Murdochology

James, Wendy and Rupert Murdoch front the British Parliamentary Committee on Media, Culture and Sport, 2011. Image: Sydney orning Herald.

James, Wendy and Rupert Murdoch front the British Parliamentary Committee on Media, Culture and Sport, 2011. Image: Sydney Morning Herald.

Over at the Sydney Review of Books, I’ve got a long-form review essay on two of the latest books out on Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation and the British phone hacking scandal.

I won’t re-post here, but rather direct you over to the site, which is publishing some very fine work at the moment.

However, the guts of my argument can be summarised as follows:

Back in 2004, reviewing a previous wave of Murdochology that had washed ashore the sandy beaches of the London Review of Books, John Lanchester, following Frederic Jameson, argued that the man himself personified a kind of ‘cultural logic’ of postmodern capitalism. ‘Rupert Murdoch is not so much a man, or a cultural force, as a portrait of the modern world,’ Lanchester wrote, ‘he is the way we live now; he is the media magnate we deserve.’

Lanchester wrote that Murdoch’s singular attribute is his flexibility: a ‘flakiness’ in which ‘the all-over-the-globe nature of the News Corp empire seems to be paralleled by a personal all-over-the-placeness in Murdoch.’ Like the ‘hot money’ of the international currency markets, his energies and attentions flow unpredictably and suddenly, to wherever the opportunity lies. He understands, in the end, perhaps only one lesson: that symbols are powerful, and that in a democracy, this power can be used. One of the things that Murdoch likes to do with his media power is, of course, to make money. But he also likes to acquire more power: for instance, by gaining the ear of prime ministers. You never know when you might need a regulator to sign off on your next deal.

Just like capital, Murdoch can be channelled and regulated, stymied here and divested there. But, like some protean force of nature, he can’t really be stopped. He is too powerful for that, too wealthy, too smart. This is why the common attribution of Murdoch as a ‘media baron’ is so apt. Unlike his deputies, or the CEOs of truly globalised media corporations like Vivendi or Time Warner, Murdoch’s power derives not just from his occupation of a top ‘command post of the social structure’. Like a feudal aristocrat, he also enjoys considerable privileges and resources that attach to his person and family. As long as he keeps hold of those special voting shares in his various corporations, the Bermuda bank accounts and the key trusts and holding companies, he will retain his over-mighty stature. When he dies, of course, all bets are off. The trusts will vest and his children and ex-wives will struggle for control. But for now he is unassailable. As Wolff wrote recently, ‘2014 is going to be a good year for Rupert Murdoch.’

$7 billion of neoliberalism

The Stationers' Company mark

The Stationers’ Company: an early example of government cultural policy. Image: Wikipedia.

Australian economist Jason Potts has restarted an important debate about cultural policy in this country with an article entitled “You’ve got $7 billion – so how will you fund the arts?“. I just wish he hadn’t analysed Australian cultural policy from the sort of instrumentalist, neoliberal position we find so familiar in many other spheres of policy debate.

I’ll say right up the top that I’m a fan of Potts’ work, and think him a pretty clever fellow. His work on evolutionary economics is in its own way quite heterodox, and a far cry from the sort of automatic and reflexive market worship we often associate with both the RMIT Economics school, and the Institute for Public Affairs, which he is apparently doing some work with.

On the other hand, his op-ed in The Conversation on cultural policy  is not one of his more perspicacious efforts. Justin O’Connor has already written a useful response, but I thought I’d add a few points of my own, set forth below.

Let’s start by setting forward Potts’ argument. Then we’ll move on to a critique.

Last year the Australian Bureau of Statistics did the maths – government spends about A$7 billion annually in Australia on arts and culture. The exact dollar figure varies depending on what we count, but it includes heritage, broadcasting and botanical gardens, along with all the usual suspects: performing arts, literature, film, visual arts, and so on.

This is apples, oranges and all sorts of random fruit.  “Heritage” funding, for instance, includes such things as war memorials, botanical gardens, zoos and some national parks expenditure. That’s a pretty different sort of thing to grants to game design companies or tax incentives to Hollywood movie studios. Does it actually make sense to treat all of these things as the same sort of expenditure?

Anyway, moving on:

To make this exercise fun, let’s suppose that no political horse-trading was involved in reaching this figure. Let’s assume this figure is the result of disinterested economic calculation of the size of the positive externality in the production of a public good, all wrapped in willingness-to-pay studies, and tied with a big bright cost-benefit ribbon.

So what’s next?

Do we put away our box of shiny economic tools and turn to grubby political compromise to allocate the exact market-failure correcting amount of public funding?

In Australia, as in Europe, this is more or less what we do. Economics to justify an economically efficient level of spending – and politics to implement it.

Really? Last time I looked, in most nation-states, including most democracies, politics is almost always the over-riding factor in the way  budget priorities are set. Sure, politicians and lobbyists and ordinary citizens use economic arguments to make the case for this spending increase or that tax cut. But the process is always and by definition political. On the really big picture stuff, economics arguably can’t really help us. For instance, how much should Australia invest in national defence, or climate change mitigation? The answer depends on inherently political judgments, such as whether you think global warming is real, or the likelihood of a major war.

Indeed, ‘economic efficiency’ is itself an inherently political argument, because it applies a very particular set of assumptions to public policy — namely that Pareto efficiency can actually hold in the first place. In markets in which there is imperfect information — and cultural markets are amongst the most opaque of all — Pareto efficiency may well be impossible. Potts knows this, which is why his quip about the “exact market-failure correcting amount of public funding” strikes me as disingenuous.

So let’s get to the guts of Potts’ argument:

… modern economics suggests that it would be better if we turned the process upside down. Let politicians determine the level of funding in a given area – and let economists determine the allocation.

Why? The political model of funding allocation is very bad at creating – or even recognising – new knowledge. In fact, political allocation mechanisms cause incentives that reward lobbying and punish experimental or innovative thinking.

Only by weakening those incentives can arts and cultural funding seek to be more than a rearguard preservation exercise or sinecure for vested interests.

I suppose it’s something of ad hominem attack to point this out, but it’s just a tad ironic that the person making this argument is a Federation Fellow of a publicly funded Australian university. A person writing for a website, by the way, also funded by universities and the government, using a medium — the internet — that was created almost exclusively by public investment in research.

“Political allocation mechanisms”, by which I think Potts means governments making budget decisions, certainly create incentives that reward lobbying. Then again, so do market mechanisms. Markets require the state to provide a level playing field via such basic institutions as property rights, police forces and courts of law. All of these create incentives for vested interests to plead their cause.

This is no trivial point, by the way: the cultural industries are completely dependent on intellectual property rights such as copyright and patents. The very fact that many cultural goods are non-rivalrous and non-excludable creates huge incentives for content industries to lobby governments to create and strengthen IP regulations — as has been well documented by researchers such as Lessig. When property rights become unenforceable, digital goods become a whole lot less valuable. Anyway, Potts’ claim was that public spending creates lobbying, which is bad. On this analysis, many of the cherished market mechanisms of the cultural industries must also be bad, because they were created via lobbying.

This points to a further naievete: the implicit belief that cultural goods and services are just like any other industrial product.

Even a moment’s reflection shows us this isn’t true. The products of cultural industries are not like any old widget or commodity: they are not even really the same thing as an iPhone or an operating system. Cultural industries produce symbols, and symbols are powerful (or at least highly influential). An aluminium ingot or a wind turbine cannot affect the democratic judgment or voting intentions of millions of citizens. A newspaper empire or television network can.

It doesn’t really matter whether you think that the power of media companies to swing elections is illusory. The history of modern media policy tells us that governments certainly do think symbols are powerful. Media has generally often been heavily regulated, sometimes on the grounds of public interest, but more commonly for naked reasons of political expediency. Even in the US, with its famous First Amendment, successive Washington administrations have had no qualms about controlling spectrum, imposing stringent copyright regulations, and spying extensively on their citizens’ communications. Hosni Mubarak turned off the internet in Egypt for a reason. Whether it’s internet filters or the Stationers Company, the political nature of cultural industries means they can’t be divorced from questions of power.

This curious ignorance of the symbolic reality of culture is often found amongst unsophisticated approaches to cultural economics — much as economics as taught in the modern university tends to ignore key aspects of sociology. As a result, when economists issue prescriptions for cultural policy, they tend to propose cures that are far worse than the supposed disease.

Perhaps this is why Potts misconstrues key facts about real-life cultural policy. For instance, he seems to think arts funding is about “inputs, not outputs”, when in fact nearly all Australian government arts grants are legal contracts specifying outcomes, allowing the government to recoup the funding if not properly acquitted. He also equates prizes as some sort of gold standard of outcome, which is strange because prize committees show exactly the sort of “bullshit” he decries in grant panels.

Similarly, when he argues for “tax credits to anyone – private citizen, corporation, foundation or NGO alike – for spending on arts and culture”, he seems to imply these don’t currently exist. In fact, they do. An individual donating to a DGR-status cultural organisation already receives a tax credit, while a non-profit NGO or foundation already pays no tax beyond the GST.

Corey Doctorow rebuts Evgeny Morozov

We’ve all heard about (though I’ve ot yet read) The Net Delusion.

Now, a leading thinker/practitioner in the field of new media reviews Morozov’s book, rebutting his thesis:

At its core, there is some very smart stuff indeed in The Net Delusion. Morozov is absolutely correct when he forcefully points out that technology isn’t necessarily good for freedom – that it can be used as readily to enslave, surveil, and punish as it can to evade, liberate and share.

Unfortunately, this message is buried amid a scattered, loosely argued series of attacks on a nebulous “cyber-utopian” movement, whose views are stated in the most general of terms, often in the form of quotes from CNN and other news agencies who are putatively summing up some notional cyber-utopian consensus. In his zeal to discredit this ideology (whatever it is), Morozov throws whatever he’s got handy at anyone he can find who supports the idea of technology as a liberator, no matter how weak or silly his ammunition.

Read the rest in The Guardian

Also worth a look is Clay Shirky’s Foreign Affairs piece on the political power of social media (firewalled)

Wikileaks, information and democracy

The scene outside Julian Assange's extradition hearing at Westminster Magistrates Court, London, December 7th 2010. Image: AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth

Like most of the rest of the world, I’ve been fascinated by the recent developments in the world of new media.

“New media” is a much-abused phrase, but in the case of Wikileaks and Twitter, the phrase is literally accurate. Wikileaks and Twitter really are new mediums: they are less than five years old.

A wiki and a social network like Twitter are both ultimately also platforms that rely on older and more established media and communications infrastructure: the internet itself, including the servers, routers and undersea data cables that criss-cross the world. And because of that, they can take advantage of the unique benefits bestowed by the distributed architecture created by Leonard Kleinrock, Vint Cerf and the other architects of the ARPANET – ironically, a defence project created to ensure researchers had access to significant national computing resources (and not to create redundancy in the event of a Soviet nuclear attack). The internet, in other words, began life as a communications and data-sharing technology, and the open network architecture of that initial design philosophy continues to affect the way the internet works today.

This week, courtesy of Wikileaks, we learnt a lot more about the sinews of political and financial power that link the modern internet to the security and executive agencies of the contemporary nation-state. The content of these lessons has much to teach us about the state of our democratic societies.

Under sustained pressure from US politicians, several important aspects of Wikileaks’ infrastructure were shut down by the corporations that manage them. First, Amazon shut down Wikileaks’ servers. Then PayPal stopped processing online donations to Wikileaks from supporters.

Interestingly, Wikileaks is not really a “wiki”, in the sense that Wikipedia is: it can’t be collaboratively edited and it is very far from open access.

Nor are its philosophies necessarily original: they are in fact an amalgam of the Enlightenment ideas of Locke, Mill and Paine, and the 1980s and 90s techno-millenarianism of writers such as John Perry Barlow. But in its technological sophistication, its intent and most importantly its impact, Wikileaks is a recognisably new phenomenon. There have been many attempts by internet companies and media organisations to encourage whistleblowers and apply the ideas of scrutiny to monitor governments. But none have had the political impact that Wikileaks has achieved in just a few short years. Wikileaks is new — not because it is on the internet, but because it is making powerful elites in the government and media genuinely uneasy.

Wikileaks is web publisher that relies on clever encryption and distributed servers and publishing platforms. In doing so, it necessarily relies on older and more established media and communications infrastructure: the internet itself, including the servers, routers and undersea data cables that crisscross the world. And because of that, Wikileaks can take advantage of the unique benefits bestowed by the distributed architecture created by Leonard Kleinrock, Vint Cerf and the other architects of the ARPANET — a defence project created to ensure researchers had access to significant national computing resources (and not to create redundancy in the event of a Soviet nuclear attack). The internet, in other words, began life as a communications and data-sharing technology, and the open network architecture of that initial design philosophy continues to affect the way the internet works today.

Wikileaks is certainly more than merely a very clever whistle-blower protection and publication system. While the encryption and other information security aspects of the site are impressive, perhaps more important is that Wikileaks allows disgruntled would-be leakers to turn the power of modern information technology against the nation-states and large corporations that now rely on it.

In an ironic turn that Michel Foucault would surely have applauded, the sheer amount of information now hiding behind government and corporate firewalls makes that information increasingly vulnerable to disclosure. The current cache of Wikileaks cables being released, for instance, have all been distributed on the US government’s SIPRNET, which stands for Secret Internet Router Protocol Network. However, in this context, “secret” is something of a euphemism. As Kevin Rudd himself has pointed out, more than two million US officials have access to SIPRNET. More than 180 US agencies were signed up to SIRPNET by 2005. No wonder much of this content eventually made its way into the public domain. The wonder is that it hasn’t been leaked sooner.

Some of the sharpest thinking about what Wikileaks means has come from the intelligence community itself. US security think-tank Stratfor, for instance, points out that there is a “culture of classfication” rampant inside the US government, in which even relatively mundane documents are classified under Executive Order 13526 as “confidential” or “secret”. Consequently, according to Stratfor’s Scott Sewart, “this culture tends to create so much classified material that stays classified for so long that it becomes very difficult for government employees and security managers to determine what is really sensitive and what truly needs to be protected.”

Information probably doesn’t “want to be free”, as the activist and technologist Stewart Brand famously announced but there are plenty of people who would like it to be. Some of them work in the US military, including Private First Class Bradley Manning.

The content of the Wikileaks releases so far has been devastating, not for what it says, but because it has cut through the lies, disinformation and media spin on which modern democracies increasingly depend. Many citizens will not be surprised by the dark truths that Wikileaks reveals, but they will scarcely be energised to a new optimism about their governments. That US forces violate rules of engagement to gun down innocent civilians, or that the war in Afghanistan is going badly, or that the US State Department actively spies on the UN, or that the Saudis want Iran’s nuclear facilities destroyed: none of these revelations are particularly surprising. But they tear away the veil of deceit behind which politicians and other democratic officials routinely operate in the course of their daily affairs. In the face of truth, deniability is implausible.

Much of what has been written about Wikileaks has missed this fundamental point. It is interesting that Assange himself justifies the cable releases by pointing to the lies of governments to their own people in justifying wars, writing, “there is nothing more wrong than a government lying to its people about [just] wars, then asking these same citizens to put their lives and their taxes on the line for those lies.”

As The Guardian’s John Naughton has pointed out,  there is a delicious irony to the relatively indiscriminate way in which Wikileaks has attacked the sacred cows of the left and the right. It was Wikileaks, remember, that published the hacked emails of UK climate researchers — leaks which commentators and politicians on the right were happy to seize upon as incontrovertible evidence of a giant cover-up in climate science.

Now that Wikileaks has turned the blowtorch on the cherished organs of US national security, those same right wing commentators are calling for punitive action to shut down the organisation.

Many on the left have been equally discomforted, as the confused and savage reaction of many in the Australian Labor Party demonstrates. As Simon Longstaff argued yesterday on The Drum, “it would seem incumbent on those who criticise Wikileaks to renounce the use of leaks in general”.

As with every revolution, Wikileaks has also forced politicians, corporations and officials to make snap decisions about where they stand — and with whom they stand. In the case of USinternet firms like Amazon and PayPal, that decision was to side quickly and decisively with theUS government. Further down in his article, Naughton makes the point that:

the attack of WikiLeaks also ought to be a wake-up call for anyone who has rosy fantasies about whose side cloud computing providers are on … you should not put your faith in cloud computing – one day it will rain on your parade.

 

The other really penetrating account of Wikileaks comes from European media theorists Geert Lovink and Patrice Riemens. In “Twelve Theses on Wikileaks”, they make a number of telling observations — including that some of the most uncomfortable Wikileaks revelations involve the rapidly declining potency of the media itself. They write:

The steady decline of investigative journalism caused by diminishing funding is an undeniable fact. Journalism these days amounts to little more than outsourced PR remixing. The continuous acceleration and over-crowding of the so-called attention economy ensures there is no longer enough room for complicated stories. The corporate owners of mass circulation media are increasingly disinclined to see the workings and the politics of the global neoliberal economy discussed at length. The shift from information to infotainment has been embraced by journalists themselves, making it difficult to publish complex stories. WikiLeaks enters this state of affairs as an outsider, enveloped by the steamy ambiance of “citizen journalism”, DIY news reporting in the blogosphere and even faster social media like Twitter.

 

Or, as Assange told the Sydney Morning Herald back in June, “how is it that a team of five people has managed to release to the public more suppressed information, at that level, than the rest of the world press combined? It’s disgraceful.”

Instead, of course, much of the media coverage has concentrated on Julian Assange’s sensational personal conduct, and the sexual assault allegations levelled against him by two Swedish women.

This is a different — although obviously connected — issue. It should be possible to distinguish the Wikileaks website and organisation from the personal conduct of Julian Assange. If allegations presented to the British court by Swedish authorities are true — allegations which have yet to be tested — Assange has committed a crime.

It is frankly disturbing to see many on the left who one would expect to see defending the rights of women, like Naomi Wolf (Naomi Wolf!) make disparaging remarks about the seriousness of these allegation. One of the allegations is for a rape under Swedish law: a non-consensual sex act in which Assange allegedly forced the claimant’s legs open and of ‘”[used] his body weight to hold [her] down in a sexual manner.” The facts of this matter can and should be established in a free and fair judicial process. But as a matter of principle, no should still mean no.

Ultimately, the importance of Wikileaks may be that it is beginning to reveal the contours of a new sort of social contract between citizens and their rulers: a type of relationship that historian and academic John Keane has called “monitory democracy.” For Keane, “monitory democracy is a new historical type of democracy, a variety of‘ ‘post-Westminster’ politics defined by the rapid growth of many different kinds of extra-parliamentary, power-scrutinising mechanisms.”

Monitory democracy, in which non-government and non-media organisations start to exert meaningful and impactful scrutiny of the state and the corporation, holds the promise for a more balanced informational relationship between ordinary citizens and the power elites. But it also implies some disturbing corollaries.

There is a reason conservative commentators are likening Wikileaks to a kind of informational terrorist group: it uses its military-grade encryption tools for the political goal of destabilising governments and states. In this sense, Wikileaks and especially Anonymous, the hacking group suspected of attacking Amazon, Visa and other sites in retaliation for the Wikileaks crackdown, are “non-state actors” — the term given by security and international relations analysts to terrorist groups like Al Qaeda.

We aren’t really at the beginning of the first global “information war”, but there is a grain of truth to the claims that the willingness of hackers and cyber-activists to attack web infrastructure represents something new and important. And in this analysis, the flip-side of monitory democracy is informational insurrection.

 

Trouble in SBS-land

Dateline's Sophie McNeill won a Walkley for Young Australian Journalist of the Year in 2008. Above: McNeill with Asher Moses, Michael Atkin and Andrew Quilty. Source: Walkley Foundation.

Life is getting bleaker for the staff of Australian public broadcaster SBS, according to a confidential poll of staff.

As New Matilda’s David Ingram reports, the confidential survey reveals widespread staff dissatisfaction:

The survey measuring employee engagement found fewer than half the 614 staff polled thought SBS performed well in managing performance, promotion, innovation and communication. In some work areas, satisfaction was less than a quarter on individual issues.

As Ien Ang, Gay Hawkins and Lamia Daboussy noted in their 2009 book on the broadcaster, The SBS Story, the network’s mandate for multicultural and foreign language programming has also spurred diversity in programming and quality journalism through shows such as Dateline. But since current boss Shaun Brown was recruited to the broadcaster from a commercial TV background in New Zealand in 2003, there have been many who believe the network has lost its way.

Spinning the media: important new research from the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism

Public relations content across 10 Australian newspapers, Sept 7-11 2009. Source: Crikey/Australian Centre for Independent Journalism

Crikey and the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism have combined to today release the findings of their important new research project, entitled Spinning the Media. It finds that “over half your news is spin”, that is, written directly or indirectly from press releases and driven in some part by the PR industry.

This impressive research project examined 2203 articles in 10 major daily newspapers during one five-day week  in September 2009. (Of course, the irony is that this story is also PR-driven, in the sense that I am reporting on the findings of a research project which has been announced through a story on a news website – which shows you how difficult it can be to source genuinely novel news for any journalist).

The key finding for me was this one:

Of 2203 articles, more than 500 or 24% had no significant extra perspective, source or content added by reporters.

That figure is truly scary – indicating that approximately one quarter of the daily newspaper’s news content is simply regurgitated media releases from government or corporate sources.

I’ve reproduced the key graphs from the study over the fold: Continue reading

How news happens in Baltimore

Clark Johnson as newspaper editor Gus Haynes in The Wire. Source: HBO.

We’ve all seen the fifth season of The Wire, right? The gripping televisual novel explores the ins and outs of Baltimore’s news media, and how it feeds into the networked decay of this American Babylon.

Well, now we have the empirical data to back up David Simon’s claims about the vital importance  of news-gathering media organisations – partricularly local newspapers – to the media ecology.

In an excellent and timely study by the Pew Research Centre’s project for Excellence in Journalism, Pew researchers have tracked the origin and later re-reporting of six major stories in the mediascape of the US city of Baltimore – famously, the city depicted in The Wire.

They find that te bulk of major news continues to be reported by old-style print news reporters. Almost no new news is broken by blogs or new media outlets. As the study concludes:

  • Among the six major news threads studied in depth—which included stories about budgets, crime, a plan involving transit buses, and the sale of a local theater—fully 83% of stories were essentially repetitive, conveying no new information. Of the 17% that did contain new information, nearly all came from traditional media either in their legacy platforms or in new digital ones.
  • General interest newspapers like the Baltimore Sun produced half of these stories—48%—and another print medium, specialty newspapers focused on business and law, produced another 13%.
  • Local television stations and their websites accounted for about a third (28%) of the enterprise reporting on the major stories of the week; radio accounted for 7%, all from material posted on radio station websites. The remaining nine new media outlets accounted for just 4% of the enterprise reporting we encountered.
  • Traditional media made wide use of new platforms. Newspapers, TV and radio produced nearly a third of their stories on new platforms (31%), though that number varied by sector. Almost half of the newspapers stories studied were online rather than in print.
  • There were two cases of new media breaking information about stories. One came from the police Twitter feed in Baltimore, an example of a news maker breaking news directly to the public rather than through the press. Another was a story noticed by a local blog, that the mainstream press nearly missed entirely, involving a plan by the state to put listening devices on buses to deter crime. A newspaper reporter noticed the blog and then reported on the story, which led the state to rescind the plan.
  • As the press scales back on original reporting and dissemination, reproducing other people’s work becomes a bigger part of the news media system. Government, at least in this study, initiates most of the news. In the detailed examination of six major storylines, 63% of the stories were initiated by government officials, led first of all by the police. Another 14% came from the press. Interest group figures made up most of the rest.

You can see the situation graphically in the figure below. Bottom line: new media is still reproducing, not reporting. And that has serious consequences for our democracy.

The Pew Research Centre's data for which media outlet reported news on six major stories. Newspapers and local TV stations are overwhelmingly the major sources of news, especially compared to blogs and new media. Source: Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism

Marcus Westbury on why the Australia Council doesn’t get digital culture

Was the Australia Concil’s abolition of the New Media Arts Board the single worst decision by an Australian cultural agency of the last decade? It’s certainly beginning to look that way.

Efw_screenshot

A screenshot from "Escape from Woomera". Speculation persists that the funding of the game by the Australia Council's New Media Arts Board led eventually to that Board's abolition

Cast your mind back to 2004. John Howard is ensconced in power after comprehensively defeating Labor’s self-destructive Mark Latham. The culture wars rage on the op-ed pages of Australian daily newspapers (remember when people still read daily newspapers?). And in the arts, internal political machinations lead to the axing of two of the Australia Council’s most progressive and innovative funding boards: the Community Cultural Development Board and the New Media Arts Board. It all happens late in the year, with a brusque announcement by the CEO of the Australia Council, Jeniffer Bott, that the Australia Council would be “refocussing.”

At the time, Keith Gallasch called it a “devastating failure of nerve.” The CCD sector organised some relatively feeble protests, while OzCo’s power play steamrolled internal opposition. In response to the criticism, an amazingly poorly briefed Bott organised a series of largely symbolic “consultation meetings” which did little to allay fears that any “consulation” was merely window-dressing. Dark rumours circulated in the sector that the abolition of the New Media Arts Board in particular was payback for its funding of the controversial game mod Escape from Woomerra, which implicitly criticised the Howard Government’s highly politicised refugee detention policies.  Artworld insiders like Michael Snelling rallied to Bott’s cause, giving self-serving interviews to arts journalists like myself.

Five years on, what’s the wash up? Bott has moved on, replaced by Kathy Keele, and the Australia Council is playing a desperate game of catch-up with this whole “‘digital culture” thing. But, as we’ll explore in this post, OzCo doesn’t get it. It’s not even close. Continue reading

Julian Meyrick on Australian cultural policy

julian-meyrick-01-320

Julian Meyrick. Source: Monash University website.

In a recent presentation to SUNY’s University at Buffalo Law School, well-known Melbourne-based writer and theatre director Julian Meyrick gives a precis of the current Australian cultural policy environment.

Meyrick’s thoughts are particularly relevant because he is part of Peter Garrett’s hand-picked cultural advisory group (along with Marcus Westbury, Cate Blanchett and David Throsby). It’s an entertaining speech that includes some real gems:

“I have been involved in cultural policy for 21 years as supplicant, victim, analyst, clacquer and serial complainer.  While there’s been movement, there’s been little change. One document follows another in endless tirelss plodding succession, like a parade of elderly donkeys.”

Meyrick also sketches his amusing experiences in the Creative Australia group at the 2020 Summit, before moving on to Jim McGuigan‘s recent discussion of Tony Bennett‘s Foucoulvian research in the 1990s in Cool Capitalism, and then outlining the history of Australian cultural policy from the founding of the Australia Council on. There’s also a witty discussion of how the performing arts centres built in Australia in the 1970s were really constructed to address the problems of the 1960s but came online in the very different environment of the 1980s, plus some lovely throw-away lines about the redistributive nature of government arts funding, the intrinsic value of culture, the irreducibility of aesthetic experience, Clifford Geertz, the problems of federalism, and more.

Meyrick ends with a somewhat quixotic call for culture to be made an integral part of “universal citizenship”, a project about which, like John Gray, I am deeply skeptical.

Why don’t Australians like Australian films?

It’s the debate that just won’t die. Australian films continue to draw just a few percent of total Australian box offices, and the local industry continues to scratch its head and wonder why.

On October 22nd, Metro Screen held a sold-out forum on the issue, chaired by Andrew Urban and featuring a panel of distinguished panelists including Margaret Pomeranz, Tony Ginnane, Troy Lum, Rachel Ward and the new boss of Screen Australia, Ruth Harley.

The debate swirled around many of the same-old, same-old standards of the “what’s wrong with Australian film” issue, which has been debated extensively in the press and the industry by critics and commentators like Jim Schembri, Luke Buckmaster and Lyndon Barber.

Does “Australian film” have a branding issue? Are Australian scripts and movies too depressing, mundane and dull? Are the marketing budgets unrealistic? Does cultural imperialism mean Hollywood is a natural advantage? Should we abandon “telling stories” and instead concentrate on “creating myths”? Do Austraolian film-makers and funding bodies even understand their audiences and why they go to see movies? And is it all about to change with the coming of digital delivery anyway?

One issue that came to my mind immediately was the uphill struggle most Australian cinema faces. Not only is it competing with the Hollywood juggernaut, but the small size of the Australian market means limited sources of capital investment, development funding and ultimately cinematic audiences.

There’s also no doubt that, structurally speaking, the market for film production in Australia is skewed towards blockbusters and against independent productions. That’s just an unsurprising fact of life; even though film has certain unique facets it is still hostage to the sorts of competitive advantages and economies of scale that make it easier to market and screen Transformers than an indie Australian drama.

Having said that, as a cultural economist I am constantly amazed at the lack of price differentiation in cinema. If audiences aren’t going to see Australian films, why not drop the price? It seems insane to me that we expect audiences to pay the same to see a Michael Bay special effects monster as for a $1 million Australian indie. Maybe it would not be more profitable in the long run to do this, but in the name of market share alone it seems to me a no-brainer. Maybe Australian dramas would sell at $9 or $7 or even $5. Of course, there are structural issues to do with distributors and exhibitors that would make this unlikely.