COMMITTEES;Select Committee on the Future of Public Interest Journalism;Report – 05 Feb 2018

As chair of the Senate Select Committee on the Future of Public Interest Journalism, I’d like to make a few comments on the report we’re presenting to the Senate today.

A vibrant, diverse and free fourth estate is an essential component for any healthy democracy.

Australians rely on quality journalism to give them access to the information they need. This helps them to make informed decisions about how they participate in democracy, as well as enriching their lives more generally. In short, public interest journalism keeps the powerful accountable. It ensures that both the Commonwealth and parliament are transparent and accountable to the Australian people.

The evidence received by the committee was clear: the Australian and global news media sectors still face significant challenges, especially in dealing with the transition to web based news delivery.

A crash in revenues from traditional business models has led to the shutting down or restructuring of many news publications.

Until recently, newspaper classifieds and commercial ads underpinned the revenue of newspapers. This has shifted quickly, and now online aggregators—especially Google and Facebook—dominate advertising in a way that was unimaginable just a few years ago.

This has meant the loss of many journalist jobs. Fewer journalists mean less coverage of important areas of public interest, less scrutiny on public institutions and less coverage of other powerful vested interests in society.

This is especially concerning given the recent spread of fake news, and its obvious corrosive effects on democracies around the world.

As well as these clear challenges, the committee took evidence of the unprecedented opportunities offered by the digital age.

There are now larger audiences for news medias than ever before. Consumers can access information and news from devices they carry in their pockets, and this has led to the democratisation of information and communication. Perspectives that struggled to be recognised or reflected in mainstream media now can find a platform, a voice and an audience.

The committee was guided by three questions:

(1) What are the challenges and opportunities for public interest journalism?

(2) Where can the Commonwealth contribute positively to the health, diversity and financial stability of the sector, without compromising the principal of the freedom and independence of the press?

(3) If the Commonwealth can proactively support the industry, how could the costs of any initiatives be offset in the budget?

The committee received 75 submissions from individuals and organisations, and held seven hearings in Canberra, Sydney and Melbourne. The committee also sought information from relevant government departments on notice.

While there was a unanimous recognition of the challenges faced, there was no firm view on how these will play out in the future. But evidence did overwhelmingly support the Commonwealth looking to see how it can assist the sector.

This marks a change. Almost six years ago, the landmark Finkelstein review, commissioned by the previous Labor government, noted challenging trends for the industry, but found there was not a case for government support, on the basis that it was too early to reach firm conclusions on the changes that were occurring at the time. Nevertheless, Finkelstein noted that the situation was changing rapidly, and required careful and continuous monitoring and made a number of recommendations that trends in, and the health of, the industry be charted.

Evidence presented to our committee suggested there is now a more clear case for the Commonwealth to step in, at least in some limited areas. Indeed, even some witnesses who worked on Finkelstein, and felt there was no need for Commonwealth assistance at that time, told the committee that their opinions had changed.

The pace of change in the sector has meant that there have been significant developments even over the course of the inquiry.

Journalists have continued to be laid off, both from large masthead newspapers, as well as from the collapse of smaller new players. As this report was finalised we received the sad news that Crinkling News, Australia’s only newspaper for kids, had closed down due to financial pressures.

2017 also saw parliament pass the government’s broadcasting amendments. This legislation did not address the problem of Australia having one of the highest levels of media ownership concentration in the world. In fact it made the situation worse through the abolition of the two-out-of-three cross-media control rule which, until recently, prohibited a person from controlling all three regulated forms of media—commercial radio, commercial TV and associated newspapers—in the one licence area.

By repealing this rule, the Turnbull government handed unprecedented powers to a privileged few media operators—permitting them to consolidate even further in Australia’s already highly concentrated media landscape.

In order to secure passage of the repeal of the two-out-of-three rule in the Senate, the government had to do a number of deals with the crossbench. Some of these are being considered by other Senate committees at the moment, including the Regional and Small Publishers Innovation Fund that was announced at the eleventh hour as a trade-off for Nick Xenophon’s support for the repeal of the two-out-of-three media diversity safeguard.

Alas, for outfits like Crinkling News, this short-term fund is a case of too little, too late. The deal done with One Nation is a blatant attack on our national broadcasters, the ABC and SBS, who were used as bargaining chips in the media ownership changes. It is obvious that the measures secured by One Nation, which include three bills to tamper with the ABC and SBS acts and charters and a ‘competitive neutrality inquiry’, are not motivated by any good policy rationale or public good but, rather, a political vendetta by one party uncomfortable with being scrutinised by investigative journalists.

Other developments that have occurred over the course of the inquiry include significant policy announcements by digital platforms on matters which impact the news media, as well as indications that the level of cooperation and partnership between digital platforms and the news media has deepened and will continue to evolve. For example, Google announced the end of its ‘first click free’ policy in October 2017, Google and Fairfax Media announced an advertising partnership in December 2017 and, in January 2018, Facebook announced changes to News Feed. Most significantly, last year the Commonwealth directed the ACCC to inquire into the market powers of aggregators, and the challenge this poses to public interest journalism. Given the expertise and the resources of the ACCC, this committee has made no recommendations in this area for the Commonwealth, but looks forward to the ACCC’s report in 2019.

Given the ongoing pace of change, the committee’s recommendations have focused on some practical measures for the Commonwealth to bolster public interest journalism.

There was compelling evidence that the not-for-profit sector has led a revival in journalism in the US. In particular, private philanthropy has allowed many new or existing organisations to invest more heavily in quality journalism.

Given this, the committee has recommended the Commonwealth develop a framework for extending ‘deductible gift recipient’—or ‘DGR’—status to not-for-profit news organisations that adhere to standards of public interest journalism.

The committee has also recommended that the government should investigate the value of offering every Australian the ability to claim subscriptions to trustworthy news providers as a tax deduction.

The capacity of the ABC and SBS for public interest journalism has no doubt been impacted by hundreds of millions of dollars in budget cuts under the government.

The committee recommended that the ABC and SBS, bastions of trusted, public interest journalism in Australia, be funded adequately. This means resourcing for its service delivery in regional and rural areas, and for its fact-checking capacity.

Additionally, evidence suggested that the community media sector should be given some surety for its future funding. This would allow it to plan effectively, especially considering the ongoing rollout of digital services across Australia.

The committee also heard that the Commonwealth should consider where legal frameworks could be reformed or harmonised—in association with states and territories—so that journalists can get on with their important work without undue restriction.

Where there is a lack of clarity in these laws, there should be more information. Where there is injustice, there should be reform. Any review of defamation laws should look at whether they strike an appropriate balance between promoting public interest journalism and the right of individuals to protection from reputational harm. This would allow journalists to get on with the important job of covering issues that are in the public interest.

As the chair for the final stage of the committee, I acknowledge the work of the senators who served on this committee, as well as the committee secretariat.

I would like to thank the many witnesses who gave evidence—either through submissions or public hearings. These included, but were not limited to, journalists, academics and representatives of media and technology companies.

It’s with great pleasure that I commend the report to the Senate.