Fleet Street sins hurt us

Local media have hotly followed the story – and some have attempted to link the behaviour of News International papers in the UK to their southern cousins at News Limited.

There is no suggestion that News Ltd papers in Australia have ever engaged in the kinds of activities that brought down Britain’s top-selling Sunday tabloid.

Nevertheless, the company has initiated a review of its journalistic procedures to publicly demonstrate its concern over the issue.

All this comes at a time when the print media is facing mounting pressure from a wide range of factors in what is an increasingly fragile market.

The decision by Australia’s prime minister, Julia Gillard, to stake her leadership future on a carbon tax has been a boon for the media, which is devoting and will continue to devote vast amounts of space to what is clearly a major issue for the community.

Ironically, while the tax is helping sell papers today, its economic impact along with cost of living increases could well combine to put further pressure on the future of the newspaper industry in Australia.

For a start, it seems inevitable that the increases in energy prices resulting from the carbon tax will flow through to the overall cost of producing newspapers, and this won’t be confined to operating the presses.

At this stage, anyway, there is no clarity on the scope of fuel exemptions under the carbon tax so it is reasonable to assume that newspaper distribution costs will also rise. All this puts pressure on newspaper cover prices at a time when circulations are under the pump.

The overall cost of living continues to rise, driven largely by increases in electricity charges. And this is something that will not go away regardless of the government’s carbon tax policy.

So the upshot of all this pressure on discretionary spending will be a growing disincentive for loyal newspaper buyers to remain so, particularly while they can get most, if not all, of the news content they want for free on the internet.

Much like the carbon tax, the fallout from the News of the World phone hacking is a hot media issue that should be of concern to Australian print publishers – and newspaper readers.

The impact of the anti-Murdoch feeding frenzy triggered by the News of the World phone hacking scandal is already being felt locally.

The Greens have already seized on the affair to argue for a review of the concentration of media ownership in Australia. The cosy relationship which the Greens, along with the independents, now have with the minority Labor government, all of whom have been at loggerheads with News Ltd papers recently, make the possibility of such an inquiry likely.

The fact that Murdoch’s News Ltd has been a minor beneficiary from the Howard government’s relaxation of media ownership laws nearly a decade ago is by the by.

If history is any guide, politics will dominate such a vendetta ahead of, and quite likely at the expense of, business reality.

Like him or hate him, the reality is that Murdoch’s sheer perseverance and uncanny knowledge of the newspaper industry have kept most of his publications going against all odds.

The political justification for an attack on the concentration of media ownership is that the power of opinion and news is held in the hands of too few. Of course, the growth of social media outlets, particularly Facebook and Twitter, are eagerly exploited by politicians, and the general explosion in online services gives the lie to this argument.

A regressive change in the current media ownership rules, which would affect the whole industry, would not result in a widening of news and opinion platforms. It would see the print market shrink.

Who, for instance, is going to invest the mega millions it takes to run a major newspaper company in today’s rapidly  changing world, where print is regarded by many younger people as a communications dinosaur?

But if the Murdoch haters are blinded by the light, they may not see or care about this eventuality.

Malcolm Colless is a former senior executive at News Ltd and writes a column for The Australian’s media section

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