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The right to know and the ability to speak out

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Democracy, the role of the Fourth Estate and the importance of independent media are discussed by managing editor Michelle Pini in this Keynote Address at the Community Newspaper Association of Victoria (CNAV) Conference 2020.

Watch the video here:

TRANSCRIPT

I work as managing editor for Independent Australia, a position I consider myself privileged to hold. I truly love my job.

Like Stephen King, I also believe most people have at least some talent as writers or storytellers — which is lucky since, as a child, I was convinced I was especially talented as a storyteller and would be a famous writer.

True, this was encouraged by the adults around me — and especially by my father, who was himself a gifted storyteller, though you would never have heard of him.

In fact, I was secretly confident this would likely happen before I finished high school – particularly after a book I wrote about space travel and aliens in grade five won a book of the year competition.

Of course, it was only a local primary school competition for which I was presented with a medal by the local mayor as the grand prize. The homemade “book” was never published but it was on display at the school. I think it was still on exhibit when we moved a few months later. Sadly, its current whereabouts remain unknown.

In my teens, I decided “journalist” had a nice ring to it and I still wanted to be rich and famous, besides.

But by my early adulthood, the romance with journalism had worn off and, after quizzing a jaded Canberra journalist, whose name I can no longer recall, but to whom I was introduced by a well-meaning teacher, I decided you had to be hard and kinda mean to get the big stories.

My love affair with words on the page and the stories behind them, though, continued unabated.

Fast forward through a different career, marriage and a couple of kids, and suddenly, I needed to be a journalist. And it couldn’t wait any longer. There was an urgency beyond the words themselves. It was to do with stories. Important stories that were not being told.

It seemed then that the twin obsessions with celebrity and “reality” had engulfed every aspect of our media. And news and views, censored through the self-serving positions of an elite few, and funnelled through an ever-narrowing perspective, were being presented as facts.

This is still happening, of course.

How, then, can important stories, true stories, and real people be heard?

A few years before my brush with literary fame and fortune, when I was four, we migrated to Australia, leaving Athens during a period of extreme political turmoil.

This unrest culminated in a military dictatorship known as the Regime of the Colonels, or The Junta, which seized power a little over 50 years ago, a short while after we became new Australians.

This regime pillaged, oppressed and suppressed the voice of the people for seven years. It did so, in the birthplace of democracy, seemingly unnoticed by the rest of the modern world.

We arrived from Greece by plane and we were not destitute, but we were, at least in an ideological sense, political refugees.

Though my father, who had always been politically engaged, died when I was 11, I remember the conversations about relatives and friends who had been imprisoned or simply vanished for speaking out about The Junta. I remember my father reading aloud letters from those still in Athens, whose words had been censored before reaching us.

And I remember – vividly – his belief in freedom of information and the principles of democracy.

Freedom of assembly and speech were considered fundamental to democracy in ancient Greece, where democracy was founded. This is the idea that there can be no true democracy, or rule of the people, without the right to know and the ability to speak out.

If you look at Australia’s media landscape today, it is easy to assume that ... the facts are reported without fear or favour and that the wishes of the majority are heard.

This concept of democracy is, of course, at the heart of the Fourth Estate: that everyone is free to pursue their own destiny, to cherish their beliefs, seek and speak their truth and live without fear that their beliefs may draw persecution.

This notion of freedom of speech and freedom to share ideas is not only integral to the existence of democracy, it is an essential human right.

The ability of common people to speak and be heard, the right of storytellers to uncover the truth and the power of truth seekers to dig below the surface and expose the areas that need attention, then, is what media is for.

The Fourth Estate is the mechanism by which governments and powerful corporations are meant to be held to account. It is at the core of what it means to be free and it should be a right we all strive to defend.

Even when I have not been consciously aware, this core belief about freedom has been a common thread throughout my life.

And, of course, whether or not you share this view, it is also a common thread affecting all of yours.

In recent history, when democracy has been under threat, the burning of books and persecution of learned people during forced invasions is testament to the importance of information to transform fear and unite people in the common goal of freedom.

When we think of democracy and the Fourth Estate being under threat, it is dramatic events such as the Second World War and dictators such as Idi Amin, Pol Pot or Kim Jong-Un that come to mind.

But threats to freedom of the press and its integral role to democracy are not always as obvious as when a tyrannical foreign invader marches in to overthrow the democratically elected government of the day, and publish only its own propaganda.

If you look at Australia’s media landscape today, it is easy to assume that we enjoy a level of freedom that the forefathers of democracy foresaw. That the facts are reported without fear or favour and that the wishes of the majority are heard.

But this is actually the exception, not the rule.

I left my story-telling past behind when I finished uni as an undergraduate, taking a roundabout path into the wine industry, where I marketed and distributed many high-profile wines over a long and well-paid career, and where my departure is still met with incredulous looks and questions which barely disguise people’s disbelief. But leave the wine industry I did, though it wasn’t until recently ... and though I didn’t really leave the wine.

I had been living with my family in Warrandyte for several years and had come to the realisation that it was time to finally do what I had always thought I would: get out there, tell stories and write. And preferably get rich and famous, post haste.

It was not a fully formed plan and possibly more than a little frivolous given the wine industry boom and the rapid decline in the journalism business model at the time.

Nonetheless, I enrolled in a masters of communication to hone what I hoped might become my craft and a little while later, I rang the editor of the Warrandyte Diary, Cliff Green, and offered my services, armed with a story I had written for my course.

Well, “It would preferably be less flowery”, said Cliff, ever one to mince words, "but it has promise and so, when can you start? Oh, and could you also sub-edit the sports section?"

High praise indeed. And since the reporting role was unpaid, it was also a far cry from my early childhood delusions of writing fame and grandeur, but it was a start.

The Warrandyte Diary was founded by screenwriter Cliff Green in 1970. Cliff, who is best known for writing the screenplay for iconic Australian film, Picnic at Hanging Rock, started the paper which has celebrated its 50th year in 2020, because, as he once told me, the local newspapers back then simply ignored Warrandyte.

Once a gold rush town on the outskirts of Melbourne, Warrandyte had enjoyed a recent residential revival, as people embraced conservationism and a closer connection with nature. Surrounded by native bushland and still with the community flavour of a country town, Warrandyte was always a creative place, drawing artists and writers.

But in the 1970s, this new type of settlement was at odds with the more urban city of Doncaster, which had encompassed it, and where the local paper was based. As a result, the achievements and day to day activities of Warrandytians rated hardly a mention in the local paper, or in the minds of those in the municipal council offices.

Cliff, led by a strong civic conscience and understanding the importance of local news and views, became annoyed with Warrandyte’s invisibility, and decided he would start his own paper. Little more than a newsletter featuring the results of Warrandyte children’s sports teams, the Warrandyte Diary was born. And locals embraced it. They came forth with sporting and school news and other, more political concerns.

They wrote to the editor with fervour, sharing their stories of over-development, of changes to environmental protections that would see Warrandyte swallowed up in the urban landscape, as other suburbs had before it. And they spoke up about local politics, about dubious council goings-on and about the ongoing threat of the urban sprawl.

Discovered among the gems of this civically minded population were scientists and meteorologists, world class artists and musicians and a community spirit that sought to work alongside Warrandyte’s rich Indigenous beginnings and preserve rather than just change.

All of these things and more have been celebrated in the Diary, a community newspaper to which I proudly contributed for many years.

But the fact that the concerns and voices of Warrandyte residents were no less important than those of Doncaster or Bulleen is the premise upon which this publication was built.

Like most Warrandyte Diary reporters at the time, when I started as a contributor, I was swiftly dispatched to cover cutting edge local news and happenings — such as the local primary school’s tour of local mines and the CFA’s latest fundraiser.

But I was hooked. And I was discovering the essence of reporting — I was out there getting the stories from my community members and enabling their voices and their concerns to be heard.

Over seven years contributing to the Diary, I also worked as feature writer, sub-editor and project manager. From Cliff – who demonstrated often through swift and brutal editing measures – I also learned the value of economy in writing.

And it is from the Diary, that I learned the power of an independent community voice, even that of a small community, like Warrandyte.

I received a call from the council media officer at the time, who was incensed that, I did not, as he put it, “report what they told [me] to report”.

This was brought home to me on many occasions. One such occasion concerned the plight of just one Warrandyte street and the council’s desire to impose a “special rates and charges levy” to cover stormwater drainage works. For many residents, who were predominantly pensioners, the thousands of dollars this would incur over and above their rates, would likely cause unavoidable hardship.

As with previous undesirable bureaucratic matters – such as the comical but expensive bus shelter redevelopments, which saw the shelters removed and rebuilt at least four times – the Diary’s coverage of the stormwater issue became a thorn in the side of the local council officers.

I was summoned to a meeting, ostensibly to be updated on the planned works. The meeting consisted of three administrative heavyweights, armed with lots of impressive plans and indecipherable calculations, presenting their case in excruciating detail. The performance was, it seemed, designed to intimidate and, of course, influence how the issue was reported.

As the Diary strove to tell the whole story, however, it became increasingly evident – especially after one councillor found a cheaper and more environmentally friendly engineering solution, only to be ignored ­– that the decision to impose these additional costs was more to do with a stubborn commitment to bureaucracy, rather than any supposed efficiency of the planned works. The Diary story reflected this.

The next day, I received a call from the council media officer at the time, who was incensed that, I did not, as he put it, “report what they told [me] to report”.

I replied that it was not my job to report what they told me. It was my job to report all the facts, which, in this case, did not support their solution, which was expensive, would negatively impact the environment and create financial hardship for the residents. All while another, more efficient solution had not even been considered.

The levy was eventually abandoned and it is fair to say that the Warrandyte Diary's coverage played a part in this.

Certainly, it provided a case study in the importance of independence in media for me.

While studying for my masters of communication, I undertook an internship at Independent Australia. This soon led to part time work as a sub-editor and eventually, after several steps in between, to my current role as managing editor.

Independent Australia, or IA, as it is known, is a national, proudly progressive news journal. Though it is mostly an online publication, it also produces magazines and books. IA’s focus is on federal politics, democracy, the environment, human rights, Australian identity, Indigenous issues, economics and the justice system.

Our stories are on a national scale but the premise of this publication is essentially the same as that on which the Diary was also founded: to nurture the power of an independent community voice.

Founded in 2010 by successful businessman, and former media director and vice chair of the Republican Movement, David Donovan, Independent Australia began as online blog.

Dave, a gifted writer and journalist, driven by a strong social conscience and a belief that the mainstream media was not telling the full story, decided it was time to start his own independent publication, which he also edited for the next ten years. His mission was dedicated to seeking out the truth, informing the public and seeking a truly independent Australia — a nation that determines its own future and protects its citizens and its environment.

Dave also harnessed the power of social media to uncover a fiercely loyal readership which has continued to grow. It wasn’t long before Australians began to embrace IA, submitting their stories, sharing their concerns about injustices and corruption, and telling their truth. Soon, world class writers, scientists, doctors, lawyers and academics joined the growing list of contributors and columnists.

IA’s independence means it is about non-partisan politics — and not about supporting any political party.

But this does not mean we do not have an editorial position. Our position is always unashamedly progressive and we expose corruption within governments, institutions and corporations of all sizes and political leanings.

In short, IA speaks truth to power and stands up to bullies, whoever they are. We give a strong voice to women, First Nations, new Australians, the disabled, the LGBTI+ community, the homeless, poor, unemployed and the voiceless.

IA’s investigative work has often attracted opposition from governments, corporations and rival publications. And we have been subjected to intimidation from those in powerful positions, often taking the form of legal attacks.

While we are fearless in our reporting, we are also scrupulous in our fact checking and this, of course, is our best form of defence. It is hard to dispute a well-reasoned argument; it is even harder to dispute a well-reasoned case supported by meticulous facts.

It is at Independent Australia that I fully realised that threats to media freedom are not always as blatant as when democratically elected governments are overthrown, such as in the case of Greece during my childhood.

IA began in Queensland, a state dominated by Murdoch-owned publications.

As Dave Donovan wrote in a recent article about why he founded IA:

It was as if there were not multiple publications, but just one, printing the same stories again and again, but under different mastheads. A single narrative: Labor and Greens shonky, spendthrift, chaotic and corrupt; Coalition stable, strong, prudent and secure.

 

And this was not just the commercial media, but also the ABC. Perhaps because, when everyone else is taking a single line, that line seems factual and it would seem absurd – perhaps even potentially biased – to present a countervailing view.

 

Of course, this is a generalisation and, naturally, there were several exceptions — rebels in all camps, who would occasionally risk speaking out against the official line.

Brave souls. Most are now pursuing careers outside of journalism.

 

We have published hundreds of stories about the malign effects of the Murdoch media cartel on Australian journalism and democracy. When we did it in the early days, it was considered close to heresy. These days the malignant nature of the Murdoch approach to journalism is broadly accepted in the community.
 

After years of turning many community newspapers into little more than advertorial leaflets, News Corp also forced the closure of dozens of regional newspapers this year.

Today, a former Labor prime minister has started a record-breaking petition to hold a royal commission into Murdoch’s media dominance, that has amassed over 500,000 signatures. This call for a long overdue inquiry has been joined by former leaders from the conservative side of politics, as well as from concerned citizens of every political flavour.

Whatever your politics, what is indisputable is that one major corporation currently dominates Australia’s media landscape. And this means that it also controls the narrative.

While we have such a concentration of political discourse, this is not a media landscape that is committed to the democratic principle of freedom of information.

Independent Australia continues to present a progressive world-view and reports news without needing to placate vested interests or adhere to any predetermined agenda. It remains fiercely independent and unapologetically progressive.

And from its humble beginnings, it has grown substantially since David Donovan began publishing from his back room, now attracting between 600,000 and 950,000 unique views each month.

It is at Independent Australia that I truly appreciated the power of the voices of the wider Australian community. And that the stories of those from Warrandyte, or the homeless or the stateless, are just as important as those of the powerful or the famous.

Over its ten-year history, David has taken IA where other publications fear to tread, and published stories that they overlook. Because it is telling the story that matters. It is from him that I learned the worth of journalism without fear or favour, as well as the importance of treading lightly when handling the stories of others, so that their voices are not lost and their stories are allowed to shine.

And it is here that I have realised I had been wrong: you don’t need to be kinda mean to get the important stories. The opposite is true. You need to have an open mind and compassion in your heart. You need to have a commitment to truth telling and mostly, a desire to enable community voices and important stories, from wherever they hail.

I am so proud to be part of an organisation that does not baulk at uncovering the truth. That does not shy away from controversy. That, instead, serves up truth to power.

As managing editor of Independent Australia, I see myself as one of the guardians of that most essential democratic element: the right to know and be heard.

Independent Australia actually stands for something. The clue is in the name. There is freedom in telling it like it is. In not kowtowing to politicians, to corporations or to media barons. And it has survived and thrived because of this ethos.

The community publications represented here today share this story of survival. You have endured in the face of unrivalled media concentration and despite the closures of so many others. The voices of your communities continue to be heard in your pages and on your websites. Well done to each and every one of you.

As independent publishers, we are all in a unique position to seek truth and important stories in the interests of freedom of knowledge and a free society. This is our responsibility. It is our right.

I consider this to be real journalism. And it’s important. More important than ever.

You can follow managing editor Michelle Pini on Twitter @VMP9Follow Independent Australia on Twitter @independentaus and on Facebook HERE.

Support independent journalism Subscribe to IA.

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