High-standard, fair & free press essential feature of democracy

Published on Mon 26 September 2022 5:42pm

The Labor government has already committed funding to better support small, local and regional media organisations. We’ll also deliver a news media assistance program to build the evidence base that informs longer-term policy, which we need. We’ll increase funding certainty for our public broadcasters, and we will end the thin-skinned bullying that was a dangerous feature of the previous government’s style.

Mr Wilson (5:42pm) – I’m glad to participate in this important conversation. I thank the member for Goldstein for bringing the motion forward. The member brings to this place very considerable experience and expertise from her time as one of Australia’s leading journalists.

I’ll make it clear at the outset that I think it’s always worthwhile for us to give consideration to the health and good functioning of Australia’s media—not least because a high-standard, fair and free press is an essential feature of our democracy. I think it’s also entirely fair to ask whether a royal commission is needed. On balance, I don’t think that’s the case right now, and I’ll come back to why that’s my view.

A strong, independent, fair, principled media is not an optional extra in Australian society. Democracy does not only comprise a set of foundation documents, formal institutions and procedures. Democracy is, to an enormous degree, a matter of culture and convention. It’s a matter of what we describe as checks and balances: oversight, scrutiny, assessment, analysis and judgement. We need high-quality journalists and media organisations to contribute to those essential elements of our democracy.

Without question, the Australian press, like the press in any country, can from time to time be more or less independent, fair, well resourced and diverse. Media concentration and control is a legitimate issue of concern in this country and has been for some time. There’s no doubt that Australia’s media has faced significant challenges in the last few decades, largely as a result of technological change. We’ve seen publishers or platforms like Facebook and Google emerge as significant and growing sources of news information, yet we know their model depends on operating largely as cavalier free riders who make use of and benefit from the content that media organisations fund and provide. Let’s not forget that in 2021, when the Australian government considered the absolutely justified and relatively light-touch regulation of social media platforms, Facebook responded by switching off pages in Australia. That behaviour raised the question of how we allowed some of these companies to hold such a dominant and yet poorly regulated position in our communication world. But it’s also true that aspects of our traditional media structure and culture need to be refreshed and substantially improved, and no-one should be especially defensive about that proposition.

We can’t continue to have Australia’s public broadcasters, especially the ABC, run down in terms of funding and reputation—and when there’s a clear political element to those attacks. We also can’t have Australian political journalism drift towards a sensationalist or trivially combative style of engagement reporting. We can’t have a narrow set of media companies with outlets running what to any sensible person appears to be a coordinated and self-interested political agenda on some issues. As I said, culture, convention and principle are as critical to the best practice of the art of journalism as they are to the best practice of the art of politics. That observation has been made by some of the most experienced and respected of Australia’s political journalists, and it’s an observation that was made in relation to some of the conduct we saw in the course of the recent election campaign.

I agree entirely with the way in which the motion describes some of the unhealthy trends and outcomes that we’ve seen in the Australian media, noting that some of these are the result of technological change and regulatory neglect. I absolutely understand the Australian community’s and people in my community’s strong interest in seeing more diverse, more balanced and more independent journalism, and their supporting an inquiry to that end. But I don’t think that holding a royal commission at this time is the way to make practical improvements. And I agree with the Minister for Communications that there are recommendations from previous reviews that have gone unaddressed. Indeed, the previous government still hasn’t responded to the Senate inquiry concluded in December last year. I’m glad that the current minister has made it clear she’s considering those recommendations and will respond in due course.

The Labor government has already committed funding to better support small, local and regional media organisations. We’ll also deliver a news media assistance program to build the evidence base that informs longer-term policy, which we need. We’ll increase funding certainty for our public broadcasters, and we will end the thin-skinned bullying that was a dangerous feature of the previous government’s style.

In conclusion, this motion puts before us a critically important topic, and it identifies serious issues in relation to the loss of diversity, the loss of locally and regionally specific coverage, the loss of journalists within the Australian media, and the consequences of all three. We must do something about that. I’m glad to be part of a government that’s begun the task, with a minister who’s preparing the ground to do more. The Australian community is right to expect that to occur, and we need to see that for the health of our democracy.

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