Australia: Public interest journalism to be examined by Senate Select Committee

Last Updated: 18 May 2017
Article by Angela Flannery

Most Read Contributor in Australia, August 2018

In early May 2017 the Australian Senate resolved to establish a Select Committee on the Future of Public Interest Journalism. The terms of reference for the Committee require it to look at (amongst other matters):

  • the current state of public interest journalism, in Australia and globally, and the role of governments in ensuring a viable, independent and diverse sector;
  • whether existing Australian competition and consumer laws adequately address the market power of search engines and social media and content aggregators and their impact on Australian media;
  • "fake news" and "public disinformation" and the influence of these on public interest journalism; and
  • the future of public and community broadcasters, particularly in providing public interest journalism in underserviced markets and for culturally and linguistically diverse communities.

Six Senators have been appointed to the Committee. Two represent the Government (Senators Duniam and Paterson) and 2 represent the Australian Labor Party (the chair, Senator Dastyari and Senator Singh) with the other 2 members from minor parties, Senator Ludlam of the Australian Greens and Senator Xenophon, of the Nick Xenophon Team.

Initial submissions from interested parties are due by 15 June 2017. The Committee is off to a flying start, with the first of many public hearings being held in Sydney on 17 May 2017. The Committee is due to report by 7 December 2017.

It is no coincidence that the establishment of this Committee comes as the Government is seeking to push forward with a comprehensive media reform package, as announced by the Minister for Communications in early May (see our publication here). It may be that the first impact of this Committee is to derail the implementation of this package, at least in the short term. The Government is currently pursuing an "all or nothing" approach, threatening that if the Senate does not accept all elements of the media reform package, none will be progressed. The Labor Party and the Australian Greens however opposes a significant plank of the merger reform proposals (the removal of the prohibition on the one entity owning television, radio and associated newspaper assets in one jurisdiction). The Government has not yet gained sufficient support from the minor parties to ensure the necessary legislation passes in the face of that opposition – but those minor parties may be more focussed on the work of the Committee than the Government's package.

Although the terms of reference for the Committee are quite broad, based on the public statements of some of the members of the Committee, it is clear that it will focus on the role of aggregators such as Google and Facebook and the impact these entities have had on Australian media, as well as the tax they pay in Australia. For example, there have been calls by Senator Nick Xenophon (as noted above, a member of the Committee) for both Google and Facebook to pay additional Australian tax and/or pay Australian media organisations for news content published on their sites. No doubt the Committee will also look at the final outcomes of the current bid from a consortium led by the private equity firm, TPG Capital and the Ontario Teachers pension fund to acquire Fairfax, one of Australia's largest media organisations. Fairfax has been struggling for some time, as consumer's tastes change and Fairfax faces increasing online competition.

Neither the concerns which have led to the establishment of the Committee, nor the suggestions from Committee members such as Senator Xenophon, are new. For example, the European Commission undertook consultation in 2016 on, amongst other matters, changes to copyright law that would allow news publishers to have greater rights to require payment from third parties such as Google and Facebook to use their content. Although supported by the European Commission, this controversial reform has not been embraced by the European Parliament and Council and it seems unlikely such changes will be adopted in the EU.

This publication does not deal with every important topic or change in law and is not intended to be relied upon as a substitute for legal or other advice that may be relevant to the reader's specific circumstances. If you have found this publication of interest and would like to know more or wish to obtain legal advice relevant to your circumstances please contact one of the named individuals listed.

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