Opening statement to Select Committee on the Future of Public Interest Journalism

A free press underpinned by laws and norms that respect freedom of speech is one of the foundations of liberal democracy. The fact that freedom of speech in the press has an important role in our democracy does not mean that parliament should take it upon itself to support journalism, whether it is publicly interested journalism or not. The question of how to fund journalism is a question for entrepreneurs, not the parliament. The reason I argue this is that government is not an uninterested participant in the public debate. Governments have an interest in favouring journalists and media outlets which are sympathetic to their world views and attacking those they do not. We saw how perversely this dynamic could play out during the media reform debate in 2011 and 2013, and of course we see it in our regular debates about the ABC. Further government involvement in the press would mean that governments have more leverage over the press.

With this in mind, I would like to briefly address two issues that have been raised in debate over public interest journalism so far. Right now, the government directly provisions journalism through the ABC and it has been suggested that this provision be increased, but, as Professor Sinclair Davidson at RMIT and I will argue in a forthcoming book, the ABC is not an independent media organisation.

CHAIR: What’s the name of the book?

Dr Berg: It’s at the moment called ‘Against public broadcasting’, but we haven’t actually finalised the title.

Senator XENOPHON: Senator Dastyari is good at book titles.

Dr Berg: We’ll open that up for recommendations, of course, as we would. The ABC is the only media outlet dependent entirely on the government for its operating expenses, it’s the only media outlet regularly dragged in front of parliamentary committees to answer for minor programming decisions and the ABC is regularly accused of bias by the Left and the Right. This bureaucratic one billion-dollar government owned television and radio network is not the ideal vehicle for the sort of journalism that would suit our digital age.

The second issue that I’d like to raise is the proposal to give public interest journalism outlets deductible gift recipient status. This has much to recommend it, in my view. DGR status would be available to media outlets professing any political slant. DGR status would encourage media firms to self-fund, to be accountable to their supporters and readers, and it would not constitute a direct call on public revenue. One concern with this model, however, is that it would require an authority to decide which media outlets are legitimate public interest journalism outlets and which are illegitimate ones. Poorly designed, this could easily transform into a de facto licensing body through which the government may be able to exert some influence over the press. If the committee recommends this sort of reform, it should think very clearly about how that would be done. There are concrete things the parliament could do to help journalism in the digital age. For instance, the government should review limits on the freedom of speech. You probably don’t want me to talk any further about 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, but I would draw the committee’s attention to the heavy burden of defamation laws and our lack of fair-use exception for copyrights. I welcome the Senate review announced into the law of contempt.

More generally, media outlets will benefit from regulatory reform that reduces the burden of red tape on the Australian economy. The policies which help firms thrive in the general economy would be the same policies that help media firms and, ultimately, help public interest journalism thrive.