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Chris Warren: Journalism Matters Speech

Speech for Chris Warren to the Journalism Matters conference, Saturday 11 July

Ladies and Gentlemen, fellow journalists

IT has been fascinating, and to a degree alarming, to hear of your concerns at the direction journalism is taking here in New Zealand: fascinating because similar things are happening in the media in Australia and alarming because similar things are happening in the media in Australia!

More about that later. I’m here in two capacities: firstly, as the former President of the International Federation of Journalists, I’d like to say a few words about the state of the craft around the world and the challenges that face us as a global profession.

And then, as the federal secretary of the media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance, the union which represents Australian journalists, I’d like to talk to you about the recent changes to the media ownership laws in Australia and the effect they are having as journalism faces what is arguably the greatest paradigm shift since the end of hot metal, the “online age”.

But even as we look forward to the benefits that technology will surely bring to our trade, we need also to reflect on the approaching shadows. These shadows are cast by three fundamental crises that that threaten the free and independent practice of journalism and the very craft of journalism itself. These intertwined crises are:

 A crisis of press freedom:

 A crisis of safety:

 A crisis confronting the way we work:

These crises are putting pressure on all journalists unions. But journalists and media workers are fighting back.

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The scale of the crisis of press freedom is exposed by one simply fact: in almost every country, on every continent, press freedom has been diminished over the past three years.

These past few years have been a chilling reminder that freedom does not fly like an arrow, always pushing forward. It demands continued defence.

In established democracies, governments are falling back onto national security as the justification for ever increasing restrictions on reporting. Governments, police and courts are driving a global assault on our professional obligations to protect confidential sources.

In Australia, new “sneak and peek” anti-terror legislation proposed by the Howard government would give security agencies the freedom to walk into newsrooms and seize reporters’ phones and laptops, and even plant bugs, without having to tell the subjects of their surveillance.

Meanwhile two journalists who ran with a story the Government didn’t like, were fined $7000 for refusing to betray their source, while another reporter on a national newspaper was forced to go into hiding to avoid a subpoena aiming to force him to name his confidential source.

The shielding laws we have in Australia to protect against putting journalists in this position are weak and totally undermined by the lack of protection offered to whistleblowers.

Meanwhile, in less established democracies, we are seeing many of the gains made in the past decade being wound back by a spreading neo-authoritarianism. Existing dictatorships are entrenching their power.

Too many of our colleagues are in jail or detention. I particularly want to mention two: Ching Cheong, the Hong Kong-based correspondent for the Straits Times newspaper, who was jailed last year on spurious charges of spying. Meanwhile al-Jazeera cameraman, Sami al-Haj, sits in Guantanamo Bay, having fallen foul of the other world superpower. He has been there since being abducted from Pakistan late in 2001, designated as an “enemy combatant” despite his obvious professional accreditation and – like his fellow detainees in America’s Gulag – has yet to be given the chance to defend himself in court.

We must continue to fight for these two men, and the many other journalists who are being held in captivity around the world, simply for doing their jobs.

The safety crisis is the most heart breaking. Year after year, we see new records of the number of journalists and media workers killed. We see the extreme manifestation of this crisis in Iraq.

But we see the same contempt for journalism in too many countries – and in too many countries, the killers are getting away.

The crisis at work is challenging the nature of journalism. Those with full-time jobs report they are working harder than ever. Yet more and more journalists are engaged in some form of contingent work: freelancers, casuals, contractors.

Our employers seem to be losing confidence in journalism, to believe that media are short-term investments. Corporate strategies are more about maximising short-term profits through cutting costs than making the long term investments in quality that are crucial to the survival of our industry and our craft.

These changes are reinforcing inequalities in journalism, particularly the historical patterns of discrimination against women.

They are driving employers to be more aggressive in challenging settled social compacts, to attempt to wind back long won and settled rights.

In countries from south Asia to northern Europe to Latin America, employers are using individual contracts to undermine collective agreements and the independence of journalism.

Critical components of the creative process of journalism are being devalued and outsourced. You know all about that here, of course, with Tony O’Reilly’s decision to sub-contract subbing duties on his newspapers to Pagemasters, an Australian company.

You could argue that this is an inevitable by-product of the continuing gradual consolidation of media ownership, which is challenging democracy - not just here in New Zealand and across the Tasman but around the world.

The more concentrated media ownership becomes in any one market, the more powerful its barons become – and the more likely it becomes that the same barons will be given the chance to own yet more of the media cake in the future.

As you know, we in Australia are awaiting a federal election, which will probably take place towards the end of the year. And so the political pundits are playing the game of “Which way will Murdoch jump?”

It happens before every election and is often preceded by pictures of Murdoch’s lieutenants visiting either the incumbent or his challenger and is inevitably followed, once the dust settles on the poll, by one or another concession, usually in terms of the deregulation of media ownership.

After humming and hah-ing over media ownership regulations, the present government relaxed the laws late last year. Announcing the changes, the minister for communications, Helen Coonan, argued that the rise and rise of new media would effectively render “old” media regulation redundant – in other words, government controls would be like the proverbial Dutch boy with his finger in a dyke which is increasingly being breached by the growth of blogs providing a vast array of independent voices.

But this is by and large a furphy. How many Australians get their main news and opinion from blogs? Not many, I’ll warrant. Overwhelmingly, newspapers remain the major conduits of news and opinion in Australia and – let’s not forget – most of the most visited news websites are owned by “old” media companies in any case.

So the new landscape looks like this: in any given market at any given time, the number of media ownerships must add up to make five points: therefore, in Sydney – say – News Ltd’s vast newspaper, magazine and Pay TV holdings make up one point. Ditto Fairfax, PBL, the Seven Network, Macquarie Media.

Did the proprietors like the changes? You bet. In the weeks following the lifting of restrictions there was a flurry of deals that continues to this day. News Corp spent $175 million to buy the 25 titles in Federal Publishing Company’s magazine business from Sydney's Hannan family making it the third largest magazine owner with ten per cent of total readers. Number two on that list is Pacific Magazines, which – incidentally – is owned by Kerry Stokes’ Seven Network, which recently bought out Time Inc.’s lifestyle stable including Who magazine.

Kerry Stokes has been particularly busy of late: he also bought just under 15 per cent of West Australian newspapers, for $193 million and 5 per cent of Fairfax. His voice, and influence, grows ever stronger – you might have seen him delivering the vote of thanks to mark John Howard’s 10 year in power – it’s been a good 10 years for Mr Stokes, despite his recent spot of legal bother over C7.

We’re also seeing the rise and rise of a new breed of media owners, venture capitalists and private equity consortiums such as Macquarie Media, which has made an aggressive play in our radio market and CVC Asia Pacific, which has bought 75 per cent of the old Packer media empire.

Now, we don’t know too much about private equity ownership of the media, except that the shareholders tend to be more concerned about the bottom line than such nebulous and unprofitable concepts as “quality” and “integrity”. Cost-cutting to boost short-term profits, rather than investing for the long-term, is a hallmark of the private equity owner. We’ll see what that effect that has, but I’m not overly sanguine.

Before I finish, I’d just like to make a couple of points about the new player on the media block, the Internet, our experience with it in Australia and what we are hearing about its adoption by news providers elsewhere in the world.

There is no doubt that the Internet is an increasing force in the dissemination of news and opinions. Around the world, newspapers are reordering their operations to create their versions of the newsrooms of the future, in which their online operations are as important – more so, if you believe some people – than the printed copy.

The UK’s Guardian newspaper was an early adopter and remains one of the most adept at managing its print and online editions. It was the first masthead to start running news stories online as they broke and one of the first to hire dedicated online reporting staff. Others are fast following suit.

In Australia it was Fairfax that made the early running on the internet. The Sydney Morning Herald and Age newspapers were, for a while, way out in front of the rest in the quality and depth of their internet sites. But for the past six months or so, News Ltd is playing catch up and is ploughing huge amounts of money into the online operations of its newspapers.

The pot of gold is a predicted $5 billion in annual online advertising revenues within the next five years. Beyond that it won’t be long, surely, until online advertising way outstrips print. We are watching keenly to see how quickly classified advertising, once known as newsprint’s “rivers of gold” will move exclusively online.

The result is two-fold. Firstly, as I have recounted, the dream of Australia’s media scene being a brave new plurality of small and independent voices using this wonderful new means of production to get to the masses remains just that, a dream.

For Fairfax and News Ltd, meanwhile, the imperative to get out in front and ensure themselves pole position in dividing up that pot of advertising gold, is driving them into huge commitments to their online presence, commitments which are beginning to outstrip the ability of their staff to fulfill them.

The Alliance is now hearing regular complaints from journalists that new tasks are being heaped on them in addition to their full-time jobs, reporters and section editors who are being asked to run 24-hour blogs while still covering their patch or producing their section.

The pitfalls are obvious – and could prove very expensive – already we have seen new Ltd’s Daily Telegraph fall foul of an expensive defamation suit. It has cost the Tele nearly half a million dollars and a lot of egg on the face, after comments on an ill-moderated blog accused a bunch of private citizens, whose crime was to provide character references for a public prosecutor accused of possessing child pornography, of being “perverts” themselves.

So, the risks involved in the runaway adoption of new technology without upholding journalism’s traditional – and very necessary professional safeguards – is clear. It is all very well to trumpet the virtues of “citizen journalism”, but in their zeal to provide content without cost, proprietors must not overlook the key role of professional journalists.

So, in conclusion, we in Australia who are interested in the future of quality news – and those who gather it – are concerned about the future, as you rightly are. We worry that instead of a healthy – and democratic – cacophony of voices providing for a range of news and opinions, successive governments in Australia have pandered to the powerful by allowing a handful of companies to dominate the media landscape.

We also worry about what this means for quality. We at the Alliance are committed to protecting, not just the jobs of our members, but their well-being and sense of meaning. And like you, we know this means we have a long and intense struggle on our hands.

Thank you.

© Scoop Media

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