Media Talk: Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance Letter

Media Talk: Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance Letter to Prime Minister Julia Gillard (in full)

In light of the News of the World saga, there have been calls for an inquiry into journalistic ethics and media ownership in Australia. But the Media Alliance, which represents Australian journalists, believes the terms of reference proposed by Greens senator Bob Brown are too narrow and has called for a much wider-ranging inquiry, which would examine the health of the Australian news media, and its future. This is the letter penned by the organisation's federal secretary, Christopher Warren, to Prime Minister Julia Gillard...

Dear Prime Minister,

In the wake of the shocking revelations of criminal behaviour by journalists on Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World newspaper in the UK there has been a lot of enthusiasm for an inquiry into journalistic ethics and the concentration of media ownership in Australia.

I believe we should have an inquiry in Australia, but for a number of different reasons.

We have a very strict Code of Ethics in Australia, developed and refined over more than half a century, which is observed by most media organisations. It is far stricter that the codes worked to by most journalists in the UK and, as a result, I am satisfied that Australian journalists have not engaged in the illegal methods used by our Fleet Street counterparts.

The failure in Britain was not so much one of self-regulation, but one of regulation – the police failed to properly investigate and punish illegal activities by News International journalists and executives.

The question of media ownership is a different matter – Australia has one of the highest concentrations of media ownership in the world. News Ltd controls about 70 per cent of the newspaper market, while Sky is the dominant cable news broadcaster.

It goes without saying that a plurality of voices is a good thing in a democratic society and Australia needs to re-examine our ownership laws as well as looking at ways in which the emergence of new voices can be encouraged.

This is part of a bigger challenge – the health of the news business in Australia. The rise and rise of digital technology has put tremendous pressure on the traditional business model on which news organisations have survived. Advertising revenue to news organisations has fallen dramatically and has not been replaced with subscription revenues.

The net result is that journalists and their managers are being required to do more with less. We see little prospect of this situation changing over the foreseeable future. There is a very real danger that commercial news organisations will be unable to sustain quality journalism, which is expensive and time consuming. We’ve seen this happening in the US and UK, where many newspapers have been forced to close and many communities have been left without the benefits of news coverage.

Here in Australia, the concentration of media ownership is such that if one or another of our major proprietors goes under we could be left with cities with no proper news coverage.

So it would be an ideal opportunity for a really wide-ranging inquiry into the news media which, as well as looking at ownership and self-regulation, should also dig down into the pressures facing the news industry and aim to stimulate debate as to the best way to encourage new players bringing fresh perspectives and energy into our media.

The events of recent weeks may have seriously dented the public’s trust in, and respect for, journalists – a fact that should be of profound concern to anyone who recognises the important role journalism plays in civil society. But we are also presented with a once-in-a-lifetime chance to re-examine that role and hope that we can re-energise the many things about Australian journalism that are worth preserving.

With best wishes,

Christopher Warren
Federal secretary
Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance