Free music data is killing the free internet

If I’m out and about, I sometimes listen to music through a streaming service. The data it uses is free. It does does not eat into my monthly quota. That’s because my mobile phone service provider Optus gives free data to many of its customers using Spotify or certain other music streamers it has commercial deals with.

What’s not to like about that?

At home, Optus includes a FetchTV set top box and 35 pay channels with my broadband internet access at effectively no cost to me.

What’s wrong with that?

These apparent acts of corporate generosity are back door means of getting around the net neutrality rules. Free data for Optus' Spotify users is killing the 'free internet'.

Most users are not bothered enough to get their head around ‘net neutrality’. But it’s important, because it underlies the principle of the ‘open internet’. It guarantees consumers access to the content they want, not the content that big business wants them to access.

Without net neutrality, corporations would be free to throttle or perhaps block sites they did not want us to visit. We’d have effective access only to content that suits our provider’s commercial or ideological interest.

My FetchTV box gives me a handful of news channels. One of them is ChannelNewsAsia, the mouthpiece of the Singapore Government. The Singapore Government is the majority owner of Optus’ parent company Singtel. When I had FetchTV with my previous provider iinet, I had Chinese and Indian news channels. The Singapore Government wants us to see the world through its eyes, so it removes the Chinese and Indian channels from its particular offering of FetchTV.

Optus can do that because Fetch is just a box attached to my TV. Strictly speaking, it’s not a violation of the net neutrality rules. But they couldn’t block or throttle my access to Chinese or Indian news sites that I access through the world wide web on my computer. Not yet, anyway.

Net neutrality - i.e. the ‘open internet’ - has always been cherished as a basic consumer right. It was vigorously upheld by the Obama administration. Much of corporate America wished this was not so. But now their prayers have been answered with President Trump pick of an enemy of net neutrality - Ajit Pai - to lead the Federal Communications Commission regulating body.

The New York Times reported earlier this month that Pai has already ‘aggressively moved to roll back consumer protection regulations created during the Obama presidency’, taking a ‘first swipe at net neutrality rules designed to ensure equal access to content on the internet’.

Meanwhile Europe’s telecommunications regulator strengthened net neutrality rules last year by closing a few loopholes that allowed service providers to create ‘fast lanes’ for ‘specialised services’.

Will we follow Europe or the US? As yet, it’s unclear. What is clear is that we should expect more tricks from internet service providers keen to exploit loopholes. After floating the idea in 2015, Optus would still like to charge Netflix a fee to offer consumers ‘the best customer experience’ of Netflix. We can presume this means the worst customer experience of what other content providers have to offer.


The end of ABC radio and TV 'stations'

There have been many unanswered questions since late last year, when ABC Managing Director Michelle Guthrie began to spill some beans about her plans for a 'full overhaul' of the organisation.

The Australian reported that she's embarking upon 'the most far-reaching overhaul in the organisation's 84-year history'. It said that this 'could see the ABC collapse the television, radio and online departments into one single [digital] division, organising content by genre in a horizontally integrated structure'.

Guthrie needs to spill more beans before we can be sure, but I would speculate that we are going to see a severe reduction - or even the end - of the Corporation's TV and radio 'stations' as we know them. There could be no more ABC TV, ABC2, Radio National, Classic FM or Triple J. It would be just ABC Digital. All or most of the content would be delivered exclusively via its website.

Perhaps this is why the Director of Television has left, and - according to The Guardian's media columnist Amanda Meade - the current Director of Radio '[does] not have Guthrie's ear'. It seems to me that Guthrie wants new managers who - like her - think in terms of digital distribution rather than radio and TV stations. She came to the ABC from Google and has never worked in a radio or TV station.

Eliminating 'over the air' distribution of content would save the ABC about $200 million a year in transmission costs. Much of that amount would be channeled into program making or returned to the Federal Government. In addition, the Government would have its eye on revenue windfalls from selling the spectrum to the telcos who are struggling to satisfy the demand for mobile data.

The Government has already told community TV stations that they must leave the airwaves and use the Internet instead. TVS Sydney has gone and the other stations will follow in coming months. It has stopped funding for community radio DAB+ digital radio transmissions.

In addition, any rollout of DAB+ beyond the five mainland capital cities has stalled, and abandoning the platform was touted by the Government when Malcolm Turnbull when he was Communications Minister. This has happened overseas, with some countries such as Singapore discontinuing digital radio and others such as Canada and New Zealand rethinking plans for digital radio and opting for digital distribution as the replacement for FM and AM.

Earlier this week I had a conversation with a former ABC radio presenter whom I knew when I worked there in the 1990s. It seems that management is already commissioning podcasts featuring high profile presenters, that are not intended for airing on Radio National or any of the other existing stations.

The question is how much it will matter, and I can really only answer for my myself. About 90 per cent of my radio listening is to podcasts, and I choose them by genre and reputation rather than the station from why they originated, if they originated from a station. I also use platforms such as iView and SBS On Demand more than the TV 'stations'.

So I guess Guthrie's plans - if I've guessed them correctly - won't make much difference to me. But for others - especially for older people and those who are not digital natives - the ABC's abandonment of stations will mean the abandonment of them.

A tale of two media takeovers

Two Australian media takeovers have caught my attention this summer. They were both predictable and representative of changes in media culture and values that have evolved over the past decade.

But they are revolutionary in that, over this time, both organisations have, as I see it, made a 180 degree switch from objective reporting to a firm control of the message.

The media outlets of the organisations are the pay TV channel Sky News Australia and the Catholic church news service CathNews. The extent of the parallels is interesting, and perhaps chilling.

The ownership of Sky has shifted to Rupert Murdoch from Australian News Channel, a consortium established in 1996 that already included Murdoch. That of CathNews has moved to the Catholic Bishops Conference from Church Resources, a consortium established in 1997 that already includes the Bishops.

Most Australians do not consume either and have probably never even heard of them, especially the latter. But they do have a very large and loyal following within their respective niches - politics nerds and serious Catholics.

I could go on with this cute comparison, and I will. But first I should mention that I was the founding editor of CathNews in 1999 and continued in that role until the beginning of 2006.

The Jesuit entrepreneur Father Michael Kelly had asked me to devise a mechanism to allow his group buying co-operative Church Resources to communicate regularly with its constituency. CathNews did this daily and turned out to be quite successful. When I moved to Eureka Street, the professionalism of CathNews was enhanced by bringing in experienced personnel from Fairfax (Christine Hogan and Michael Visontay).

But by this time, the Bishops had started to realise that CathNews was effectively competing with them in shaping opinion about Catholic news and current affairs. From the beginning, CathNews' philosophy had been to uphold the values of objective reporting that were evident in the content of overseas Catholic publications such as the London Tablet and the National Catholic Reporter in the US.

However the Australian Bishops' desire was more for a 'corporate communication' model, where they controlled the message. The Vatican used to call this 'propaganda', approvingly. CathNews' editorial policy and practice was subsequently brought into line with these values.

Meanwhile the journalism of the various outlets in the Murdoch empire had evolved from the objective reporting that had long dominated secular media, towards 'campaign' journalism. This is a form of corporate communication where the opinions of the owner are given priority over objective truth, and their publication is sustained and coordinated in order to mould and control public opinion.

In recent years, the content and style of Sky News Australia has evolved to echo Murdoch's The Australian newspaper by day and his US FoxNews TV channel by night. With the change of ownership, the comparison will become more pronounced.

It is not entirely coincidental that the term 'post-truth' has become so prominent at this time. What is most worrying is that what it represents has come to be normalised and that these changes in ownership don't appear to be causing too much alarm.

The loss of local community identity in media rebranding

This week the ABC's 'local' capital city radio stations have been rebranded.

The station that has been known since 2000 as '702 ABC Sydney' has become 'ABC Radio Sydney'. '774 ABC Melbourne' is now 'ABC Radio Melbourne'. And so on around all the capital cities. Except Adelaide.

In a David and Goliath battle, the community station 'Radio Adelaide' secured an injunction to temporarily block the ABC from using the name 'ABC Radio Adelaide'. This is because of its similarity to Radio Adelaide and the potential for listener confusion and infringement against the Radio Adelaide brand.

For at least the next four months, the ABC's station will be known simply as 'ABC Adelaide'.

We'll know if this chink in the ABC's radio brand armour is permanent after the court trial that has been scheduled for April. If the order stays in place, I will regard it as an important marker of difference in an increasingly monocultural mainstream media branding landscape. In any case, I think it's good to see the homogenisation of Australia's media landscape encountering road blocks.

I'm also pleased that there's hope for justice for the smaller, community-based station in face of the might of the national broadcaster.

Coincidentally a similar rebranding has just taken place in commercial radio, though unfortunately it is without any court challenges. The rebranding has affected 60 regional stations owned by Southern Cross Austereo.

The stations have become known as either 'Triple M' or 'Hit'. Names with local resonance have disappeared, as have callsigns that were established as early as the 1930s. Examples include the FM station known as The River (in Albury, proudly situated on the Murray River) and 2GZ (Orange). Now they are both known as Triple M, in conformity with the original 1980 branding of the Sydney station 2MMM.

This is not without precedent. In 2000, the ABC ditched all local callsigns such as 2BL (Sydney) and 3LO (Melbourne) that had been in use since the 1920s.

My personal interest in these matters derives in part from my four year involvement in branding at ABC Radio in the 1990s. I worked in the Marketing department as Localisation Coordinator and also editor of an internal audience research newsletter titled Listener Friendly.

While helping to implement the various see-sawing policies of Radio Management, I was keenly aware that homogenisation removes history and identity that have been part of people's daily lives, in some cases for nearly a century. Branding enables us to identify a product or a service but it is essentially ephemeral until it has built up many years of resonance with local communities.

The loss of local names is an issue that has concerned me since the 1990s, when I was doing my Applied History Masters at the University of Technology Sydney and arguing that heritage orders should be placed on the identity of certain media outlets.

As an idea, it is probably fanciful. But who knows? It would see callsigns and titles familiar to many generations of consumers remain in use in media environment, in the way that heritage protected buildings continue to be part of our built environment. We would still have 2BL, 4QR and 2GZ.

Fairfax Media has reduced the use in its content of longstanding brands the Sydney Morning Herald (1832) and The Age (1854), but at least it seems committed to retaining the branding for as long as the publications themselves remain viable.

My ultimate fear is that, within a decade, international media homogenisation and convergence will kill not just regional Australian identity, but any Australian identity at all in the media we consume. That's a big regulation challenge that the Turnbull Government's Minister for Communications has and must face.

The last days of the printed weekday Sydney Morning Herald

For a while Fairfax has made it clear that the days of its Monday to Friday print editions of The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald are numbered. Yesterday I heard a rumour sourced from a Fairfax staff member that weekday print will end in February.

After a gap of a few years, I re-subscribed to the Herald print edition earlier this year because I wanted to be on board for the historic end of the paper's 186 year old tradition of daily print.

Reading the Sydney Morning Herald print edition

I've enjoyed printed newspaper delivery for most of my life. It was a childhood ritual to wake up early and race my brother to the front door. The one who was first to pick up the papers would be able to read his paper of choice.

We had two papers delivered - the Melbourne Sun (now The Herald-Sun) and the Albury Border Mail (owned by the one family for 103 years until it was bought by Fairfax in 2006).

The first to the door would always choose the Border Mail ahead of The Sun. We would have both papers read before our parents woke up and we had to hand them over. When there were fights, my mother reminded me that we were lucky to be able to read the papers before our parents.

When she was growing up in Ballarat and Bendigo, the children in her family were not allowed to read the paper before their father got to it. He had to have both papers together in mint condition, which hints that there might have been an element of almost religious ritual to the practice of reading the morning paper.

Living in various domestic situations and locations over the years, I remember there was always a dilemma about whether to separate pages of a single newspaper so that several household members sitting around the breakfast table can read it at once.

It would sacrilegiously break the integrity of the paper, but at the same time it would represent an act of solidarity. The other less satisfactory way of sharing the paper was to read it together in the hope that our interests and reading speed will converge.

Today it is less of a problem, as my breakfast companion reads the paper on his tablet while I read the print. As soon as this February, we will both be reading the paper on our tablets side by side.

I've always been an early adopter and a keen follower of media convergence. I remember back in the mid 90s when a Fairfax journalist friend laughed at me after I told him that I was reading Herald articles 'online' on my computer.

These days I'm keenly aware that both our print and electronic media consumption rituals can be very empty. The number of forms and outlets grows as fast as the quality evaporates and there is little point in continuing to subscribe, or even click on articles without paying.

We had a right to be impressed with the contribution of Herald investigative journalist Kate McClymont and her colleagues to the achievement of justice in this month's jailing of crooked politician Eddie Obeid. But sadly that kind of journalism is on the way out, and it has little to do with whether it appears in print or online.

Last week, blogger John Menadue - whom I assist - criticised journalists for showing little interest in exposing the debacle of the building of our next generation of submarines. Yesterday a Fairfax journalist emailed back saying that the specialist reporters needed for such tasks 'have become a breed nearing extinction'.

Today's reality is that even electronic forms of the old mastheads like the Sydney Morning Herald face extinction as most consumers source their news from Facebook. What is even more threatening to the health of our democracy - and indeed our entire civilisation - is the trend that has the emerging genre of fake news receiving equal billing alongside actual news.

The Catholic Church and homophobic bullying and violence

There was media coverage this week of a Queensland move to repeal the ‘unwanted homosexual advances’ defence for murder, commonly known as the 'gay panic defence'.

What I think is most remarkable about this development is that it was a Catholic priest - Father Paul Kelly - who heroically spearheaded the campaign that has been instrumental in getting the law reform to this stage.

Traditionally, and up to the present time, many Catholic priests have seen it as their duty to stand in the way of of justice for LGBTQI people. Some have even positively encouraged homophobic bullying or acts of violence.

Josh from ABC TV Please Like Me
Last year The Age revealed that the Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne Denis Hart had buried a 2007 report aimed at protecting LGBTQI students in Catholic schools from homophobic bullying. It was titled Not So Straight and written by then Jesuit priest Father Peter Norden.

The archbishop said that use of the report in schools would 'either blur the clear position of the Church or by the use of terms such as "natural behaviour" imply a suggestion that alternative sexuality should be accepted.' He expressed the long held view that it was important to draw a line between behaviour regarded as normative and what the Church teaches is 'disordered'.

It was, and largely still is, regarded as important for church personnel to actively maintain this distinction, though The Age report does indicate that Archbishop Hart has softened his stance since 2007.

I have a clear personal recollection from the mid 80s of a retired Jesuit preparatory school principal boasting of 'sending out' his students to bully peers who were homosexual. The context was the AIDS crisis which, in his commonly held view at the time, had made it more urgent that homosexuals remain marginalised.

This priest had obviously become more candid and eccentric as he aged, but that only makes his boast more credible. He'd made it clear that he'd considered it his duty to promote homophobic bullying. Other priests would be more discrete or possibly repentant.

I think that this kind of blatant church denial of human rights for LGBTQI people has now given way to a culture of widespread and insidious self-censorship, which I was part of until a year ago.

As editor of Eureka Street, I would refer upwards editorial content that promoted a view of the acceptance of homosexuality as normative. A California based Jesuit had written an excellent and potentially groundbreaking article offering a theological basis for affirming transgender identity (eventually published elsewhere). I weakened the article in an initial edit, then received suggestions for further softening after the upward referral. Subsequently it was my self-censoring decision not to proceed with publication.

That's why I'm pleased to see that my successors appear less bound by self-censorship, as is evident with the publication of today's lead. Titled Queering the airwaves for TV diversity, it is an affirmation of the currently screening LGBTQI themed ABC comedy drama Please Like Me (pictured). Today's article strikes a much overdue Catholic Church initiated blow against homophobic bullying and violence.

My own post-truth news world

This morning I reached for my radio's off button when I heard the beginning of a news story on ABC NewsRadio. It was that Queensland scientists have confirmed that this year's mass coral bleaching event has resulted in the largest die-off of corals ever recorded on the Great Barrier Reef.

News story of Great Barrier Reef record die-off
It has become a habit of mine to tune out when the news is bad. When it's good news I will consume it repeatedly.

Of course I'm not alone in wanting to know only good news. It's human. There would be something wrong with me if I had a taste for bad news.

Different people react to particular news stories in their own way. For me, it's specifically the destruction or decay of cultural or natural heritage, the harming of cultural minorities such as the genocide of the Yazidis, and particularly egregious stories of the exercise of policy cruelty to asylum seekers to drive home a political point. I get emotionally distressed.

I was first conscious of my feelings about the news in 2001, when the Bamiyan Buddhas were blown up and destroyed by the Taliban in Afghanistan. I was upset and found myself resenting that there was so much coverage of this event on the BBC World News TV channel. I wished they would give content warnings before broadcasting stories on the Bamiyan Buddhas. I was resentful that they didn't, almost as if they were playing with my emotions.

My avoidance of bad news includes events that will impact on what upsets me, such as the coverage of election counts. On Wednesday 9 November, I found myself feeling very grateful that my attention from US election counting news coverage was diverted by an appointment I had that afternoon, for nearly 90 minutes.

That was the most decisive and painful part of the coverage. When I switched off my smartphone, everything was going as expected for a HIllary Clinton victory. But when I turned my phone on after the appointment, my eyes fixed in disbelief on what was by that stage the hopeful headline in the New York Times app that Hillary still had a narrow path to victory.

So much had happened in 90 minutes, so much that would have been very painful for me to follow blow by blow. It was as if I'd been having surgery and been under general anaesthetic for the duration of the turning point in the vote counting. I was certainly disappointed and distressed at the now almost certain result. But in a way that was quite bizarre, the feeling of desolation was almost eclipsed by the consolation of being spared the slow drawn out pain of learning that Clinton had fallen short.

It's tempting to digress into thoughts about Trump and all the post-truth politics we've been exposed to this year. But my point about how we feel about what we hear in the news is in some ways more important though related. It reflects my own myopia and my own post-truth world. It's not reality but it's something to be acknowledged rather than dismissed. Because feelings about anything, including the news, are real.

Trump's death-tweet a lesson for Turnbull

One reader of yesterday's TinyLetter hit reply to the email and suggested the 'spineless' Turnbull reference could have been a bit personal [replies are always welcome]. She said she regretted doing the same to John Howard in something she wrote a few years ago. 'Better to criticise his policy rather than his character'. 

The free advice I would offer the current PM is to lose his sense of humour for a while - in order to enhance the dignity of his office - and not be too generous in assisting the media with its lazy portrayal of him as the hapless lame duck.

​Yesterday there was an element of playful self-deprecation in his trying it on with the selfie at APEC in Lima. Wouldn't it be nice for Turnbull if basking in the reflected dignity of President Obama would increase his stocks? Obama's dignity is legend, but it was too hard for Turnbull to exploit the outgoing President's star power and too easy for the Australian media to make him look pathetic.

Self-deprecation does not belong in a PM's playbook. Or at least not in this PM's playbook at this time. Rather than gift the media with opportunities to undermine his authority and trivialise the office of PM, he needed to take his cue yesterday from Trump rather than Obama.

Donald Trump was shamelessly trying it on with his calculated humourless slap down of Saturday Night Live performer Alec Baldwin's satire that targeted him. 'Totally one-sided, biased show - nothing funny at all'. Of course it was funny, but the President-elect wanted to short-circuit Baldwin's attempt to undermine the dignity of the Trump presidency before it begins.

Malcolm Turnbull is a good sport, and he would have paid Baldwin the compliment of laughing at the skit, even though the comedian was trying to trash his office. Trump, on the other hand, is an ungenerous control freak who won't give credit where it's due. But this time there's more to the death-tweet. Its gravitas is a likely attempt to make himself presidential. 

The demise of ABC Radio's Sunday Night with John Cleary

Yesterday I was catching up with a friend who spent many years in religious media. We discussed the week’s news of the axing of John Cleary’s Sunday Night religious talk program on ABC local radio stations. As an old timer, I was prompted to think back to the program’s early days in the late 80s.

John presented the program for much of its 28 years, though it did begin with a team of three presenters - ABC head of religion David Millikan, Movement for the Ordination of (Anglican) Women convenor Patricia Brennan, and Sydney northern beaches Baptist pastor John Hirt.

The program was a tribute to Millikan’s vision and negotiating skills. He had earlier been a key player in establishing the still existing Compass program on ABC TV, and now he identified the unloved late Sunday night timeslot on the metropolitan and regional radio network and persuaded higher management that a religious program belonged there.

As the program’s first producer, I was as inexperienced as the three presenters. It wasn’t long before it was thought that the veteran broadcaster and Sydney Anglican Kel Richards should be brought in, with John Cleary and myself both producing.

However it wasn’t going to work having a headstrong presenter in Richards and a headstrong producer in Cleary, especially with Kel wanting to evangelise and John seeing the program as a forum for intellectual debate. So within a month or two, John was the presenter and I was the producer, and we lasted together for most of the rest of my three or four years in the Religious Department, which I left in 1992.

As was the case with many radio programs at the time, it was the presenter who called the shots. I thought the program should have music and variety so that it would fit in better with other programs on what was the ABC’s popular network. John held sway with his commitment to a more serious intellectual discussion of a single topic for the program’s then two hour duration from 10:00 to midnight. I think he was right. It made for very stimulating listening, and it survived so long because management did not consider the ‘graveyard’ of late Sunday night worth worrying about.

I had mentioned to David Millikan the name of former Melbourne priest Terry Laidler, whom I’d worked with in my first ever media involvement, which was a religious discussion program with Melbourne University students on FOX FM Melbourne, that was actually not too dissimilar to Sunday Night. Terry ended up as presenter of Sunday Night before going on to present the Drive and Evenings programs on what was then 3LO in Melbourne. Later, ABC religious radio EP David Busch presented what was by then called Sunday Night Talk, for a number of years until the return of John Cleary.

The program gradually acquired more variety, including the much loved Inquisition quiz at midnight, which mirrored the 25 Question Quiz in the midnight timeslot on Nightlife on weeknights. But management seems to want much more homogeneity on the stations, and Sunday Night is finishing.

I have not tuned into to the program regularly for many years because I found it too stimulating and I could not get to sleep if I listened to it. I always listen to radio when I’m going to sleep, but I deliberately opt for much more bland content.

It was often said that the program was more suited to the more serious spoken word station Radio National, and indeed it was funded out of Radio National’s budget. But as far as I know, there were never any moves to shift Sunday Night from the local stations to Radio National, as had occurred with the long running documentary program Encounter, back in the early 1980s.

Instead of moving Sunday Night to Radio National, they are commencing a new program with the working title God Forbid and the very talented and engaging younger presenter James Carleton.

As far as I know, James has no specialist knowledge of religion, though he will ensure that, as much as it can be, it is a very good program (hopefully with a better title). There’s no doubt that effectively replacing Cleary with him represents not just generational change, but one of the final nails in the coffin of genuine religious expertise at the ABC and in Australia’s mainstream media in general.

The head of ABC Radio Michael Mason says the Nightline program that will replace Sunday Night will include some coverage of religion. But, as is the case with the press, where there are no longer any journalists specialising in religion, the lower level of expertise in those asking the questions will lead to less scrutiny of the fundamentalism that seems to be increasing in most areas of Australian religious life.