ABT. This is going to be an important judicial function.
Fraser disagrees with the Ministry and appoints to everybody’s surprise Bruce Gyngell who has no legal experience and is really a television executive. I mean he’s made his career running Channel 9. Gyngell is famously the guy who says to Australia like welcome to television like he’s the first face on television then he works for Channel 9 for many years then he moves to Channel 7 where he leads the 7 revolution then he goes to work in Britain for a little bit. He’d done his training, actually, in New York at the NBC and he’s a figure closely affiliated with the commercial media interests.
So this is kind of who’s going to run the show and between 1977 and about 1979 the Broadcasting Tribunal is experimenting with trying to work out what a new regulatory approach to commercial media will look like, in part in anticipation of large changes coming in the television industry. It’s a really messy and controversial time, there’s sort of two impulses happening at once so within two years Gyngell and the ABT have managed to kind of alienate everybody.
The reformers are really unhappy because they think that Gyngell looks like a creature of the commercial networks and he doesn’t really help himself in this front. He spends the first two months of his government regulatory appointment driving a Jag that’s owned by the Packers that was leased to him when he was a consultant. He then appears in American Express commercials as he’s trying to come up with new advertising regulations and he’s saying things like I'm unashamedly in favour of free enterprise in broadcasting. After working in Britain I could see that the incentive for free enterprise can be killed, I much prefer the American way of life. He’s got this idea formed from his kind of international experiences about free enterprise in the broadcasting market.
At the same time he alienates the commercial media that had had so many hopes for the new ABT. The first inquiry the ABT does is into self-regulation and it concludes, the industry’s not ready for self-regulation and that there’s a need to continue to regulate. Then they begin to do things like passing children’s programming standards, between 4 and 5 in the afternoon only certain types of shows that have been preapproved can be shown and they try to reduce the amount of advertising that can be shown to children which leads to some really outraged and kind of outrageous articles being published in trade presses about how it’s like really important that we teach kids to toughen up about advertising early. That’s the only way to be like psychologically prepared for modern life, is to have the hard sell put on you from the age of five or six.
So you’ve got these two competing tendencies and they come to a head in 1979 when Rupert Murdoch buys Channel 10 in Sydney. He’d been talking to Gyngell in the lead-up to say I'm going to be making this purchase, do you think this will raise regulatory issues and apparently according to newspaper reports Gyngell had said this all seems fine. Gyngell then sits at the head of a public inquiry into whether the licence for Channel 10 in Sydney should be transferred to Murdoch and there’s a lot of people from the public who give testimony to say actually this will cause major problems.
The ALP speaks out against the transfer of the licence. Actually Gareth Evans is the person who’s in charge of giving evidence and they raise really three concerns. The first is that the law says you have to be a resident of Australia to have a TV licence and by 1979 Murdoch is spending a lot of time in New York and London and they wonder if he’s really resident. Second, they worry that this will give too much power to Murdoch’s growing media enterprise and that this sort of concentration is not good for Australian democracy. Third, there are a bunch of kind of technical complaints about the way that the deal was done, whether it had been approved beforehand and as Murdoch’s buying into Channel 10 has he divested himself of other channel station holdings early enough to no longer have kind of a conflict between the number of television stations he owns?
Gyngell’s ABT approves the sale and says in its remarks, concentration is kind of a problem here but we don’t have the power to make any decisions about that, that’s outside the regulatory authority here so maybe there should be a royal inquiry or something, more inquiries. There should be an inquiry and we’ll look into it that way but they approved the sale.
Six months later Murdoch buys into Channel 10 in Melbourne and two important things have changed in those six months. The first is that Gyngell is out. He gives a statement where he says I need to go to Japan to study Zen and he's actually going to do something different in the early ‘80s which we’ll talk about in a little bit. The second - well he’s been replaced by a lawyer, David Jones, the sort of figure that people had originally thought should be in charge of the regulator. The second is that the High Court has handed down a decision in a case about a Newcastle radio licence and the High Court has said actually the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal has essentially unfettered discretion when it comes to deciding what’s in the public interest.
So in the middle of 1979 in the Sydney case the board had said we don’t think we have the power to decide what’s in the public interest on this kind of vast scale and then the High Court says no, actually, you do. In December of 1979 the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal says that Murdoch cannot buy Channel 10, will not transfer the licence, it’s not in the public interest to do so.
I think this is a real fork in the road moment, less for Murdoch’s enterprises. I mean he’s kind of spread widely enough at this point that he would be fine but it’s a sort of turning point for Australia’s regulatory approach to the media. If it’s against the interests of the public for Murdoch to own Channel 10 in both Sydney and Melbourne it could have been against the public interest for Packer to own Channel 9 in Sydney and Melbourne and for Channel 7 to be owned by the same conglomerate.
So – I mean you can probably guess where this is going, that decision doesn’t last very long. The way it changes is a little surprising for me insofar as it’s a fairly crude move. Within about five days of parliamentary discussion amendments to the Act are passed by the Fraser Government and see if you can see what these look like. They change really three things about the law. First, they say you no longer have to be a foreign – you no longer have to be a resident of Australia, you just have to be a citizen so that’s helpful. Second, you have a six-month grace period after you purchase a station to sort of clean up all the rest of your holdings which is important. Third, they say that it is not within the meaning of public interest – sorry, when considering public interest under the Act the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal cannot consider issues of concentration. That’s not what the public interest means.
So they basically gut the Act. Now this matters for Murdoch, he soon after takes control of Channel 10 in Melbourne but I think it’s much more important as a moment that brings to the end a period of Australian experimentation with tighter public regulation of the broadcasting industry. The silhouette cut-out of the law has such a distinctive shape that everyone refers to them colloquially as the Murdoch amendments in the early 1980s. Actually Fraser admits a few months later that he’d shown them to Richard [Ceby] 25:32, the Director of News Limited before putting them to parliament. He says well Richard’s my friend, I just showed him in a personal capacity to get his advice. He said he didn’t share them with anyone in News Limited but this causes front page news - front page in The Herald, obviously – front page news in the early ‘80s.
Now I think it’s really important to remember these kind of accommodations that were made in the regulatory frameworks for large commercial media enterprises. I could give you a number of other examples of how this happened, happened in similar ways in the UK and the US. I want to give you just one more example here as a kind of coda to this story which is in 1986 the Hawke-Keating Government introduces cross-media ownership laws for the first time which are based again on Keating’s understanding of the US model.
Now these are sort of technical and I don’t want to bore you with the details but as they’re being passed everybody kind of has an understanding that they’re being passed with political interests front and centre. John Button in Cabinet who’s kind of leaking to the press throughout the Cabinet discussions says in his memoir that Packer and Murdoch were like Bangor’s ghosts hovering behind the Prime Minister’s chair as we discussed the cross-media ownership laws.
They were targeted at helping Murdoch and Packer at the expense of HWT and Fairfax because HWT and Fairfax were seen as more of a political threat to the ALP than the Murdoch and Packer families ‘cause actually in Kerry O’Brien’s book with Keating he actually asks Keating, do you regret the decision given the way that the Murdoch press would later go on to treat the Labor Party? He says no, actually like they were better than HWT, they were more of a threat. As a result of this kind of cross-media ownership laws coming in you get a kind of period of like fire sales throughout the Australian media, this is the kind of Bond, Skase, Lowy brief interlude in Australian broadcasting history.
Throughout that entire period of a lot of licences changing hands the ABT does absolutely nothing, there’s no public oversight of these sales and when the current head of the ABT in the mid-1980s, Deirdre O’Connor, is asked why is the ABT not regulating these sales in the public interest she says it’s because finally in glorious technicolour it’s been demonstrated to the public that what Parliament did in 1981 was to destroy the effectiveness of the Tribunal. When people asked why the ABT didn’t have more regulatory power she said someone pulled the clause out in 1981. So those Murdoch amendments coming out of that early effort to regulate that sale end up kind of changing the landscape for media sales more broadly and ushering in a period of real commercial dominance of the broadcasting media.
As all of this is happening Murdoch goes to Chicago to win an award from some advertising association. In his acceptance speech he announces how terrific it is that a new era of global communications has arrived. He says it’s because of technology that free markets are developing worldwide. He says there’s a very simple story that we can tell when we look at the changes in media landscape around the world and he said the story boils down to this, quote, technocrats always beat bureaucrats.
I think that’s actually a story we still tell ourselves about media transformations. It’s actually the technology runs ahead of the regulators and that therefore all the change is kind of happening from the private sector and the regulators are just adapting to a shifting landscape.
I actually think the story of the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal and Bruce Gyngell and Rupert Murdoch in the late 1970s and early ‘80s suggest a different story. The bureaucrats were helping the technocrats. They were building a media landscape in which it became harder and harder for future regulators to play any role. I think it’s important that we remember the kind of truer history of Murdoch’s kind of rise in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
So that’s story number one. Political decisions help create a highly commercialised, deregulated marketplace to the benefit of already powerful commercial media entities like Rupert Murdoch.
Story number two kind of is maybe a little bit more optimistic, I’m not sure. Shows that if those kind of political decisions matter in creating a commercial media landscape politics can also explain major divergences in the broadcasting landscapes of different countries.
Now the story I want to tell you now is the rise of SBS which actually looked at internationally is a really surprising story. The 1970s and 1980s is not a time when most advanced industrial democracies are putting more money into public broadcasting let alone creating a new public broadcaster, let alone creating one that’s – it’s sort of explicitly designed as an ethnic broadcaster. So where does SBS come from? The story again is a story of politics, not technology. The two broader contexts are multiculturalism, the rise of multiculturalism. The Australian Broadcasting Control Board through the ’50s and ‘60s had actually said there should be no foreign languages on television whatsoever, it’s important to assimilate any immigrants into speaking English.
Secondly though, the other context is the rise of the public broadcasting movement. Now this was actually - Nicholas Johnson from the FCC was kind of the godfather of the public broadcasting movement, the community access movement. This is a kind of – internationally it’s known as community access. For a brief window in Australia it was known as public broadcasting because the ABC was not called a public broadcaster, it was called a national broadcaster as a kind of unique distinction. In any case these are smaller, low-powered stations in which community members can kind of control what goes on the airwaves and can kind of run them themselves.
The Whitlam Government is the one to begin experimenting with both ethnic radio and community radio in Australia. It creates 3ZZZ in Melbourne and then 2EA and 3EA in Sydney and Melbourne. The latter two are ethnic radio stations that are actually rolled out to do foreign language prep work around the rollout of [medivac] 32:02, the kind of form of public propaganda for the state.
After the dismissal the Fraser Government inherits both of these initiatives and has to work out what it wants to do with this kind of early tentative steps in the direction of ethnic and public broadcasting. It doesn’t like 3ZZZ very much, accuses it of left wing bias and shuts it down. Actually plain clothes police have to come in and sort of physically turn the station off in a controversial moment. But it keeps 2EA and 3EA going and puts them in a special broadcasting service which is kind of just a catchphrase that they use for the short term for who’s going to run it out of the Ministry while they work out what a long-term solution would be.
They briefly think about shopping it to the ABC and then it’s an era in which the ABC is under incredible attack from the Fraser Government large budget cuts, inquiries into making it more rational and so they decide they’re not going to give ethnic broadcasting to the ABC, they’ll use it as a tool to kind of diversify public broadcasting and push against the control of the ABC.
But they don’t actually initially plan to give it to SBS, they plan to give it to another organisation called the Independent Multicultural Broadcasting Corporation which is proposed in the late 1970s as a new institution and it’s quite different to what the SBS would become. It’s going to take ads from the first place, that’s why it’s an independent multicultural broadcasting channel and as its head there’s a surprising character, our old friend, Bruce Gyngell who’s been bunted off the ABT and is then announced as the new head of IMBC, the Independent Multicultural Broadcasting Channel and he’s got a clear vision of what he wants which is basically Channel 9 but ethnic.
So he goes to Europe on a buying mission, he’s looking for European game shows in particular. He says there’ll be maybe 10 minutes of international news on in the evening but not that much, he’ll show some foreign films but, quote, “we’re not going to become an esoteric film festival. We might put on one or two good operas a year but there’s no point in dealing with a subject that is above the intellect of the bulk of migrants who do not have a secondary education”.
So that’s the vision of the IMBC that Gyngell is proposing. Unsurprisingly it’s controversial. It’s controversial, though, not for the reasons you might expect. Commercial broadcasters want nothing to do with it because they don’t want any partly state-funded organisation to have advertising, they don’t want to lose – have one more competitor for scarce advertising dollars in the market. Ethnic groups and ethnic newspapers are opposed to it taking advertising, particularly because the newspapers don’t want to lose their advertising revenue. Bruce Gyngell is not particularly popular after what happened in the ABT and then finally four Liberal senators decide that they’re worried about the budget and that it’s going to cost too much money.
So they cross the floor and send the proposed IMBC legislation into committee where they’re going to sort of come back and look at it a bit more in the future and there it dies, the IMBC is never heard of again, SBS kind of continues as a makeshift interim body. The Hawke-Keating Government proposes actually rolling it back into the ABC in ‘86/87 but gets blowback from constituents and so then in 1991 finally establishes SBS as a permanent corporation to kind of run today.
So it’s kind of an interesting story, I think. It’s a deeply political story, it’s not a particularly altruistic story, it’s just politics. But that helps create at a time when most other places in the world are rolling back public spending, helps create a new and actually genuinely diverse broadcaster in Australia. In the early ‘80s, in ‘82/83 when the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal is deciding whether or not to introduce cable television into Australia they hold a bunch of focus groups in Melbourne and they ask people like do you want cable? People are pretty routinely opposed to the idea because they say well it’s just going to be more of the same like we don’t need more of the same.
They say in these focus groups, though, but one thing that’s really different on TV is SBS – it was then called Channel 028. Channel 028 is really different, we don’t see international news that often. There’s actually a lot of complaints in these kind of inquiries that I’ve looked at about the fact that the news – I mean it was all Australian and then a couple of US stories. They’d show the primaries and one guy wrote a great letter and said I don’t care about Carter and Ford and Reagan chasing each other from state to state like that’s not interesting to me. I’m of Italian heritage, why do I never see Italian news on Australian TV? SBS actually changes that. Purely it’s a result of politics and a decision to put public funding into a different type of broadcaster.
So Murdoch’s story in the ‘70s help us realise that commercial media enterprises are helped by government policy and the SBS story reminds us that government policy can actually diversify the media in interesting ways. I want to very briefly give you a third story that shows you how both of these things can happen at once and it’s a story of indigenous television in Australia. The context here is the rollout of the satellite. Now satellite policy is basically - the driving force behind the Australian domestic communications satellite in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s is the Packer organisation. Packer is very interested in creating a domestic communications satellite to have a truly national network which will allow him to sort of share content across the country.
So he hires into a kind of think tank within his own enterprise people from the UK and the US who’ve worked on satellite policy. He hires a US consultant, Donald Bond, who writes a report on satellite television which is submitted to the Fraser Government and despite sections of the government saying this is going to cost a lot of money, there’s no really good justification for it, Australia purchases a satellite and the Hawke Government actually inherits the policy. The organisation involved for running satellite policy actually physically signed the contracts to buy the satellites five days before the transfer of the Hawke Government without Ministerial approval and so the Hawke Government’s kind of stuck with these things. It has to decide what it is going to do.
It’s funny, it’s got really two decisions. Well it’s got a choice of two options which is you can have from the satellite – and I’m not a technical satellite person so this is like super-crude – you can either have one signal which will cover the entire country, that will require quite expensive receivers or you can have smaller signals that will cover portions of the country, sort of individual footprints. The Hawke Government decides for option number two, it’s called a - remote commercial television services stations. It’s going to create four new licences to run the satellite for these remote areas to bring them commercial television.
It’s not a successful policy, there’s only seven applicants for the four licences, there’s only three ever given but one of them is interesting which is the central Australian licence goes to Imparja Television which is, to the best of my knowledge, the first 100% indigenous-owned television station in the world. Now Imparja Television had begun six years earlier as the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association with a half an hour a week show on a local radio station. Then it grows very quickly and the reasons it grows are directly related to government support and government policy. The whole reason it gets that show on the radio station locally in the first place is that radio station was about to go before the ABT for a licence renewal and wanted to be able to say it was doing things for its local community so that gets the foot in the door.
It then receives $28,000 of funding from the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, it receives $100,000 of funding from the Aboriginal Benefits Trust account and this help roll it out. It then gets a community licence under those public broadcasting licences that were introduced in these years. On the back of that it receives grants from the Bicentennial Foundation to set itself up to win the licence over a commercial station which also wanted to run central Australian television.
It goes on air in 1988, its first day it shows the test match – not the test match, the one-day match between Sri Lanka and Australia which is ironic ‘cause the whole reason that Packer wanted commercial television was to show the cricket. I think it’s an important reminder that Imparja is not a particularly radical television station, it’s a commercial television station when it goes on the air. Only 6% of its coverage is locally produced and actually there are groups in the Aboriginal media activism circuits at the time that say this is too commercial, it should be more community-orientated and I can see the argument.
But I think it’s also important to recognise that 6% of local production is 6% more than was happening otherwise and that locally produced content actually filters up from Imparja. There’s a famous story in the late ‘90s, a sort of local story on the stolen generation that gets picked up by Australian national television and then gets played on places like CNN that was produced locally. In the longer run of course Imparja will roll out a more community-based television network that will then lay the basis for NITV down the road which again coming back from America after a while, the discovery of NITV, it’s a very different part of the media landscape than the media landscape when I left.
So that’s another story about how even within a commercially-dominated media policy rolling out the satellite subtle and fairly small amounts of money can radically change the way that the landscape looks down the road. I mean we’re talking 48, 100k. I mean the satellite was costing 800 million a year at the time so not a lot was public money, makes a big difference.
So I think taken together all of these stories help us rethink the history of media policy and as I wrap up I want to suggest three points of broader significance. The first is to reiterate that this is a deeply political history, that public decisions about how the media should be structured have a huge impact on the way the media is then structured. I’d like you to contrast Rupert Murdoch’s technocrats beat bureaucrats sentiment with the sentiments of Freda Glynn who was one of the founding members of the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association. She said I found out about bureaucracy. If you have a dream you go to the government. I mean that’s a kind of very different attitude to the way that politics works but I actually think her attitude could be summed up for Murdoch’s too, you get the Murdoch amendments. If you have a dream of a deregulated landscape you go to the government.
The second point is that it helps us rethink what we mean by media diversity. I think we very easily think that media diversity means a diversity of channels but actually these stories suggest that there’s other forms of diversity that are equally important, diversity of ownership over stations is incredibly important. Different to just having different channels and diversity of content is very important. As our friends writing into the Australian Broadcasting System Inquiry in 1976 reminded us more channels can actually mean more homogenous, worse content if there’s no funding to support it.
I think remembering both of these two points is really helpful as we try to work out what kind of media we think is appropriate for democracies moving forward. Like many of you, I’m sure, I’m struck at the moment by a kind of sense of frustration that 30 years of diversifying media has not produced a more vibrant democratic public sphere. If anything people are incredibly upset to realise that lots of media has produced echo chambers and a misinformed public, that as we’ve gotten more media channels that’s actually eroded the financial basis for things like new original content or investigative reporting so that you have like lots of political talk shows but less political journalism in some ways.
I think - I’m just surprised that when people talk about this problem, the clash between democracy and the current media system, people are most inclined to question not the media system but to question their beliefs in democracy, to start to question the capacities of their fellow citizens like why is it that people watch all this crap on television? Why don’t they do what they’re supposed to do? Or even – I’m surprised by the amount of nostalgia for the era of limited media which you see increasingly prevalent in the US, I’m not sure about today but wouldn’t it be great if we could go back to the time when there were just three big networks?
I think the reason that people think that is because they’ve got a too simple history of the broadcasting industry. They’ve got an account that assumes that the changes that have happened over the last 30 years were inevitable, they were determined by the technology, they couldn’t be managed in any other way and so that’s just the way the work is. You have the media landscape you have and you’ve got to adjust your political ambitions accordingly.
I think a better history of the broadcasting systems in Australia, the UK and the US will remind us that actually politics was centrally involved in developing those systems, that democracies don’t have to be hostage to their media environments, that they actually played an incredibly important role in shaping those media environments in the past and that they can therefore probably do so again in the future. Thank you, I look forward to your questions.
M: Well thanks, Sam, for that wonderful talk and if I can just remind you the three stories were great, I really enjoyed them, the first about the ABT, the second, SBS and the third Imparja, all slightly different stories all leading to similar conclusions, I think, in the end, for me anyway. We’ve got time for 10 minutes of questions or so, so please extend your hand and a microphone will come to you and you can ask your question. Thank you.
A: Thanks, Sam, it was fascinating. Could you talk a little bit about the Australian content issue which was clearly another area of regulation during this period and how it relates to the three stories that you were – that you told today? The I guess regulation around the amount of Australian-based content on television.
S: Yeah. The simple answer is I don’t really know yet, I’m trying to work it out. It doesn’t make – the rhythms of the story that I’ve picked up don’t make a lot of sense to me so there’s a lot of effort under the Whitlam Government to introduce like a point system to try to produce more Australian content on television. It’s a point of real contention throughout the era but as best I can work out that point system doesn’t do a huge amount, is fairly toothless and yet despite that people are really outraged about it which I’m having trouble working out what the kind of sticking point is. So I don’t know exactly what the various options were.
The one thing I’ll say is, is that there was a precipitous decline in Australian content in the early 1990s which was a direct result of the massive bidding wars over the stations after the cross-media ownership laws were created. So as companies tried to create national networks and to want huge amounts of debt they then had to kind of stay afloat. So creating a more competitive media economy at the sort of ownership level actually cut against the idea of having more money sunk into domestic content production. It’s something I’m really interested in looking into. I think it’s an important part of the story across the period but I don’t quite know how to tell the story about the regulation yet.
The other thing I’ll add is just the economics of the international content market are really interesting and it’s actually – sort of like Bruce Gyngell makes his name at Channel 7 after he moves from Channel 9 with the 7 revolution which what the 7 revolution was in economic terms was he broke with the cartel agreement that all the networks were buying together from the US to keep the cost down and he went rogue basically and started trying to buy up the stuff by himself as a way of kind of positioning himself domestically.
Then Murdoch is also very adept at managing the purchase of international content. So when he first tries to buy into Channel 7 in the ‘60s in Sydney and is blocked he buys up Win in Wollongong and he does so – he then takes a bucketload of cash with Ansett’s backing to go to the US to buy up a bunch of content and then says to Packer if you want the content you have to cut me in on Channel 9. So there’s a way in which he’s using access to international content as a leverage point domestically. The Channel 9 buying doesn’t last very long but I think the control over content is interesting and yeah, more to be done.
A: Sam, thank you very much for a very engaging and beautifully structured presentation. In your first story as a teacher of sort of constitutional and administrative law, that story that you told is not an uncommon story in terms of the relationship between the court and parliament in the sense that that first characterisation when the court said the ABT had broad discretion wasn’t an interpretation of necessarily the court’s own belief of what the Tribunal should be doing but rather what the legislation had empowered it to do which then made sense that the – whichever executive government, if they didn’t like that interpretation then had the power to go back and change the legislation. So perhaps it’s a discussion we can have further about how significant that relationship is to media as opposed to any expression of statutory power.
But the particular question that I wanted to ask you is that reference that you made to the change in the legislation over citizenship and residence because normally when there is a change to require someone to be a citizen that’s a narrower conception that residence in the sense that there are more residents than there are citizens in a country so you’re actually limiting who has a licence. That made me wonder about Rupert Murdoch because of course he was one of the examples of Australian citizens who lost their Australian citizenship by taking up US citizenship before those laws were changed in 2002. What was the impact of his loss of citizenship on his licensing and his power over those purchase?
S: Yeah so he sells out of TV. Which is part of the reason that those cross-media ownership laws are seen to benefit him because they create a buyer’s market for the licences that he was sitting on. The cross-media ownership laws kind of checkmate Fairfax and HWT ‘cause just where the geographic distribution of where their licences was but it allows him to sell and then move exclusively into newspapers. I mean there is a brief moment in – as they’re discussing those ownership laws – and this is on the table, he becomes a US citizen in ’85 and the reason he becomes a US citizen is ‘cause he wants to slide under the regulatory framework in the US to create the Fox network. So it’s a – I mean this is a – interesting example of the emergence of a kind of global figure that’s kind of having to navigate an older regulatory regime that’s defined by national citizenship. He’s becoming a transnational media player which he then becomes the point person for changing things like citizenship laws and foreign ownership laws.
But in 1986 as they’re kind of talking about the cross-media ownership laws in Gareth Evans’ diary of Cabinet discussions there’s actually a moment where Hawke says could we change the citizenship laws to help Murdoch out? Not the specific media ones but the citizenship laws for the country and nothing comes of it. Gareth Evans kind of like gets a little hot under the collar and says maybe we go quiet on that front, it’s going to be a tough sell but this is being discussed, he’s a figure that matters.
A: Hi there. Look, I was just wondering, the political impact you’ve outlined is partly due to licences and spectrum allocation and all that kind of thing. Do you think that the same kind of forces you’re describing will apply to – like from this point forward when a foreign operator like Netflix is like a good example, can just make itself available to Australians without actually requiring explicit permission from the government to operate?
S: Yeah, I don’t have a good read on the contemporary – the particularities of the contemporary issues. I mean it’s something I hope to get to. I mean I’m taking the typical historian’s like super-long runup like too long a runup so like I’ve got to the mid-‘80s to try to – so I’m not there yet. But I mean the general point I hope to make is just to remind us that the framework that we live in was built politically, it’s not sort of some natural and unchangeable, timeless principles of liberal democracy. It was constructed pretty briefly in the ‘80s and for very particular political reasons. So those questions about things like Netflix, about the current international flow of news and information should be completely live political questions. I don’t pretend to be an expert on what the answer to them is.
A: Somewhat along the same band, right from the very beginning take for example media, media if we regard it as the invention of the printing press it was very, very diverse and gradually it’s narrowed down to the present day where we have the few interests. But progressively from what you just outlined to us it’s been going to become increasingly difficult for it to actually regulate because all that you’ve mentioned all along the way, there are regulators, whether it’s political regulation or whatever in terms of the actual content and in terms of who broadcast what. But when you say that there’s increasing amount of media what I think somehow or other that we’re getting, instead of the diversity that we were originally privy to, we’re getting a homogenised message. So we’re getting more media but we’re getting a pre-digested homogenised message so this is where we’re – this is the base from which we’re actually coming so in fact we’re not improving the quality of the media, what I’m getting at because there’s no control anymore, no central control.
S: Yeah, I think I’d tell a slightly different story although these are the kind of things I’m thinking about. I think the story wasn’t actually – it’s just a straight shot of diversification to kind of homogenisation, I actually think there’s a story we could tell about the mass media that was a story about diversification to homogenisation through about the 1960s, there’s a kind of straight shot there. But then there’s been a diversification. The question is diversification of what and I think there’s been a diversification of channels, there’s a diversification of outlets for people to express their opinion. The internets terrific if you want to like find an opinion somewhere. There hasn’t been a diversification of funding structures for content production. Those have remained fairly tight and because those are fairly tight then those – the places where there is tightness in the political economy are places where you can think about regulating.
So that’s one location. Platforms is another and then – I think it’s also a little bit overstated. I mean we’re all very fixated on the internet and Facebook and so forth as kind of the central locations of politics in the public sphere but the – and I know the American example better than the Australian example – in the Trump election it looks like the kind of Twitter, Facebook phenomena was less important to the outcome than the Sinclair Broadcasting Group’s role in like putting out news content on their network. That still to me looks much more like an old-school mass media regulation issue than it does a kind of online diversified public sphere regulation issue. So I hear the general sentiments but I think I’d tweak the story just a little bit.
M: We’ve got time for one more question.
A: I’m just wondering if the family dynasty idea that seems to dominate Australian media, Murdoch, Packer, Fairfax, Stokes, has that fed into your research at all or is that a bit of a red herring? I’m just wondering in terms of – is it useful that these huge companies have ended up – or even the Gyngell family has generations involved in media so I’m just interested in your thoughts about that notion, that it’s a family business and that it’s a family perhaps deciding what we see.
S: Yeah, I think the family part of it to me is epiphenomenal to what is interesting which is the media baron framework and so sort of the feudal language of the baron suggest family control and I think that there, there is something very distinctive about the Australian media landscape. I’ve been thinking about how to write this but there’s an argument to be made that the media baron was an incredibly common figure across the Anglophone world in the late 19th and early 20th centuries but by the 1950s it’s kind of starting to go away in England and the US. In the US you’ve got largely monopoly newspapers and then you’ve got corporately run broadcasting networks. So those are centrally controlled but much more attentive to the bottom line and much less inclined to use their political holdings for explicitly partisan political purposes, in large part because there’s only one or two newspapers in every town, they’re not kind of competing with each other as seriously.
I don’t know the UK example quite as well but from the stories I’ve picked up reading kind of the bios of the families Murdoch’s sense is that when he gets to Fleet Street it’s becoming too tame, it’s becoming too sort of genteel, it’s not cutthroat enough in terms of the way that the family – the papers are competing with each other as they’re all trying to play for a kind of common centre. In some sense then I think that there’s an argument to be made that it’s in Australia that the idea of the partisan media baron stays alive in the 1950s and 1960s in the kind of violent political turf war of the ‘60s in the daily tabloids in Sydney. The way that Murdoch acts in the Whitlam years is much more like – it looks to me much more like what media politics in the US looked like in the 1930s, very strongly pro-FDR or anti-FDR, very strongly pro-Whitlam or anti-Whitlam.
I haven’t really worked this all the way through yet but there’s an argument to be made that actually that’s what Murdoch is exporting, is in the 1970s and 1980s, is a much more explicitly political vision of the media baron. Fox News in the US is then – no-one in the room’s going to want to hear this – maybe the most important Australian export of the late 20th century. But that’s where I think the language is helpful, around baronly, the feudal kind of lord of the media.
M: Well on that note we are going to have to conclude tonight’s proceedings and I just want to remind people that in the next few days you’ll be able to listen to Sam again via our Facebook page and also that please join us upstairs, we’ve got refreshments, we’ve got Sam and we’ve got you so thanks very much for coming and please join me in thanking Sam once again.
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