Australia has a robust democracy, but it has become clear that freedom of the press is under attack.
Whether it’s starving the public broadcaster of funding while forking out millions to Foxtel, the further concentration of media ownership in Australia, or the frequency with which journalists, media organisations and whistleblowers are being raided and arrested by police – these are not the features of a healthy democracy.
There is a clear pattern here. At every turn, governments are seeking to avoid scrutiny or accountability for their actions and to silence their critics. And whether governments like it or not, scrutiny is just as healthy for them as it is for democracy itself. Like a vaccine inoculates against diseases that could ultimately kill you, scrutiny and accountability inoculate governments from the rot of corruption and wrongdoing that can be their downfall.
In the new book The Nordic Edge: Policy Possibilities for Australia my co-author Maria Rae and I have written a chapter exploring the way the Nordic countries – Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Norway and Iceland – lead the world in having a robust and free media and the lessons that Australia could learn from them as a matter of urgency.
In addition to having a more diverse media landscape and a stronger public broadcasting network, investigative journalists have much greater freedoms in Nordic countries than they do in Australia. The top four positions on the 2020 World Press Freedom Index are held by Nordic countries, while Australia has fallen five places to 26th since 2019.
Norway has encouraged institutional channels to promote government transparency and there are constitutional protections for press freedom and freedom of speech that Australia lacks.
It should be no secret why Australia’s press freedom ranking has fallen recently: we keep raiding journalists and prosecuting whistleblowers. In Norway, when government tried to withhold important official records, the Journalists Union and Association of Norwegian Editors sued the attorney-general; meanwhile in Australia, our then-attorney-general sued the public broadcaster for defamation. In 2019, the Australian Federal Police also raided the home of journalist Annika Smethurst and the Sydney headquarters of the ABC. Both raids were in response to news stories based on classified government documents that were leaked to the journalists. When you add the recent arrest of 21-year-old Friendlyjordies producer Kristo Langker, a deeply concerning pattern becomes obvious.
Jordan Shanks, AKA Friendlyjordies, is a part-satirist, part-citizen journalist on YouTube, where he has amassed a large following of devoted fans. One of his main targets has been John Barilaro, who is currently suing Shanks for defamation.
Arresting a journalist for doing their job at any time is concerning, but the fact that it was plainclothes members of NSW Police Fixated Persons Investigative Unit that arrested Langker is deeply concerning. The FPIU was set up to target potentially violent lone-wolf extremists who haven’t quite graduated to terrorism-level. Langker was charged with two counts of ‘stalking’ Barilaro.
It would be a mistake to dismiss the seriousness of this arrest because you find FriendlyJordies content distasteful or because he doesn’t meet your personal definition of a journalist. For years, people have argued that Julian Assange is not technically a journalist or publisher, but none of that diminishes the threat to press freedom if Assange is extradited to the US and jailed for publishing evidence of US war crimes. As the Icelandic editor-in-chief of Wikileaks Kristinn Hrafnsson has said: “[Assange’s indictments] give out the signal that no journalist anywhere in the world is safe if he or she is publishing information that is of displeasure to the ’empire’.” Now, Shanks has not to my knowledge, uncovered any war crimes, but the point of arresting his producer, of prosecuting Assange and raiding Annika Smethurst and the ABC headquarters is the same: to silence and intimidate the media and whistle-blowers.
Journalism is a public good – like street lighting, scientific research, national defence and having a population vaccinated against COVID-19. And Nordic countries treat journalism that way. Nordic media policy and funding arrangements support the production of news and quality journalism and encourage a diversity of voices. They protect and respect the freedom of the press.
Public broadcasting in Nordic countries is funded as a public good and in each Nordic country, the leading public broadcaster channel has a larger audience share than the biggest private channel. In contrast, Australia spends less than half of what Finland spends per capita on public broadcasting and per capita funding for the ABC has halved since the late 80s, despite its increasingly important role as emergency broadcaster during floods, bushfires and severe storms.
Australia has one of the world’s most highly concentrated media sectors and the pandemic saw even more newsrooms close permanently or temporarily. Norway, in particular, supports the news media and journalism through a range of taxpayer subsidies, which have helped keep stable the number of small local newspapers over a long period of time. Subsidies are typically offered to support democracy, accountability and freedom of speech, as well as to support a range of media views and local news. And while direct subsidies such as the Morrison government’s Public Interest News Gathering program are welcome, often government interventions are ad hoc, temporary and without clear objectives, like the $40 million granted to Foxtel for women’s sport – which the Greens have asked the auditor-general to review.
A free and diverse media is essential to a healthy democracy. Nordic countries understand this and they support a diverse media and protect the rights of journalists and whistleblowers. It is clear that press freedoms in Australia are under threat and unless Australians fight to protect the freedom of the press, the press won’t be here to protect our democracy.