Australian media condemns government controls

PM – Thursday, 10 May , 2007 18:30:00
Reporter: Ashley Hall
MARK COLVIN: Australia’s leading media companies say they’re facing death by a thousand cuts – cuts to the freedom of the press that is.

They say that since September 11, there have been more restrictions on what they can publish than ever before, and it’s threatening our way of life.

So they’ve launched a coalition to lobby governments to dilute some of their controls.

Ashley Hall reports.

ASHLEY HALL: Australia’s big media companies don’t usually agree on much – but today they’re unanimous in saying that there’s a massive block developing in the free flow of information.

JOHN HARTIGAN: Australians simply aren’t getting access to information to make informed decisions.

ASHLEY HALL: The chairman of News Limited, John Hartigan, says Australia’s secrecy-conscious State and Federal governments now have more than 500 separate rules and regulations restricting what information can be published.

He says freedom of expression in Australia has deteriorated so much, the country’s now ranked 35th in the world, behind Bolivia and Bosnia in a study of press freedom.

And that, he says, is threatening the very nature of our democracy.

JOHN HARTIGAN: In a healthy democracy people need an opportunity to criticise, debate and shape what’s happening to them.

ASHLEY HALL: Between them, the big companies have a big log of complaints.

Two journalists in Victoria facing a jail term because they’ve refused to reveal the source of a story that embarrassed the Government over war veterans benefits.

In Sydney, a newsroom raided twice in the past year by federal agents looking for a confidential source.

A major newspaper asked to pay fees of $1 million to obtain an auditors report on the suspected rorting of Commonwealth MPs’ travel expenses.

And when it comes to Freedom of Information, the endless stream of refusals has journalists ruefully remembering the Yes Minister line when Sir Humphrey called it “Freedom From Information”.

The coalition of Australia’s leading media organisations unveiled today will commission a national audit of the state of free speech in Australia, and then use the findings to lobby governments for change.

John Hartigan says it’s no coincidence the protest is coming ahead of an election campaign.

JOHN HARTIGAN: We don’t step back from the fact that this is a time when it’s likely to get more traction. But it wasn’t dictated purely on that basis. It was simply that we felt the time had come.

ASHLEY HALL: The Chief Executive of Fairfax Media, David Kirk, took the message to the annual lunch of the Press Council, where it was warmly received.

DAVID KIRK: Fairfax Media supports the war on terrorism, and the need for the strongest intelligence and law enforcement to protect Australians at home and abroad.

But we also need to protect the fundamental values that terrorists want to destroy as well.

ASHLEY HALL: But while David Kirk spent the day promoting the notion of press freedom, about 400 Fairfax journalists were on strike, complaining at least in part about the Australian Workplace Agreements some staff have been asked to sign.

The staff say the AWAs limit their freedom of speech by giving the company the power to sack them if they speak out about the company’s operations.

They’re also unhappy about a plan to cut 35 sub-editing and graphic design jobs from the Sydney Morning Herald and the Sun Herald as Fairfax expands its digital presence.

PROTEST: What do we want? Free press. When do we want it? Now!

ASHLEY HALL: A picket line outside the company’s Sydney offices dissolved around lunchtime today, when the Industrial Relations Commission ordered the journalists back to work

A further meeting between staff and management was scheduled for four o’clock this afternoon.

David Kirk says he’ll be entering those negotiations with an open mind.

DAVID KIRK: Well we’ve said from the beginning that we had a proposal, as we, as we’re required to do under our collective agreements. We had a proposal to make changes that we would be discussing and consulting over those changes, and that process hasn’t concluded.

MARK COLVIN: David Kirk, the Chief Executive of Fairfax Media, ending that report from Ashley Hall.

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Clare Swinney

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