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Media Law Reform

I spoke in parliament about changes in the media, information inequality, and the government’s proposed changes to media laws.

Media Law Reform, 20 March 2013

Great journalism really can change the world. Emile Zola’s ‘J’accuse’ letter did not just win Alfred Dreyfus his freedom; it helped to change the political character of modern France. When Woodward and Bernstein reported on Watergate, they brought down a president. In Australia, reporting by the Courier-Mail and Four Corners ended the Bjelke-Petersen government and led to the jailing of three ministers. In 2005, a newspaper article brought down New South Wales opposition leader John Brogden and probably changed the outcome of the 2007 New South Wales election.

Great reporting can shape the world for the better, but it is vital that that reporting keep pace with changes in technology, and there is possibly no industry changing more rapidly than that of the news media. We have seen a huge technological shift through not just cable and digital TV providing more channels—and, soon, digital radio having that effect for most radio listeners—but also the proliferation of new platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, and other news sources. We are increasingly seeing newspapers change their format and their character.

These technological shifts, like standard technological shifts in other industries, have led to greater inequality in the news. If you are an engaged consumer, there has never been a better time to consume the news media. You can watch press conferences on Sky or ABC 24. You get transcripts straight off the internet. You can quickly get the opinions of thoughtful bloggers and sassy tweeters. But if you are less engaged then things tend to look a bit different. While the most engaged consumers have seen their news media become more abundant, more diverse in terms of outlets and more accessible, taken as a whole we have seen a rise in opinion and, I think, also a rise in nastiness and shallowness.

Those three shifts, which I talked about in a speech at the University of Canberra last year, have implications for media laws. The notion that the media laws should just stand still while the press goes through the largest shift in its history is, to me, a trifle strange. Certainly, if you were to look at the words of the member for Wentworth, you would get that sense—at least, if you looked at his words circa 2011. The member for Wentworth gave what I thought was quite a thoughtful speech on 7 December 2011 to the Advanced Centre of Journalism, noting:

‘The consequence of this decline in journalism is that too many important matters of public interest are either not covered at all or covered superficially. At the local level, there is less attention paid to local councils and even state parliaments.’

He went on to say:

‘Consider the shrinking Canberra Press Gallery—the vast bulk of its coverage of federal politics is now about personalities and the game of politics.

‘Readers seeking a better understanding of how the carbon tax or the mining tax, for example, will operate will often struggle to find much assistance in the output of the gallery—with some very honourable exceptions—compared to the millions of words written about Kevin Rudd vs Julia Gillard let alone Tony Abbott’s budgie smugglers.’

The member for Wentworth also said:

The consequence of all of this has been that what we used to call the 24 hour news cycle has become instead an opinion cycle.

He continued:

‘Over the last few decades we have seen a proliferation of mediums through which news and information can be viewed. In my youth as a reporter we were limited to the newspapers (more then than now), a few television stations, a few more radio stations and a handful of magazines.’

The member for Wentworth also quoted the late US senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan: ‘Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts.’ He noted one of the changes that I think is of greatest concern to many of us:

‘… the whole edifice of our fifth estate, of our journalism, has been built on a foundation of newspaper journalism and … that foundation is crumbling.’

My largest concern about the changes in the news media is not about slant towards left or right. Media slant will come and go. When I studied media slant with Joshua Gans, looking at the Howard government period 1996 to 2004, we found that most of the outlets adopted centrist positions. But I am concerned that the rise of opinion, the trend that Laura Tingle has described as ‘Australia’s politics and our public discourse have become noticeably angrier’ or that Annabel Crabb describes as ‘a hostile, scratchy feel to politics at the moment’. That rise of nastiness and the rise of shallowness with its emphasis on one-liners rather than thoughtful commentary are of concern. The increase in poll-driven journalism—focusing on the horse race rather than the issues of the day—is one to which the member for Wentworth referred in his 2011 speech.

You can get a sense of how unusual the current laws are by simply looking at the regulation of smh.com.au and ninemsn.com.au. They are two of Australia’s most popular news websites, but content on the Sydney Morning Herald‘s website is created by a newspaper and so it operates under a voluntary code of conduct regulated by the Australian Press Council. The ninemsn website is created by a broadcaster and so its content must have complaints directed to the Australian Communications and Media Authority, a statutory authority, and ACMA can consider the suitability of a person who seeks to hold a broadcasting licence. I do not think anyone would argue that, were we starting from scratch today, we ought to regulate the SMH website and the ninemsn website in utterly different ways.

This regulation is outdated and the member for Wentworth acknowledged in 2011 that was a concern. Prominent journalists have themselves also acknowledged that changes in the shape of the media are a significant challenge for good public policy. George Megalogenis argues that the 1970′s saw the media emerge as perhaps the only institution that played a constructive role, but he argues that the media is today ‘an intrinsic part of the problem’. They are George Megalogenis’s words. These changes are happening rapidly. Ray Finkelstein’s review—ably assisted by Matthew Ricketson at the University of Canberra and Rodney Tiffen, who was my original politics and media lecturer when I was a whippersnapper at the University of Sydney, Francesco Papandrea, Denis Muller, Kristen Walker, Christopher Young, Graeme Hill, Jack Bourke and Mansa Chintoh—recognised that it is important to look at how the industry has changed. It noted, for example, the significant change in the number of daily metropolitan newspapers in Australia. If we go back to Federation, Australia had 21 metropolitan or national daily newspapers belonging to 17 owners. The number of newspapers increased to 26 in 1923, but that number has since fallen. In 1985 there were 18 of these newspapers; now we are down to 11.

The Australian newspaper industry is shrinking not only in the number of newspapers, but also in concentration. We have three major owners and that makes our newspaper industry perhaps the most concentrated in the developed world. Other speakers in this debate have noted these facts. Our top newspaper group controls 58 per cent of circulation; our top two control 86 per cent of circulation; our top four control 99 per cent of circulation. All of those numbers exceed the other countries that are surveyed in the International Media Concentration Research Project: Switzerland, Israel, Ireland, Portugal, France, Turkey, South Africa, United Kingdom, Taiwan, the Netherlands, Brazil, China, Sweden, Canada, Finland, Russia, Korea, Germany, India, Mexico, Japan, Spain, Italy, the United States and Poland all have less concentrated newspaper industries than Australia.

Ensuring that we have a healthy newspaper industry is absolutely fundamental. It is fundamental to our democracy and it is fundamental, frankly, to freedom of speech. It is within that framework that the government brings these laws before the House. These laws are nowhere near the extreme imposition that the member for Wentworth would now have you believe. Let us recall that, when the Leveson inquiry began, when allegations of phone hacking were first aired in 2011, there were those in Australia who argued that we should have a ‘fit and proper person’ test applied, that we should curtail foreign ownership of the press, that we should put in place strict licensing regimes. Instead, what the government has put in place are much more modest and careful reforms that indeed I suspect are entirely in keeping with what the member for Wentworth spoke about in 2011—this great challenge that faces our society in which it is important to ensure that we have a proliferation of thoughtful voices in the media.

It is because newspapers journalists are fundamental to the media that we need to make sure that we have diversity of voices within the newspaper market. And we need to recognise that newspapers are important not only for their readers, who are indeed a declining group in Australian society. The Finkelstein report noted, for example, that in 1977 there were 29 newspapers sold for every 100 Australians; now we are down to 10 newspapers sold for every 100 Australians. But, while newspaper circulation is falling, newspapers retain their influence through agenda setting, their impact on talkback radio and their impact on television. Newspapers have also had a disproportionate influence on breaking news stories and on bringing about in-depth analysis of issues. I am thinking of some of the thoughtful reporting carried out, for example, by Neil Chenoweth of the Australian Financial Review. The degree of scrutiny that comes through high-quality press is enormously important to the strength of our democracy.

I rise to speak on these bills because of my passion for the journalism industry. I believe that we have great journalists in Australia at the moment and that it is important that that situation continue. It is important that the government and the opposition are held to account by the press and by a diversity of views. But we have to recognise in this debate that changes in technology bring with them inequality. It is a mistake to view changes in the media through the lens only of the most engaged news consumers. If you think about the current availability of news sources only from the perspective of being plugged in 24 hours a day, constantly updating yourself with tweets and reading the latest government reports, you have to realise that you are not a typical consumer. We have to recognise that the rise of opinion, of nastiness, of shallowness, does affect the way in which many Australians view the press. It has to be recognised that there are possibly more Australians interested in reading about Lara Bingle than reading Laura Tingle. But it is important that we have a set of news media laws that sustain great journalists like Ms Tingle. Such journalists will continue to keep governments accountable under these laws.

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