Peter Greste is advocating for a tax on internet downloads to fund quality journalism at the ABC.

The Australian journalist, who recently spent 400 days in an Egyptian prison after being accused of broadcasting false news by the Egyptian government, told a dinner function in Melbourne last night that the tax would be a modern version of the BBC’s licence fee. It is necessary, he says, because the ABC was too dependent on the vagaries of government funding.

Greater technological efficiencies have left fewer journalists doing more than ever, Greste says. But what had been sacrificed in the process is nuance, analysis and scepticism — the “craft” of journalism. Because of this, the public are growing increasingly sceptical of the mainstream media, and unwilling to defend it against the incursions of national security legislation brought in under the ever-shifting War on Terror.

“At the moment, the only media organisation able to take the high ground in news are the organisations financed by benefactors for reasons other than business,” Greste said, citing titles like the Independent, Evening Standard and The Times in the UK, or broadcasters like Al Jazeera out of Qatar, which were all funded for reasons other than profit.

“In Australia, the ABC is supposed to fill that role, but its funding model is far too exposed to political pressure. It’s trying to do far too much with too little, and constantly being threatened by further cuts. I am convinced that if we’re not just going to have a national broadcaster but a source of quality journalism, we need a source of money that’s independent of central revenue.”

This money, he says, would be used to produce journalism to high standards not primarily aimed at attracting a large audience — journalism focused not on “filling the digital void with stuff”.

Charging voters a tax to fund this journalism is an idea worth considering, Greste says.

“The British licence fee is great in principle, because it means the BBC has a reliable source of revenue and the public pays on the understanding its an essential part of British social and political life. But it’ll probably be axed soon — it’s becoming irrelevant as more and more people no longer own television sets.

“Instead, I think we should consider a tax on data. Perhaps a couple of cents a gigabyte, clearly marked on data plans. With it, the ABC would be encouraged to produce online content people would want to consume. It might not be our best or only solution or best solution. But we need to find a place for journalism to flourish for its own sake.”

“We can’t roll back the technological clock, and we can’t magic public trust just because we want it. But I don’t think we can sit there allowing ourselves to be washed along by the technological tide and trust it will be alright in the end.”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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