IFJ Blog: Celebrating Australian Journalism

MEAA CEO Paul Murphy at the Walkley Awards for Excellence in Journalism 2017. Credit: MEAA

This speech was delivered by MEAA chief executive Paul Murphy at the 62nd annual Walkley Awards for Excellence in Journalism in Brisbane on the evening of November 29 2017.

Good evening and welcome.

I’d like to acknowledge and pay my respects to the custodians of the land on which we meet, the Elders, past and present, of the Turrbul and Jagera peoples.

An important aspect of modern journalism is the growing contribution of freelance journalists. MEAA and the Walkley Foundation recognise that contribution across all media platforms and in July this year, the Walkley for Best Freelance Journalist went to Jo Chandler for her report “Climate of Change” produced in The Monthly magazine and ABC Radio National’s Background Briefing. Please join me in congratulating Jo Chandler.

Tonight is an important celebration of the best in Australian journalism. And I believe these awards take on an increasing importance at a time when our industry, and our profession, confront significant challenges.

No one in this room needs convincing of the importance of public interest journalism to a functioning democracy.

Earlier this year the Senate commenced an inquiry into the future of public interest journalism. This was a welcome and important development.

It was established after a seven day strike by Fairfax journalists, protesting yet another round of savage cost cutting.

Over the last five years around 2500 journalist jobs have disappeared in this country – either through direct redundancies, or vacant positions simply not being replaced.

Important areas of scrutiny have been lost or greatly diminished, such as: examination of local council proceedings, coverage of local courts, analysis of regional planning decisions. The communities we seek to serve are losing out and powerful interests are not being held to sufficient scrutiny and account. The continuing collapse of traditional business models funded by advertising, combined with the rise of platforms spreading content that masquerades as news, presents a major challenge for our profession and our democracy.

This is exacerbated by the disgraceful attacks on journalists by politicians. Led by President Trump, and gleefully repeated by politicians around the world, including here in Australia, reputable and critical coverage is labelled as “fake news”. While actual fake news continues to proliferate on social media platforms.

In the worst cases, this rhetoric against journalists turns into imprisonment, assaults and murder. In Turkey alone 152 journalists remain in prison. In Mexico this year 12 journalists have lost their lives. In Malta, the murder of investigative journalist Daphne Caruana was particularly shocking in its brazen audacity.

Around the world this year 58 journalists have lost their lives in targeted killings.

Here in Australia our profession continues to confront serious barriers to public interest journalism.

Our somewhat erroneously titled Freedom of Information laws are subverted by government agencies determined to avoid release of relevant documents.

The continuing veil of secrecy around Operation Sovereign Borders, and the efforts to prevent journalists gaining access to Manus Island and Nauru is a national shame. This was exacerbated dramatically last week with the detention of Iranian journalist Behrouz Boochani in a clear effort by PNG Police to prevent him reporting on the operation to relocate asylum seekers on Manus Island. Behrouz is our journalist colleague. His reporting from Manus has been in the finest traditions of our profession and last week we wrote to both Malcolm Turnbull and the PNG Prime Minister, Peter O’Neill, seeking guarantees of his safety to continue his reporting unimpeded.

Meanwhile our defamation laws continue as a relic of the last century, increasingly used by powerful interests to prevent legitimate reporting. Our Parliament must act to bring forward genuine reform in this area.

In spite of all these challenges, as tonight shows, Australia continues to produce journalism of the highest quality. And increasingly the opportunities provided by new platforms are being used by traditional media companies, and many welcome new entrants, to engage and inform our communities in ways not conceivable only a few years ago.

But the public interest in protecting a diverse, robust and independent media landscape is something our parliament needs to recognise and act upon.

That is why the Senate Inquiry I referred to earlier is so important. It has been underway now for over six months and will continue into the new year. More than 70 submissions have been received and several public hearings conducted. MEAA made a substantial submission and we want to see this Inquiry produce something of real benefit, and we believe there are practical things Government can do to support public interest journalism. It is, for example, ridiculous that tax concessions available for public interest journalism in many countries around the world are not available here. We believe there should be relief from the GST for media companies. Individual subscriptions and contributions to media should be fully tax deductible. And the tax system should provide incentives for media companies investing in public interest journalism.

These are practical measures to support and promote public interest journalism at a time of great challenge. To ensure it continues to play a proud and vital role in informing our communities and enriching our democracy.

I’d like to wish all of the finalists here tonight the very best of luck, and to everyone in the room, enjoy the evening.

Thank you.