The Media Alliance produces an annual report on the state of media freedom in Australia, released in early May to coincide with the Press Freedom Media Dinner and World Press Freedom Day
An independent, questioning media is a hallmark of a healthy democracy, but our rights in a free media can easily be chipped away, says Christopher Warren
A free press is a cornerstone of a democratic society. It checks the powerful and holds them to account. It gives a voice to the powerless. So it’s no surprise that governments and their bureaucracies are often uncomfortable with the notion of an independent, aggressive news media that scrutinises their policies and performance.
Read the 2012 Press Freedom Report (right-click, then "Save As" to download)
Early this century, free speech and the freedom of the press to hold the powerful to account was slipping in Australia. That’s why, as the voice of Australia’s media workers, we launched the annual Press Freedom report in 2005. And because the challenges here are not unique, we joined with our New Zealand colleagues to make this a cross-Tasman venture.
It’s only by tracking the state of freedom of expression that we can challenge the emerging threats.
Back in 2007, an audit of free speech conducted by former privacy commissioner Irene Moss on behalf of Australia's Right to Know, a coalition of news organisations including the Media Alliance, found a crying need to reform a "sclerotic" array of secrecy laws and archaic Freedom of Information laws, while there was also an urgent requirement to introduce protection for whistleblowers and the journalists to whom they talked.
The 2007 election brought to power a Labor government which included in its platform a promise to address these restrictions on the freedom of the press in this country.
We applauded when the Rudd government announced new Freedom of Information laws (some states haven't yet joined that party). We were enthusiastic participants in the public hearings that led to new Commonwealth shield laws and urged the states to follow suit. Again, some states are lagging and we use this report to urge them to bring in protection for journalists and their sources.
But so much of this promise seems to have slipped away. The latest world press rankings report from Reporters Without Borders (Reporters Sans Frontières, RSF) finds that Australia has fallen from 18 to 30 on the ladder. The RSF report specifically canvasses two issues as the reasons for this precipitous fall down the rankings: access to Australia’s detention centres and the prospect of greater regulation of the press after the Independent Media Inquiry headed by former federal court judge Ray Finkelstein.
The Media Alliance has been at the forefront of the industry’s response to both of these issues. With our colleagues in the industry, we have lobbied hard against the restrictive "deed of agreement" that the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) requires journalists to sign before they are allowed into detention centres to report on asylum seekers.
It's a fight that continues - just last month we coordinated a letter with the signatures of the chief executives of 10 of Australia's biggest media organisations, including my own as federal secretary of the Media Alliance, calling for the deed to be re-examined. I'm hopeful that if we keep up the pressure we will be able to work with DIAC for a better outcome that reflects the profound public interest in this area.
Unlike some of our colleagues in the news industry, we welcomed Stephen Conroy's announcement of an independent inquiry, headed by Ray Finkelstein, into the news media in Australia. While we saw no reason for punitive regulatory measures, we saw an opportunity in the inquiry's terms of reference for a much-needed and long overdue discussion of the health of the news business and any measures that might be introduced that would ensure the continuing health of Australian journalism.
Accordingly, we made a detailed submission to the inquiry which ran through some of the ideas which other countries, with media sectors comparable to our own, are canvassing as they look to the future health of their fourth estates.
So, like many, we were disappointed to read Finkelstein’s report when it was released at the beginning of March. Not only did it fail to fully appreciate the urgency of the crises facing journalism in Australia, despite the stark evidence of rapidly diminishing revenues and falling share prices, but the main thrust of the report was a plan for beefed-up regulation of the news media, which appears to answer ethical problems that are evident in the UK, rather than here in Australia.
Finkelstein’s blueprint for an Australian Media Council, funded by the government, compulsory for even the meanest blog and empowered to make decisions about content with no right of appeal, gets dangerously close to a government regulation of journalists.
And that will never be acceptable in a society where a free press is a guarantor of real democracy.
However, none of us can be blind to the way in which last year's scandals on Fleet Street have changed the global debate and eroded public support for a free and independent media.
There are, of course, significant reasons why the situation in Australia is different.
Not least, the continuing role of the Alliance as an independent, and ethical, voice for all journalists – wherever they work – helps sustain the independence of our craft.
There have been significant developments since our last Press Freedom Report. There's still some way to go but we can remain confident that, in Australia and New Zealand at least, the fight to sustain a fair and open system of self-regulation that respects freedom of expression is not over.