The French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, makes no apology for increasing already significant government support for French newspapers by some 600 million Euros over the next three years. This is a substantial sum, but, says Sarkozy, “It is the state’s primary responsibility to respond to an emergency, and there is an emergency caused by the impact of the collapse of advertising revenue.”

French newspapers and journalism are in trouble. In part this is a mess with quite specific regional characteristics, but in greater measure the troubles of French newspapers are no different to the situation in the USA, Britain and, of course, Australia. Readerships are in decline, advertising revenue is collapsing: newspapers and the journalism they carry are both in trouble.

When Crikey publisher Eric Beecher argued last year for some sort of federal support for Australian newspapers and this country’s imperiled culture of serious journalism, he was howled down. Government assistance, the critics argued, would equate with government interest or control. It seems the French have a more sophisticated understanding of what Government subsidy to press and journalism might imply: rather than a government tainted media, it might lead instead to a healthy national discussion and a democracy refreshed by the free flow of news and ideas.

Make no mistake, it is this lifeblood that is at risk in this country if nothing changes to come to the aid of Australian broadsheet publishing and serious journalism. Our big and serious papers are in trouble, our smaller and more successful papers show just how far you need to descend into populist triviality to turn a profit in modern newspaper publishing. But profit should not necessarily be the point. A democratic culture requires a stream of quality information for its health. Supporting that flow should be an imperative for a thinking national government — in Australia, as it is for the French — and should be seen as no different to the support that government’s readily provide to sustain other significant aspects of culture that otherwise would shrivel and die.

Quality journalism, like opera, theatre and Olympic sport, could benefit from a government that saw bailing out the quality press as no less a priority that assisting a troubled car plant or bank.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey