Australia‘s three largest media organisations have joined forces to demand legal reforms to protect press freedom, saying current legislation is outdated, inconsistent and being used by the powerful to keep embarrassing information secret.
Media bosses from News Corp Australia, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), and Nine Entertainment made the demand while addressing Australia’s National Press Club on Wednesday.
The rare show of unity by Australia’s usually tribal media industry underscored concern about a lack of legal protection for journalists.
The issue gained international attention following unprecedented raids by police earlier this month on the ABC’s head office in Sydney and a News Corp journalists’ home over separate reports.
“Something has shifted,” Michael Miller, News Corp executive chairman for Australia and New Zealand, said in the joint speech in the capital, Canberra. “The raids … were an intimidation, not investigation”.
Miller also hit out at what he called a “culture of secrecy” in Australia.
“Too many people who frame policy, write laws, control information and conduct court hearings have stopped believing that the public’s right to know comes first,” he said.
ABC Managing Director David Anderson said government rhetoric about the importance of a free press was “not being matched by the reality”.
“Our journalists have too many impediments in their path, including the unacceptable risk of being treated as criminals,” Anderson said.
“Clearly we are at a crossroads. We can be a society that is secret and afraid to confront sometimes uncomfortable truths, or we can protect those who courageously promote transparency, stand up to intimidation, and shed light on those truths to the benefit of all citizens.”
The speech by the three media bosses came two days after ABC and News Corp announced they were taking the Australian Federal Police to court over the controversial raids – the latest in a string of actions taken by authorities against Australian media organisations.
Unlike most Western democracies, Australia does not have a bill of rights or constitutionally enshrined protection for freedom of speech.
It also has some of the world’s strictest defamation laws, with courts routinely issuing gag orders to prevent the reporting of details of many legal proceedings.
This was the case in February when a court order prevented media outlets from reporting on a guilty verdict on child sex abuse charges against Roman Catholic Cardinal George Pell.
Some Australian outlets reported an unidentified person had been convicted, while many foreign media companies identified Pell in their reporting because they were outside Australia’s jurisdiction.
Prosecutors are now seeking fines and jail time for three dozen Australian journalists and publishers for their coverage of the trial. Pell has appealed his guilty verdict.
In May, Oscar-winning actor Geoffrey Rush was awarded a $2m defamation payment – the largest in Australian history – against Rupert Murdoch-owned News Corp after it published reports accusing him of inappropriate behaviour. News Corp appealed the decision.
Earlier this week, a court found three media companies, including News Corp and Nine-owned newspaper publisher Fairfax, liable for defamatory comments posted below articles on their Facebook pages, despite the companies being unable to edit the comments, which were made by members of the public.
“The growth of costly judgements based on Facebook posts or Google reviews show the law has … failed to keep up with the way the world has changed,” Nine CEO Hugh Marks said.
“Put simply, it’s more risky, it’s more expensive to do journalism that makes a real difference in this country than ever before.”