To publish or not to publish? The media’s free-speech dilemmas in a world of division, violence and extremism



AAP/AP/ John Nacion/STAR MAX/IPx

Denis Muller, University of Melbourne

Terrorism, political extremism, Donald Trump, social media and the phenomenon of “cancel culture” are confronting journalists with a range of agonising free-speech dilemmas to which there are no easy answers.

Do they allow a president of the United States to use their platforms to falsely and provocatively claim the election he has just lost was stolen from him?

How do they cover the activities and rhetoric of political extremists without giving oxygen to race hate and civil insurrection?

How do they integrate news-making social media material into their own content, when it is also hateful or a threat to the civil peace?

Should journalists engage in, or take a stand against, “cancel culture”?

How should editors respond to the “assassin’s veto”, when extremists threaten to kill those who publish content that offends their culture or religion?

The West has experienced concrete examples of all these in recent years. In the US, many of them became pressing during the Trump presidency.

When five of the big US television networks cut away from Trump’s White House press conference on November 6 after he claimed the election had been stolen, they did so on the grounds that he was lying and endangering civil peace.




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Silencing the president was an extraordinary step, since it is the job of the media to tell people what is going on, hold public officials to account, and uphold the right to free speech. It looked like an abandonment of their role in democratic life.

Against that, television’s acknowledged reach and power imposes a heavy duty not to provide a platform for dangerous speech.

Then on January 6 – two months later to the day – after yet more incitement from Trump, a violent mob laid siege to the Capitol and five people lost their lives. The networks’ decision looked prescient.

They had acted on the principle that a clear and present danger to civil peace, based on credible evidence, should be prioritised over commitments to informing the public, holding public officials to account and freedom of speech.

This case also raised a further dilemma. Even if the danger to peace did not exist, should journalists just go on reporting – or broadcasting – known lies, even when they come from the president of the United States?




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Newspaper editors and producers of pre-recorded radio and television content have the time to report lies while simultaneously calling them out as lies. Live radio and television do not. The words are out and the damage is done.

So the medium, the nature and size of the risk, how the informational and accountability functions of journalism are prioritised against the risk, and the free-speech imperative all play into these decisions.

Should the media report known lies, even if uttered by the president of the United States?
AAP/EPA/White House handout

Similar considerations arise in respect of reporting political extremism.

The ABC’s Four Corners program is about to embark on a story about the alt-right in the US. Having advertised this in a promotional tweet, the ABC received some social media blow-back raising the question of why it would give oxygen to these groups.

The influence of the alt-right on Western politics is a matter of real public interest because of the way it shapes political rhetoric and policy responses, particular on race and immigration.

To not report on this phenomenon because it pursues a morally reprehensible ideology would be to fail the ethical obligation of journalism to tell the community about the important things that are going on in the world.

It is not a question of whether to report, but how.

The Four Corners program will not be live to air. There will be opportunity for judicious editing. Journalists are under no obligation to report everything they are told. In fact they almost never do.

Motive matters

Whether the decision to omit is censorship comes down to motive: is it censorship to omit hate speech or incitement to violence? No. Because the reporter doesn’t agree with it? Yes.

Integrating social media content into professional mass media news presents all these complexities and one more: what is called the news value of “virality”.

Does the fact something has gone viral on social media make it news? For the more responsible professional mass media, something more will usually be needed. Does the subject matter affect large numbers of people? Is it inherently significant in some way? Does it involve some person who is in a position of authority or public trust?

Trump’s use of Twitter was an exploitation of these decision-rules, but did not invalidate them.

Social media is also the means by which “cancel culture” works. It enables large numbers of people to join a chorus of condemnation against someone for something they have said or done. It also puts pressure on institutions such as universities or media outlets to shun them.

It has become a means by which the otherwise powerless or voiceless can exert influence over people or organisations that would otherwise be beyond their reach.

There are those who are worried about the effects on free speech. In July 2020, Harper’s magazine published a letter of protest signed by 152 authors, academics, journalists, artists, poets, playwrights and critics.

While applauding the intentions behind “cancel culture” in advancing racial and social justice, they raised their voices against what they saw as a new set of moral attitudes that tended to favour ideological conformity.

In the aftermath of the police killings of black people in 2020 and the law-and-order response of the Trump administration, “cancel culture” began to affect journalism ethics. Some journalists on papers such as The Washington Post and The New York Times began taking public positions against the way their papers were reporting race issues.

In the aftermath of the Black Lives Matter protests, some journalists began to question how their papers covered race issues.
AAP/AP/Evan Vucci

It led to a lively debate in the profession about the extent to which moral preferences should shape news decisions. The riposte to those who argued that they should, was: whose moral preferences should prevail?

This was yet another illustration of the complexities surrounding free speech issues arising from the social media phenomenon, the Trump presidency and the combination of the two.

Terrorism has also added its contribution. Over the decade 2005-2015, what became known as the Danish cartoons confronted journalists and editors with life-and-death decisions.

In 2005, the Danish newspaper Jyllands Posten (Jutland Post) published cartoons lampooning the Prophet Mohammed. It was a conscious act of defiance against “the assassin’s veto”, violent threats to free speech by Islamist-jihadis.

In 2009, a Danish-born professor of politics wrote a book, The Cartoons that Shook the World. Yale University Press, which published it, refused to re-publish the cartoons after having taken advice from counter-terrorism experts about the risks.

In November 2011, the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo published an issue called Charia Hebdo, satirically featuring the Prophet as editor. The real editor was placed on an Al-Qaeda hit list and in January 2015, two masked gunmen opened fire on the newspaper office, killing 12 people, including the editor.




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The world’s media were confronted with the decision whether to re-publish the cartoons again in defiance of “the assassin’s veto”. Some did, but most – including Jyllands Posten – did not.

The necessary limits of free speech

Free speech is an indispensable civil right under assault from all these forces. But none of the philosophers whose names we immediately associate with free speech have claimed it to be absolute.

The social media platforms, having for years proclaimed themselves extreme libertarians, have in recent times begun to recognise this is indefensible, and strengthened their moderating procedures.

Some of Australia’s senior politicians seem baffled by the issue.

When Twitter shut down Trump’s account, acting Prime Minister Michael McCormack didn’t seem to know where he stood, saying in one breath it was a violation of free speech to shut down Trump while in the next that Twitter should also take down the false image of an Australian soldier slitting the throat of an Afghan child.

And he is a former country newspaper editor.

This was followed by Treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s remark that he was “uncomfortable” with the Twitter decision. He quoted Voltaire as saying something Voltaire never said: the famous line that while he disagreed with what someone said, he would defend to the death his right to say it. It was a fabrication put into Voltaire’s mouth by a biographer more than 100 years after his death.

Voltaire, Milton, Spinoza, Locke and Mill, to say nothing of the US Supreme Court, have not regarded free speech as an absolute right.

So while the media face some extremely difficult decisions in today’s operating environment, they do not need to burden themselves with the belief that every decision not to publish is the violation of an inviolable right.The Conversation

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

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Web’s inventor says news media bargaining code could break the internet. He’s right — but there’s a fix


Tama Leaver, Curtin University

The inventor of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, has raised concerns that Australia’s proposed News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code could fundamentally break the internet as we know it.

His concerns are valid. However, they could be addressed through minor changes to the proposed code.

How could the code break the web?

The news media bargaining code aims to level the playing field between media companies and online giants. It would do this by forcing Facebook and Google to pay Australian news businesses for content linked to, or featured, on their platforms.

In a submission to the Senate inquiry about the code, Berners-Lee wrote:

Specifically, I am concerned that the Code risks breaching a fundamental principle of the web by requiring payment for linking between certain content online. […] The ability to link freely — meaning without limitations regarding the content of the linked site and without monetary fees — is fundamental to how the web operates.

Currently, one of the most basic underlying principles of the web is there is no cost involved in creating a hypertext link (or simply a “link”) to any other page or object online.

When Berners-Lee first devised the World Wide Web in 1989, he effectively gave away the idea and associated software for free, to ensure nobody would or could charge for using its protocols.

He argues the news media bargaining code could set a legal precedent allowing someone to charge for linking, which would let the genie out of the bottle — and plenty more attempts to charge for linking to content would appear.

If the precedent were set that people could be charged for simply linking to content online, it’s possible the underlying principle of linking would be disrupted.

As a result, there would likely be many attempts by both legitimate companies and scammers to charge users for what is currently free.

While supporting the “right of publishers and content creators to be properly rewarded for their work”, Berners-Lee asks the code be amended to maintain the principle of allowing free linking between content.




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Google and Facebook don’t just link to content

Part of the issue here is Google and Facebook don’t just collect a list of interesting links to news content. Rather the way they find, sort, curate and present news content adds value for their users.

They don’t just link to news content, they reframe it. It is often in that reframing that advertisements appear, and this is where these platforms make money.

For example, this link will take you to the original 1989 proposal for the World Wide Web. Right now, anyone can create such a link to any other page or object on the web, without having to pay anyone else.

But what Facebook and Google do in curating news content is fundamentally different. They create compelling previews, usually by offering the headline of a news article, sometimes the first few lines, and often the first image extracted.

For instance, here is a preview Google generates when someone searches for Tim Berners-Lee’s Web proposal:

Results page for the Google Search 'tim berners lee www proposal'.
This is a screen capture of the results page for the Google Search: ‘tim berners lee www proposal’.
Google

Evidently, what Google returns is more of a media-rich, detailed preview than a simple link. For Google’s users, this is a much more meaningful preview of the content and better enables them to decide whether they’ll click through to see more.

Another huge challenge for media businesses is that increasing numbers of users are taking headlines and previews at face value, without necessarily reading the article.

This can obviously decrease revenue for news providers, as well as perpetuate misinformation. Indeed, it’s one of the reasons Twitter began asking users to actually read content before retweeting it.

A fairly compelling argument, then, is that Google and Facebook add value for consumers via the reframing, curating and previewing of content — not just by linking to it.

Can the code be fixed?

Currently in the code, the section concerning how platforms are “Making content available” lists three ways content is shared:

  1. content is reproduced on the service
  2. content is linked to
  3. an extract or preview is made available.

Similar terms are used to detail how users might interact with content.

Extract showing the way 'Making content available' is defined in the Treasury Laws Amendment (News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code) Bill 2020
The News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code 2020 outlines three main ways by which platforms make news content available.
Australian Government

If we accept most of the additional value platforms provide to their users is in curating and providing previews of content, then deleting the second element (which just specifies linking to content) would fix Berners-Lee’s concerns.

It would ensure the use of links alone can’t be monetised, as has always been true on the web. Platforms would still need to pay when they present users with extracts or previews of articles, but not when they only link to it.

Since basic links are not the bread and butter of big platforms, this change wouldn’t fundamentally alter the purpose or principle of creating a more level playing field for news businesses and platforms.




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In its current form, the News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code could put the underlying principles of the world wide web in jeopardy. Tim Berners-Lee is right to raise this point.

But a relatively small tweak to the code would prevent this, It would allow us to focus more on where big platforms actually provide value for users, and where the clearest justification lies in asking them to pay for news content.


For transparency, it should be noted The Conversation has also made a submission to the Senate inquiry regarding the News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code.The Conversation

Tama Leaver, Professor of Internet Studies, Curtin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Is news worth a lot or a little? Google and Facebook want to have it both ways


Tim Dwyer, University of Sydney

Executives from Google and Facebook have told a Senate committee they are prepared to take drastic action if Australia’s news media bargaining code, which would force the internet giants to pay news publishers for linking to their sites, comes into force.

Google would have “no real choice” but to cut Australian users off entirely from its flagship search engine, the company’s Australian managing director Mel Silva told the committee. Facebook representatives in turn said they would remove links to news articles from the newsfeed of Australian users if the code came into effect as it currently stands.




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In response, the Australian government shows no sign of backing down, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg both saying they won’t respond to threats.

So what’s going on here? Are Google and Facebook really prepared to pull services from their Australian users rather than hand over some money to publishers under the bargaining code?

Is news valuable to Facebook and Google?

Facebook claims news is of little real value to its business. It doesn’t make money from news directly, and claims that for an average Australian user less than 5% of their newsfeed is made up of links to Australian news.

But this is hard to square with other information. In 2020, the University of Canberra’s Digital News Report found some 52% of Australians get news via social media, and the number is growing. Facebook also boasts of its investments in news via deals with publishers and new products such as Facebook News.

Google likewise says it makes little money from news, while at the same time investing heavily in news products like News Showcase.

So while links to news may not be direct advertising money-spinners for Facebook or Google, both see the presence of news as an important aspect of audience engagement with their products.

On their own terms

While both companies are prepared to give some money to news publishers, they want to make deals on their own terms. But Google and Facebook are two of the largest and most profitable companies in history – and each holds far more bargaining power than any news publisher. The news media bargaining code sets out to undo this imbalance.

What’s more, Google and Facebook don’t appear to want to accept the unique social role of news, and public interest journalism in particular. Nor do they recognise they might be involved somehow in the decline of the news business over the past decade or two, instead pointing the finger at impersonal shifts in advertising technology.

The media bargaining code being introduced is far too systematic for them to want to accept it. They would rather pick and choose commercial agreements with “genuine commercial consideration”, and not be bound by a one-size-fits-all set of arbitration rules.




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A history of US monopolies

Google and Facebook dominate web search and social media, respectively, in ways that echo the great US monopolies of the past: rail in the 19th century, then oil and later telecommunications in the 20th. All these industries became fundamental forms of capitalist infrastructure for economic and social development. And all these monopolies required legislation to break them up in the public interest.

It’s unsurprising that the giant ad-tech media platforms don’t want to follow the rules, but they must acknowledge that their great wealth and power come with a moral responsibility to society. Making them face up to that responsibility will require government intervention.

Online pioneers Vint Cerf (now VP and Chief Internet Evangelist at Google) and Tim Berners-Lee (“inventor of the World Wide Web”) have also made submissions to the Senate committee advocating on behalf of the corporations. They made high-minded claims that the code will break the “free and open” internet.




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Web’s inventor says news media bargaining code could break the internet. He’s right — but there’s a fix


But today’s internet is hardly free and open: for most users “the internet” is huge corporate platforms like Google and Facebook. And those corporations don’t want Australian senators interfering with their business model.

Independent senator Rex Patrick hit the nail on the head when he asked why Google wouldn’t admit the fundamental issue was about revenue, rather than technical detail or questions of principle.

How seriously should we take threats to leave the Australian market?

Google and Facebook are prepared to go along with the Senate committee’s processes, so long as they can modify the arrangement. The don’t want to be seen as uncooperative.

The threat to leave (or as Facebook’s Simon Milner put it, the “explanation” of why they would be forced to do so) is their worst-case scenario. It seems likely they would risk losing significant numbers of users if they did so, or at least having them much less engaged – and hence producing less advertising revenue.

Google has already run small-scale experiments to test removing Australian news from search. This may be a demonstration that the threat to withdraw from Australia is serious, or at least, serious brinkmanship.

People know news is important, that it shapes their interactions with the world – and provides meaning and helps them navigate their lives. So who would Australians blame if Google and Facebook really do follow through? The government or the friendly tech giants they see every day? That’s harder to know.


For transparency, please note The Conversation has also made a submission to the Senate inquiry regarding the News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code.The Conversation

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

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

There’s no such thing as ‘alternative facts’. 5 ways to spot misinformation and stop sharing it online



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Mark Pearson, Griffith University

The blame for the recent assault on the US Capitol and President Donald Trump’s broader dismantling of democratic institutions and norms can be laid at least partly on misinformation and conspiracy theories.

Those who spread misinformation, like Trump himself, are exploiting people’s lack of media literacy — it’s easy to spread lies to people who are prone to believe what they read online without questioning it.

We are living in a dangerous age where the internet makes it possible to spread misinformation far and wide and most people lack the basic fact-checking abilities to discern fact from fiction — or, worse, the desire to develop a healthy skepticism at all.




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Journalists are trained in this sort of thing — that is, the responsible ones who are trying to counter misinformation with truth.

Here are five fundamental lessons from Journalism 101 that all citizens can learn to improve their media literacy and fact-checking skills:

1. Distinguishing verified facts from myths, rumours and opinions

Cold, hard facts are the building blocks for considered and reasonable opinions in politics, media and law.

And there are no such things as “alternative facts” — facts are facts. Just because a falsity has been repeated many times by important people and their affiliates does not make it true.

We cannot expect the average citizen to have the skills of an academic researcher, journalist or judge in determining the veracity of an asserted statement. However, we can teach people some basic strategies before they mistake mere assertions for actual facts.

Does a basic internet search show these assertions have been confirmed by usually reliable sources – such as non-partisan mainstream news organisations, government websites and expert academics?

Students are taught to look to the URL of more authoritative sites — such as .gov or .edu — as a good hint at the factual basis of an assertion.

Searches and hashtags in social media are much less reliable as verification tools because you could be fishing within the “bubble” (or “echo chamber”) of those who share common interests, fears and prejudices – and are more likely to be perpetuating myths and rumours.

2. Mixing up your media and social media diet

We need to be break out of our own “echo chambers” and our tendencies to access only the news and views of those who agree with us, on the topics that interest us and where we feel most comfortable.

For example, over much of the past five years, I have deliberately switched between various conservative and liberal media outlets when something important has happened in the US.

By looking at the coverage of the left- and right-wing media, I can hope to find a common set of facts both sides agree on — beyond the partisan rhetoric and spin. And if only one side is reporting something, I know to question this assertion and not just take it at face value.

3. Being skeptical and assessing the factual premise of an opinion

Journalism students learn to approach the claims of their sources with a “healthy skepticism”. For instance, if you are interviewing someone and they make what seems to be a bold or questionable claim, it’s good practice to pause and ask what facts the claim is based on.

Students are taught in media law this is the key to the fair comment defence to a defamation action. This permits us to publish defamatory opinions on matters of public interest as long as they are reasonably based on provable facts put forth by the publication.

The ABC’s Media Watch used this defence successfully (at trial and on appeal) when it criticised a Sydney Sun-Herald journalist’s reporting that claimed toxic materials had been found near a children’s playground.

This assessment of the factual basis of an opinion is not reserved for defamation lawyers – it is an exercise we can all undertake as we decide whether someone’s opinion deserves our serious attention and republication.




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4. Exploring the background and motives of media and sources

A key skill in media literacy is the ability to look behind the veil of those who want our attention — media outlets, social media influencers and bloggers — to investigate their allegiances, sponsorships and business models.

For instance, these are some key questions to ask:

  • who is behind that think tank whose views you are retweeting?

  • who owns the online newspaper you read and what other commercial interests do they hold?

  • is your media diet dominated by news produced from the same corporate entity?

  • why does someone need to be so loud or insulting in their commentary; is this indicative of their neglect of important facts that might counter their view?

  • what might an individual or company have to gain or lose by taking a position on an issue, and how might that influence their opinion?

Just because someone has an agenda does not mean their facts are wrong — but it is a good reason to be even more skeptical in your verification processes.




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5. Reflecting and verifying before sharing

We live in an era of instant republication. We immediately retweet and share content we see on social media, often without even having read it thoroughly, let alone having fact-checked it.

Mindful reflection before pressing that sharing button would allow you to ask yourself, “Why am I even choosing to share this material?”

You could also help shore up democracy by engaging in the fact-checking processes mentioned above to avoid being part of the problem by spreading misinformation.The Conversation

Mark Pearson, Professor of Journalism and Social Media, Griffith Centre for Social and Cultural Research, Griffith University, Griffith University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Government funds are not ‘taxpayer money’ — media and politicians should stop confusing the two



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Jonathan Barrett, Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of Wellington

Rhetoric plays an important role in tax debate and therefore tax policy. If your side manages to gain traction in the public imagination with labels such as “death tax” or “dementia tax”, you have gone a long way to normalising the labels and winning support.

Some truth underpins these particular labels — an estate tax is triggered by a person’s death, and the United Kingdom’s abandoned levy for end-of-life care would have been particularly relevant for dementia sufferers.

Nevertheless, these tags are essentially political messages and we should expect unbiased media to use neutral terminology. Fair reportage would not, for example, repeat the extreme libertarian claim that “tax is theft” — a baseless slogan incompatible with the rule of law.

However, both reputable media and politicians of every stripe invariably use the phrase “taxpayer money” to describe government funds, despite the phrase having no constitutional or legal basis.

This article argues that truth-based media should avoid the phrase, and progressive politicians should recognise they fall into a conservative trap when they repeat it.

Taxpayers don’t own their taxes

Richard Murphy, one of the founders of the UK’s Tax Justice Network and author of The Joy of Tax, explains that “taxpayers’ money” is the money left in our pockets after we have paid taxes that are legally due. Money payable through taxes is the government’s property.

This is quite easy to prove — try not paying your income tax and see if the courts will enforce government property rights in that money.

Murphy also observes that “taxpayer” is typically understood as “income tax payer”, thereby implicitly preferring high income earners while excluding beneficiaries. But a goods and services tax (GST) ensures everyone is a taxpayer, and indirect taxes disproportionately affect the poor.




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Similarly, at a local level, “ratepayer” has become synonymous with the propertied voice to which councils should pay heed, even though renters (rather than the registered ratepayer for a leased property) bear the effective burden of local rates.

If the government is the legal owner of its funds, then, does it hold tax revenue in trust for taxpayers? Not at all. Subject to the rule of law, governments can do what they choose with their money.

Elections decide how taxes are spent

Self-appointed watchdogs such as the Taxpayers’ Union claim to bring government waste to public notice. Rightly so — as citizens, we should demand proper stewardship of government funds.

But our actionable right as electors is to vote a wasteful government out of office. The electorate as a whole, rather than an ideological interest group, determines the size of government we should have.

Unlike trust beneficiaries, we do not have an equitable interest in the government’s money. If it were otherwise, groups of taxpayers might have some claim on the government to spend or not spend its money in particular ways.




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For example, paying taxes to fund belligerent activities is problematic for pacifists, notably certain religious groups. A Religious Freedom Peace Tax Fund Act, which has been regularly introduced to the United States Congress, would permit dissenting taxpayers to assign the defence portion of their taxes to supporting peace work and social services.

Proponents of the legislation have not sought to pay less tax than their fellow citizens but to direct how their tax contribution is spent. These attempts have failed, as they must do. Democratic political communities permit dissent, but nonconformism does not extend to directing how taxes should be spent.

Tax is part of the social contract

In The Variorum Civil Disobedience (1849), a reflection on his imprisonment for failing to pay a highway tax, Henry David Thoreau recognised that an individual citizen can protest against government by refusing to pay tax (and accept the consequences), but they cannot treat the government’s choices in its expenditure as if it were a cafeteria. He wrote:

It is for no particular item in the tax-bill that I refuse to pay it. I simply wish to refuse allegiance to the State, to withdraw and stand aloof from it effectually. I do not care to trace the course of my dollar, if I could, till it buys a man or a musket to shoot one with — the dollar is innocent — but I am concerned to trace the effects of my allegiance.

Liberal democracies are based on some form of metaphorical social contract, most obviously manifest in the constitution. Under this arrangement, parliamentarians are elected representatives, not agents for particular groups.

Henry David Thoreau
Henry David Thoreau: ‘the dollar is innocent’.
http://www.shutterstock.com

Like any government that fails to comply with the basic values of society, groups that seek to control government expenditure outside the electoral process can be seen as bending, if not breaching, the social contract.

A handbrake on decisive action

A progressive government should reject the suggestion that its funds are not its own to use as it sees fit for the betterment of society — as always, in accordance with New Zealand’s two fundamental constitutional principles of parliamentary sovereignty and the rule of law.

Kowtowing to a myth of “taxpayer money” may act as a handbrake on decisive action. We are taxed in accordance with statutory law. If Inland Revenue seeks to collect more from us than is due, we have access to various tribunals and courts.

These legal rules and processes determine what is mine and what belongs to the government. Broadly, we are free to deal with our own property as we see fit — and the government is too.

Media and progressive politicians should stop perpetuating the untruth that taxpayers retain some residual property interest in the taxes they pay. Taxpayer money is nothing more than their after-tax property and the government’s money is its own.The Conversation

Jonathan Barrett, Senior Lecturer in Taxation, Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of Wellington

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Expect delays and power plays: Google and Facebook brace as news media bargaining code is set to become law


Tim Dwyer, University of Sydney

The long-awaited mandatory code that will force Google and Facebook to pay Australian media companies for news content was finally unveiled yesterday.

The Treasury Laws Amendment Bill 2020 (news media and digital platforms mandatory bargaining code) will be introduced to parliament today, before being referred to a Senate committee.

Many of Australia’s news businesses have been on a hiding to nothing for more than a decade, as their revenue is undercut by the targeted advertising business model used by major digital platforms.

The most visible casualty has been public interest journalism — with the prospect of a well-informed citizenry on a slower, less obvious burn.

Against a backdrop of reports suggesting intense lobbying efforts by Facebook and Google against the new legislation, it appears some key concessions have been achieved by the platforms that weren’t present in the draft code.




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What’s changed in the revised code?

First, the revised code will now abide by an added “two-way value exchange” principle. This allows the monetary worth of traffic sent to news providers to be taken into account when determining the financial value of a particular news business’s content to the platforms.

How this will be calculated, however, will likely be an ongoing bone of contention for both parties.

A second major concession will see Facebook’s Instagram and Google’s YouTube exempted from the application of the new law. But the Treasurer will be able to add these (and other platforms) at a later date, should he deem it justified at the time.

A third concession is the halving of the 28-day notice period for the platforms to warn news websites of major changes to their ranking algorithms. These directly impact how news articles are displayed on Facebook’s Newsfeed and Google Search.

It seems the basic idea to “level the playing field” between platforms and news providers remains baked into the revised code, but only time will tell whether it works in practice.

A figure stands under a Google sign.
Following a year of discussion, Google last month struck a deal with French media in which the tech giant is expected to pay about €150 million (roughly A$245,003,250) over the next three years.
JAE C. HONG/AP

A related objective — to implement a process that sustains public interest journalism — remains equally tricky and may hinge on the revised code’s success.

But many will be pleased the public broadcasters ABC and SBS now fall within the code’s scope, too. Both will be financially compensated for news content along with their commercial rivals.

This may seem like a win, and it may be eventually, but for now it’s unclear how this will actually play out in terms of the government’s ongoing funding of these broadcasters.

Although conjecture at this stage, it may emerge in a forum such as Senate estimates that any compensation payments should be factored into overall funding calculations for the public broadcasters.

The arbitration model

One pivotal feature of the new legislation is it will address the entrenched power of the platforms by introducing a “final offer arbitration” model for price negotiations.

This process, overseen by the Australian Communications and Media Authority, will be mandatory when parties are unable to independently reach an agreement. It will likely be central to the new code’s success, or lack thereof.

Curiously, the revised code’s framework encourages deals to be struck outside of it. In these situations, key elements of commercial negotiations between the parties can be “turned off” with mutual agreement.

This appears to be a pragmatic recognition by the ACCC the code will never be able to control the realities of commercial media deal-making, which continue to be struck despite the code’s new bargaining marketplace.

However, where negotiations break down, news media businesses will be able to trigger the code’s provisions for meeting minimum standards.

This will cover advance notice of algorithmic changes and the requirement to engage in good faith bargaining for up to three months, before participating in the mandatory arbitration process.

Smaller news publishers will be able to bargain collectively, or accept “standard” offers from the platforms.

When one party fails to engage

The code has reasonably strong enforcement provisions in cases where there is a failure to negotiate in good faith, comply with an arbitration decision, avoid participation or engage in “retaliatory action against news media companies”.

The maximum penalty for a breach by Google or Facebook is the greater of either 10% of the platform’s annual Australian turnover, A$10 million, or three times the benefit obtained as a result of hosting the specific news business’s content.

Facebook and Google have put their previous threats to switch off local news content on hold until they see the final version of the code. For now, they appear to be engaging with the ACCC.




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We still need to tackle media concentration

As we await the final version of the code, the irony is not lost on those of us also waiting eagerly for events to unfold before another Senate committee on media pluralism.

The committee was set up in response to a petition started by former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. Amassing more than 500,000 signatures, Rudd’s petition has called for a royal commission into the negative influence of News Corp’s power in Australia’s highly concentrated media landscape.

A rich history of Australia’s parliamentary inquiries into the media indicates we can expect delays, power plays and ongoing lobbying in both these committees. And clearly there will be winners and losers in both.The Conversation

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

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Courting the chameleon: how the US election reveals Rupert Murdoch’s political colours


Denis Muller, University of Melbourne

Joe Biden’s victory in the US presidential election raises a perennial question about what Rupert Murdoch does when the candidate he has opposed wins.

Answer: He adapts and he waits. Electoral cycles last three, four or five years. Murdoch has been wielding power for five decades.

Murdoch is a chameleon. It is true that when political and business conditions are favourable he glows brightly in blood-red conservatism. But when, as now, conditions are uncertain, the colour dims and takes on a more complex hue.

The voices and front pages of the empire become more diverse. It gets harder to exactly pin down where the emperor himself stands. He deflects awkward questions by saying he defers to his editors, or he claims to have retired and says he will speak to the heir, his son Lachlan.

These are the first steps in a shadowy repositioning, and we have seen it happen time without number.

Reactionary ideology is important to Murdoch, but not as important as making money.

Money not only keeps the shareholders happy, it provides the means by which he can subsidise his unprofitable or barely profitable newspapers because they are crucial to the way he wields power.




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So the priority when a disfavoured candidate or party wins is to do nothing to antagonise the new regime and instead proffer a small olive branch. Last Sunday’s New York Post banner headline – “It’s Joe Time” – was a classic of the genre.

Over on Fox News, he remained quiet when the Fox “decision desk” called the crucial state of Arizona for Biden, absorbing pressure and entreaties from Trump’s people to intervene.

All of a sudden, the chorus of pro-Trump voices on Fox became a discordant racket. Some, like Sean Hannity, amplified Trump’s claims of electoral fraud. Others, like Neil Cavuto, cut off Trump’s press secretary for making the same claims.

The New York Post, which ran a highly questionable story against Hunter Biden in the last week of the campaign, was suddenly dismissing Trump’s claims as baseless and urging him to accept the result.

Conflict, confusion and contradiction are part of the strategy. Murdoch allows it to unfold. It sends a signal to the Biden White House: we can live with you.

The strategy was helped along on November 13 when Trump sent out a tweet saying the daytime ratings on Fox News had collapsed because they had forgotten what made them successful – the “Golden Goose” – an immortal self-description if ever there was one.

There was a similar pattern to the Murdoch strategy in Australia in 2007 when it looked certain that Labor under Kevin Rudd would end the long reign of John Howard.

In his book Rupert Murdoch: A Reassessment, Rodney Tiffen recounted that, while Murdoch did not want to be backing the losing side, it was difficult for his editors to persuade him to back Rudd.




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In the end, some of Murdoch’s papers, including The Australian, backed Rudd, while others, including Melbourne’s Herald Sun, were allowed to back the Coalition.

The endorsements were pallid, nothing like the full-throated propaganda characteristic of the Murdoch papers when they are unified behind a conservative cause. The chameleon had turned into a blur of pale reds and blues.

Then in 2018, when it looked as if Labor might beat Malcolm Turnbull’s Coalition in 2019, Murdoch once again showed how the business pragmatist triumphs over the ideologue.

According to Turnbull in his autobiography, A Bigger Picture, Murdoch told the West Australian media mogul Kerry Stokes: “Three years of Labor wouldn’t be too bad.”

He prefers it when the Labor side is led by moderates who are amenable to business: Bob Hawke, Paul Keating, Britain’s Tony Blair. But, even then, his endorsements tend to be muted, nothing like “Kick this mob out” on the front page of Sydney’s Daily Telegraph when he opposed Labor in 2013.

In Britain, Murdoch has employed the same tactics. Although his mass-circulation Sun supported Labour in 1997, 2001 and 2005, he allowed the prestigious Sunday Times to support the Conservatives.

But when it comes to endorsing the conservative side of politics, there is no pussyfooting around.

When he turned on Labour after Gordon Brown had succeeded Blair as prime minister, he unleashed the full Murdoch treatment.

Just as Brown was about to deliver his speech to Labour’s annual conference in September 2009, The Sun declared Murdoch’s abandonment of Labour with the banner headline “Labour’s lost it”.

From then until the 2010 election, Murdoch’s ruthless campaign in support of David Cameron’s Conservative Party was carried by all his papers, The Sun in the vanguard with headlines such as “Brown toast”.

At elections, Murdoch has two priorities.

One is always to try to ensure the new regime, whatever its political colour, does not implement regulatory change that will disadvantage the business.

The second is to be on the winning side. This is important to the maintenance of the belief – at least in the minds of politicians – that he is a kingmaker.

When it is clear the progressive side of politics is in the ascendant, the chameleon can start changing colours early and might even complete a transformation before election day.

When it is not a sure thing, however, the skin-deep transformation has to begin when the results come in.

That is what is on display in the US now.The Conversation

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

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

When too much news is bad news: is the way we consume news detrimental to our health?



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Evita March, Federation University Australia

Humans are curious and social creatures by nature. The news helps us make sense of the world around us and connects us with our local, national and international community. So it’s no wonder we’re drawn to it.

Objective, legitimate news also keeps us informed, empowering us with knowledge to make balanced decisions.

But the way we consume news has been profoundly altered by media developments. As news outlets have adapted to media trends, the way people watch, read and listen to news has changed. And these changes aren’t without consequences.

The way we consume news matters

The increase of online news, particularly when presented via social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, has affected how we access and consume our news.

When news was delivered via traditional one-way outlets such as television and radio, we were passive receivers. But on social media platforms, we’re active consumers. We sculpt and cultivate our news through immediate feedback, such as reacts or shares.

There’s evidence this might not be especially good for us.




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Amid an unfolding crisis such as a pandemic, news presented via one-way outlets might be less damaging than news consumed online. In early months of COVID-19, researchers found news consumed online and via social media was associated with increased depression, anxiety and stress. The effects weren’t as bad when news was consumed via traditional media such as television and newspapers.

This isn’t limited to the pandemic. After the September 11 attacks, young people who consumed news via online sources experienced more PTSD symptoms than those using traditional media. This effect was attributed to more graphic images online, and the possibility for extra exposure as people could watch the footage repeatedly.

Where do we source news?

In an average week, more Australian news consumers source their news online (53%) than via print (25%). But perhaps surprisingly, television is still the most popular mode of news consumption. This year, 63% of Australians said they watched television news in an average week. Nevertheless, we’re far more actively engaged with our news than we once were.

Person viewing news on phone and laptop
Information is more accessible to news consumers than ever before — and graphic and repeated exposure could be bad for our mental health.
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Access to news is also radically different. The ability to consume news 24/7, via an almost endless variety of sources, has prompted experts to encourage us to moderate our news consumption.

Our bad news bias — not good news for our well-being

During times of crisis, we’re more drawn to news. In fact, Australians’ consumption of news significantly increased in 2020. During the 2019–20 bushfires, the percentage of heavy news consumers (people who consume news more than once a day) increased from 52% to 56%, and increased to 70% during the COVID-19 pandemic peak.




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Unfortunately, the impact of news on our well-being is also particularly salient during a time of crisis. Multiple studies have found the more we consume news during or after a tragedy, crisis or natural disaster, the more likely we are to develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Why are we so interested in bad news, anyway? University of Queensland psychologist Roy F. Baumeister and his colleagues have noted bad is stronger than good. Humans have a “negativity bias”, whereby we pay more attention to negative information than positive.

“If it bleeds, it leads”

Journalists are said to capitalise on our negative bias to capture our attention. Some news sources have learned this lesson the hard way. When a city reporter from an online Russian news website decided only to report good news for a day, they lost two-thirds of their readers.

The problem is, this negativity bias in the news can make the world appear worse than it truly is.

If the news distresses you, try to remember sometimes publications manipulate our powerful cognitive biases to capture our attention.
Shutterstock

The repeated presentation of information can create cognitive distortions, meaning we’re likely to interpret newsworthy problems, like violent crime, as more prevalent than they really are.

This negativity bias might also explain the tendency to focus on ‘doom and gloom’ stories on social media, referred to as doomscrolling.

Research published this year showed when we perceive the daily news as negative, we can feel less positive overall. So it’s no wonder increased news consumption can impact our well-being.




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Those who use social media largely for news, instead of social networking, show increased anxiety and depression. These results highlight the importance of being strategic about how you use social media, particularly during times of crisis.

How can we take control of our news consumption?

First, it’s important to be aware your news consumption via different sources can look very different. Traditional media tends to focus on the facts, whereas stories, rumours, and human interest pieces are prioritised on social media.

Empower yourself with the knowledge that, as humans, we are subject to bias. The media and those producing the news know this. These biases, which make us wonderfully human, also make us wonderfully biased to the information we receive.

Our biases mean we’re more likely to be impacted by negative news and more likely to believe what we see is more prevalent than it truly is.




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That’s certainly not to say no news is good news. News is powerful, and helps us stay connected and informed. But in a world where we’re surrounded by news 24/7, it is important we are aware of our cognitive biases and the distortions they create. Let’s take control of our news consumption rather than allowing it to control us.The Conversation

Evita March, Senior Lecturer in Psychology, Federation University Australia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Vital Signs. Google shouldn’t subsidise journalism, but the government could



Jeff Chiu/AP

Richard Holden, UNSW

You might have missed it – what with the biggest recession since the 1930s and a pandemic going on – but there may be big, and bad, changes happening to a media landscape near you.

Right now the Australian government is considering amending the Competition and Consumer Act 2010 to force Google and Facebook to pay local commercial media organisations for the sharing of their content on the digital platforms.

The News Media and Digital Platforms Bargaining Code proposed by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission will require the tech and media companies to make terms through “mandatory binding arbitration”. It will also oblige them to divulge parts of their core intellectual property (such Google’s search algorithm).

It has been lauded as a world-first in addressing the power imbalance between the platforms and traditional news organisations.

Champions such as commission chief Rod Sims argue it’s a simple matter of forcing Google and Facebook to pay a fair price for extracting value from journalism for which they pay nothing. As Sims put it:

What this was all about was the imbalance in bargaining power, the market failure that comes from that, and underpayment for news having a detrimental effect on Australian society.

Who could argue with that? Even federal treasurer Josh Frydenberg has described it as “a question of fairness”.

But from an economic standpoint the whole bargaining code is hopelessly confused. It fails to properly understand the source of competitive pressure for media companies, and why they have lost revenues over the last 15 years.

Mandatory binding arbitration between tech and media companies is also a completely inappropriate policy tool to achieve the public policy goal of fostering high-quality journalism.

As I have written about in detail for the Stigler Center at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, making the code law risks doing serious harm to Australian consumers while shovelling money to large media companies like Nine Entertainment and News Corp Australia.

Faced with the prospect of having to divulge key intellectual property, it would not be surprising if Google and Facebook simply prefer not to be in the Australian market. Millions of Australians using Google, YouTube and Facebook will lose out.

Media revenue sinking

Between 2002 and 2018, consulting firm AlphaBeta estimates total annual revenue for Australian newspapers fell from A$4.4 billion to A$3.0 billion. Almost all of this was due to lost classified advertising revenue, worth A$1.5 billion in 2002 but just A$200 million in 2018.

“That’s Google’s fault,” you might cry.

Actually no. The vast bulk of lost classified advertising revenue was due to online “pure-plays” such as Seek, Domain and Carsales. Google and Facebook took basically none of this revenue.




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The media companies were sitting on a gold mine of classified advertising. Then there was massive technological disruption due to the internet and smart phones.

That, as they say in the classics, is show business.

It doesn’t justify making companies who happened to succeed in an adjacent space at the same time fork over a chunk of their revenues.

But aren’t tech companies ‘stealing’ content?

If big tech companies were somehow allowing you and me free access to content we would otherwise have to pay for, there might be a case to answer.

That would be like Google Maps not only giving you directions to a restaurant but the means to also avoid paying for your meal.

But using a search engine does not allow you to get free meals, nor to get around a news organisation’s pay wall.




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In fact, having their content pop up in search results, or shared on social media, helps Australian media companies to attract readers and sell subscriptions – something that now accounts for roughly half the revenues of some leading players such as The Australian.

All you get for “free” is a snippet of a line or two from the search.

For instance, when I searched for news about recently deceased US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, I got this:

If you can figure out the full content of the article from that snippet, you should be using your superpowers for other, more lucrative purposes.

Beware the politics

There is a very real risk this misguided code will end up becoming law.

An overzealous regulator has proposed something that stands to benefit the big media companies, who are – not surprisingly – strongly for it.

Those same media companies have huge influence over public perceptions and the fate of politicians. It will be a brave elected representative who pushes back on the proposed code and draft legislation.

But if politicians were serious about resolving the real issue at stake in all of this, they would act more directly.

Like newspapers all around the world, Australian media and journalists are under pressure – and one thing most people agree on is that high-quality news and journalism is critical to a well-functioning democracy.




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Whatever the market forces that have slashed the funding of such journalism, there is a strong case for government intervention. But if the Australian government wants to subsidise high-quality journalism, it should do it itself.

With the 10-year bond rate less than 1%, it would cost the government just A$18 million a year to fund the interest bill on A$2 billion of media subsidies a year. That’s 72 cents per Australian a year.

And all without driving away the hugely valuable services of companies like Google and Facebook that Australian consumers love.The Conversation

Richard Holden, Professor of Economics, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Is fast-tracking funds to Foxtel the best way to support the media during COVID?



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Johan Lidberg, Monash University

According to an ABC report, government funds were fast-tracked to Foxtel during the coronavirus pandemic.

This news will raise eyebrows, as the media — like so many industries — tries to survive the pain and disruption brought by COVID-19.

Why are some outlets missing out when others have their requests prioritised?

The Foxtel fast-track

The background to these latest Foxtel funds is a $30 million grant, controversially awarded to the subscription broadcaster in 2017.

This was to

support the broadcast of underrepresented sports on subscription television, including women’s sports, niche sports and sports with a high level of community involvement and participation.

At the time, media reports noted the government did not adequately explain why it had given the funds to Foxtel.

Fast-forward to April 2020 and COVID-19 was wreaking havoc in the media sector. The federal government announced a support package for the media, but Foxtel missed out.




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However, as the ABC reported, after a letter from Foxtel chief executive Patrick Delany, the TV service quickly received $17.5 million.

This included bringing forward $7.5 million of taxpayer money already granted to Foxtel. In July 2020, a further $10 million was awarded to Foxtel, with the same opaque justification as the 2017 grant.

The ABC was able to report the process behind these developments following a Freedom of Information (FOI) request.

Foxtel supported as national broadcaster struggles

The Foxtel funds came amid yet another round of cost-cutting and job losses at the ABC. In June, the ABC announced 250 job losses to deal with an $84 million budget shortfall.

ABC logo against colourful light backdrop
The ABC recently announced 250 job losses.
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As of this week, the iconic 7:45am radio bulletin no longer features in Australians’ morning routines as a result of the cuts.

Meanwhile, regional media outlets have been particularly hard hit during COVID. We have also seen recent job losses at News Corp (who is a part owner of Foxtel) and Channel 10.

What support have media companies had during COVID?

The government announced a COVID-support package for the media in April.

This included $41 million in rebates for use of the broadcasting spectrum, targeted at commercial television and radio broadcasters.




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A $50 million Public Interest News Gathering program was also announced to support public interest journalism delivered by commercial television, newspaper and radio businesses in regional Australia.

Is this the best use of taxpayer funds?

The reports of the fast-tracked funds to Foxtel beg the question, where is public money best spent? On the public broadcaster so it can maintain its crucial services (with another bushfire season around the corner) — or on a subscription-based commercial broadcaster?

When you consider the different support packages the Morrison government has launched as part of its pandemic response, there is one glaring omission — support for the national broadcaster.

The ABC is the most trusted media brand in the country. But instead of supporting it, to help us get through the pandemic, the Coalition continues to bleed it. This is the polar opposite to its support of News Corp-owned Foxtel, a relationship the government seems much more comfortable with and clearly prioritises.

Not enough information

When considering whether Foxtel deserves its funding, it would be useful to see a government-issued summary of how it used the first $30 million.

We have seen some reporting (again via FOI requests) of how the initial $7 million was used to boost sports coverage. But given this is taxpayers’ money, best practice would be open and transparent government reporting on how the funding is utilised.

It would also be useful to have an explanation of why the extra funds were provided now.

Unfortunately, information access and openness has not been the Morrison government’s forte.

We have seen a number of cases where the FOI process has been contrary to the spirit of the Freedom of Information Act, which holds that as much information as possible should be made available to the public.

Open filing cabinet, with paper files
The Australian government has been criticised for the high rate of FOI refusals.
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The blocking of FOI requests over Energy Minister Angus Taylor’s attack on Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore is one recent example.

The recent requests to the Morrison government about Foxtel is another. According to the ABC, more than half of the hundreds of pages released were blacked out and 80% of the rest had substantial redactions. Communications Minister Paul Fletcher’s chief of staff, Ryan Bloxsom, was one of the FOI decision makers and justified the extensive redactions in this way:

I do not consider it would inform debate on a matter of public importance or promote effective oversight of public expenditure.

This is not just out of line with the aims of the FOI Act, it means Australians remain ill-informed about how and why tax payer money is being spent. Our public discourse is worse of for it.

This makes funding public interest journalism even more important — especially in the regions where coverage of courts and local councils is the engine room of our democracy.




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The Conversation


Johan Lidberg, Associate Professor, School of Media, Film and Journalism, Monash University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.