Monday, 10 March 2014

The Tragedy of the Television Network: You can't legislate localism

© Depositphotos.com/@lunamarina
In today's Australian newspaper, Communication Minister Malcolm Turnbull's attempt to bring about media reform has met the usual calls for protecting local content. In Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss' words, "genuine localism" needs to be protected so that "local content, diversity and local presence" are not eroded.

Having experienced "genuine localism" in Canada's very diverse and locally-driven communications industry, I find it difficult to see how government can create "genuine localism" here in Australia.  Legislating localism is a purely Australian approach to politics and much of this stems from the Federal Government's centralising tendency which has snowballed since federation over a century ago. But what does "genuine localism" mean?

In the media regulation space, Levy (2003) referred to problems of conducting research on policies relating to competition, diversity, and localism and the impact of new media on traditional media. At the time of Levy's speech, many of the now-popular social media sites were inaccessible to most Australians, either because the sites were yet to be created or otherwise a lack of access to broadband which enables a full multi-media Internet experience. Since then, of course, the impact of new media on traditional media has been significant.

Levy (2003) mentions research that determines how people actually use traditional and new media as an important metric for media regulation. In the reinvigorated Australian media ownership debate, there has been little debate about the impact of new media on localism, with an entrenched belief that somehow local television and radio stations are uniquely placed to "fix" such policy problems and restore localism to communities. But that still does not help us understand what is meant by localism.

In examining different approaches to development, Mohan & Stokke (2000) consider the extent that localism dominates opposing views of how best to develop society. In particular, they point out that "revised neoliberalism and post-Marxism share... a belief that states or markets cannot and should not be solely responsible for ensuring social equality and welfare growth". However, each opposing extreme differs in the impact of "top-down" (revised neoliberal) versus "bottom-up" (post-Marxian) approaches to institutional reform. The former suggests that state agencies and community organisations can enable greater participation whereas the latter suggests an approach which represents "a challenge to hegemonic interests within the state and the market" (Mohan & Stokke 2000: 249). The important point for the discussion here is that an attempt to "valoris[e] the local over the general" may well be a consequence of a "political space" that has been either "imagined" or "constructed" over time. Indeed, the National Party's platform of protecting rural Australia is a value widely shared in the community, as can be seen in the recent government and charitable initiatives for farmers suffering from drought. Car manufacturers were not so fortunate.

Defensive localism may be considered a by-product of an imagined or constructed political space. For instance, the growing trend towards the purchasing of organically-produced food is often conflated with purchasing locally-grown food products which may or may not be organic. Such localism, Winter's (2003: 29) research suggests, is largely "an ideology of localism based on sympathy for farmers" rather than necessarily a demand for higher-quality produce. Localism, then, may be considered an ideal rather than a reality in a national policy context.

Pratchett's (2004: 358) identification of three different conceptualisations of local autonomy is relevant here: "as freedom from central interference; as freedom to effect particular outcomes; and as the reflection of local identity". In an age where, increasingly, Toffler's (1980) "prosumer" (a consumer of media content who also participates in the development of such content) is prevalent, regulating traditional media on the basis of a hierarchical top-down media production model denies the contemporary reality of the ability of "prosumers" to participate in media content production. Albeit consumers may provide suggestions for existing television programs such as "Suggest a Story" for Channel 7's Sunrise program (see also Channel 9), this provides only limited participation at the fringes of Australian commercial television news media. Based on Pratchett's conceptualisations, local autonomy, freedom from central interference and freedom to effect particular outcomes are not present, but local television content may indeed reflect some aspects of a local identity.

There are many other studies which further develop the concept of localism but for my purposes here, the concept of localism in Australian news media content (aside from a handful of community television stations such as 31 Digital in Queensland), there are no truly local, as opposed to national, commercial television programs produced in Australia), is based on an imagined or constructed political space that refers, in particular, to the existing regional television networks and the local consumers of such news media. It is quite a normative idea about how things "ought" to be.

Moreover, for Briffault (2000), localism "is not simply a theory intended to advance certain normative goals. It is also a means of protecting the interests of those who receive advantages from the existing governance structure". Yet "genuine localism" would seem to be very much a normative concept: freedom from interference by a central, market-driven news media provider; freedom to participate in the production of local news media content; all the while projecting a sense of local identity. Based on the limitations of traditional media, broadcasting can only continue to reflect the local identity. This is far from ideal and certainly only as genuine as the producers of such content can reflect the diversity of any given community. It follows that such reflections can only be achieved through regulation as there is hardly a market incentive for such an expensive commercial activity.

Which brings me to the "genuine localism" so staunchly defended by the National Party and the difficulties that now face Mr Turnbull. The localism purported to exist in the traditional news media industry is expensive, short-lived, and can only be achieved through regulation. To enable a diverse, professional and commercially successful news media service in Australia - which can compete with the influx of overseas news media that now permeates both traditional and "new" media (to use the somewhat passé term) - requires much more than staunchly defending the status quo that existed in the previous century. But the major difficulty for Turnbull is navigating through "the interests of those who receive advantages from the existing governance structure". Given that the National Party is firmly entrenched in the Coalition, Turnbull's free market ideals will no doubt be reined in by the National's (along with Labor's) default protectionist position.

While there is no clear answer to the Australian media ownership puzzle, the Right's twentieth century policy dilemma - free trade or protectionism - is a fitting backdrop for those who persist with twentieth century views about news media production. You can't legislate localism.

References

Briffault, R. (2000). Localism and regionalism. Retrieved from http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=198822.

Levy, J.D. (2003). Statement by Deputy Chief Economist of the Federal Communications Commission to the Conference on Media Diversity and Localism: Meaning Metrics, and the Public Interest, Fordham University, New York, 15-16 December.

Mohan, G. & Stokke, K. (2000). Participatory development and empowerment: the dangers of localism. Third World Quarterly, 21(2), 247-268. doi:10.1080/01436590050004346.

Pratchett, L. (2004). Local Autonomy, Local Democracy and the ‘New Localism’. Political Studies, 52(2), 358-375. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9248.2004.00484.x.

Winter, M. (2003). Embeddedness, the new food economy and defensive localism. Journal of Rural Studies, 19(1), 23–32.

Creative Commons License Except where indicated otherwise, Le Flâneur Politique by Michael de Percy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.5 Australia License. Based on a work at politicalscience.com.au. Background image ©Depositphotos.com/ @redshinestudio