A stand for journalistic freedom: Facing the digital avalanche in mass communication

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Journalistic rights have been aided with strategies set out by the MEAA (Image via

How is Australia traveling with the massive structural adjustment in media, activities of the "digital giants" of social media and impacts on society? In this second article in a three-part report, media editor Dr Lee Duffield outlines how journalists and the political community are probing for answers.

Read Part One: Enter the 'Third Estate' HERE.

A stand for journalistic freedom

IN FACE OF DISRUPTION of mass media generated by changing technologies, journalists are an exposed group organising responses in the workplace and wider afield.

The media union and professional association, the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) has 15,264 paid-up members across journalism, acting and entertainment — not so many. The MEAA says that from long experience with unstable employment it is able to deal with “uberisation” and “gig economy” working conditions across the economy. It has taken up the two-step approach of contesting standards with its employer organisations, but also increasing its focus on threats and opportunities of a new crisis. 

Its 2017 annual report sets out strategies for conventional defence of journalists’ work rights like new enterprise agreements or special actions over redundancies at Fairfax newspapers, News Corporation and the ABC, and its “go to” role as promoter of media freedoms, media ethics, local screen and stage content, the journalists’ position on legal issues like defamation, whistleblower protection, suppression orders or gender discrimination.

However, other actions are orientated towards extending the professional community into new areas outside of media corporations — to bring more media-makers into the fold of this profession.

Simon Collins, federal president of MEAA, introducing the annual report, said:

'We know that many of our members also identify with MEAA because it provides them with a sense of community.'


Recognising change in the media world, the organisation has started a new membership category, CommsPro, for communication professionals. It’ll also be developing its long-standing freelancers’ service — Freelance Pro. It says it is pushing for change across the published media through the current Fair Work modern award review process. It is recruiting members also in the not-for-profit sector and working with employees in digital media on a “good jobs charter”, including workers from Yahoo 7, Junkee/The Cusp, and Huffington Post. This is being supported by media activism and general outreach across society .

Paul Murphy, MEAA Chief Executive, had this to say:

We continue to build strategic alliances by working closely with industry bodies such as the Australian Press Council, Media Super, Friends of the ABC, and parliamentary groups…  We now have a supporter and activist database of almost 40,000 people… demonstrating the enormous public goodwill towards our campaigns and a valuable resource for when we want to mobilise around an issue. MEAA’s submission to the Senate inquiry into the future of the film and TV industry calls for government leadership through standardised production and location offset rebates, the restoration of funding to the Screen Australia agency and a revamp of local content rules to rope in streaming video platforms.


Amid activity like this, more government members and other parties are waking up to what century they are in and starting to act on what the MEAA has, for some years, been naming a “crisis”.

For many politicians, this waking-up will mean a great change. While they know their electorates well and meet many people, most still want to keep doing media in the “old” way, through contact with journalists; getting statements into the local paper, being door-stopped at Parliament House, batting off some keyed-up interviewer so as to keep repeating a few prepared slogans on air. The stand-out exception, A.C.T. Chief Minister Andrew Barr, who says he is fed up with journalists and wants to bypass them, can choose between setting up serious conversations with his followers, or follow Donald Trump into the trash media zone.


The first exhibit of change is the December report from the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Communication and Arts into the film and television industry, judging the impacts of “significant technology changes”.

Chairman Luke Howarth said:

“On-demand platforms such as Amazon and Netflix have transformed the way Australians access their screen content… This inquiry was a timely examination of the policy settings…”

Listening to the MEAA, it recommended an extension of tax offsets available to film and television producers, including location offsets for production in Australia. The “protectionist” feel of such measures sits uncomfortably with the current Federal Government, which this month had a fight with Queensland over assisting a new Dora the Explorer children’s film; the Palaszczuk Government agreed to itself make a direct grant to get the film for the Gold Coast.

Other concerns listed: Screen Australia funding, the digital games industry, international co-productions including increasing links with China, visas for foreign actors (though without their dogs) and mental health issues within the industry.


As Exhibit B, last month the Senate Select Committee on the Future of Public Interest Journalism produced a report sympathetic to journalists making free inquiries, especially for company journalists still on investigative projects, but possibly useful to all future free inquiry.

It was strong on defending the options of media in the mainstream fold and, looking for a definition of “public interest” journalism, it listed some key explanations of that idea. It mentioned important debates around new media like the “fake news” problem, the advertising drought and proposals for future funding of media. It gives a strong synthesis of current information and thinking on questions like who can be in the media game and what standards have to be met for them to be counted as “social responsibility”, “Third Estate” or “public interest” participants. This parliamentary move is no harbinger of a whole new awareness of media in society but might help to get that started.


Of interest is the ghostly aspect of the process, started only last May, whereby three main proponents of the inquiry, all non-government, then-Senators Sam Dastyari, Jacqui Lambie and Nick Xenophon are suddenly no longer in parliament, changing interests and fortunes. Another was Scott Ludlam from the Greens.

They left specific recommendations:

  • adequate funding for the ABC to carry out charter obligations including regional coverage and fact checking;
  • similar full support for community broadcasting including money for training, education and roll-out of digital services;
  • federal and state measures to teach children digital media awareness and media literacy;
  • extending deductible gift recipient (DGR) status to not-for-profit news media organisations if they 'adhere to appropriate standards of practice for public interest journalism', with room for full-scale debate about what those standards might be;
  • investigating possible tax deductions for news media subscriptions for all Australians, again, where the media organisations 'adhere to appropriate standards of practice for public interest journalism';
  • a stab at reining in moves by the government, already heavily criticised, to impose new controls on having information about possible security issues; that would be by asking the Law Reform Commission to review laws on national security and border protection, 'to achieve an appropriate balance between the need to preserve national security and the need for journalists to be able to carry out their work in the public interest';
  • yet another review of defamation law to balance up public interest and potential harm to reputations; and
  • measures to extend whistleblower protections and shield protection for journalists handling legally sensitive information.

Coalition Senators on the committee, Jonathon Duniam and James Paterson, listed current Government moves:

They gave qualified agreement to parts of the majority report, such as on philanthropic support for not-for-profit journalism through the tax system, and the Law Reform Commission audit. They said commercial media outlets were the mainstay of news gathering and investigation.

The third article in this series will include highlights of this latest inquiry. It considered a levy on the takings of the U.S. digital giants – Facebook, Google and the others – as media aggregators to fund public media, other avenues of finance, fake news and the impacts of the aggregators, including efforts to reform their own systems as well as their 'negative or unfair effects on consumers, media content creators-including journalists and advertisers'.

Dr Lee Duffield is a former ABC foreign correspondent, political journalist and academic.

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