I was asked to submit 400 words to the Sydney Morning Herald as part of regular feature which puts the same question to four people. I was the 'academic",
The question was: Should governments protect independent journalism?
Here is my reply.
AUSTRALIAN governments need to do more to protect independent journalism. If they had done more in the past, the task would not be so urgent now.
Independent journalism will not flourish without diversity of ownership. Governments can pass laws designed to protect that. Our failure to set up adequate rules has led to the most concentrated media in the developed world, with News Ltd and Fairfax Media (the publisher of the Herald) controlling 86 per cent of circulation.
Gina Rinehart, who wants more influence at Fairfax, has so far failed to recognise the right of journalists to report independently. News Ltd already has a more compliant journalistic culture. These two big companies, one controlled overseas, are in a battle for survival. This calamity has been delivered by market forces.
Over the past 30 years, various inquiries have warned that concentration could lead to the abuse of private media power, just as grave a threat as government interference. Governments failed to act because they were wary of media companies who scream ''censorship'' as soon as intervention is mentioned. It needs to be understood that the interests of the public and independent journalists are not the same as the interests of media owners.
As companies seek to bolster profits by restructuring and cutting operations, the diversity, quality and quantity of independent journalism are further threatened. Faced with this crisis, governments should consider using tax-payer funds to support a more diverse public interest journalism, as is done with the arts.
The Greens suggest that charters of editorial independence could be statutorily entrenched. Again, instead of shoving the idea aside, we need to finally take the task of providing a framework for independent journalism and democratic media seriously.
The Finkelstein report outlines ways in which diversity and public interest journalism have been protected by subsidies elsewhere. Academics, including myself, submitted an idea for tax deductibility on donations for non-profit investigative journalism. Such journalism could be published in partnership with major companies as well as to support smaller independent media. Some people warn that such schemes could be politically influenced by decision makers. But if schemes have worked elsewhere, they should be considered here.
In submissions to Finkelstein the big media owners all rejected any role for government intervention. But their interests are different from those of journalists and the public. Governments should play a role in supporting journalists in producing diverse and independent journalism.
Wendy Bacon is a professor of journalism at the University of Technology, Sydney.
You can find the other three replies here.