Image for Does Australia have a free press?

First published October 7

In my earlier post on growth and sustainability I argued that our press must give as much attention to scientific information about the state of the world as it now gives to financial information about the state of the market. It is hard to see how that will happen unless we have a free press. That leaves us with a problem.

Freedom of the press is an issue that has been unusually prominent in Australia in recent months – taking ‘the press’ to encompass all public media. But most of the discussion has focused on the wrong questions and has failed to notice that whether Australia has a free press is a question that can be answered empirically; and regrettably the facts demonstrate that, taken as a whole, we do not have a free press.

The issues recently in the news concern journalists’ freedom of expression. This is certainly one requirement of a free press. Whenever a journalist is prosecuted for something they have written, regardless of whether the law ostensibly offended concerns defamation, racial vilification or indeed anything else, we are right to be concerned about whether this is a threat to journalists’ freedom of expression and thus, in consequence, the freedom of the press. Equally, whenever strong disapproval of something published is expressed by anyone (or any entity) a press relies on for its funding, whether it is a large advertising customer having a quiet word to an editor, or a government minister publicly taking issue with a story run by a public broadcaster, we should be concerned about whether this pressure will influence journalists’ approaches to and editors’ judgements on future stories. For this would also curtail freedom of expression and thus the freedom of the press.

But these concerns about freedom of expression do not go to the heart of the matter of whether we have a free press, for while a restriction on journalists’ freedom of expression is a constraint on the freedom of the press, freedom of expression itself is no guarantee of a free press.

Freedom from constraints about what can be published is a necessary condition for a press to be free, but it is not a sufficient condition. A free press must use its freedom from constraint as a freedom to publish what is true.

For consider the activities of a public relations company – indeed, imagine a multi-national public relations company, with a dominant market share in many of the cities and countries in which it operates. This company, let’s call it Views of the World, might look like a free press so far as the freedom of expression of its employees is concerned, with none subject to government direction or censure, and none the subject of legal proceedings for their published work. With a large range of clients, Views of the World might issue press releases, and produce its own publications, covering a very wide spread of topics, including general interest stories about all kinds of happenings to grab readers’ attention. All of which might make the organs of Views of the World indistinguishable from the publications of a free press – except for one vital thing. Whereas the output of a free press is centrally concerned to advance the public’s right to know about things that concern us, so that we might effectively advance our interests, the output of Views of the World is centrally concerned to shape the public’s understanding of things in a way that will benefit the interests of its clients.

The Australian Press Council makes this point forcefully in adopting as the first principle of its Charter of Press Freedom

Freedom of the press means the right of people to be informed by the press on matters of public interest so that they may exercise their rights and duties as citizens.

It would be better if the Press Council had been more explicit, plainly stating ‘Freedom of the press means the right of people to know the truth about matters of public interest’ rather than using the neutral expression ‘informed by the press’. For the idea that a free press provides the citizenry with the means to know the truth is the reason why freedom of the press is important at all. Try explicitly rejecting this and you will see that in doing so the idea of freedom of the press becomes a nonsense, as the following rewording of the first principle of the Charter shows:

Freedom of the press means the right of the people to be informed by the press on matters of public interest, even where the information provided by the press is false or misleading, so that they may exercise their rights and duties as citizens.

This makes clear that the pursuit and dissemination of the truth is the founding principle of the argument for a free press, a point accepted by the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance in their Code of Ethics which begins with the simple and powerful statement that

Respect for truth and the public’s right to information are fundamental principles of journalism.

It is not only the Press Council – representing newspapers only – which accepts that a free press must be a servant of the truth. Commercial Television is bound even more strictly to this duty by the Australian Media and Communications Authority’s Commercial Television Industry Code of Practice which states that

4.3 In broadcasting news and current affairs programs, licensees:

4.3.1 must broadcast factual material accurately and represent viewpoints fairly…

and further

4.3.11 must make reasonable efforts to correct significant errors of fact at the earliest opportunity.

ACMA’s Code of Practice for commercial radio is similarly strict in relation to reporting the truth, stating that

The purpose of this Code is to promote accuracy and fairness in news and current affairs programs.

2.1 News programs (including news flashes) broadcast by a licensee must:

(a) present news accurately…

(c) distinguish news from comment

and

2.2 In the preparation and presentation of current affairs programs, a licensee must use reasonable efforts to ensure that:

(a) factual material is reasonably supportable as being accurate;

and

(b) substantial errors of fact are corrected at the earliest possible opportunity.

The remaining part of the public media in Australia, the ABC, professes to adhere to a similar requirement, its editorial policies on Principles and Standards stating

The ABC has a statutory duty to ensure that the gathering and presentation of news and information is accurate according to the recognized standards of objective journalism. Credibility depends heavily on factual accuracy.

I take all of this to demonstrate my first conclusion: that a press – radio and TV included – which does not present a truthful picture of the world to its audience, is not a free press, but an organisation more like a public relations company, which exists to present to its audience a picture of the world which is crafted to serve the interests of its clients rather than the discovery and dissemination of the truth.

None of which is to say that a free press cannot campaign for some particular policy or political view. Suppose a newspaper publisher or TV station owner, for example, thought that Australian taxes should be lower, or that we should not take any action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions if in doing so we reduce our economic growth. Arguing such a case in the press is in no way inconsistent with that press being a free press, provided the argument is presented on the basis of the facts of the case as they are rather than distorting these to present a false or misleading picture which would offend the codes of practice of a free press, as we have seen.

That is to say, a press can argue for what it likes, but in doing so, it must tell it like it is – or surrender its claim to being a free press.

Let us now consider the power of a free press.

Can we assume that in Australia at this present time, the press – newspapers, radio and television – is the overwhelmingly dominant source of the public’s views on how things are in the world, where those views go beyond what might be known on the basis of personal experience? Given the circulation of newspapers (in total more than 2.5m for the metropolitan dailies), the large audience for TV news (something like 5m nightly) and the omnipresence of radio, this is surely a safe assumption even if the web and social media are increasing their reach.

With this assumption we may deduce from our first conclusion that if Australia has a free press then the public would have an accurate view of the major facts about issues that have been widely covered by the press.

Conversely, if the public does not have an accurate view of the major facts about issues that have recently been widely covered by the press, then either our assumption about the power of the press is false, or our press does not live up to its own conception of a free press as a source of accurate information for the public – that is, on its own definition, it is not a free press.

So does the public have an accurate view of the major facts about issues that have recently been widely covered by the press?

Consider first the issue of taxation. According to data from the polling company Essential, reported by Crikey, 64% of voters think that taxes are higher in Australia than other developed countries, and that taxes have increased in the last five years. But OECD data shows that Australia has the 5th lowest tax to GDP ratio of 34 countries, with only Mexico, Chile, the US and South Korea lower; and according to Australian budget figures, taxation receipts as a proportion of GDP have fallen from 2008-9 to 2012-13.

Using the words of the Press Council’s Charter of Press Freedom, clearly the public has not been informed by a free press on this matter of public interest, since most of us do not have the information needed to enable us to exercise our rights and duties as citizens. The majority of the public is simply misinformed on the facts of the matter of taxation.

Now for climate change. The recent CSIRO study of Australian’s attitudes to climate change shows that the public’s understanding of this matter is at odds with the facts in two crucial respects.

First, all people, whether they themselves think climate change is happening or not, and regardless of whether they think humans are the cause of change, underestimate the proportion of people who think climate change is happening and overestimate the proportion of people who think it is not.

Second, while the level of agreement in the scientific community that climate change is happening and that human activity is the dominant cause has significantly strengthened in recent years, the public’s view has gone in the other direction. Fewer believe climate change is happening, whether it is natural or human induced, and more believe climate change is not happening or say they do not know whether it is or not. The IPCC, in contrast, representing the view of scientists who are the leading researchers in the field and endorsed by the peak scientific organisations of all major nations, reports in its most recent Summary for Policy Makers that the room for doubt over the current impact of climate change and humans as the cause of that change has further reduced to the point where they simply say

Human influence has been detected in warming of the atmosphere and the ocean, in changes in the global water cycle, in reductions in snow and ice, in global mean sea level rise, and in changes in some climate extremes… . This evidence for human influence has grown since AR4 [in 2007 MR]. It is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.

Clearly, in relation to climate change the situation is similar to that concerning taxation. The public’s understanding of the matter does not reflect the scientific community’s assessment of the strength of the evidence for human induced climate change, and does not even appreciate how great a proportion of the population accepts that climate change is happening. Both of these errors undermine the public’s capacity to exercise our rights and duties as citizens in this matter: for example in assessing the value of taking action now to mitigate future climate change, and the likelihood of policy supporting such action being accepted by the majority of the population.

On the basis of the public’s beliefs about taxation and climate change we can conclude that, taken as a whole, Australia does not have a free press.

I expect that this conclusion will surprise many readers, and some will find it difficult to accept.

To make it easy for critics to say just where they think my argument is faulty, I conclude by setting out its main premises and making explicit the logic of each step.

• If a free press is free, then it tells the truth about matters of public importance.

• If a free press is free and sees falsehoods being published, then it corrects them.

• If the Australian public generally has a view about of a matter of public importance, then this view has been widely published by the press.

• The Australian public generally has a false view about climate change and taxation.

• Therefore, the Australian press has widely published, and failed to correct, false views about climate change and taxation.

• Therefore, taken as a whole, the Australian press is not a free press.

Originally published HERE

*Michael Rowan is Emeritus Professor, University of South Australia and Honorary Professor, University of Tasmania. Brief Personal Statement: “I am a philosopher with a particular interest in writing for a wide audience on matters of current social and political importance. My philosophical background is mainly in philosophy of science and reasoning in natural language. For much of my academic career I was wholly occupied with the work of creating a new university, retiring as Pro Vice Chancellor of the Division of Education, Arts and Social Sciences at the University of South Australia. As a senior university manager I took a particular interest in evidence based strategic planning and reporting, quality improvement, industrial relations, and helping academic and professional staff get on with their work. My current philosophical work is mainly in education, as co-founder (with Prof Eleanor Ramsay) of Education Ambassadors ( https://educationambassadors.org.au/ ), and on the relationship between science and politics in managing the transition from a fossil economy to a sustainable one. I write on this and related topics on my website PersuadeMe ( http://persuademe.com.au/ ).”