The media are a key accountability measure, not just at elections but between them as well. They are the ‘4th estate’.

They are needed to expose lies and corruption and both provide and contribute to public debate on the merits of the promises and performance of parties competing to be entrusted with the people’s power. To enable them to fulfil that role, they have, and seek, ‘Freedom of the Press’ and its various concrete manifestations (e.g. abrogated privacy, limits to defamation and non-revelation of sources).

Media institutions capable of reaching large numbers of citizens have generally been capital intensive so there have been significant barriers to new entrants. Even if the cost of printing has dropped massively and accessing the Internet is very cheap, regularly accessing large numbers of citizens is expensive and is regularly achieved only by those with large institutions and recognised ‘mastheads’.

This gives media institutions a good deal of power. Like all power, it can be abused. They may play favourites in promoting some politicians over others or secure particular favours under the implied threat of the former. This is particularly dangerous where the favours sought lead to an increasing concentration of media ownership that increases the implied threat. Politicians have a joint but rarely concurrent shared interest in limiting such concentration. But the lure of support and the threat of its removal prevent them uniting. Where media is foreign owned there is a risk that coverage will reflect the interests of the country where the owner has chosen to live rather than Australia.[i]

In recent years, there has been an increasing concern that the lack of profitability of the press and other media has made it more difficult for media organisations to continue to fund investigative units.  They are expensive in that many months of work may be required to produce one story or perhaps come to the conclusion that there is no story.

The option of government funding for journalism is seen by some as having the potential to give rise to conflicts of interest.  In Australia, the reductions in funding to the ABC may reflect the Government’s view that the ABC’s investigative journalism is unwelcome.  In Europe, several countries provide direct subsidies to newspapers apparently without raising concerns about press freedom.[ii]

There are a number of ways these issues can be addressed: –

  • Diverse ownership and editorial control, including multiple proprietors and encouragement of a diversity of views;
  • ‘Angel investors’ who do not have an agenda but want to support quality news;
  • Trust ownership (e.g. The Guardian);
  • Supporting the ABC, financially and otherwise, as the quality standards-setter in Australian journalism;
  • Adoption and enforcement of ABC style standards for all news media i.e. “the gathering and presentation by the Corporation of news and information is accurate and impartial according to the recognised standards of objective journalism”;
  • Professionalisation of journalists and editors with editorial charters to ensure their independence from the views of owners, effectively transforming ‘freedom of the press’ into ‘freedom for journalists’. Under this scenario the protections for media organisations (e.g. ‘shield laws’, protection of sources and limitation on defamation) are increased, but only for those organisations in which boards, editors and journalists commit to professional standards and independent enforcement. The rest of the media can continue to operate (as, effectively, entertainment) but without the existing protections;
  • Professional firms of journalists – with journalists who have won a high profile working in existing media companies to start electronic journals (see Alan Kohler’s various enterprises as a positive example);
  • Financial support for investigative journalism. This idea is not new to Australia. For example, the Select Committee on the Future of Public Interest Journalism report (February 2018) recommended: ‘that the Commonwealth develop and implement a framework for extending deductible gift recipient (DGR) status to not-for-profit news media organisations in Australia that adhere to appropriate standards of practice for public interest journalism’.
  • Funding for those who use journalist’s content: The ‘rivers of gold’ from classified advertising that once cross subsidized journalism have dried up. Larger ‘Amazonian’ rivers of gold have emerged that flow into the coffers of Google, Facebook and Amazon, part of which is based on the journalistic exertions of others. ART supports payments by those tech giants with the following additional requirements:
    • the recipient media organisations are not engaged in tax minimisation (which should not be an issue if they are so cash strapped)
    • the funding goes to fund professional journalism
    • the arrangements are legislated rather than negotiated between the parties. The idea that oligopolists in two related fields should be encouraged to sit down and bargain with each other to their mutual advantage is incredible. As Adam Smith put it: “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.”
    • These arrangements are not an alternative for requiring that the tech giants pay tax on their Australian revenue.

It should be noted that shield laws would only apply to the professional journalists. Those protections would only be extended to platforms and media companies engaged in entertainment where they were either paying their own journalists or buying the protected content from the journalists (and agree to be bound to follow Press Council requirements for retractions etc).

[i] Alastair Campbell’s memoire reported that Rupert Murdoch phoned then UK PM Tony Blair and told him that, if he went to war he would have the full backing of his newspapers. Going to war is the most serious responsibility of any government, going to war illegally (which the vast majority of international lawyers say it was) is in flagrant breach of the UN Charter. The Australian refused to publish a letter from 43 experts in public international law arguing, as most international lawyers did, that the proposed war was illegal. On the day the war began, the Australian did have a piece from one of them (Prof Gillian Triggs) but brandished next to it a letter in support of the war signed by 21 lawyers whom the headline misleadingly referred to as international lawyers but of whom only 8 had ever practiced or taught public international law (the main claim to fame of one of them was in tax minimisation schemes).

[ii] Tom Greenwell 2017 “Journalism is in peril. Can government help?” 29/6/2017 Inside Story)

Recommendation 20

The Media as an Accountability Mechanism: To ensure that the media play their roles in holding governments to account, professional journalism should be supported and concentration of media ownership should be reduced by diverse ownership, ‘Angel investors’ and charities which do not have an agenda but want to support quality news, Trust ownership (e.g. The Guardian); supporting the ABC, financially and otherwise, as the quality standards-setter in Australian journalism; adoption and enforcement of ABC style standards for all news media. Professionalisation of journalists and editors with editorial charters to ensure their independence from the views of owners is essential.

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