New foreign interference laws will compound risks to whistleblowers and journalists


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Increasingly, the language of ‘national security’ is invoked to protect a government’s broader interests.
AAP/Mick Tsikas

Keiran Hardy, Griffith University

The Turnbull government has announced a crackdown on foreign interference in Australian politics and national security. Proposed laws include a ban on foreign political donations, new criminal offences, and a transparency register for those acting on behalf of foreign governments or organisations.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull carefully emphasised that the proposals are not focused on China’s influence in Australia. But, as the Lowy Institute’s Euan Graham put it, there’s an “800-pound panda” in the room.

The proposed criminal offences will significantly expand the scope of existing laws against espionage and treason. This will make it easier to prosecute spies and other foreign nationals who seek undue influence over Australian business or politics.

However, the new laws pose risks to whistleblowers and journalists. They suggest the concept of “national security” is continually expanding.


Further reading: Ban on foreign political donations is both too broad and too narrow, and won’t fix our system


Espionage

The Criminal Code currently sets out an offence of espionage that is punishable by 25 years’ imprisonment.

The main offence applies where someone communicates or makes available information that concerns Australia’s security or defence. The person must intend to prejudice Australia’s security or defence, or advantage another country’s security or defence. Under the proposed changes, this offence will attract a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.

Where a person recklessly endangers Australia’s security or defence, this will be punishable by the current penalty.

The new espionage offences will apply to possessing or receiving information, in addition to communicating it. They will protect a broader range of information, including unclassified material.

Other new offences, punishable by 15 years’ imprisonment, will target preparation for espionage and the theft of trade secrets.

Foreign interference

Proposed offences for foreign interference will target conduct not ordinarily considered to be espionage or treason.

Currently, the federal offence of treason describes very rare and serious conduct, such as assassinating or capturing the Queen or prime minister.

These new offences will target covert, deceptive or undisclosed conduct that is directed, funded, supervised or undertaken on behalf of a foreign interest. The penalties will range between ten and 20 years’ imprisonment.

To constitute foreign interference, the conduct must be intended to:

  • serve the intelligence purposes of a foreign actor

  • harm Australia’s national security

  • influence the exercise or performance of a democratic or political right, or

  • influence a government or political process.

Other new offences will target the support or funding of foreign intelligence agencies. These will be similar to existing crimes for supporting or funding terrorist organisations.

Are the new offences needed?

The changes will make it easier to prosecute foreign nationals who intentionally interfere with Australia’s business, political or foreign policy interests.

Where such influence cannot strictly be described as impacting on security or defence, successful prosecution under the existing espionage or treason offences is very difficult.

The government’s other justifications are much weaker. The current espionage offences already extend beyond the communication of information to making, obtaining or copying sensitive records. The Crimes Act includes offences that are triggered when an Australian public official discloses official secrets or other information obtained in the course of their employment.

What are the risks?

The proposed offences will target some conduct that should clearly be a serious criminal offence, such as intentionally supporting a foreign intelligence agency.

However, the proposed laws go well beyond such clear cases to target a broad and vague range of conduct affecting Australian interests. This includes possessing unclassified information and any deceptive or undisclosed conduct that influences government processes.

Most importantly, the proposed changes pose risks to whistleblowers and Australian media organisations. These risks were compounded in 2014 by changes to national security legislation in response to the threat of foreign fighters.


Further reading: National security bills compound existing threats to media freedom


A journalist could face serious penalties under the proposed espionage offences for receiving information leaked by a government official or intelligence whistleblower, before they even decide to publish that information.

It seems the information need not even be classified for the penalties to apply, provided making the information available would benefit a foreign country or organisation.

The government needs to ensure that journalists publishing sensitive information in the public interest will not face criminal prosecution for espionage or other federal criminal offences. This should be done by drafting legal protections for journalists who act in a professional capacity in the public interest.

Assurances from Attorney-General George Brandis that journalists will not be prosecuted for doing their job are not enough.

The proposed laws should be viewed not only as a response to increasing Chinese influence in Australia, but also as symptomatic of a post-Snowden crackdown, in which all potentially embarrassing information about government is closely protected.

Similar debates about expanded espionage offences and press freedom have already taken place in the UK. These debates confirm that “national security” is no longer simply about physical threats like terrorism or traditional forms of spying.

The ConversationIncreasingly, the language of national security is invoked to protect a government’s broader interests – political, business and economic.

Keiran Hardy, Lecturer, School of Criminology and Criminal Justice and Member, Griffith Criminology Institute, Griffith University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Media reform deals will reduce diversity and amount to little more than window dressing


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The latest reforms will do nothing to prevent further concentration of Australia’s media landscape.
AAP/Dean Lewins

Tim Dwyer, University of Sydney

The breakthrough in negotiations with the Senate crossbenchers that the government has been chipping away at over media reform has finally arrived.

The deregulatory legislation, the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Broadcasting Reform) Bill 2017, required 38 votes to pass the Senate, where the Coalition controls 29 votes. It had already secured the support of three crossbenchers and four One Nation senators, but was waiting for just two votes to get it over the line – until Nick Xenophon did the deal.

After protracted negotiations with Xenophon and his NXT party, the Coalition has arrived at a quid pro quo deal that sees the repeal of the remaining cross-media diversity rules, after the government agreed to NXT’s proposal to introduce funding grants for small and regional publishers. Clearly, though, they are not the “substantial quid pro quo” for public interest journalism that Xenophon has trumpeted, which had previously included tax breaks.

The main features of the bill are:

  • repeal of the “two-out-of-three” rule and the 75% reach rule;

  • the creation of a one-off A$50 million innovation fund for smaller and regional publishers, whose turnover is between A$300,000 and A$30 million. This is capped at $1 million per publisher and available from mid-2018; and

  • the creation of 200 cadetships and 60 scholarships.

The government will also direct the ACCC to conduct an inquiry into the advertising practices of Google and Facebook and their impact on journalism.

Funding for these publishers will require them to meet specific eligibility criteria, including membership of the Australian Press Council and having ethical guidelines in place. It will need to be for the purposes of news production, and civic and public interest journalism from a local perspective. The Australian Communications and Media Authority will oversee the distribution of the funds.

Recipients of the grants must be majority Australian-owned, pass an independence test, and not be affiliated with a political party, union, super fund or lobby group.

These eligibility criteria means some publishers will not have access to these meagre funds. For example, offshore controlled or owned online publications such as The Guardian and Buzzfeed, or a publisher like The New Daily, which is closely affiliated with super funds, would miss out.

Other horsetrading has led to amendments that assist community television, a welcome rescue measure for the sector. It includes a controversial measure such as the A$30 million gift to Fox Sports for women’s and niche sports – a commercial broadcaster that can be accessed by less than 30% of the Australian population.

A major A$90 million gift to commercial free-to-air broadcasters in the form of licence fee removals raises the question of whether something was given in return.

The obvious quid pro quo here is an agreement secured to remove gambling advertising in prime time.

In the wider frame of high industry concentration and the dominance of US-based hegemons, Xenophon’s measures are a minimalistic band-aid response, which will do nothing to prevent further concentration of Australia’s media landscape.

The NXT “wins” are really only window dressing. The One Nation “wins” in relation to further scrutiny on the ABC are a ludicrous attempt at payback for critical coverage.

The more principled approach of Labor and the Greens, who did not support the repeal of the two-out-of-three diversity maintaining rule, is laudable – and may yet form the basis of real media reform in their next federal election campaigns.

The earlier proposed tax breaks for genuine public interest journalism reporting the news and informing the public had the potential to help keep some small players afloat. But one-off grants of A$1 million are hardly going to save struggling publishers.

On the face of it since eligible beneficiaries will be News Corporation and Fairfax Media competitors, many would think this must be a step in the right direction. However, it really is a drop in the ocean compared with the resources of the majors. It will do nothing to remedy the major problem of longer term concentration which needs a complete redesign of the regulatory framework fit for the 21st century.

The opportunity for a root-and-branch analysis of media consumption by Australian audiences, an agency tasked to effectively do that and tracking the transitioning news industries, with commensurate resources and diversity mechanisms has, once again, been sidestepped.

These latest negotiations follow a decade of attempts by conservative governments to dismantle media ownership restrictions.

These minor funding measures do nothing to address the underlying problem of an increasingly concentrated media landscape (where the vast bulk of the eyeballs are anyway). The more serious mechanisms that have been ventilated in the Senate Select Committee Inquiry into the Future of Public Interest Journalism — such as direct financial subsidies — have not got a look in.

A 2014 study prepared for the London School of Economics looked at countries with direct financial support for their news industries (the Nordic countries, the Netherlands, Austria, France). The support was for up to 50 years, no matter the party in power. The report concluded that:

Policymakers can support private media organisations with mechanisms such as tax relief or even direct subsidies to specific media companies. Such support need not compromise media independence if safeguards such as statutory eligibility criteria are in place.

The authors’ view was that the reality of convergence meant support of private media should be extended to online media.

Serious diversity mechanisms such as indirect tax measures and direct measures like subsidies did not pass muster in the historically cosy relations between politicians and media proprietors.

Real alternatives with impact are possible. In the Swedish subsidy scheme, for example, eligible print or digital newspapers need to have less than 30% market share.

While subsidies contribute only 2-3% of total industry revenue, they amount to 15-20% of revenue for weaker titles that are their main beneficiaries. For a handful, the subsidy represents up to 33% of total earnings.

Of greater importance to the survival of smaller publishers, these minor funding measures do very little to address the fact that 90% of new online ad spending is controlled by Google and Facebook. So why doesn’t the government introduce a levy on these two players to fund public interest journalism as suggested by the Senate Select Committee on the Future of Public Interest Journalism?

While there are still some ownership controls (minimum of five media voices in metro and four in regional and rural markets), and local content requirements that remain in place, these will not stop further media concentration.

A single person cannot control more than two radio stations or more than one television station in a single market. In regional markets there is still a requirement of 21 minutes of local content a day – a fairly low bar most agree. However, News Corp Australia, for example, which already owns around two-thirds of the print media sector, would be allowed to buy up all the traditional categories of media (TV, radio, and print) in any single market.

The ConversationIn cities such as Brisbane, Adelaide and Hobart, where there is already only one daily newspaper, the consequences of further concentration are stark.


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Tim Dwyer, Associate Professor, Department of Media and Communications, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Government set to win Senate support for media deregulation


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The government on Wednesday finally clinched a deal with the crossbench Nick Xenophon Team.
Mick Tsikas/AAP

Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

The federal government is set on Thursday to secure Senate support for a major deregulation of Australia’s media rules, clearing the way for a sweeping shake-up of the industry.

It will be the biggest overhaul since Paul Keating’s 1987 changes.

The government on Wednesday finally clinched a deal with the crossbench Nick Xenophon Team (NXT), which secured A$60.4 million for a “regional and small publishers’ jobs and innovation package”.

Under the government’s new rules, a company will be able to have TV, radio and print outlets in the same market – at present it is limited to two out of the three.

Commercial media groups have been strongly in favour of the change, which is set to spark a flurry of mergers and acquisitions.

In an earlier deal, the government some weeks ago locked in the support of Pauline Hanson by agreeing to measures that would potentially clip the wings of the ABC.

It promised an inquiry into whether the ABC and SBS are operating on a “level playing field” with their commercial competitors, and to introduce legislation this year to insert the words “fair” and “balanced” in the requirements for the ABC’s news and information. But the NXT has said it will not support this legislation, which would mean it would fail.

The media changes will also abolish the 75% reach rule, under which TV licence holders cannot reach more than 75% of the Australian population.

The future of the financially embattled Channel 10 has been in play in anticipation of the scrapping of the two-out-of-three rule.

News Corp’s Lachlan Murdoch and Bruce Gordon, who owns the Win regional television network, were favourites to acquire Channel 10. The aim was to put onto Ten content and staff from News Corp’s pay TV station Sky News.

But the bid required the new rules to be passed, and the legislation had been delayed by the prolonged haggling with the crossbench. This allowed the American giant CBS to get in ahead of them. Murdoch and Gordon are now contesting the sale in court.

In Wednesday’s Senate debate, Labor senator Helen Polley said the government was “hellbent on destroying media diversity in this country”.

She accused Nick Xenophon of a “dirty deal”, and said he had given the green light to the Hanson-Turnbull plan to undermine the ABC.

One Nation’s Malcolm Roberts said the ABC was running “rampant and out of control”.

Greens leader Richard Di Natale said that while there was a need to ensure that Australians had access to a diverse range of media, the legislation had the potential for further concentration. “The ABC looks like it’s going to be screwed over,” he said.

His Greens colleague Sarah Hanson-Young said the competitive neutrality review was “to hobble the ABC”. She said Hanson had a “personal vendetta” against the ABC because of stories she didn’t like. “Suck it up, sunshine,” she said.

In an angry outburst, crossbencher Jacqui Lambie lashed the government as “a disgusting bunch of individuals”, saying their going after the public broadcaster was “a disgrace”.

Communications Minister Mitch Fifield said that in 1988 the only platforms were print, radio and TV. Now “the internet is all-pervasive” – people “have an unprecedented range of options”.

The greatest threat to diversity would be the failure of a significant media organisation, Fifield said.

The new rules would allow media organisations to have a “broader range of dance partners”. The changes had the support of the entire media industry, which was “unprecedented” and reflected the challenges faced by the Australian media, he said. The government package would provide “a shot in the arm” for the industry.

The deal for the NXT, funded over three years, includes a $50 million one-off regional and small publishers innovation fund.

“The grants will be able to be used by publishers for initiatives that support the continuation, development, growth and innovation of Australian civic journalism, including initiatives that explore and expand the journalism funding model,” the NXT said.

Australian publishers with an annual revenue turnover of between $300,000 and $30 million would be eligible for grants.

The package also includes support for 200 cadetships, under a regional and small publishers program. Most of these will go to regional areas.

As well, the government has agreed to direct the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission to conduct an inquiry into the impact of the new digital environment on media.

Nick Xenophon said the result of his negotiations were a good outcome for diversity and journalist jobs. “We support the legislation as necessary reforms that effect the very large changes,” he said.

** Post script **

The ConversationThe Senate on Thursday passed the bill. It now has to return to the House of Representatives when Parliament resumes in a month, before becoming law.

https://www.podbean.com/media/player/fr3g9-72ed6d?from=site&skin=1&share=1&fonts=Helvetica&auto=0&download=0

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Mixed media: how Australia’s newspapers became locked in a war of left versus right



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The Australian media’s lack of diversity puts significant strain on our democracy.
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Denis Muller, University of Melbourne

We are living through a period of fragmentation and polarisation in public discourse on a scale mankind has not before experienced. By far the greatest fragmenting and polarising force is social media.

An increasing proportion of the population, especially those under 40, get their news from social media, overwhelmingly from Facebook. The algorithms that tailor what Facebook prioritises for each individual allow users to choose only those topics or opinions that they want to hear. This has led to the formation of echo chambers or information cocoons.

So we have the paradox of the internet: the technology that provides a global village square also provides the means by which people in the square can block their ears and shut their eyes to things they don’t want to hear or see.

This places great strain on democracy. In the words of William Butler Yeats, things fall apart, the centre cannot hold.

In Australia, the effects of this phenomenon are made worse by the increased polarisation of the country’s two main newspaper companies, News Corporation and Fairfax Media.

Australia has very little diversity in its traditional media sector, especially its newspapers. News Corp controls roughly 70% of daily circulation and Fairfax roughly 20%. And for all their cutbacks in journalistic capacity, it is still the newspapers that inject the most new material into the 24/7 news cycle.

So when these two companies become polarised to the extent they have, there is a void at the centre. Notably, this is where The Guardian Australia has positioned itself (in reporting, at least – its opinions still lean to the left).

Sharp differences in political outlook among newspapers are nothing new, of course.

In Melbourne, The Argus was conservative, the paper of the squattocracy and the merchant class. It opposed land reform and favoured free trade, while The Age was progressive, supportive of the miners at Eureka, in favour of land reform and a crusader for protectionist trade policy.

In Sydney, The Sydney Morning Herald was profoundly conservative. The paper was opposed to democracy (which it called mobocracy) and supportive of a property franchise for the New South Wales Parliament. By contrast, The Empire, founded and edited by Henry Parkes, was guided by the principle that, in a colonial society, the working classes were the nucleus and makers of a democratic nation.

So there has never been a golden age when newspapers were heroically detached from interests and ideologies.

However, in the post-war period, the ideal of impartiality in news coverage gained a strong hold on the journalistic mind. American newspapers were the exemplars of this ideal. They were heavily influenced by the 1947 report of the US Commission on the Freedom of the Press, which had been set up to try to rebuild public confidence in the media after a period of corrosive sensationalism and propagandising in the early 20th century.

Appointed and paid for by the media itself, the commission consisted of intelligent and high-minded people from the media, government and academia. Its intellectual leader was a Harvard philosopher, William Ernest Hocking.

The commission’s report laid a solemn duty on the media to render a reliable account of the events of the day: factual, impartial and accurate. Comment was to play no part in news reporting, and was to be confined to pages set aside for it.

Generations of journalists in Western democracies – including me – were trained in this ideal.

Over time, however, it reduced news stories to a desiccated collection of unexplained facts, devoid of context and analysis. And anyway, the idea of a completely impartial and detached reporter came to be seen as fanciful, not to say fraudulent.

Gradually, news stories became more analytical, which introduced an overt element of subjectivity. Comment began to infiltrate news pages, so that now we have reached a point where news reportage, analysis and comment are commonly woven together.

Alongside these developments, ideological fissures were opening up in Australian society. The period of post-war social unity around a white Australia, opposition to communism, and other components of the Australian Settlement, such as wage arbitration and industry protection, began to crack.

Newspaper ownership also became more concentrated. In 1983, the Syme family sold The Age to Fairfax. In 1987, changes to media ownership laws introduced by Paul Keating enabled Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp to swallow up the huge but ailing Herald and Weekly Times.

Meanwhile, in Britain, Murdoch was getting a taste of what it was like to wield power over governments. Margaret Thatcher in particular was in thrall to him, as scholars such as David McKnight and Rod Tiffen have shown in their biographies of Murdoch.

His stable of newspapers in Britain included populist tabloids appealing to conservative blue-collar voters and influential broadsheets such as The Times and Sunday Times. These became increasingly conservative under his control, as the distinguished editor of those papers, Harold Evans, pointed out in his memoirs.

It seems Murdoch wanted to replicate this model in Australia. He had already started out with populist tabloids, yet his national broadsheet, The Australian, had begun life in 1964 as a vibrant small-l liberal newspaper.

However, as Murdoch’s vehicle for exerting influence on policymakers, it became increasingly conservative. By 1975 it had become so biased to the right in its political coverage that its own journalists went on strike in protest.

Murdoch makes no bones about his right to control what goes in his papers, and his editorial staff have to accommodate themselves to this – or exercise the privilege of resignation.

At Fairfax, the internal culture has been entirely different. In 1988, journalists at The Age persuaded Fairfax management to sign a charter of editorial independence guaranteeing no improper interference in editorial decision-making. Over the following three or four years, the company’s other titles adopted this charter.

These contrasting cultures are reflected in the editorial values of the companies’ newspapers. As the News Corp papers have become more stridently conservative, the Fairfax journalists seem to have taken it on themselves to provide at least some ideological counterweight.

It can be seen any day in the choice of stories given prominence and in the contrasting angles taken on political stories.

A good example was the treatment given to the controversy last year and early this year over the Australian Human Rights Commission. The Australian was campaigning vigorously to have the commission president, Professor Gillian Triggs, removed. The Fairfax newspapers focused on sustaining her position, particularly in respect of refugees and asylum seekers.

Similarly, with climate change, deniers get a prominence in News Corp papers that they never get in Fairfax.

This polarisation also reflects the deep divisions in the composition of the federal parliament, which in turn reflect deep divisions in the community over issues such as climate change and asylum seekers.

The fragmentation of political discourse brought about by social media only serves to heighten these divisions.

The ConversationIn these circumstances, the body politic would benefit from a renewed commitment by journalists to the qualities that underpinned the ideal of impartiality: accuracy, fairness, open-mindedness and above all balance, which follows the weight of evidence, not the bias of ideology.

Denis Muller, Senior Research Fellow in the Centre for Advancing Journalism, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.