By Linda Hoang
A proposed merger of the Nine and Fairfax Sydney media giants is awaiting approval from the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC).
The merger is made possible following reforms last year to Australia’s two-out-of-three media law.
The rule prevented a single company or person from commercial control of all three television, radio and print platforms in the same radio license area.
Under the $4 billion merger Fairfax will lose its name and Nine will hold majority ownership and management of the company.
The merged company will cover television, print, digital, online-streaming and real estate advertising services.
Professor of the Practice of Journalism at the University of Technology, Sydney, Peter Fray said “We’re working on the assumption the merger will go through, it has to get ACCC approval, but then we don’t really know what the day to day impact will be.”
Schwartz Media’s Morning Editor, Alex McKinnon, observed “There’s a good chance Fairfax’s editorial values and voice will be swallowed up by Nine.
“Nine’s management has admitted it’s more interested in Domain and Stan than it is in preserving the Fairfax newspapers,” he said.
“It has no commercial incentive to fund the kind of lengthy, expensive investigations that produce Fairfax’s best work, and its stance around issues like reporting on advertisers is much murkier than Fairfax’s.”
In a statement, journalists’ union the Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance (MEAA) said Nine’s takeover of Fairfax would compromise “Australian democracy and diversity of voices in what is already one of the most concentrated media markets in the world.”
Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp and Seven West Media already dominate Australia’s media market.
A Sydney Morning Herald journalist, speaking on condition of anonymity, said “I think the government bill to change media ownership was an overwhelming factor in allowing it to happen more than anything, but, I think it is more a symptom of a pre-existing media landscape in Australia.
“The merger definitely highlights how dire Australia’s media landscape has become in recent decades, at least on the scale of the largest institutions,” they said.
The ACCC enquiry will review whether digital and tech companies, such as Google and Facebook, have significant market power to affect an Australian media company’s ability to create quality journalism.
The Herald writer said “If funding is an issue and a network like Nine and things like Stan are going to bring in that revenue, it’s a chance for the mastheads of SMH and the Age to define themselves more, and rely less on syndicating and content-driven journalism and now on distinguishing themselves as something more distinct”
Prof Fray said local news outlets will gain significance from the uncertainty of the future of journalism under larger companies who may have different goals.
“In the face of all that, local news media is very important because increasingly, people look to the news to be a place that convenes conversation as well as a place that tells us what’s happening,” he said.
The Herald journalist noted “I don’t think it can just be entirely up to local media and independent publications to uphold citizen journalism, though I think it’s definitely an opportunity to define themselves in opposition or at least, separate to the trend towards more wire-driven content media.”
“A lot of these larger structure companies feel a need to move towards content and view driven journalism.”
Prof Fray said “In a way local news is stepping up anyway to fill the gaps left by cut-backs in bigger city-based papers.
We live in a global village with an abundance of news and information but…we don’t (have) an abundance of…local news that means something to you because you’re living there.”
Mr McKinnon observed smaller media outlets work hard to uphold the integrity of independent journalism but have limited resources.
“The sort of journalism that brings down corrupt politicians, or triggers royal commissions, or exposes industry-wide exploitation of vulnerable people requires deep pockets and lots of bodies.
“Individual journalists can do brilliant work, but if they have no institutional backing it becomes that much harder to do the job.”
Nine has pledged to uphold Fairfax’s Charter of Editorial Independence which prevents commercial interference in journalism.
The MEAA said without Nine’s commitment or history in writing, Fairfax staff have a right be concerned about whether the charter would be adopted if the takeover went ahead.
“I think in the Fairfax Nine situation that calls into question how reporting is done in the future,” said the Herald writer.
“Currently the plan is to maintain editorial independence, but if newsrooms are moved to same building in the comings years that’s going to be harder and harder to enforce.”
Whether consolidation of Nine and Fairfax will reap any benefits to Australia’s democracy or media landscape is left to be seen.
Mr McKinnon said “I suppose if Fairfax journalists get their Nine colleagues to unionise and push for better pay and conditions, that’d be nice.
“Who knows, maybe Nine will discover a passion for investigative reporting it hasn’t ever displayed before.
“But I’m not holding my breath.”