Fairfax cuts

The house of worthwhile journalism is burning down while its supposed guardians are out the back watering the geraniums.

On the same day Fairfax announced it would sack a quarter of its creative workforce the heads of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance and Australian Press Council both released self-righteous public statements that blathered at tedious length about “threats to press freedom” and “press freedom under attack”.

These threats, according to Paul Murphy, CEO of the media union, and Professor David Weisbrot, chair of the APC, include: the lack of protections for whistleblowers, criminalising public interest journalism, inappropriate defamation laws, the lack of shield laws, the over-use of suppression orders, secrecy laws, anti-terrorism laws, government resistance to FOI requests and the gender gap in media workplaces. It’s quite a list.

But what use will freedom from all those handicaps be if journalists have no proper outlet for their work? Surely that is the most fundamental issue facing our trade. While the great mastheads crumble into the digital dust, the media union and Press Council fret over subtle issues of professional practice that don’t (and have never) troubled their readers. 

With the precious exceptions of the ABC and SBS there’s no decent journalism left in free-to-air broadcasting. The Age and Sydney Morning Herald are tumbling toward extinction, their managements seemingly avid for an online-only future. The Australian, awash to the gunnels with losses, is unlikely to outlive Rupert Murdoch by more than a decent period of mourning.

[Fairfax defends cuts, threatens to sack striking journos]

This crisis for quality journalism has nothing to do with legal constraints. It’s a business crisis. The real “threat” is the one neither the MEAA nor APC want to acknowledge: the internet. For 20 years the traditional media failed to respond adequately to news and opinion websites, and now they’re paying with their lives.

Yet still they don’t understand. Here’s Weisbrot in his May 3 media release:

“Membership of the Press Council is absolutely vital to safeguard press freedom … It is terribly disappointing that publications such as Guardian Australia, Buzzfeed, Junkee and Mamamia continue to shirk their responsibility to contribute to the industry’s self-regulatory regime.”

Talk about wanting to invite the fox into the hen house! The good professor clearly cannot recognise his enemies. Lively, energetic sites have been sucking eyeballs and advertising revenue away from the press for decades, and they aren’t the least bit concerned about what he condemns as “the litany of threats to free speech”.      

Meanwhile, as the Fairfax journos settle in for their seven-day strike, Weisbrot is off to East Timor to help celebrate the first anniversary of that country’s press council, and the ACP executive director, John Pender, is in Jakarta as a delegate to a UNESCO conference. We can only guess if the proprietors who pay for the Press Council believe this to be an appropriate use of their contributions.

For the MEAA, Paul Murphy’s call to the “press freedom” barricades offers a tad more substance to essentially the same rhetoric (while failing to make even a passing reference to the Fairfax sackings), but still reads more like special pleading than a practical blueprint for survival. In step with the Press Council, the union is apparently more concerned about ideological purity than saving jobs.

[When Greg Hywood manned the barricades]

And again, what is revealing about Murphy’s multi-target broadside is that many of the concerns he ventilates on behalf of his members are the most familiar complaints that journalists make about the difficulties of doing their job, not examples of specific “attacks” on press freedom (whatever that undefined term might actually mean).

Thus, we get, “There is no respect for journalists’ essential need and ethical obligation to protect their confidential sources”. No concession that this “ethical obligation” can also be abused by journalists as a licence to fabricate. And later: 

“There is a dire need to reform Australia’s uniform national defamation legislation that allows people to be paid tens of thousands of dollars damages for hurt feelings without ever having to demonstrate they have a reputation, let alone one that has been damaged.”

Perhaps the zealous Murphy has forgotten that for a plaintiff to succeed in a defamation action they must first establish that the imputation being complained of is false. In other words, the publication was in significant error, an error that in almost every case was made by a journalist.

[There is a war on media, and it’s time for journalism teachers to suit up]

Reporters, editors and producers like to tell us they are bullied into timidity by defamation law, yet it is far more common for our large media organisations to use their might and power to bully legitimate claimants into retreat. Even in their currently fragile commercial state, our major media companies still have the capacity to outspend and outlast most self-funded defamation plaintiffs.

And as a recent Crikey feature recorded, journalists themselves have been happy to enlist the defamation law when they feel they’ve been wronged or can sniff a hefty damages award in return for an error or indiscretion from one of their colleagues.

There are, of course, many aspects of a working journalist’s life that have become difficult as governments — often using the excuse of national security — seek to legislate in areas of inquiry and exposure that were formerly more lightly regulated.

But it seems extraordinary that at a time when the ranks of working journalists in Australia have been halved in less than 20 years, the MEAA and ACP should keep indulging in so much self-pitying piffle.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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