In light of the ministerial direction issued to the Australian Federal Police by the Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton on August 9, it would be a spectacular contradiction in policy if the Australian Federal Police’s current pursuit of journalists were to end in prosecutions.
I expect the AFP to take into account the importance of a free and open press in Australia’s democratic society and to consider broader public interest implications before undertaking investigative action involving a professional journalist or news media organisation in relation to unauthorised disclosure of material made or obtained by a current or former Commonwealth officer.
So much for the uncompromising stance of Dutton and the then acting commissioner of the AFP, Neil Gaughan, that the law was the law, and if journalists broke it they could expect to be prosecuted like anyone else.
The political sensitivity of this climb-down may be gauged from the fact the direction was issued at 4pm on a Friday.
A combination of early deadlines for the Saturday papers, the incapacity of television to pull together a comprehensive story in time for the evening bulletins, and the dead air of the weekend make late Friday the preferred time of the week to drop bad or embarrassing news.
Dutton’s announcement was bereft of explanation. However, events since the AFP raids on the home of a News Corp journalist, Annika Smethurst, and on the ABC headquarters on June 5 and 6 respectively give a hint of the likely reason.
First, there was the international condemnation across the Western world of the repressive nature of the police raids, expressed in a tone of disbelief that this could be happening in a mature democracy.
Then there was the unified response from the heads of Australia’s three main news organisations, the ABC, News Corporation and Nine. Their message, delivered in a nationally televised broadcast from the National Press Club on June 26, was that a government obsessed with secrecy had now gone so far as to criminalise journalism.
There was also the statement by the Federal Attorney-General, Christian Porter, that he was “seriously disinclined” to prosecute journalists for doing journalism. His consent is needed for any such prosecution.
Faced with international condemnation, pressure from the media and the potential for a major row in Cabinet between Dutton and Porter, the government then tried to take the sting out of the situation by setting up an inquiry into press freedom.
Bizarrely, this is being conducted by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS), the very body that has waved through most of these repressive laws in the first place.
The inquiry has generated a body of strongly worded submissions arguing for the balance between press freedom and government secrecy to be struck in a way that is more consistent with democratic principles.
It begins its public hearings this week.
So Dutton’s ministerial direction may be seen as having two objectives: heading off a potentially damaging split in cabinet, and accomplishing a preemptive buckle before the parliamentary inquiry calls him and outgoing AFP Commissioner Andrew Colvin, to give an account of themselves.
Of course, as far as anyone knows, the AFP investigations are still on foot. Already officers have removed thousands of records from the ABC, accumulated travel data concerning two ABC journalists and requested their fingerprints, as well as turning Annika Smethurst’s home upside-down.
So the government’s intimidatory tactics have had a good run already, even if prosecutions do not follow.
There is nothing to stop the police from completing these investigations and providing a brief of evidence for Porter. However, given his stated position, allied with the new political dynamics created by the reaction to the raids and Dutton’s directive, it seems unlikely prosecutions will follow.
While the ministerial direction represents a genuflection in the direction of press freedom, it provides nothing by way of protection for whistleblowers.
The direction says it
does not constrain investigation by the AFP of unauthorised disclosure of material made or obtained by a current or former Commonwealth officer.
So it seems the pursuit of whistleblowers – the people who provide journalists with leaked information – can continue unabated. They still have only a demonstrably useless law – the Public Interest Disclosure Act 2013 – offering a fig leaf of protection.
The present prosecutions of Richard Boyle (Tax Office) and David McBride (Defence) attest to this.
The last paragraph of Dutton’s directive deals with the process by which government departments or agencies refer leaks to the AFP, and the AFP then assesses for investigative possibilities.
This entire reference and assessment process has been shot through with politics, either at the departmental end or the police end, or both.
That is why the ABC and Smethurst leaks – neither of which had much to do with national security but were acutely embarrassing to the government – were subject to police action.
By contrast, a leak to The Australian about the alleged security effects of the medevac legislation, which the head of ASIO Duncan Lewis publicly complained was a real threat to national security, was not subject to police action because it played into the hands of the government’s scare campaign about people-smuggling.
Dutton’s direction says:
I expect the AFP to strengthen its guidance and processes about the types and level of information required from a Government department or agency when they are referring to an unauthorised disclosure. Referring departments or agencies will need to provide a harm statement indicating the extent to which the disclosure is expected to significantly compromise Australia’s national security.
If the direction is to be taken as meaning only leaks significantly compromising national security are to be referred to the police, then there may be a larger safe space within which journalists can operate.
The government has given a new direction to the Australian Federal Police to prevent repeats of the recent raids on the media when leaks are being investigated.
The number of investigations will also be cut back, because departments referring leaks of official material to the police will have to outline the harm the disclosure poses to national security.
The changes, announced by Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton late on Friday, follow a backlash against the government after the Australian Federal Police raided News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst and the ABC over separate leaks.
The direction applies to both current and prospective investigations, so would likely mean the police will drop off their pursuit of the media in these instances, although the ultimate decision rests with the AFP.
Smethurst’s story revealed confidential correspondence about a proposed change in the remit of the Australian Signals Directorate. The ABC reported confidential documents relating to the behaviour of Australian special forces in Afghanistan.
After the raids the AFP refused to rule out prosecuting the journalists. The media organisations launched court action challenging the validity and use of the search warrants.
Dutton said he had issued a “ministerial direction” to the AFP Commissioner.
This set out the government’s “expectations” for the police when a journalist or media organisation had a leak from a serving or former Commonwealth official.
Dutton said the directive did not constrain investigation by the AFP of an unauthorised disclosure. “A key function of the AFP is the enforcement of the criminal law, without exception,” he said.
But he said he expected the AFP “to take into account the importance of a free and open press in Australia’s democratic society and to consider broader public interest implications before undertaking investigative action involving a professional journalist or news media organisation” in relation to a leak.
“Where consistent with operational imperatives, I expect the AFP to exhaust alternative investigative actions prior to considering whether involving a professional journalist or news media organisation is necessary.”
Dutton said he expected the police to continue to seek voluntary assistance from the media.
He has also told the AFP “to strengthen its guidance and processes about the types and level of information required” from departments and agencies when referring leaks.
Departments “will need to provide a harm statement indicating the extent to which the disclosure is expected to significantly compromise Australia’s national security”.
The upshot is that rather than departments routinely referring leaks to the police, disclosures that do not carry national security implications will not be sent.
Sources pointed out this would not stop a department using its own internal processes to find out who had leaked and taking disciplinary action against them.
The opposition declared the changes just “window dressing”.
Shadow minister for Home Affairs Kristina Keneally said Dutton had announced what he “expects” of the police when the media and the public had demanded guarantees from the government.
She pointed out the announcement had come just days before the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security held public hearings into press freedoms.
“This is a cowardly act,” Keneally said. “It’s taken Mr Dutton too long to speak out and there are still many unanswered questions”, she said.
“Can the Morrison government confirm they will not charge or prosecute any Australian journalist – such as those at the ABC – for doing their job and reporting in the public interest?”
Living with two preteens, I get almost daily requests to approve new apps. My standard response is to ask my kids to describe the app, why they want it, and how it makes money.
The last question is important, and not just to avoid to avoid in-app charges. Understanding the forces that drive the online economy is crucial for consumers, and increasingly citizens. All the new tools we access come at a cost even when they seem to be free.
How technology companies make money is a good question for digital media users of any age. It lies at the heart of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s inquiry into the power and profits of Google and Facebook, the world’s two most ubiquitous digital platforms.
The competition watchdog’s job was to look at how online search engines, social media and digital content aggregators wield power in media and advertising, how that undermines the viability of traditional journalism (print in particular), and what can be done about it.
Its final report makes a swag of recommendations to limit these platforms’ market dominance and use of personal data.
One example is requiring devices to offer consumers a choice of search engine and default browsers. Google now requires Android phones to pre-install Google apps. This feeds a “default bias” that contributes to it being used for 95% of Australian searches.
Another is reforming Australia’s privacy laws to address the digital environment. Platforms’ “take it or leave it” policies now give consumers little choice on having their data harvested.
But on the area of concern central to the inquiry’s establishment –
the decline in journalism – the recommendations are relatively minor:
a code of conduct to treat news media businesses “fairly, reasonably and transparently”
“stable and adequate” government funding for the ABC and SBS
government grants (A$50 million a year) to support original local journalism
tax incentives to encourage philanthropic support for journalism.
The reality is that there is little governments can do to reverse the technological disruption of the journalism business.
The internet has made stark that news organisations aren’t primarily in the journalism business. The stories they produce play an incomparable social role, but the business model is to deliver an audience to advertisers.
Social media and search give advertisers better tools to target messages to more precise groups of potential consumers. It is a phenomenally better mousetrap.
Traditional advertising is expensive and inefficient. An advertiser pays to reach a broad audience, most with no interest in what is being advertised.
Search allows advertisers to pay to reach people precisely when they are looking for something. Google knows what you are interested in, and serves up advertising accordingly. In the last quarter alone advertising in its properties (Search, Maps, Gmail, YouTube, Play Store and Shopping) made US$27.3 billion in revenue.
Social media platforms have a different model, but one no less damaging to the old newspaper business model. It’s a bit more like traditional mass media advertising, selling the attention of users to advertisers, but in a far more targeted way.
To the extent Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and so on capture your attention, and effectively monetise content made by others through sharing, they also undercut traditional news businesses.
Follow the money
No regulation can fix this. As the competition watchdog’s report notes, Australian law does not prohibit a company from having substantial market power. Nor does it prohibit a company “from ‘out-competing’ its rivals by using superior skills and efficiency”.
No one – not even the tech companies – is necessarily to blame for the technological innovation that has disrupted traditional news organisations.
To see that, as with my kids understanding how their apps make money, it’s just a case of following the money.
In a rare show of unity, the heads of Australia’s biggest news organisations – the ABC, Nine and News Corp – have called for stronger legal protections for press freedom in the wake of this month’s police raids on journalists.
Sharing a panel at the National Press Club in Canberra, the media chiefs outlined several key demands:
search warrants to be contestable before the arrival of police
better protection for whistleblowers
a limitation on the number of documents being marked secret by various government bodies
a review of freedom of information laws
an exemption for journalists from being prosecuted under national security laws
First to address the lunchtime crowd was the ABC’s managing director, David Anderson, who called the fact that he was seated alongside News Corp Australasia executive chairman Michael Miller and Nine chief executive Hugh Marks “an unlikely coalition of the willing.”
But he underlined that unity was imperative because “the stakes are so high.”
Anderson made a passionate speech that stressed the ABC’s record of “speaking the truth to the community”. He listed the many investigative reports by ABC journalists that led to royal commissions, from Chris Masters’ 1987 “Moonlight State” report on corruption in Queensland’s police force to more recent ones in banking and aged care.
He also referred to the work of ABC journalists Dan Oakes and Sam Clark on a series of stories called the Afghan Files, the reporting that led to the AFP raid on the ABC’s Ultimo headquarters in Sydney.
Anderson argued that it was difficult for the media to do its job with the “patchwork of laws” in place and whistleblowers running the risk of “being cowed out of existence”. Most importantly, he stressed that
decriminalising journalism is a mandatory first step.
‘Balance too weighted towards secrecy’
Marks claimed that press freedom had been eroded in Australia due to a mix of technological change, bad legislation and over-zealous officials. He said it was now
more risky and it’s more expensive to do journalism that makes a real difference in this country than ever before.
He argued that media freedom was under threat because “governments and institutions are becoming more secretive” and that national security was sometimes invoked to shut down debate on spurious grounds. He believed
the balance is too weighted towards secrecy.
Marks took issue with various current laws, arguing that defamation laws didn’t achieve what they were meant to and the huge rise in suppression orders and complexity of Freedom of Information laws led to an “obstacle course of legal hazards”. Bearing this in mind he said:
This would be the stuff of pantomine were it not so serious.
Miller drew attention to Australia’s slide down the 2019 World Press Freedom Index to number 21 – below Suriname and just ahead of Samoa – and commented that Australia should instead be “leading by example”. He believed that two AFP raids in two days, plus “strong information that other raids were planned” equalled “intimidation not investigation”.
Miller said News Corp had called on Attorney-General Christian Porter to make sure that its journalist, Annika Smethurst, doesn’t face criminal charges after the raid on her home.
He said many of the faults in our laws could be “easily corrected to reset the balance between security and the right to know”.
But there is a deeper problem – the culture of secrecy. Too many people who frame policy, write laws, control information, and conduct court hearings, have stopped believing that the public’s right to know comes first.
More action, fewer promises
The most interesting part of the discussion came when ABC’s Matthew Doran asked the panellists if they thought the public would get behind changing laws to suit a group of privileged journalists. Marks said it was a start.
Freedom of speech feels very personal to me. We have to make it feel personal for the public.
But there were some in the room who appeared less reassured by the rhetoric on display. The Guardian’s Katherine Murphy pointed out that when these laws were passed “tranche by tranche” in recent years, there was not much media focus on these changes.
Sky’s David Speers also seemed unimpressed that the media chiefs weren’t calling for a parliamentary inquiry, asking to whom they were speaking in regard to change. Miller’s reply was that they were releasing a document outlining their key demands and that the three of them being there together indicated the importance of the issue.
At the end of the day, perhaps the presence of all three media chiefs united together was singular. Immediately following the event, press freedom campaigner and University of Queensland Professor Peter Greste said “that rare show of unity is hard to understate” and that the AFP raids had
created a rare moment of opportunity that we need to seize.
Nonetheless, he thought it
deeply concerning that none of them seemed to have had any meaningful commitments to action from the government.
News Corp is taking its battle to the high court as it believes that the search warrant on Smethurst’s house was vague and incomplete.
The ABC, likewise, is challenging the police raid on its premises in federal court. Anderson would like the ABC’s downloaded data returned and wants there to be a “threshold test” regarding the justification for when the police can enter media premises.
The publicity from this unified initiative is no doubt positive, but it is entirely possible that a newly elected government could sit back and wait for these legal cases from News Corp and the ABC to pass through the courts before taking any action.
There is little pressure on governments to make concessions to an unpopular press in an era of suspicion of the media, whipped up by populist movements around the world.
A few days ago, Waleed Aly asked a not-so-rhetorical question in The Sydney Morning Herald. He wondered how many Australians were worried about the fact that the Australian Federal Police had spent a good portion of this week raiding the offices and homes of journalists who’ve published stories clearly in the public interest.
His conclusion? Not many. He went on to argue that it is because we have developed a culture of accepting excessive state power, with no real thought about the consequences for civil liberties or the functioning of our democracy.
Sadly, I would have to agree with Aly, but as with so many surveys, the answer you get depends on the question you ask.
What if we asked, “Hands up who feels comfortable with relying on the Facebook posts and Twitter feeds of our politicians and departmental spokespeople for information about what our government is up to? Who thinks that is a good way to run a democracy?” Then, I bet you’d get a very different answer.
I agree that Australian media are hardly trusted by the public, but I am also convinced that most Australians recognise the need for some kind of independent watchdog keeping track of politicians and the government on our behalf. It might be imperfect and messy, but a free press has performed that role well enough to keep us broadly on track for much of our history.
Earlier this week, my colleague and fellow University of Queensland researcher Rebecca Ananian-Welsh laid out the intricate web of national security laws passed in recent years that collectively serve to straight-jacket journalists and threaten legitimate whistle-blowing.
In a number of research projects, we have been looking at both these laws and their impact on reporting, and while we still have a long way to go, the early results suggest something deeply troubling.
While they may have helped shore up national security, the laws have also led to a net loss of transparency and accountability. It has become harder for journalists to reach and protect sources and keep track of wrong-doing by government officials. It has also become harder for them to safely publish in the public interest without risking long years in prison or cripplingly expensive and traumatic court cases.
My organisation, the Alliance for Journalists Freedom, has published a white paper that offers a better way of balancing those two crucial elements of our democracy – national security and press freedom.
The most important of its seven recommendations is a Media Freedom Act. Australia has no legal or constitutional protection for press freedom. It isn’t even formally recognised in law; the High Court has merely inferred that we have a right to “political communication.”
That needs to change. The AJF is proposing a law that would write press freedom into the DNA of our legal system. It would both prevent our legislators from unnecessarily restricting journalists from doing their jobs and give judges a benchmark they can use whenever they are adjudicating cases that deal with media freedom issues.
That alone isn’t enough though. The second recommendation in the white paper calls for changes to the national security laws themselves.
Currently, many of the current laws that Ananian-Welsh laid out in her article include a “public interest” defence for journalists. But as we have seen in this week’s raids, that does nothing to stop the AFP from trawling through journalists’ documents for sources and forcing everyone into court.
Instead, there should be an exemption for journalists and their sources when reporting on matters of public interest.
That isn’t to suggest that journalists should be immune, though. Rather, the onus should be shifted to the authorities to show why the public interest defence should not apply. It is also important that the exemption include whistleblowers.
Beyond national security, there are a host of other laws that have contributed to a wide culture of secrecy at odds with the principles of open government.
Payouts under defamation laws now routinely run to millions, potentially destroying news organisations and chilling further investigative work. Shield laws that allow journalists to protect their sources in court are also inconsistent across states and need to be strengthened.
Suppression orders that judges use to smother reporting of certain court cases are being applied with alarming frequency and urgently need review. And whistleblower legislation needs to be strengthened to encourage and protect anybody speaking out about wrongdoing in government or elsewhere.
While the raids of the past week have been shocking, they have forced us all to think again about the role of the media in a democracy. If it leads to better legislation that both protects national security and media freedom, then some good might have come out of it after all.
The Australian Federal Police has this week conducted two high-profile raids on journalists who have exposed government secrets and their sources.
On Tuesday, seven AFP officers spent several hours searching News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst’s Canberra home, her mobile phone and computer. The AFP linked the raid to “the alleged publishing of information classified as an official secret”.
This stemmed from Smethurst’s 2018 article, which contained images of a “top secret” memo and reported that senior government officials were considering moves to empower the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD) to covertly monitor Australian citizens for the first time.
Soon after, 2GB Radio Presenter Ben Fordham revealed he had been notified by the Department of Home Affairs that he was the subject of a similar investigation, aimed at identifying the source of classified information he had reported regarding intercepted boat arrivals.
The reaction to the raids was immediate and widespread.
The New York Times quoted News Corp’s description of the Smethurst raid as “a dangerous act of intimidation towards those committed to telling uncomfortable truths”. The Prime Minister was quick to distance his government from the AFP’s actions, while opposition leader Anthony Albanese condemned the raids.
The crackdown of the past few days reveals that at least two of the core fears expressed by lawyers and the media industry were well-founded: first, the demise of source confidentiality and, secondly, a chilling effect on public interest journalism.
Upon finding out he was the subject of an investigation aimed at uncovering his sources of government information, Ben Fordham declared
The chances of me revealing my sources is zero. Not today, not tomorrow, next week or next month. There is not a hope in hell of that happening.
Source confidentiality is one of journalists’ most central ethical principles. It is recognised by the United Nations and is vital to a functioning democracy and free, independent, robust and effective media.
One of the greatest threats to source confidentiality is Australia’s uniquely broad data surveillance framework. The 2015 metadata retention scheme requires that all metadata (that is, data about a device or communication but not, say, the communication itself) be retained for two years. It may then be covertly accessed by a wide array of government agencies without a warrant. Some reports suggest that by late 2018, some 350,000 requests for access to metadata were being received by telecommunications service providers each year.
The government was not blind to the potential impact of this scheme on source confidentiality. For example, obtaining metadata relating to a journalist’s mobile phone could reveal where they go and who they contact and easily point to their sources.
This led to the introduction of the “Journalist Information Warrant” (JIW). This warrant is required if an agency wishes to access retained metadata for the direct purpose of identifying a professional journalist’s source.
So, access to a professional journalist’s metadata in order to identify a confidential source is permitted, provided the access has a particular criminal investigation or enforcement purpose and the agency can show it is in the public interest and therefore obtain a JIW.
This week’s raids suggest that either JIWs could not be obtained in relation to Smethurst, Fordham or the ABC Journalists, or the journalists’ metadata did not reveal their sources, or the AFP did not attempt to access their metadata.
Alternatively, if metadata had identified the journalists’ sources, it is less clear why these dramatic developments took place.
After 2015, journalists were advised to avoid using their mobile devices in source communications. They were also encouraged, wherever possible, to encrypt communications.
As well as expanding computer access and network access warrants, the Act provided a means for government agencies to co-opt those in the telecommunications industry to assist agencies with their investigations. This could include covertly installing weaknesses and vulnerabilities in specific devices, circumventing passwords or allowing encrypted communications to be decrypted. A warrant would then be required to access the device and communication data.
It is impossible to know whether Australian journalists have been targeted under the Act or had weaknesses or spyware installed on their personal devices. This week’s raids suggest the AFP would be prepared to target journalists under this framework in order to identify journalists’ confidential sources.
However, this could only be done for some purposes, including in the investigation of a secrecy offence.
In June 2018, the government introduced a suite of new espionage, foreign interference and secrecy offences. This included an offence of current or former Commonwealth officers communicating information, obtained by virtue of their position, likely to cause harm to Australia’s interests. This offence is punishable by imprisonment for seven years. If the information is security classified or the person held a security classification, then they may have committed an “aggravated offence” and be subject to ten years’ imprisonment.
This week’s raids reveal just how common it is for public interest journalism to rely on secret material and government sources.
But the journalists themselves may also be facing criminal prosecution. The 2018 changes include a “general secrecy offence”, whereby it is an offence (punishable by imprisonment for five years) to communicate classified information obtained from a Commonwealth public servant. Fordham’s radio broadcast about intercepted boat arrivals was, for example, a clear communication of classified information.
Again, journalists are offered some protection. If prosecuted, a journalist can seek to rely on the “journalism defence” by proving that they dealt with the information as a journalist, and that they reasonably believed the communication to be in the public interest. The meaning of “public interest” is unclear and, in this context, untested. However, it will take into account the public interest in national security and government integrity secrecy concerns as well as openness and accountability.
Protecting media freedom
Australia has more national security laws than any other nation. It is also the only liberal democracy lacking a Charter of Human Rights that would protect media freedom through, for example, rights to free speech and privacy.
In this context, journalists are in a precarious position – particularly journalists engaged in public interest journalism. This journalism is vital to government accountability and a vibrant democracy, but has a tense relationship with Australia’s national interests as conceived by government.
National security law has severely undercut source confidentiality by increasing and easing data surveillance. National security laws have also criminalised a wide array of conduct related to the handling of sensitive government information, both by government officers and the general public.
And these laws are just a few parts of a much larger national security framework that includes: control orders, preventative detention orders, ASIO questioning and detention warrants, secret evidence, and offences of espionage, foreign interference, advocating or supporting terrorism, and more.
JIWs, and the inclusion of a journalism defence to the secrecy offence, recognise the importance of a free press. However, each of these protections relies on a public interest test. When government claims of national security and the integrity of classifications is weighed into this balance, it is difficult to see how other interests might provide an effective counterbalance.
One of the most disturbing outcomes is not prosecutions or even the raids themselves, but the chilling of public interest journalism. Sources are less likely to come forward, facing risk to themselves and a high likelihood of identification by government agencies. And journalists are less likely to run stories, knowing the risks posed to their sources and perhaps even to themselves.
Against this background, the calls for a Media Freedom Act, such as by the Alliance for Journalists’ Freedom, have gained significant traction. It may take this kind of bold statement to cut across the complexities of individual laws and both recognise and protect the basic freedom of the press and the future of public interest journalism in Australia.
The key to understanding media coverage of election campaigns is that the political parties are far more professional than the news organisations.
The reason is simple: for political parties, elections are make or break, determining their fate for the next three years; for the media, an election is just another story, admittedly a long-running and important story, but not an organisation-transforming event.
Because the parties have a clear aim and measure of success, each campaign is a learning experience. Although there are electoral ups and downs, their overall trajectory is towards constant improvement. The resultant professionalism is, of course, not often conducive to a healthier democracy, but it is dynamic.
In contrast, there seems to be little learning among the news media about how they might cover elections better.
I’ve identified five weaknesses in the approach of most mainstream media. I am highlighting here tendencies in the approach to news coverage, rather than, for example, the blatant and unrelenting partisan bias of News Corp publications. And obviously, both news organisations and individuals vary in the quality of their reporting.
1. Follow the leader
Media coverage of elections – especially television coverage – has always been leader-focused. This is logistically convenient and feeds into the narrative of a gladiatorial contest. But if this is the main news effort, it will always result in fairly circumscribed coverage.
We live in a parliamentary rather than presidential democracy, in which the good functioning of the cabinet is central to a government’s effectiveness. Instead of focusing so obsessively on the leaders, the media should give more attention to the whole front bench.
While there was much outcry about whether there would be a third leaders’ debate in this campaign, a much higher media priority should have been to demand ten minister-vs-shadow-minister debates about issues in each portfolio. These would not only have more substance than the leaders’ debates, they’d provide a much stronger guide to each party’s policy directions, and the competence of each team to govern.
In this campaign – but not always – this would have arguably favoured Labor, with Scott Morrison receiving support from so few Coalition ministers (Josh Frydenberg, Simon Birmingham and almost no others). It is amazing, for instance, that the environment could be such a central issue, but the environment minister, Melissa Price, was simply unavailable for any interviews.
2. Conniving in meaningless figures
The political parties use statistics to impress, to alarm, and nearly always to bamboozle. With the honourable exception of the fact-checking teams, most media tend to either pass numbers on uncritically or have an indiscriminate suspicion of them – lies, damned lies and statistics.
The numbers cited in campaigns are usually so great and so remote from most peoples’ experience that they have little meaning. People generally do not know the size of the country’s labour force, the amount of government spending in any particular area, or the size of the economy.
A first step in making statistics meaningful for the public would be to contextualise them as proportions, and to perhaps offer some comparisons.
The situation has reached peak stupidity in recent campaigns. To go beyond the limits of annual sums, the idea of the forward estimates – the budget projections for revenue and expenses over a four-year period – was introduced. Conveniently for the parties, this was a year beyond the next election.
The media should report primarily what the promise will mean for the next budget year and the next period of government, and should either ignore or downplay estimates beyond this, or at least give warnings about the unreliability of more distant projections.
Raw sums should also be supplemented by percentage amounts. And when funding pledges are made, the media should always ask how much of this money is new and whether it comes at the expense of an existing program.
3. The polls were so unanimous, so consistent and so wrong
The 2019 election was disastrous for the pollsters. Not only were the polls tightly clustered, not a single poll in the past two years had found the Coalition scoring 50% or better of the two-party preferred vote.
Some commentators found the degree of clustering so unusual, they suspected there was some herding by pollsters, aligning their published results with the apparent consensus.
The spectacular failure of the pollsters is not the fault of the media who commission them. But as the pollsters’ major clients, they must demand a thorough review of methods. Are the sampling frames still adequate? Are they relying too much on weighting the results?
The media themselves can also aid in one important way. Having paid for the poll, they want a strong story to result. As a result, they are tempted to impose a misleading certainty on the flux of public opinion.
There needs to be both in the presentation and interpretation of polls more attention to lack of opinion, to those respondents who say they haven’t decided. The softness of opinion and how it is resolved may be crucial in affecting an election result.
4. History starts today
A common, but somewhat misplaced criticism, of the media is that they cover elections like horse races. But in addition to this, the media need to develop strategies for making election campaigns meaningful policy debates.
Political leaders everywhere have become increasingly adept at evading questions, at mastering and surviving the televised moment, with any problems in their claims only catching up to them later and to a much smaller audience.
The most convenient way for the media to cover policy pronouncements by the parties is as duels over alternative futures. If the parties are allowed to frame the debate, the benefits of their policies are often overstated and the costs and difficulties understated.
This is abetted by the media’s tendency to cover such promises in a vacuum. When politicians talk about future policy, the media rarely take the initiative to explore the extent and effectiveness of existing policy. Too often these debates are conducted as if no history has preceded them.
Good governance is about deciding priorities, weighing costs and benefits. But the media often want to play “gotcha” in their election coverage, as if policies are cost-free and have no losers. As long as this continues, there will be a disconnect between politicking and governing – and politicians will be rewarded for avoiding realistic debate.
5. Superiority signalling
Virtue signalling, a recently coined phrase much in favour among right-wing commentators, means the conspicuous expression of moral values, intended more to show someone’s righteousness than to have any substantial effect.
We need a similar phrase – superiority signalling – to describe how the media position themselves as above the fray in their election coverage, substituting posturing for performing their role. Many times, they are overly concerned with signalling their impartiality, but in ways that do not further inform the public.
One way journalists do this is by opting for balance rather than truth. Reporting stories in a “he said, she said” fashion appears to be impartial, but leaves the audience little wiser. Another manifestation is “bothsides-ism.” Here, journalists highlight their neutrality by criticising both sides as if they are equivalent (which they sometimes are). But if they stop here and fail to probe further, the public learns little.
Another common way journalists signal their superiority is through their disdain for a boring campaign, as if this is the fault of the politicians, and not their own failure to make a campaign interesting. Politicians, after all, are not meant to be reviewed like vaudeville entertainers.
After this election, the major parties will review their strategies. The process will certainly be less than objective – especially in the blame game among the losers – but they will be thinking about what they can do differently next time. It would be nice to think the media will undertake a similar exercise, with a focus on how they can improve in ways that enhance democratic choice and accountability.
You should not trust all the metrics platform companies offer.
A recent article in The Atlantic revealed that a lawsuit has been filed against Facebook, because it allegedly overstated its video statistics for years, “exaggerating the time spent watching them by as much as 900% percent.”
The article asserts that “hundreds of journalists” lost their job after Facebook lured news companies to invest in video. However, Facebook has denied these claims.
The Spinoff, a digital native media company in New Zealand, recently posted a story with a similar analysis of the platform’s impact, saying that Facebook’s fake video statistics “smashed New Zealand journalism” because when it encouraged news companies to invest in online video production, they followed.
New Zealand media were collateral damage in Facebook’s obsessive desire to grow at all costs.
Additionally, two recent studies demonstrates how news companies rely on Facebook to drive their traffic. My own research of four New Zealand news companies shows that 24% of their traffic came from social media, and most of that came from Facebook. Together social and search drove 47% of New Zealand news sites’ traffic.
… news organisations are making major investments in social media and report receiving significant amounts of traffic” from social media.
These studies confirm news companies’ Facebook dependency in terms of traffic, although the level of dependency differs between media outlets. The Reuters study found that Facebook’s algorithm changes in January had a severe impact on some of the news companies’ traffic. However, the severity of impact differed between media outlets. For example, Le Monde saw its interactions drop by almost a third, but for The Times these grew.
In New Zealand, The Spinoff suffered a substantial drop in its traffic after Facebook’s algorithm tweaks: its traffic from the platform dropped from 50% to 30%. We have seen similar drops in other markets, too.
The Nieman Lab, which reports on digital media innovation, found that following Facebook’s algorithm change, the drop in referral traffic was not universal. Some not-for-profit media organisations benefited.
Bottom line: The decline in referrals to publishers from Facebook is not universal, and in the face of those declines, other sources of traffic are more important than ever.
Indeed, it would be wise for all news outlets to grow their direct traffic which delivers better user engagement and monetisation.
Lesson three: don’t do it for the money
You don’t make much money on Facebook.
My research suggests if news companies abandoned Facebook, they would hardly lose any money. For the companies studied, social media traffic made up 0.03%–0.14% of their total revenue, and social shares 0.009%–0.2% of total revenue. These figures don’t take into account advertising income from platforms or subscription conversion.
The reason news companies continue to distribute their content on social media platforms is because they gain attention. News companies believe they can turn this attention into money, but so far with little success.
However, some news publishers have reported that they have gained digital subscriptions from the platforms. The Reuters study notes Facebook delivers news companies audience engagement that is “considered more cost effective at driving digital subscription sales.”
The bottom line is there is no data yet to verify how well news publishers manage to convert social media attention to digital subscriptions. Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple are all offering, or are in the process of offering, digital subscription services to news publishers, but how well these will work for news companies remains to be seen.
If you value the media’s watchdog role in democracy, then the opening words in the deal enabling Channel Nine to acquire Fairfax Media, the biggest single shake-up of the Australian media in more than 30 years, ring alarm bells.
The opening gambit is an appeal to advertisers, not readers. It promises to enhance “brand” and “scale” and to deliver “data solutions” combined with “premium content”. Exciting stuff for a media business in the digital age. But for a news organisation what is missing are key words like “news”, “journalism” and “public interest”.
Those behind the deal, its political architects who scrapped the cross-media ownership laws last year, and its corporate men, Fairfax’s and Nine’s CEOs, proffer a commercial rather than public interest argument for the merger. They contend that for two legacy media companies to survive into the 21st century, this acquisition is vital.
Perhaps so. But Australia’s democratic health relies on more than a A$4 billion media merger that delivers video streaming services like Stan, a lucrative real estate advertising website like Domain, and a high-rating television program like Love Island.
The news media isn’t just any business. It does more than entertain us and sell us things. Through its journalism, it provides important public interest functions.
Ideally, news should accurately inform Australians. A healthy democracy is predicated on the widest possible participation of an informed citizenry. According to liberal democratic theorists, the news media facilitate informed participation by offering a diverse range of views so that we can make considered choices, especially during election campaigns when we decide who will govern us.
Journalists have other roles too, providing a check on the power of governments and the excesses of the market, to expose abuses that hurt ordinary Australians.
This watchdog role is why I am concerned about Nine merging with Fairfax. To be clear, until last week, I was cautiously optimistic about the future of investigative journalism in Australia.
Newspapers like The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, the Newcastle Herald and the Financial Review have a strong record of using their commercial activities to subsidise expensive investigative journalism to strengthen democratic accountability by exposing wrongdoing. Channel Nine does not.
Since the formation of The Age’s Insight team in 1967, Fairfax investigations have had many important public outcomes after exposing transgressions including: judicial inquiries, criminal charges, high-profile political and bureaucratic sackings, and law reforms. Recent examples include the dogged work of Fairfax and ABC journalists to expose systemic child sex abuse in the Catholic Church and elsewhere, leading to a royal commission and National Redress Scheme for victims. Another was the exposure of dodgy lending practices that cost thousands of Australians their life savings and homes, which also triggered a royal commission.
The problem with Nine’s proposed takeover of Fairfax (if it goes ahead) is that it is unlikely to be “business as usual” for investigative journalism in the new Nine entity. First, there is a cultural misalignment and, with Nine in charge, theirs is likely to dominate.
With notable exceptions such as some 60 Minutes reporting, Nine is better known for its foot-in-the-door muckraking and chequebook journalism than its investigative journalism. In comparison, seven decades of award-winning investigative journalism data reveal Fairfax mastheads have produced more Walkley award-winning watchdog reporting than any other commercial outlet.
Second, even as the financial fortunes of Fairfax have waned in the digital age, it has maintained its award-winning investigative journalism through clever adaptations including cross-media collaborations, mainly with the ABC. This has worked well for both outlets, sharing costs and increasing a story’s reach and impact across print, radio, online and television.
How will this partnership be regarded when Fairfax is Nine’s newlywed? Will the ABC be able to go it alone with the same degree of investigative reporting in light of its successive federal government budget cuts?
Third, my latest research (see graph) has shown that in Australia, as in Britain and the United States, investigative stories and their targets have changed this decade to accommodate newsroom cost-cutting.
Investigations are more likely to focus on stories that are cheaper and easier to pursue. This means some areas such as local politics and industrial relations have fallen off the investigative journalist’s radar. Here and abroad, this reflects cost-cutting and a loss of specialist reporters.
Echoing this, The Boston Globe’s Spotlight editor, Walter Robinson, warned:
There are so many important junctures in life where there is no journalistic surveillance going on. There are too many journalistic communities in the United States now where the newspaper doesn’t have the reporter to cover the city council, the school committee, the mayor’s office … we have about half the number of reporters that we had in the late 1990s. You can’t possibly contend that you are doing the same level or depth of reporting. Too much stuff is just slipping through too many cracks.
Of concern, Australian award-winning investigations already cover a smaller breadth of topics compared to larger international media markets. The merger of Fairfax mastheads with Channel Nine further consolidates Australia’s newsrooms. If investigative journalism continues, story targets are likely to be narrow.
Finally, investigative journalism is expensive. It requires time, resources and, because it challenges power, an institutional commitment to fight hefty lawsuits. Fairfax has a history of defending its investigative reporters in the courts, at great expense.
Will Nine show the same commitment to defending its newly adopted watchdog reporters using earnings from its focus on “brand”, “scale” and “data solutions”? For the sake of democratic accountability, I hope so.
Andrea Carson, Incoming Associate Professor at LaTrobe University. Former Lecturer, Political Science, School of Social and Political Sciences; Honorary Research Fellow, Centre for Advancing Journalism, University of Melbourne
Stored somewhere behind the imposing glass edifice of The Age Spencer Street headquarters – keeping up appearances even as the newsroom it trumpets is progressively hacked away – is a cardboard box containing hundreds of envelopes addressed by hand to The Age Independence Committee. Tucked in with them are piles of yellowing forms clipped out of newspapers, with signatures, names and addresses – Doveton and South Yarra, Edithvale and Wheelers Hill, Castlemaine and Korumburra.
Cracking open this modest reliquary might provide some insight into the grief – albeit largely from a certain demographic – flowing from yesterday’s announcement of the passing of the House of Fairfax.
As a young reporter, I handled a good swag of the letters in this box back in 1991 at my desk in the tiny, smoky office of The Age’s storied Insight investigations unit, which in this period moonlighted as the headquarters of The Age Independence Committee. Then The Age was situated a couple of blocks north of its present building. It occupied a brutalist chocolate-brick box in what the columnist John Lahey described as the Siberian quarter of the city, a neighbourhood of “unloved warehouses and 7am sandwich shops”, whipped by a wicked wind off what would become Docklands.
Under the editorship of the venerated Graham Perkin (1966-75), The Age had been famously recognised as one of the world’s dozen great newspapers, acquiring a circulation of over 220,000. The legacy of that had endured the fraught transition of control from Melbourne’s Syme family to the Sydney-based Fairfax stable, and shaped my understanding of journalism. But by the time I gained a long-coveted desk in the ugly building in 1989 I’d missed the best of it, I was assured by old hands and readers.
Any time I introduced myself or sat down to do an interview I braced for the inevitable critique. People professed love for the paper in the way you might love family – with no inhibitions, indeed an enthusiasm, about highlighting flaws and disappointments. The Age had lost some of the panache of the Perkin era and some of the stylish writing nurtured by his successor, Michael Davie, opined media columnist and Melbourne son Sam Lipski in The Bulletin in 1988. That said, under Creighton Burns (my first editor) it had generally become “a steadier and more balanced paper”, he wrote. “Melbourne burghers like that.”
It’s difficult to recall, from this distance, what a potent force the paper was in Melbourne and Victoria. When I try to explain this landscape to my journalism students, they retreat behind that blank, politely suffering look you give nostalgic old people.
In 1988, The Age published a special report titled “Who Shapes Melbourne?” It was the product of weeks of reporting by a team of ten journalists who interviewed dozens of the city’s movers and shakers – an enterprise also beyond the comprehension of my students, raised on a diet of impoverished newsroom budgets. As part of the project, 130 of these doyens were asked to rank Melbourne’s most influential individuals and institutions.
Out of a field of 162 men (overwhelmingly) and women, then Premier John Cain emerged as the individual with the most clout. And of 153 nominated institutions, The Age itself romped into first place ahead of the Arts Centre, the National Gallery and the University of Melbourne (tied in second place); the ACTU (third); the ABC and the Victorian Football League (this was pre-AFL) (fourth) and BHP neck-and-neck with the state cabinet/government (fifth). The tabloid Sun came in sixth, The Herald eighth, alongside the Catholic Church and the police. “Whether The Age really is the most influential institution in Melbourne matters less than the perception, among many of its powerful readers, that it is,” observed Lipski.
“The Age’s role is perplexing,” Phillip Adams (now ABC broadcaster, then advertising guru) told another Bulletin reporter, Jan McGuinness, in a 1989 dig into its place in the Melbourne firmament, archly headlined “A pillow of the community” and featuring a photograph of the Syme family mausoleum captioned “a palace under siege”. “The Melbourne Herald hasn’t had a role in my lifetime; the Melbourne Sun does its job, yet has no image,” Adams expanded. “But The Age is tied to Melbourne’s self-esteem. And, as there isn’t much of that left, it’s very important.”
Commentators may have struggled to explain the enduring gravitas of the paper, but enjoyed pricking its pomposity along the way. A special report in The Australian – “Flaws in the Fairfax formula” (April 23 1991) – listed its sins as “self-indulgence, independence, tradition, superiority”.
The article pokes around the cultural ethos of The Age, contrasting it with The Sydney Morning Herald. The Melbourne paper had long cut its cloth in a more “Whiggish” style, it argued, despite serving a more conservative city. It quotes an unnamed senior Fairfax staffer who had worked at both mastheads. “You’ve got to remember that at the Eureka stockade The Age supported the miners while The Sydney Morning Herald supported the police – the Herald has always been the drapers’ paper.”
The same article quotes a young merchant banker, one Malcolm Turnbull, verbatim and at length, arguing “there is a great deal of sanctimoniousness about journalistic independence”, and that newspapers needed to be disciplined in their exercise of independence. “Why is it that Fairfax journalists believe a proprietor can have no hand in the editorial management but a journalist can? As long as the proprietor is acting honestly and responsibly, why can he not?”
When this article ran, John Fairfax Holdings Ltd was in receivership and the odds were high that The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian Financial Review and other mastheads would soon be sold. Circulation and revenue from the classified “rivers of gold” were still bountiful, the technology that would steal them still evolving out of sight. But the fortunes and vulnerabilities of the paper were being pored over thanks to “Young” Warwick Fairfax’s disastrous play to privatise the publicly listed media empire on the eve of the 1987 stockmarket crash.
Maintain Your Age
The Age’s Charter of Editorial Independence – the first document of its type in Australia – emerged when British press tycoon Robert Maxwell took a run at the paper in 1988. Age employees banded together to defend the ethos of the masthead, and generous column space was given to reports and opinion pieces explaining to readers the implications of such a sale for editorial integrity and independence. As journalists organised and fortified, mercifully they could not have known this was merely the first skirmish in a 30-year siege to which the Fairfax name suddenly succumbed with a note to the markets just two mornings ago.
“A newspaper cannot function effectively, cannot put the readers first, if the editor and his staff always have their ears cocked to hear what the proprietor wants,” wrote former editor Michael Davie. The newly formed independence committee reached out to readers for support, establishing a fighting fund, which bought a banner advertisement declaring: “The Age must continue to present the news honestly and without fear or favour. It must not become an organ to peddle the views of a person, a political party, or an interest group.”
And here’s where the letters in the cardboard box come in, a small surviving sample of pre-internet clicktivism, requiring scissors, a stamp and a trip to the mailbox. Thousands of coupons poured in over a couple of campaigns, many with encouraging notes and $5 and $10 notes and cheques attached. The operation to save The Age and its editorial culture was coordinated by Insight chief and associate editor David Wilson, the committee’s chargé de mission and hustler, lobbying powerbrokers, opinion-shapers and glitterati for their support. Like so many others in this story, Wilson is deceased, but my recollection from hours listening to him work the phones was that he rarely encountered anything but enthusiasm for the cause, even as he copped no-holds-barred commentary on all that was wrong with the paper.
But his fondest recruit was surgeon and POW Sir Edward “Weary” Dunlop, who apparently on initial approach assumed the campaign was concerned with elderly rights, but who nonetheless threw himself wholeheartedly behind The Age because that was a good cause too.
The paper was then facing a takeover by a consortium led by Canadian mogul Conrad Black (later jailed) and Australia’s Kerry Packer. Thousands of readers marched up Collins Street. Whitlam moved a motion calling on the Hawke Labor government to do everything possible to prevent further media concentration and foreign ownership. Fraser seconded it.
As the columnist Bob Millington had reflected in a piece rifling through the “Maintain Your Age” mailbag, “if politics makes strange bedfellows, defending a newspaper brings an even stranger, yet wonderful, collection of people together”. Over these early years the campaign enlisted support from individuals you could not imagine having any more in common than a football team (it is, after all, Melbourne). BHP chairman Sir James Balderstone, historian Professor Manning Clark, ACTU secretary Bill Kelty, Victorian Farmers Federation chief Heather Mitchell, former Victorian premiers John Cain and Sir Rupert Hamer, philanthropist and prisons campaigner Dame Phyllis Frost, Greens leader Bob Brown and RSL president Bruce Ruxton.
And then there were the coupon signers. Millington unearthed coupons and cheques from descendants of the Syme family and a 12-year-old boy from Brighton. Readers in Albury, Rosanna and Bentleigh declared their decades of subscription, the prize for longevity going to Mrs Florence Williams of St Kilda who “says she reads The Age from cover to cover each day. Mrs Williams will be 99 next Wednesday”. Bless her, and Millo, (both departed), but Mrs Williams represents the extreme end of a once rusted-on and apparently worthless demographic, which the enterprise has long since jettisoned.
A certain hollowness
The box of letters sat under my desk when we revived the independence committee a decade ago as we tried to defend the spirit of the charter from the storm of the great disruption. We wearily dusted off and enlisted the old tactics, reaching out to influencers and readers, this time using the infinitely more powerful tools of the same cybersphere that was eating us alive. The response was gratifying, but had a certain hollowness. Was it real, or just an echo?
As efforts crank up to defend Fairfax’s editorial tradition, if not its name, when it is consumed by Nine, I’m all too aware that the institutional journalism that defines my generation and my imagination has all but vanished. When I summon up Fairfax in talking journalism with my students, for me it’s this great warts-and-all beast with a proud history, noble ambition and organic connection to its community; for them it’s a limp tagline in their feed.
Fairfax CEO Greg Hywood yesterday tried to assure journalists that “there will be plenty of Fairfax Media DNA in the merged company and the board”. I hope so, because the remaining journalists and editors continue to produce stories of extraordinary calibre with little time and ever diminishing resources. But I wondered, given the vanishing of the masthead’s resonance in their lives, whether the community Fairfax served has already been lost, and might only be retrieved by extracting DNA from the coupons in the box, like extinct creatures out of amber.
“Where do you get your news?” I asked my students on Monday, as I do at the beginning of every semester. “Twitter” one of them replied. No, actually, you don’t.
Jo Chandler was a journalist at The Age from 1989-2012, and a former chair of the Age Independence Committee.