Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
Vol. 1 No. 2, 1987
Film, TV and the Popular
Edited by Philip Bell & Kari Hanet

Communications and the media

Philip Bell


Review: Communications and the Media in Australia, edited by Ted Wheelwright & Ken Buckley (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1987).


1987 has seen a Federal Election and the so-called 'Stock Market crash': a conjunction of Politics and the Economy. The Australian news media are saturated with the rhetoric of the (new and old) "right" - the most pessimistic and simplistic economism, cynical displays of credibility, charisma and pin-striped managerial "politics" stare out from box and page. The State (or, more blatantly under Hawke/Keating, the Government) is actively consolidating the hegemony of the new-moneyed elite (who needs a classic ruling class?) around beer and TV. Communications and the Media in Australia helps to put some of these rapid and radical developments into their political/economic context.

During the period necessary for its publication, Wheelwright and Buckley's collection has been superseded by the monopoly-board games of the media barons. Still, the varied papers in the collection are not necessarily outdated merely because the names of the new players are not yet encrusted with the myths of a Murdoch or a Packer. Each paper presents an important general argument whose political force is as timely as ever. The Australian media/communications industries (including the ABC) are, in fact, changing in directions which render the left-critical stance of the anthology increasingly relevant. It is therefore significant that the first volume in a series which intends to examine "the anatomy of capitalism in Australia" should consider the communications industries. For the Australian media are still substantially in (what are represented in the media themselves as) local hands - Bond, Fairfax, Murdoch (?) are the labels on these sprawling corporations, not Sony, Toyota or Shell. The choice of media/communications industries is clearly based on the assumed significance of these to Australia's immediate political future. Not that oil, minerals, computers (curiously marginal to this volume) can be ranked as insignificant; any such claim could only be an expression of the tendency within the media themselves to overstate the importance of the culture industries relative to, say, agribusiness, brewing, transport or real estate (especially in the climate of 'privatisation'). Perhaps the visibility of the media as cultural-ideological industries justifies this choice: satellites seem more culturally significant than do internationally-cloned tourist resorts, and Australia exports beer while importing many of its cultural commodities. Still, the interdependence of the media/communications industries with other transnational corporate networks is assumed in the most directly political-economy analyses included, Reinecke and Bonney, particularly. They demonstrate the urgent need for public control (which, unfortunately, may mean merely government regulation) of the increasingly powerful communications industries.

However appropriate or adequate the existing broadcasting regulations may have been at first, as a way of promoting local production and diversity of programming, they are both inappropriate and inadequate given the way the system has developed. In an age of new technologies, national advertising and international pressure, with domestic distribution concentrated in three organisations all engaged in positioning themselves internationally, and with most broadcasters being dominated by distributors and in process of being bypassed in various ways, there is an urgent need for regulation to be conceptualised differently, targeting the points in the system where power is actually located. (p.56)

Bonney emphasises that it is the vertical not horizontal integration of networks, not their number or spread of stations, that must be contested: structure not size.

Unfortunately, Bonney's plea for the Australian government to re-structure (and re-empower) its regulatory bodies has already been denied as even the charades of 'public' hearings and debate becomes increasingly self-parodying. Huge (technically illegal) corporate transactions have been made on the promise of changes in the law which will further entrench monopoly. Whether broadcasting regulations are even remotely likely to influence, let alone control, the media and related industries is obviously open to doubt. General financial and corporate laws are presumably the only avenue by which governments could (if they had the will) have any control of the emerging corporate octopi. Given the failure to effect such control in the past one can only be pessimistic in the climate of the 1980s' 'economic rationalism' (sic).

Sam Rohdie's pessimism about the possibility of an Australian film industry which is not conformist and naively nationalistic springs from a similar analysis of the history of the Australian Cinema. Rohdie compares Italy and Australia, noting that Australia has "neither produced an industry which is economically viable, nor one that has challenged established forms in the cinema or outside it" (p.150). His succinct critique of many of the nationalistic assumptions of the 'new' Australian cinema, and of its orthodox historical interpretation leaves few illusions about the possibility of a local culture that can withstand the international and Australian commercial and state imperatives towards the increasingly tawdry fashions which clothe 'radical nationalist populism'. Again, the thesis is of an opportunity lost.

The anthology offers a wide variety of 'case studies', however, and does not merely repeat these arguments. Lesley Johnson shows how the development of radio in Australia "...equated family life and domestic life with the everyday and represented this world as separate from the world of the political constituted as the activities of politicians, royalty and nations" (p.58). This historical analysis shows how the 'consumerist' dimension of Australian politics emerged prior to the second World War, an important trend which TV later consolidated to the exclusion of many alternative conceptions of politics.

The political role of the ABC is the subject of Alan Ashbolt's two excellent essays: the first concerns the ABC's relationship to government; the second, its role in 'civil society'. Each manages to relate historically specific detail to a general argument about the role of the ABC in hegemonic cultural control. Although not merely a tool of government, it has consistently operated to "...assist in legitimating and stabilising the interests of the ruling class, largely by maintaining a cultural-ideological hold on the middle class" (p.96). Secondly, he argues a very sophisticated case concerning the way the ABC relates to other institutions, theorising its ideological work here in Gramscian terms but building this thesis on the details of Aunty's relationship with economic and social groups as well as seeking to characterise her internal professional structures and ethos. Ashbolt, therefore, discusses the ABC on a number of levels, and if the integration of these is sometimes not complete, the two pieces are certainly obligatory reading for anyone wishing to understand, critically but not simplistically, how significant the ABC has been in Australian cultural history.

Alex Carey's chapter looks directly at those institutions of the 'new right' which, under the guise of nationalism and economic rationalism, recruit the state to their educational/propaganda initiatives. 'Enterprise Australia' is typical:

In 1979 Mr Bart Cummins, who is a top executive of both Comptons and the Advertising Council, and claims principal credit for starting the 1975-1980 [US] 'economic education' campaign, toured Australia under Enterprise Australia's auspices "to explain details of the Advertising Council's campaign to community leaders and leaders in the communications industry ... [and] to explore how to bring together the organizations that would need to work in cooperation to adapt the programme to Australia." With much illustrative material Mr Cummins explained how to do it to meetings of businessmen in every mainland state, and offered his assistance. "As Enterprise Australia has been telling you," he affirmed, "you've got to persuade the electorate that they've got a great system ... the greatest system the world has ever known. In short you've got to educate the Australian people about your economic system." Long before this the US business concept of 'economic education' has been proposed by Walter Scott. (p.161)

Carey analyses the increasingly explicit appeal of such groups to "an intense and shallow patriotism". These campaigns, of course, help to reduce all potential oppositional politics to variations on the same economistic and fantasy-nationalist/populist themes (witness the 1987 election campaigns). Carey's unobtrusive and relentless work on 'guided opinion democracy' deserves much wider discussion by the left, let alone by mainstream political interests (unions, the Labor Party).

All in all, then, a useful and varied collection of plain-speaking, one might say theoretically old-fashioned, approaches to the political power of capital congealed into corporate structures. A challenge to the increasingly apologetic and compromised tone of much recent 'populist' writing about Australian media and its popular cultural products.


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