To protect press freedom, we need more public outrage – and an overhaul of our laws



This week’s police raids have forced us to think again about the role of the media in a democracy.
David Gray/AAP

Peter Greste, The University of Queensland

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.




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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.




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An overhaul of Australia’s legal landscape

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.




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Media raids raise questions about AFP’s power and weak protection for journalists and whistleblowers


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 Conversation

Peter Greste, Professor of Journalism and Communications, The University of Queensland

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

Influence in Australian politics needs an urgent overhaul – here’s how to do it



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Transparency isn’t a silver bullet, but increasing it would go some way to changing the secrecy around who has access – and how much – to the government of the day.
AAP/Lukas Coch

Kate Griffiths, Grattan Institute; Carmela Chivers, Grattan Institute, and Danielle Wood, Grattan Institute

Public policy should be made for all Australians – not just those with the resources or connections to lobby and influence politicians. And mostly it is. But sometimes bad policy is made or good policy is dropped because powerful groups have more say and sway than they should.

Australia’s political institutions are generally robust, but many of the “risk factors” for policy capture by special interests are present in our system. Political parties are heavily reliant on major donors, money can buy access, relationships and political connections, and there’s a lack of transparency in dealings between policymakers and special interests.

A new Grattan Institute report, Who’s in the room? Access and influence in Australian politics, reveals that access and influence are heavily skewed towards the businesses and unions that have the most to gain (and lose) from public policy.



Grattan Institute, CC BY-ND

Many examples of special-interest influence over policy look contrary to the public interest: special deals for insiders (for example, James Packer’s Sydney casino), interest groups with a seat at the table in deciding how their own industry is regulated (such as pharmaceuticals pricing), and lobby groups blocking reforms that have broad support (such as climate change policy and pokies reforms).




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Better checks and balances are needed. But the question of what to do about undue influence is tricky. Interests should be able to advocate for themselves, and donate money to support causes they believe in. Lobbying helps to introduce new ideas and reduce the likelihood of uninformed or damaging decisions by those in office. We propose a suite of reforms to reduce the risks of policy capture while still protecting the rights of all individuals and groups to contribute to policy discussions.


https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/RHMtj/2/


Start with transparency

Transparency isn’t a silver bullet, but it can play an important role in reducing the sway of special interests. Greater transparency means more opportunity for the public, media and the parliament itself to scrutinise the policy-making process and call out undue influence or give voice to under-represented views.

We recommend three key reforms to improve transparency.

  1. Improve the “visibility” of major donors to political parties

  2. Publish ministerial diaries so people know who ministers meet with

  3. Create a public register of lobbyists who have unescorted access to federal Parliament House. These reforms would substantially reduce the secrecy around money and access.

Transparency is not enough on its own – strong voices are still needed to call out problems, and voters still need to hold elected officials to account. But transparency gives them better information to do so.

Boost public trust in politicians

Trust in government is in decline: in a 2018 survey, 85% of Australians thought at least some federal MPs were corrupt. We recommend setting clear standards for all parliamentarians to avoid conflicts of interest – particularly around hospitality, gifts and secondary employment.

Codes of conduct for parliamentarians and lobbyists should be independently administered, to build public confidence that the high standards of public office are respected and adhered to. A separate ethics adviser could also encourage public officials to seek advice when they’re in doubt.

And a federal integrity or anti-corruption body should be established to deal with tips and complaints of serious misconduct. It should be empowered to investigate corruption risks, publish findings, and refer any corrupt activity to the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions.

The best defence against policy capture is healthy public debate

Greater transparency and accountability would help reduce the risk of policy capture by special interests. But ultimately Australia’s best defence is countervailing voices in policy debates. Who’s in the room matters – but who’s not in the room can matter even more.

Consumers, community groups and those less privileged are consistently under-represented in public debate. Our analysis of ministerial diaries in Queensland and NSW shows well-resourced special interests account for the bulk of senior ministers’ external meetings.

People who lack the resources or organisational capacity to band together can struggle to be heard – even when they represent a large chunk of Australian society – taxpayers, consumers, small business and young people, for example. Special interests are particularly likely to win out in technical, niche or complex policy areas because they are more difficult for other groups, voters and the media to engage with.

We suggest two reforms to reduce the influence of well-resourced special interests and promote broader participation in public debate:

First, a cap on political advertising expenditure during election campaigns would reduce the imbalance between groups with very different means to broadcast political views. It would reduce the reliance of political parties on major donors and might redirect communication to less-superficial channels that are conducive to deeper discussion, such as political debates and interviews.




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Second, government can boost countervailing voices through more inclusive policy review processes and advocacy for under-represented groups. This would give politicians better information with which to adjudicate the public interest.

The reforms proposed here are in line with OECD recommended practice. They would strengthen Australian democracy by enabling voters to better hold government to account and could boost the public’s confidence that the system is working for them.The Conversation

Kate Griffiths, Senior Associate, Grattan Institute; Carmela Chivers, Associate, Grattan Institute, and Danielle Wood, Program Director, Budget Policy and Institutional Reform, Grattan Institute

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

Digg and Diggnation


The Digg social network is in trouble. Digg is a place where people can share what they find on the web with others. There is a rating system of sorts – based on people ‘digging’ a post/site, which when done so is considered ‘dugg’ by the one doing the ‘digging.’ It had and has the potential to be a very useful site. However, as anyone who keeps up with developments in social networking and the like knows, Digg is in trouble. It is dropping users, with less and less people using the site and tools associated with the site. Recently Digg got an overhaul which has done nothing to stop the slide.

There was once a newsletter with the top ‘dugg’ stories of the day, but that seems to have vanished. I found it to be a useful newsletter.

To find out what Digg is all about visit:

http://digg.com/

I have been using Digg a fair bit of late and have always considered it to be a very useful site and experience.

My profile is at:

http://digg.com/particularkev

There is also a web television show known as Diggnation. I have just watched the latest episode of the show and I confess to believing the show is rubbish. It is not worth watching in my opinion and comes complete with terrible language and crass content. If the quality of the show is how we should take Digg it is no wonder it is in trouble. It is hosted by two men, with one being the founder of Digg – which does nothing for the credentials of Digg.

I still hold out hope for Digg, as it can yet be a very useful and worthwhile site and service.

Visit Diggnation at:

http://revision3.com/diggnation/