A young woman killed in a car crash is above all a tragedy for her, her family and her friends. But when the crash is allegedly caused by a vigilante chasing a car thief, it becomes front-page news for the tabloids. For days on end.
This is what happened in Townsville on February 5th, as a 22-year old woman was riding her motorbike and was hit by the vigilante’s car. Not only did The Townsville Bulletin splash the story over the one quarter of the front-page usually reserved for actual news, but the newspaper continued to milk it for all it was worth, feeding the oft-repeated narrative that Queensland politicians are “soft on crime”.
Last year, four Indigenous youths lost their lives in a stolen car being driven at excessive speed after it hit a signpost, launched into the air, and crashed into the top part of a traffic light. Another series of front-page stories in “the Bully” ensued.
News Corp-owned The Townsville Bulletin is the only local newspaper available to the residents of Townsville. It’s published Monday to Saturday and most Townsville people buy the paper at their local stores. With a week-day circulation of 84,000 in a town with a population of 195,000 (2020), plus 20,000 daily visits to the website, most people of reading age will read at least some of the headlines every day.
With its obvious political bias that favours the LNP, the newspaper seized on the tragedy to further attack the Labor Party and its alleged inaction on juvenile crime in the town.
The Townsville Bulletin also uses Facebook to advertise their stories to attract traffic (for free) to their digital editions. All stories, including those that may be of benefit in relation to safety of the community, are behind the paper’s pay wall.
As one Townsville resident said to Michael West Media:
“Yes, I agree that The Townsville Bulletin is not a charity, they are a business. However, being the only newspaper in the region, they should be subject to moral responsibility as well as the responsibility to provide impartial news and editorial, because of their dominant position.
“These deaths are the result of inaction and lack of accountability of politicians by the Bulletin, who refuse to change their ways.
“Furthermore, as they utilise Facebook not only to market their digital platform, but also to cause further division, anger, hate and vigilantism, they are responsible for the chain of events that have led to the death of this innocent woman. And for every single item relating to this young woman’s death, you are required to (be a subscriber) to read the article.”
The Townsville Bulletin claims they moderate comments on their Facebook page. But there is little evidence of that as anger, accusations and threats are posted with abandon.
This is also another example of the folly of the Digital Media Code which may soon become law, potentially forcing Facebook to pay publishers like The Townsville Bulletin for content they post for free to drive subscriptions and eyeballs to their advertisers.
Google & Facebook laws just a back rub for News and Nine
Not only do the people of Townsville have just one source of local news, they have to pay for it in a newspaper peppered with advertisers who also seem to thrive on the old adage that bad news sells. Otherwise Harvey Norman for one would not be so prominently displayed.
But go to the classifieds section online and it is a different story. Or rather no story at all; my search for a plumber in Townsville rendered not a single result. The rivers of gold that these papers could once rely on have run dry.
There are many towns like this in Australia. The lucky ones may still have an independent publisher still running a paper and a website on a shoestring budget and the passions and perseverance of their owner. But most are like Townsville. With a single paper owned either by News Corp or by Antony Catalano’s Australian Community Media.
This is an area of much greater concern for the protection of media diversity and quality journalism than what goes on in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. This is a level of media concentration that the ACCC should be concerned with; not whether Facebook and Google should share crumbs of their revenues with the old, but still so dominant, mainstream media.
And when such media concentration leads to the exploitation of the death of a young woman purely for commercial gain, we should all be concerned.