Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 28, 2010

Press Freedom, MWF #1

Today was my first day at the 2010 Melbourne Writers Festival and it kicked off with a stimulating session in the BMW Edge at Federation Square.

The session was titled Press Freedom – which might seem an odd topic for people in a democratic country to be worried about, but all three speakers were keen to make people aware of the constraints under which contemporary journalism operates.

Duncan Hughes, a journalist with the Financial Review, said that London and Sydney were the defamation capitals of the world.  He also thought the suppression of information about court cases was more of a cultural than a legal issue.  Clearly both these issues impact on what can be published, but he didn’t make a compelling case for why things should change.  (Given some of the intrusive coverage we’ve seen I think most of us would be more worried about press invasion of privacy than anything else, and would love to be able to sue when the media runs amok at private funerals and family celebrations.  The ongoing mawkish coverage of the Black Saturday bushfires on ABC StateLine, complete with soppy sentimental music in the background, is ghastly).

Lenore Taylor, from the SMH and the Canberra Press Gallery admitted that some of the bad press the gallery gets is deserved, but that reporting on politics is important for democracy, and it’s getting harder to do that well these days.  It’s the 24/7 news cycle and the immediacy of the internet that makes it difficult to persuade editors of the importance of policy analysis and implementation.  Ross Gittins (The Age) echoed this when he said that internet updates (e.g. via iGoogle news headlines) give us the who, what and when of news, but that it is the broadsheet press that can give us the how and the why, providing the background and the context.  (If only we didn’t have to wade through so much rubbish to get to it!)

I thought it was interesting that the only panelists were from the print media.  This seemed a little old-fashioned to me.  The print media, is after all, under siege from the new media, and the constraints under which it operates now  is (as Gittins said) as much about  its commercial survival as anything else.  Investigative journalism costs money, and the new media is still trying to design ways of charging its readers who at the moment read online for free what consumers of print media are paying for.  I kept thinking of Margaret Simons’ session last year when she talked about this problem: if print media isn’t financially sustainable, what happens to public interest journalism?  I would have liked at least one of the panel to have been a journalist who works primarily in an online environment.

Ross Gittins thinks that there is a real need to provide the public with important information but the challenge is to find ways of making issues that are important interesting.  Well, yes, I would have thought so, Ross.  But the editor of The Age seemed unapologetic about the inane fluff pieces that saturate our serious papers these days, and even less interested in the idea that sport isn’t news, it’s only entertainment and one that doesn’t appeal to everybody, boys,  so it belongs on the back pages and not in the headlines. 

Lenore Taylor had a wish-list of reforms she’d like to see, but since these were a lot like what we have already heard ad nauseam from those tiresome independents waffling on about new paradigms in Australian politics, I was more interested in what Gittens had to say about Australia’s only national paper.  I thought it was courageous of him to speak so frankly about the insidious nature of the power the Oz wields; about the campaigns they run instead of reporting news objectively; and how they pitch their stories at the Right so that they only see what they want to see and are never challenged by opposing points of view.  It was interesting to learn that their Melbourne circulation is  only about 22,000…


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