'Demand for change': Media bosses join forces over press freedom concerns

Speaking at the National Press Club, the bosses of the ABC, Nine and News Corp said they were united in urging for the protection of press freedom.

Press freedom

From left: News Corp executive chairman Michael Miller, Nine chief executive Hugh Marks and managing director ABC David Anderson. Source: AAP

The Australian government needs to change the law to better protect press freedom, according to the bosses of the nation's three biggest media organisations.

But the executives have also stressed the need to convince Australians that press freedom is personally crucial to them.

In a rare show of unity, ABC managing director David Anderson, Nine chief executive Hugh Marks and News Corp Australia chairman Michael Miller came together at the National Press Club in Canberra on Wednesday to press their case.

"There are three news organisations here today but all of Australia's media companies, the journalists' union, the industry associations, are all united in our demand for change," Mr Miller said.

"We call upon the government to amend a number of existing laws to protect the public's right to know."

News Corp executive chairman Michael Miller speaks during a National Press Club panel discussion.
Source: AAP

The leaders have laid out several specific areas in which they would like to see change, including the right to contest any kind of search warrant on journalists or news organisations before they are issued.

They also want improved protections for public sector whistleblowers, a new regime which limits the government documents that can be marked secret and a review of freedom of information laws.

"And finally, journalists must be exempt from the national security laws enacted over the last seven years that can put them into jail just for doing their jobs," Mr Miller said.

"All this can happen quickly without the need of a parliamentary inquiry."

The push comes after police raids on two media outlets this month, over stories based on government leaks, highlighted what the organisations believe are weaknesses in Australia's patchy press freedom regime.

The Canberra home of News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst was raided on June 4 over the 2018 publication of a leaked proposal to allow the Australian Signals Directorate to spy on Australians.

The following day, the ABC's Sydney headquarters were raided over stories published in 2017 alleging Australian soldiers may have carried out unlawful killings in Afghanistan, based on leaked Defence papers.

Executive editor of ABC News John Lyons is followed by an Australian Federal Police officer as they leave the office after the raid earlier this month.
Source: AAP

The ABC has launched legal action in the Federal Court to set aside the warrant that permitted the raid on is premises, and News Corp plans to do the same.

Each of the media chiefs talked up the value of public interest journalism, listing investigations that have shone a light on wrongs.

"It is impossible to overstate the importance of the right to know. Access to information underpins other human rights," Mr Anderson said.

But Mr Marks and Mr Anderson acknowledged this is a message the media needs to better sell to the public, making press freedom as important to them as freedom of speech.

"Freedom of speech feels very personal, right. It feels like it relates to me," Mr Marks said.

"We have got to make the case that freedom of the press is also personal because if you don't have it, you lost something. What is it?

"You lost the right to be informed and you have lost the ability around which to make great decisions."

Mr Miller said discussions with the government on the issue in recent years haven't gotten the necessary traction.

"We will continue to push. I think that for the three of us to be here together indicates the seriousness of the issue."

SBS managing director James Taylor supported the calls for protecting press freedom. 

"It's important that we stand side by side with our media colleagues to really discuss and describe the importance of a free press, the importance of public interest journalism," he said. 

Published 26 June 2019 at 4:07pm, updated 26 June 2019 at 5:40pm