Media criticism is a broad field that reflects developments in the more scholarly fields of media, journalism and film studies, as well as the journalistic field of reporting on the media.
It began to expand in Australia from the 1960s when literary magazines that previously had restricted their cultural criticism to books, theatre and poetry began to publish some articles about media policy, particularly in relation to the development of television. The growth of publications that were editorially positioned as independent of, or alternative to, mainstream media implied critique and provided an outlet for media criticism. Alternative and radical student newspapers explicitly objected to failure of the media to fairly cover by increasingly active social and political movements for change. Media owners were portrayed as linked to narrow economic interests. Internationally, there was a growing awareness of the power of the media and of its shortcomings.
Nation (est. 1958) featured regular columns—mainly by Mungo MacCallum, but also by Bob Ellis—about the development of television in Australia during the 1960s; Professor K.S. Inglis wrote about the press. After the Sydney-based Nation merged with the Melbourne-based Review to form Nation Review in 1972, detailed criticism of the press and broadcasting media became a highlight of the new publication, with publisher Richard Walsh and editor George Munster both publishing columns. ‘Ferret Watch’ was a regular anonymous column. A few days before the election of the Whitlam Labor government, Munster wrote that ‘government is the proper concern of journalism for the 36 months of its office’. He warned journalists against flattery of any government or merely restricting themselves to ‘responsible criticism’. As editor of Nation Review and a pioneer of business investigative journalism, Munster focused on Rupert Murdoch, as Murdoch became an increasingly significant figure on the Australian media landscape; Munster’s A Paper Prince (1985) was published posthumously.
More conservative commentary also began to appear—often in response to more radical critiques. Quadrant (1962– ) featured media criticism, including contributions from MacCallum and Professor Henry Mayer, the founder of Media International Australia.
In May 1972, the New Journalist, which called itself the ‘Media Critic’, was launched in Sydney by a group of radical and dissident journalists. A major initiative in the field of media criticism, it was founded with the basic aim of ‘acting as a critic of the major institutions of the Australian mass media’ which included four large owners, the ABC, the Australian Journalists’ Association (AJA), the Sydney Journalists’ Club, the ‘amorphous public relations machine’ and ‘the government when it acts on its own rather in the public interest’. Critics, correspondents and collaborators were invited to give the ‘Australian mass media a thorough going over’. Early issues reflected the editors’ policy that a democratic media would only exist when those involved in its production were fairly represented in its control. Issues covered in early years included the concentration of media ownership and the differences between the purposes of journalism and the growing public relations industry. There were also profiles evaluating the performance of newspaper editors, and critiques of the leadership of the AJA, particular reporting genres (such as court reporting) and the restrictive nature of defamation laws and other causes of ‘self-censorship’. Later issues reflected concerns about the impact of computers on journalism, which included an increasing use of syndication.
The New Journalist regularly featured articles by female journalists who were part of the Media Women’s Action Group, which had been formed in 1971 to combat sexism in the media. The New Journalist closely tracked the increasing influence of Rupert Murdoch, particularly during the politically tumultuous year of 1975, and was critical of editorial policies that took John Fairfax & Sons’ National Times in a less progressive direction.
The New Journalist ceased publication in the summer of 1991–92. Journalism staff and students at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) were involved in the production of the magazine for the last few years, producing an award-winning issue on freedom of speech in 1989. This was an early example of the impetus for media criticism provided through journalism education in which students produce media about media in university-based publications or in partnership with external media.
Meanwhile, Quadrant continued to develop as a vehicle for conservative media commentary. In the first half of the 1980s, Anthony McAdam wrote ‘The Watchman’, a column about journalism and the media that regularly critiqued the National Times. In 1989, then opposition leader John Howard wrote a piece for the Independent Monthly on the Federal Parliamentary Press Gallery’s ‘part’ in the Coalition’s ‘downfall’.
David Bowman, a former editor-in-chief of the Sydney Morning Herald, emerged as a significant media critic in the 1980s in response to the building public debate about the concentration of media ownership. He produced a ‘Fourth Estate’ column for the independent magazine Australian Society (1982–92, briefly renamed Modern Times) and also wrote for the Adelaide Review. He drew on his insider experience to cover the Age’s takeover by John Fairfax & Sons and internal pressures on the editorial stance of the National Times, and raised concerns about the increasing foreign ownership of the Australian media.
In 1988, Gerard Henderson began publishing a bi-monthly journal, Media Watch, to look ‘critically at the role of journalists, editors, presenters and producers’. It was published by the conservative think-tank, the Institute of Public Affairs (NSW), which became The Sydney Institute in 1989. Since 1997, Media Watch has been published as part of the Sydney Institute Quarterly. It was founded on the principle that ‘the proposition that the media should be subject to the same severity of scrutiny as that to which it subjects others’. It scrutinised specific journalism ‘rounds’ such as industrial relations and featured a ‘review of the reviewers’ by Stephen Matchett. Since 2009, Henderson has published a weekly online blog, Media Watch Dog. These and other conservative publications have been persistently critical of perceived ‘leftwing bias’ in the media, particularly at the ABC and Fairfax Media.
Tim Bowden hosted Backchat (1986–94) on ABC Television, reading out viewers’ letters on programs and reporting on the makers’ responses. Media Watch has been broadcast on the ABC since 1989.
Specialist publications also emerged, including Communications Update (1985–2005), the newsletter of media analysis published by the Communications Law Centre on behalf of the Media and Communications Council (representing consumer and community organisations, and media and communications unions), which was edited by Gil Appleton. The Update included an annual compilation of media ownership data and provided a critical perspective on media policy and industry issues, including the development of pay television. Since 1989, the Australian Press Council has produced a newsletter carrying critical features on issues such as press regulation. In 1990, the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism at UTS published its first major report, Accuracy in Australian Newspapers, which was followed by reports on the influence of public relations, shortcomings in business journalism, and media coverage of cultural diversity.
In the late 1980s, David Bowman (The Captive Press, 1988) and Paul Chadwick (Media Mates, 1989) both published significant non-fiction books examining issues of media control and accountability and charting significant debates and changes in the media.
There was an explosion of Australian media criticism in the 1990s as the media took off as a reporting ‘round’ in its own right, and media and journalism research expanded in universities. Journalists also stimulated interest with public campaigns about potential threats to editorial independence as a result of changes in ownership. Since 1993, ABC Radio National (RN) has broadcast a weekly program, The Media Report. For some years, RN also produced annual series of panel discussions about journalism issues with the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism at UTS.
From 1912 to 1992, the AJA and its successor, the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA), had itself produced the Journalist. In 1997, the MEAA launched the Walkley Magazine as a ‘forum for discussion of media and professional issues by and for journalists’ with a preference for ‘examining trends across the industry rather than focus on individuals or organisations’. Published four times a year, the magazine is muted in its critique of the media industries. Contributors are invited to keep their criticism ‘constructive’ and consider ‘possible solutions’.
In 1998, the Australian launched a weekly media and marketing supplement that, as well as news, includes opinion columns by Errol Simper and Mark Day. Since 2009, the Australian has also become increasingly critical of the role of public service broadcasting and perceived progressive bias in the Australian media. Interviewed by The Media Report in 2012 after 14 years of reporting for the media section, Amanda Meade commented on journalists as a subject for journalism: ‘They’re incredibly sensitive, incredibly thin-skinned. And, you know, they can dish it out to other people but they hate being written about themselves.’
The development of online media provided new possibilities for a greater range of media criticism. Crikey, a daily online news magazine, features a section on the media. Investigative journalist and author Margaret Simons built on two non-fiction books, Fit to Print (1999) and The Content Makers (2007), in regular reportage and critique for Crikey. Since 2011, The Conversation has also provided media and journalism studies academics with the opportunity to reach a broader online audience. The Australian Centre for Independent Journalism undertook a joint project, Spinning the Media (2010), on the relationship between public relations and journalism, with Crikey, and a major project, Women in the Media (2013), with online magazine the New Matilda.
Online specialist publications including Mumbrella (2008– ) aimed at the media and marketing industries. Destroy the Joint, a feminist social media initiative that in part critiques and responds to media perceived by its supporters as misogynist or sexist, has more than 40,000 followers. The weekly Fourth Estate, produced by 2SER FM, is heard on community radio stations across the country.
Media criticism developed alongside increasing awareness of ‘media’ as a distinct sphere of activity in the 20th century. Over the last 50 years, it has become a distinct sub-field, both as a specialist form of media and as a ‘round’ within more general media. Individual critics and publications reflect their own political perspectives and economic interests. As mediatisation and digital media have developed, media criticism is now embedded in the unending flow of media communications and interaction.