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 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.
The ABC’s chief economics correspondent, Emma Alberici, did her job the other day. She wrote a well-researched analysis piece investigating whether the Turnbull government’s proposed company tax cuts would grow the economy and break Australia’s wages deadlock.
Alberici’s article came in for a lot of criticism from the Turnbull government for its one-sidedness and lack of balance. Later, the ABC took down the article from its website.
If you read her piece, you’ll see that, yes, she could have included more voices, and yes, the case for company tax cuts was forcefully argued against. But the argument and analysis was built on sound research, as Saul Eslake (one of Australia’s most senior and respected independent economists, who was quoted in Alberici’s story) has pointed out.
So, why on earth did ABC take the article down?
Part of the answer to this lies in the very editorial policies that are supposed to safeguard the ABC’s independence. The current wording of these polices function as a straitjacket on ABC journalists and make it hard for them to toe the line between analysis and opinion.
And that in turn makes the ABC look less independent.
High level of trust
One of the ABC’s greatest assets is the high public trust it enjoys compared to many of its commercial media competitors.
That trust is to a large extent built on the broadcaster maintaining and defending its independence from commercial, political and any other societal interests.
There are a lot of misconceptions regarding what a public broadcaster is. But one thing it is not is a government or state broadcaster.
There are certainly examples of some public broadcasters that are. One prominent recent case was when the Polish government in practice took control of the country’s public broadcaster and turned it into a government mouthpiece.
A serious case of self-doubt
The ABC Act and the ABC Charter are the safeguards of ABC’s independence from the government of the day. This independence was challenged to unprecedented levels by the Abbott government a few years ago.
A new major challenge to the ABC’s independence is the current change, driven by One Nation, to the ABC Charter requiring it to be “fair” and “balanced” in its reporting. If you recognise these terms, that’s because it used to be Fox News’ catchphrase.
The ABC is not turning into the Polish Broadcasting Corporation, but it has clearly lost a lot of confidence lately. In Alberici’s case, it appears it bowed to government pressure when it should have stood its ground.
But getting heat from the government of the day (regardless of the particular side of politics) is an indication that a public broadcaster is doing its most important job (provided you get your facts right): holding power to account. If you bow to political pressure, you’re not doing your job.
A public broadcaster with a confidence problem is a serious issue for political and democratic wellbeing.
Globally, there are between ten and 15 properly funded public broadcasters (depending on what level of funding you define as proper) with enough funding and safeguards to be able to call themselves editorially independent. This means there are only ten to 15 large repositories of in-depth public interest journalism – globally.
So, the case is strong for the Australian public to get behind the ABC and ask it to snap out of its crisis of confidence. Then it can get on with the job of keeping power to account – just like Alberici tried to do.
The Barnaby Joyce saga has given a great boost to what might be called “shake-the-tree” journalism: you shake the tree by running a sensational story and see what falls out.
The Daily Telegraph’s original public-interest case for publishing the first story of Joyce’s relationship with ex-staffer Vikki Campion was weak when weighed against the privacy intrusions on Joyce, his estranged wife, his daughters, and Campion.
However, that story has resulted in the emergence of three genuine public-interest justifications.
The first is whether Joyce breached the ministerial code of conduct by employing his partner in his office. On this he has prevaricated, saying that his partner was not so employed. Here he was clearly referring to his wife, not Campion. In the circumstances, this was a distinction without a difference.
The second matter of public interest concerns the expenditure of public money on jobs said to have been found for Campion when her presence in Joyce’s office became untenable. Her salary is reported to be about A$190,000.
The third is whether the Prime Minister’s Office was informed of this or whether Joyce misled them by omission.
Once the story came out in The Daily Telegraph, the media as a whole piled into a story they had all known about for months. And they have done so with a kind of shamefaced gusto, making up for lost time.
How much better it would have been if someone – anyone – in the Canberra gallery had succeeded in establishing at least one of those substantial public-interest justifications and broken the story framed around that.
Instead, the story that broke was coloured by the salacious moralism beloved of tabloid newspapers since time began.
It featured a large picture of Campion, heavily pregnant, a gross violation of privacy if ever there was one.
Here it was: the fruit of sin. The impregnated mistress, to borrow some of the vulgar moralising language that has disfigured the coverage.
The photo has been defended by The Daily Telegraph’s editor as proving the truth of the story that Barnaby Joyce had got his staffer pregnant. It proves nothing of the sort. It shows a woman pregnant. It says nothing about paternity.
Then on Valentine’s Day, The Daily Telegraph was at it again, this time with a page-one picture taken in 2016 in which Joyce and Campion are sitting next to each other at an official function.
Campion is in the foreground and Joyce, according to the caption, “eyes off” his media adviser. The headline says: “Bad look”.
There are many ways of interpreting this picture and headline. One of them is that Joyce had sexual designs on Campion back then, which from the caption is clearly the main message The Daily Telegraph wished to convey, regardless of truth or context.
But the picture is also about Campion. Although she is oblivious of the glance from Joyce, the reader is given the opportunity to inspect her as the “other woman”: we get a good look at her face, her figure and her legs.
Put the “bad look” headline with that, and the reader is invited to draw negative conclusions about her appearance and her character.
This judgemental tone, redolent with sexual possibilities and consequences, is a throwback to the busybody moralising of the 1950s and 1960s.
Then – before the sexual revolution and the rise of second-wave feminism – it was a staple of middle-class morality to take a gossipy and often hurtful interest in marital breakdowns and pregnancies out of wedlock.
Professor Alison Dagnes, a political scientist at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania and editor of a textbook on sex scandals in American politics, proposes a theory that goes like this: there is a well-documented loss of trust in institutions, one consequence of which is that the public is inclined to regard all politicians as scumbags.
Digital technology has equipped everyone with a camera and social media has provided everyone with the means of publishing. This has created a competitiveness of unprecedented intensity among media.
Scandals pique everyone’s interest, even among those who are not usually interested in politics. So any scandal that shows politicians to be the scumbags we suspect, guarantees lots of “likes” and “shares” on social media, generating a frenzy in traditional media and opening up the scandal to instant and reiterative public judgements.
This, in turn, adds to public distrust in institutions.
To this theory might be added two more possible factors.
The first is the shift in norms of privacy induced by social media and the ubiquity of mobile phones with cameras. Old understandings of the boundaries between private and public have been obliterated and new ones have not yet taken their place.
The second is people’s sense of entitlement to pass judgement on matters of which they have personal experience: intimate relationships, the primary school curriculum, the quality of driving on the roads. This is not new, but it is a powerful driver of attitudes.
Doubtless there are other factors, but whatever they are, Western society does appear to be in the grip of a new moralism, and the tabloid media are adept at making the most of it.
The Senate inquiry into the future of public interest journalism began as a gleam in the media-trained eye of Labor senator Sam Dastyari. It ended on February 5, 11 days after he left parliament, his political reputation in tatters over his conduct in relation to Chinese donors to the Labor Party.
This suggests the inquiry’s recommendations are unlikely to get much traction, but the very real issues it was investigating remain unresolved. How did quality media get into such a pickle and what can be done about it?
The three main developments that fed into the inquiry were: proposed changes to media ownership restrictions; the collapse of the business model that has for years sustained print media’s profitability; and the rise of “fake news” and its influence in the 2016 Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump.
The government had made two previous attempts to change the media ownership laws created in a pre-internet age. But the effect of the changes, which were finally passed in 2017, has largely been to protect existing mainstream media companies while failing to encourage new entrants into a highly concentrated market.
Meanwhile, according the journalists’ union, the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance, the collapse of the business model has prompted mainstream media companies to lay off around 25% of journalists between 2012 and 2017.
Media companies have cut costs but have been powerless to stem the flood of
advertising revenue to global behemoths Google and Facebook. Google’s market capitalisation is about half Australia’s gross domestic product, the Senate report notes.
The business model problem remains. As a result, the loss of journalistic talent and experience has led to significant gaps in reporting, especially in courts, state parliaments and local and regional reporting, according to the Civic Impact of Journalism research project.
Lack of resources has also made news organisations increasingly vulnerable to “fake news”. Indeed, it was the growing alarm about “fake news”, coupled with yet another round of redundancies at Fairfax Media, that provided Dastyari with the public and political impetus to begin his inquiry.
In addition to Dastyari, the inquiry lost two of its most knowledgeable members – Greens senator Scott Ludlam, who resigned from parliament over his dual citizenship, and Nick Xenophon, who resigned to contest a seat in next month’s South Australian election.
The Coalition government was always unlikely to pay much heed to a Labor-chaired inquiry, but in its 149-page report the senators have grappled with important public policy issues. Their eight recommendations are:
Adequately fund public broadcasters, the ABC and SBS.
Guarantee future funding for community broadcasting.
Embed digital media literary in the Australian curriculum.
Extend deductible gift recipient status to not-for-profit news media organisations who engage in public interest journalism.
Ask Treasury to do modelling on extending tax deductibility to all
Australians who subscribe to news media outlets engaging in public interest
Ask the Australian Law Reform Commission to conduct an audit of current laws that hinder journalists’ ability to report on national security and border protection issues.
Review defamation laws.
Expand legal protections for whistleblowers and other confidential sources for journalists.
These ideas are all worthy of further debate. The final three recommendations all tackle crucial press freedom issues. The call for adequate funding for the ABC and SBS follows sharp cuts under the past two Coalition governments. The community broadcasting sector has also been treated with disdain.
Teaching children the value of public interest journalism, and how to distinguish it from what the public is interested in, would be a good first step to developing a generation of more savvy media consumers.
The middle two recommendations tackle the vital question of how to pay for quality journalism. One recommendation supports not-for-profit outlets while the other would potentially benefit media outlets that rely on subscriptions. The latest in a long line of industry hopes for finding a sustainable business model is to build subscription numbers.
The senators rejected submissions from numerous people and organisations recommending some form of direct subsidy from government, either for existing media companies or to encourage new entrants.
There are clearly issues here of potential government interference in editorial independence, but the senators overlooked three points. First, many other countries around the world already provide direct subsidies, as is detailed in chapter five of their report. Second, there is evidence that editorial independence can be safeguarded. Finally, there is a long history in Australia of directly subsidising the news media industry, as outlined in both this report and the Finkelstein media inquiry in 2012.
Whatever happens to these recommendations, the clock is ticking. If public interest journalism continues to be starved of resources, journalists’ ability to unearth maladministration or corruption will be winnowed even further. Of course we won’t see it, because journalists won’t have been able to tell us.
As Bob Woodward of The Washington Post observed:
The central dilemma in journalism is that you don’t know what you don’t know.
Imagine a world where we didn’t know about the Watergate scandal that Woodward was first to uncover.
The government’s own intelligence watchdog, the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security, argues the bill is so widely worded that its own staff could break the law for handling documents they need to access to do their job.
A case in point is whether the ABC’s publication of confidential and secret cabinet documents would be in breach of the proposed bill. Two filing cabinets full of thousands of confidential cabinet documents were given to the ABC by a source who, astonishingly, had bought them for small change at an op-shop in Canberra.
The ABC made an assessment and chose to publish a very limited number of the documents it deemed in the public interest. The ABC has so far clearly acted responsibly, and no documents that could harm Australia’s national security were in the first publication.
Some of the published documents are embarrassing for both the current and former Coalition and Labor governments, but that should not stop publication – rather, the opposite.
The foreign interference bill, in its current form, suggests it should be criminal for anyone to “receive” and “handle” certain national security information. It would seem that by just receiving the filing cabinets and assessing what to publish, the ABC staff would be in breach of the provisions suggested in the bill.
The bill is an overreach in many respects. But one of the worst aspects, from a transparency and accountability point of view, is that it seeks to extend the draconian Section 70 of the Commonwealth Crimes Act.
Section 70 makes it a crime, punishable by a maximum of two years in prison, for public servants to communicate or supply information to anyone outside government without permission. The ABC’s publication of the cabinet files clearly illustrates that media organisations with ethical and thorough editorial polices are perfectly capable of assessing what to publish.
The bigger picture is that the current bill is part of a pattern that started after the terrorist attacks in the US on September 11, 2001.
Our main conclusions are that the current fear-driven security environment has made it much harder for investigative journalists to hold governments and security agencies to account. This is partly due to anti-terror and security laws making it harder for whistleblowers to act.
Add to this the truly awesome powers of mass surveillance making it increasingly difficult for investigative journalists to grant anonymity to sources that require it for their own safety, and you end up with a very complex journalist-source situation.
Another important factor in Australia and the UK is that all national security agencies are exempt from Freedom of Information laws. This makes it virtually impossible to independently acquire information from the security branch of government.
The balance between national security and transparency is complex. As citizens, we want to feel safe and know what is being done to keep us safe. In our book, we have labelled this the “trust us” dilemma, meaning governments argue they can’t disclose what they are doing security-wise, lest the “bad guys” find out.
That leaves us needing to trust the government’s security actions and policies. But the problem is, how can we as citizens decide if we trust the government if we don’t have the information on which to base this decision?
There is no easy answer to this question. Political philosopher Giorgio Agamben takes our reasoning one step further when he argues that the liberal democratic world has been in a “state of exception” since September 11. This has granted powers to security agencies that are creeping increasingly closer to those of the totalitarian regimes in Europe in the 1930s.
Agamben traces various states of exception all the way back to Roman times. The pattern is similar through history: governments point to an “other” – often a hard-to-define enemy – as a reason for increased powers to the security apparatus. They are convinced they are doing the right thing.
The problem is that if we don’t roll back the strengthened security laws in times of lower threat, we start from a high level next time we enter a “state of exception”. This in turn can lead to a never-ending war on real or perceived threats where our cherished democratic civil liberties become part of the collateral damage.
If we allow the “state of exception” to become permanent, we risk allowing the terrorists to win.
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.
In 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.