SELECT COMMITTEE ON THE FUTURE OF PUBLIC INTEREST JOURNALISM
CHAIR (Senator Dastyari): Good morning, everybody. I declare open this hearing of the Senate Select Committee on the Future of Public Interest Journalism. This is a public hearing and a transcript of the proceedings is being made. The audio is streaming live via the web, which can be found at www.aph.gov.au. Before the committee starts taking evidence, I remind all witnesses that, in giving evidence to the committee, they’re protected by parliamentary privilege. It is unlawful for anyone to threaten or disadvantage a witness on account of evidence given to a committee and such action may be treated by the Senate as a contempt. It’s also a contempt to give false or misleading evidence to a committee. The committee prefers all evidence to be given in public, but, under the Senate’s resolution, witnesses have the right to request to be heard in private session. It is important that witnesses give the committee notice if they intend to ask to give evidence in camera. If a witness objects to answering a question, the witness should state the ground upon which the objection is taken and the committee will determine whether it will insist on an answer, having regard to the ground which is claimed. If the committee determines to insist on an answer, a witness may request that the answer be given in camera. Such a request may, of course, also be made at any other time.
I welcome Dr Nico Neumann who has come to give evidence before us. Mr Neumann, I’m just confirming that you have some information regarding your rights and responsibilities under parliamentary privilege?
Dr Neumann: Yes, I did. Thank you.
CHAIR: Fantastic. We have some questions, but, before we get to those, do you have an opening statement that you’d like to make?
Dr Neumann: Yes. Thank you very much for the opportunity to share my views. I’ve been working over the last decade with a focus on the evaluation of media channels and the efficiency of advertising. I followed the debate as much as I could and there are a few points I want to raise. It is a complex problem we are facing. I’ve been a critical voice of things that are going on, particularly with Facebook and Google. I think there was a lot of Facebook and Google bashing. While I think there are reasons, for this particular problem we can’t forget that they have actually done a lot. They’re good products. No-one forced companies to spend more money with them. It was chosen by advertisers. There are a couple of problems that publishers have which put them in a difficult position. There are three points that I could elaborate on later. Firstly, train your customer to basically get something for free, especially when the transformation goes from print to digital. Secondly, you always have power if you have a relationship with the customer. While you’re trying to work with someone on Facebook, you’re kind of training your customer to go somewhere else. It’s almost like Coles telling customers to go to Woolworths to buy their products. Thirdly, the whole idea of relying on advertising income is a very risky business because advertising is a very difficult product. It’s very challenging to determine the value and its a very inefficient market, to be honest. Finally, with regard to funding issues and the problem of fake news and trust in media, there may be some interesting lessons we could learn from other industries—for example, academia or other marketplaces. Thank you very much.
Video is to give you an Inside look on how the Group was Structured.
CHAIR: Mr Neumann, there is a fundamental problem. Your research touches on concerns about how the media companies have trained their own customers, and you’re right. In hindsight, I think you could argue—and surely there are different views on it—that the decision to make all the content free and to suddenly put a paywall up one day creates an environment where people start to feel like it should be free and they’re suddenly being charged for it. They’ve effectively trained customers to believe something is free and suddenly they put a wall up. In hindsight, perhaps it would have been smarter to paywall from the start so that there was a culture of paying for content, in just the same way that my internet’s not free. I pay $60 a month to get the internet, or whatever it is. Under the NBN, it’s $400 and you don’t get it. But you pay whatever amount, so I know I have to pay for it. I have to pay for Foxtel. I have to pay for all these other pieces of content. The idea that it was initially made free and then suddenly a paywall was put up, you think, probably added to some of these problems of getting people to part with money.
Dr Neumann: Yes, I think it was strategically—with hindsight it’s always easier to say—a very risky choice. Every company faces increasing prices afterwards, whether it’s just a higher price or from zero to something. It’s just very difficult to say to consumers. I worked for a pricing consultancy, Simon-Kucher & Partners, 10 years ago, and the one key thing I was taught was that you never decrease the price; you always add value, because it’s very difficult to go backwards and increase later on. If I remember rightly, yesterday in Canberra, with the research study presented from the University of Canberra, a lot of respondents—I can’t recall the exact number— said they are not willing to pay for it because they can get it somewhere for free.
Dr Neumann: I think it’s a quite interesting argument. They won’t say it’s not valuable; they just think, ‘Okay, if I don’t get it here I’ll get it somewhere else for free.’ So I think it’s really this trained mindset of consumers that has led to this tricky situation.
CHAIR: On the aggregators—we’re really talking Google and Facebook here, since they’re the main ones; obviously there are others, but they kind of dominate the market—part of the concern seems to be that you have a public good that people want, which is an independent free press. It’s a truism: we all think that’s a positive. An important part of social liberal democracy is to have an independent free press that’s vibrant and active. We all agree that that’s what we want in a democracy. At the same time, the economic model to pay for that, which used to be print journalism and a little bit of radio advertising and TV advertising, has obviously now moved more and more to digital, and the economic model behind that seems to have failed. I think that at one point the economic model was that there’ll be ads placed on smh.com.au or news.com.au or theaustralian.com.au, and the ads that are placed online will pay for the content, in the same way that classifieds would pay for newspapers. It was the kind of thing. Part of the concern seems to be that so many of the advertising dollars are now sucked up by the aggregators, by Facebook and Google.
Dr Neumann: Yes.
CHAIR: We had some evidence to this committee about the sheer volume, and some of this is commercial in confidence, obviously. There are figures suggesting that up to 80 per cent of advertising revenue online is going to those two companies. Some of that, I’m sure, would be disputed, but it’s high, and it isn’t going to the people producing the content. The market power that Google and Facebook—Google in particular—have means that companies don’t really have the option of not partaking in these platforms, and it gives Google and Facebook some kind of monopolistic style power. I guess the question and the challenge is: how do you reset the scales, or what can you do as a government, to try to shift some of that back to the content producers without an overhanded, over-regulatory model that is really stifling? As you said, no-one’s forcing Harvey Norman to advertise with Google and not with smh.com.au. So what can you do without interfering in free market theory? It’s a huge challenge. Do you get involved and, if you get involved, what’s the softest touch you can do that gets you the best outcome?
Dr Neumann: I think the high market share or the marketing dollars that go to Google and Facebook happen, we have to say, on a macro level. As I said, advertisers make this choice because they think they get the best return for their money there. There are many challenges in advertising currently. I think we have touched on problems with ad fraud, for example, which is something on which we would definitely like protection.
CHAIR: What did you say? Ad fraud?
Dr Neumann: Ad fraud, yes, where basically artificial websites and even artificial traffic are created to raise money, just to get some of the money that’s spent on advertising. Advertising has grown over decades, and almost every year, except for recessions, it has had growth rates.
So billions of dollars are flowing into advertising, and, given that the system is very messy and has very little control and very little transparency, it’s a perfect ground for people to do fraud.
You can see that on an individual level with the money flow. I think the problem is that money’s not going to the publishers or the content creators. When you think of a transaction, people estimate that very often about 50 to 70 per cent doesn’t actually reach the content producer but goes to a middle man, and the middle man could even be an agency, a tech provider. So this is where the money’s actually going, and that has indirect implications, and the numbers are very difficult to assess. It’s similar to a virus program. You have two different virus programs on a computer and different alarms because it’s all high-tech, and there are some very smart people out there who actually create money there. According to some experts, in the past it was found that people were focusing on credit card fraud. It’s easier now to try to get money from a big brand who may not really track very well where it’s money’s going, so if a few cents disappear here, it doesn’t seem to matter as much.
This is a problem for the content producers, because they don’t get less from the single dollar that’s spent. To be honest, I think the bigger problem is that this has been known for a few years now. I’ve been very disappointed with the degree to which this has been tackled, because, whether it’s five per cent or 10 per cent, if you think about the billions of dollars, this is money that’s diverted to organised crime. Essentially, in advertising, the stakeholders have crowdfunded organised crime, and that money could be used for anything—drug trafficking, human trafficking. We don’t know, because that is very difficult to track. Apart from the damage for the content system, there’s also huge damage to society, because the scale of money that’s diverted has reached such big dimensions. This is maybe a sidestep, but it’s related to it.
This brings me to one of my openings points, which was that advertising is very complicated. You have little control over how much of the money you get. It’s very difficult to evaluate the exact value of how much it is worth to put an ad on this site or that site now, so I think it would be safer for publishers to find different ways to create value or monetise their unique advantage, which still is reaching a lot of people. If you’re a big news site, or even a middle-sized one, if you reach thousands of people, that still has some power that can be leveraged in other ways.
Senator HANSON-YOUNG: You said you’re frustrated that nothing has been done to tackle this. It’s almost as though you think this was obvious—this was what was going to happen.
Dr Neumann: Yes.
Senator HANSON-YOUNG: It was inevitable.
Dr Neumann: Inevitable? That’s a good question. No-one has said nothing has been done. It’s how little is done.
Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Are you of the view that government needs to regulate more tightly the kinds of arrangements between advertisers and Facebook and Google or where the content comes from or what kind of quota is paid for in terms of that contact? Is it about advertising regulation or is it about copyright regulation, or is it a combination of both?
Dr Neumann: I think it is a combination of different methods. Intervention in markets is always a challenge, because if it’s not done right it can be worse than if we hadn’t intervened. But I’m a big believer in just creating information for people. If they don’t know how to rely on something, it’s very difficult. Not everyone has the time to research something or to think it through. Think about food labelling. It helps to put a simple traffic light on it to just see if it’s good or it’s bad. Specifically for ad fraud, I think, given the dimensions this has reached, it would be interesting to think about: should people who do more get a tax incentive or some kind of incentive to support positive behaviour, in the same way that we would basically probably punish a company that pollutes our environment more or less? Someone who behaves better with something that has bad consequences for everyone should have some kind of reward. That is, I think, a worthwhile thought.
With the labelling, with just making people aware of what is good information and what is bad information, it is important to see how much you can signal this and make shared information about it. We have some initiatives as far as I know. Facebook now has this ‘dispute’ button, where people can report it and it is flagged as a dispute. As far as I know, Google works with a fact-checker to flag questionable content. I think we could learn here maybe from other marketplaces. In the end, I see Google and Facebook as a marketplace where people come to exchange ideas or, if I’m looking for something, someone else can exchange information—where I can find this, in the case of Google.
If we think about fake news as a fake product, this is not completely new. Amazon and eBay have the same problem, in that someone may try to sell fake products, counterfeits or knock-offs. It’s a little bit different in that there is a commercial relationship, because they can just say, ‘We will withhold the money that you get paid until we know from the buyer’—this is, as far as I know, the policy from Amazon—’that they’re happy with the product, and then we will pay the seller. And we can kick you off our platform.’ I guess Facebook and Google could do similar things, kicking someone off, but maybe they would just create a new account and start from scratch.
Having said that, I think it’s interesting to think about what other signals there could be. Could it be made mandatory to flag this as opinion versus this as a more researched piece, or this as a credible publisher versus someone who you’ve never heard of? In reality, people should know. If I go on Facebook and see something I’ve never heard of, I know that, just because someone clicked on it, it doesn’t mean it’s a reliable source, but unfortunately not everyone does. We face similar problems in academia. The question is always, if you publish some research: how good is the quality of the work; how reliable are the conclusions? There are hundreds of journals, but these days they are ranked. People try to assign credibility to different outlets. This is always a problem by itself—how do you do that? But I think it’s an interesting step. It may be worthwhile thinking about what accreditations different publishers can get so that people know, when it’s flagged, that this is credible and this one has had someone doing good work in the past, so people can distinguish between that and someone who has just posted somewhere on a blog.
Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Like you don’t jump in the car of an Uber driver who has no stars.
Dr Neumann: Yes, exactly. That’s a similar mechanism with marketplaces, whether it’s Airbnb, Uber or others. We have to try to find ways to distinguish between good and bad services. Feedback is one thing, but feedback as information is quite tricky because people often have a certain interest in it. But Airbnb has superhosts, or badges you can get—basically proof of having a long track record of good quality. Something simple like this, I think, can help.
Senator HANSON-YOUNG: You talked about the fraud in online advertising and said that perhaps it’s not as official as people think. Do you have figures on that? How much advertising do you think is unregulated and not declared?
Dr Neumann: The whole market is basically, to my notion, not regulated. To be honest, it’s an open secret that a lot of questionable deals are done with potential hidden rebates or kickbacks, which are very difficult to track because of reciprocal relationships. ‘I hire you, I buy this from you and you buy research from me in exchange’ and other kinds of deals are very common, to be honest. It would help to create more disclosure requirements. If you compare it to finance or real estate, there are similar problems with agents and people acting on behalf of you, where you always have questions of conflict of interest. It’s not perfect, but they have many more requirements to reveal information and I think to have potential punishments.
In advertising the problem is that there is no direct victim. If I feel like I’m ripped off in my real estate purchase or by my bank, I feel like I directly lose my money. In advertising people do not spend their personal money; it’s the company’s money, so it feels like there is no direct victim. It’s a lot of work—it’s not easy to track it or to be accountable. I think there’s a lack of accountability, unfortunately, in many organisations. On a smaller scale, it wouldn’t matter. As one famous expert said, if they only did it a little bit—every now and then—no-one would notice. It’s really difficult to estimate globally the amount of money that has been diverted—from a few billion; different experts have done estimates. It’s very hard to say, but we know it’s a significant amount. Given the billions of dollars that are spent, only a few per cent, five or 10, will make a huge amount. It’s very easy— frustratingly easy—to do it. As far as I know, in the US they started looking into this because people were saying it was the second biggest organised crime after drug trafficking.
Senator SINGH: I wanted to move to what your suggestions are about how we deal with all of this. Obviously this committee is looking at what kinds of reforms are needed in how we deal with a digitised media landscape. You have gone through a lot of the flaws and a lot of the challenges, but what are your suggestions for us about what we as legislators, as regulators, should we be doing?
Dr Neumann: It’s a good question. For example, France has introduced certain strong regulations. You can argue whether it is too much or not. I think a good start would be disclosure requirements. Who is working financially with whom? If I make a decision, do I know that this money goes to this party? Specifically for information providers, they could have certain requirements on content. It’s an internet problem; it’s not a Facebook or Google problem. Anyone can post things on the internet. Maybe it’s a matter of saying that you can’t judge every individual piece of information, but you can maybe judge the source it is coming from and say, ‘This is from a known source.’ It is almost like a black-and-white list approach. That was usually a safer step in terms of intervening—not having too much intervention. On the other hand, there could certain incentives such as a subsidy or a tax reduction to reward good behaviour if a company does a lot of effort, for example, to tackle that fraud, versus someone who just doesn’t care.
Senator SINGH: What would that reward system look like? Have you thought that out a bit further? Dr Neumann: I’m not an economist. There may be other people who are more–
Senator SINGH: Are you a parent?
Dr Neumann: Not presently.
Senator SINGH: That’s all right. It just sounds like something—
Dr Neumann: As I said, I think the standard methods are either permitting something which is very strong or giving subsidies or tax incentives as a way of rewarding good behaviour. What works better is not my area of expertise; I couldn’t comment on that.
Senator SINGH: I understand that Facebook already have—at least they do in the States—a flag that comes up if something goes through their fact checking as dubious. It says something along the lines of ‘this content can’t be verified as real’. Is that the kind of disclosure you’re talking about?
Dr Neumann: I’m not sure to what degree this has been rolled out as available in different markets. I read about it myself that, obviously after the debate in public, both Facebook and Google said, ‘We’re trying to flag questionable content.’ I think they rely—I don’t know to what degree—on voluntary work from different organisations like FactCheck.org and others. The question is: who does it? It’s a very powerful role. Is there some independent body that can be created or—maybe from existing bodies–combined? The challenge is probably to do this on a global level, because information for the internet is global. Probably the biggest challenge is to try to tackle this on a global scale.
Senator SINGH: You talk about the ‘lemon’ car example. It’s kind of cute, but I’m trying to make sense of it in relation to public interest journalism and the terms of reference of this inquiry and how it really relates to what we’re talking about. You’ve gone on about the second-hand care being a dud or what have you. I presume that in relation to some kind of advertising that’s not kosher, or not providing the facts as they should be provided. Can you explain the lemon-market-car analogy as it relates to this inquiry.
Dr Neumann: A lemon market is basically a market where there is very little information for buyers, and the sellers know much more about the quality of a product. In a nutshell—we don’t have to go through the dynamics—the problem is that this is quite toxic for any market efficiency because it often leads to market failure, and even market crashes. One good example of this is the GFC 10 years ago. One of the problems in particular that created this issue—this feature of a lemon market where you don’t know anymore what quality of product you get—is that there were middle men after middle men after middle men. If banks repackage a product and sell it to another bank, who repackage the mortgage to another 10 who resell it, in the end you have a mishmash and no-one knows anymore what’s in there.
Similarly, I’ve seen some narratives in the advertising market, and there has been in the last 10 years a very open market. The idea was to create market efficiency. Instead of saying, ‘Okay, I have my relationship with publisher A and B, with very, very few interactions,’ we create an open market. That was the idea behind it—and even trying to sell it via auctions, which is normally a very efficient way to get some supply and demand dynamics. But the problem was the limitations in transparency more and more in the marketplace and the market creating this long supply chain again, where someone is buying from someone else who is buying from someone else who bought from someone so that no-one knows anymore what they’re getting.
That is actually one of the big contributors to this ad fraud problem. We have a complicated ecosystem with lots of middlemen where no-one knows what they really get, and that creates another problem for advertising, because, while on the one hand it gives advertising a bad reputation, certain publishers are not trusted anymore— and that’s actually one of the reasons companies also put more money on Google and Facebook. With Google and Facebook, they know what they get. They know they reach real people. When they rely on some middlemen saying, ‘Oh, I’ll find some other great website for you where someone offers a good deal,’ it’s a riskier business, especially now that we know about ad fraud. The money goes either to middlemen or maybe even to some guys who we don’t want to have it, who shouldn’t have got it, who just pretended to have a website and just were hiding in a long supply chain.
On top of the fact that you should question whether it was a good decision to rely on advertising at all, especially as the only income, you can see that the issue of how the market has developed actually made advertising even worse as an income source, because, if 50 or 70 per cent doesn’t go to you as the content producer or as the publisher, that’s a big issue. It would be similar if you wanted to buy your holiday vacation via HotelsCombined or Expedia, you paid $1,000 and the hotel was actually just $300, and $700 went to the platform. No-one would accept that, but in advertising—in a dollar, it doesn’t seem so obvious; it could be just 30c, but someone has charged $1, and then it just accumulates a thousand times.
Senator SINGH: This goes back to the issue of transparency and the fact that people—
Dr Neumann: Yes. I think that the most troublesome part is the lack of transparency, which maybe historically was not required, but that creates, I think, many of the problems, which lead to all this market inefficiency and fraud problems and lack of income for publishers.
CHAIR: That’s a very interesting perspective, Dr Neumann—a very different perspective. You see it as much more fundamental. It sounds like your concern—I might be paraphrasing wrongly here—is that one of the dangers that we risk by just trying to artificially rescale the advertising direction is that we’re not really addressing the fundamental problems behind it. Is that fair?
Dr Neumann: That’s actually very good. That’s actually a key point I would like to make. We can try to fix advertising, and it would be a completely efficient market. I doubt that that will fix the problem for publishers. I think that, independent of that, they would need another source of income.
CHAIR: Thank you for that, Dr Neumann. That’s actually a very interesting and very, very different perspective. We will return after the break with our next witnesses. Thank you.
MORRISON, Dr Andrew, RFD, SC, Spokesperson, Australian Lawyers Alliance TALBOT, Ms Anna, Legal and Policy Adviser, Australian Lawyers Alliance
CHAIR: I now resume this meeting of the Select Committee on the Future of Public Interest Journalism. I want to welcome representatives from the Australian Lawyers Alliance, and thank them for the submission that they’ve made to our inquiry. For those who have the internet available to them, it is listed on the website as submission No. 24. Dr Morrison and Ms Talbot, thank you so much for being here with us. I just wanted to check that you were sent information regarding your rights and responsibilities under parliamentary privilege? Yes, fantastic. We have some questions for you, but do you want to make any kind of opening remarks before we go to questions?
Ms Talbot: I’ve got a short statement.
CHAIR: Perfect, thank you.
Ms Talbot: Thank you for inviting us here today. The Australian Lawyers Alliance believes that a healthy and thriving journalism sector is essential to maintaining a robust democracy. Public interest journalism shines a light on government and ensures that it operates within the confines of the law and in the public interest. True accountability is only possible where journalists are supported in reporting in a frank and fearless manner. This requires vigilant protection of the rights to both freedom of speech and privacy for both journalists and the general population.
Journalists should not be punished for any public interest reporting that might cause embarrassment or reveal human rights violations, misappropriation, gross inefficiency or other wrongdoing. They should be able to speak freely with sources who provide such information, and the sources themselves should not risk criminal sanctions for revealing the crimes or wrongdoing of government actors. That is one of the reasons why we think it is important to consider the broader legislative context in which journalists operate. We have seen in recent years a dramatic increase in legislation that provides for severe criminal penalties, such as lengthy prison sentences, for reporting on certain government activities. Legislation also increasingly restricts expression for the general population, which I will discuss in a moment.
Our submission focused on reporting around special intelligence operations under the ASIO Act, immigration detention under the Australian Border Force Act and confidentially of sources under the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act. These are just some of the examples of laws that inhibit the ability of journalists to report in the public interest—and I won’t repeat the contents of the submission here. We note, however, that while there has been minor reform of the Australian Border Force Act since our submission was lodged, limiting circumstances to which the secrecy provisions in section 42 apply to loosely defined immigration and border protection information, the fact remains that an individual disclosing this information can still be at risk of a two- year prison sentence. My colleague will have more to say about that in a moment.
Under the ASIO Act, in addition to the penalties that relate to reporting on special intelligence operations that we discussed in our submission, reporting around questioning and questioning detention warrants can also give rise to prison sentences of up to five years. Much of this legislation grants governments powers well beyond those that they have traditionally enjoyed. There are real risks that such powers could be misused or exploited or even that embarrassing or dangerous mistakes might be made. This risk is perhaps heightened by the fact that the powers are so rarely used and there is therefore no established practice around them.
There are no public interest exceptions for the liability that can arise under these laws and there is no requirement that any threat to national security, public safety or anything of that nature be established before the penalties become available. Combined with a lack of privacy facilitated by Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act, these laws pose a real risk that information that the public has a right to know about the way that government officials exercise their powers will never come to light. This poses a serious risk to our democracy and the accountability of governments to the people who they serve. Few public interest journalists will be willing to take the risk of so many years in prison to report on misconduct or mistakes on the part of government officials, and essential oversight over powerful organisations will be missed.
Dr Morrison: I will just supplement those comments by saying something very briefly about the two pieces of legislation that my colleague has just referred to. In respect of the ASIO Act, it has been amended to reduce some of the difficulties which arise; but there is still the problem that, of course, one doesn’t know what a special intelligence operation is or whether it is being conducted. The offence that is being committed relies upon knowing—or no doubt should know, because reckless indifference presumably would bring you within intent— that that operation is taking place. One can understand that ASIO doesn’t disclose its operations and a journalist can’t inquire whether a special intelligence operation is taking place. But it is unsatisfactory that the onus is shifted even, under the amendments which have taken place under section 3A, to the person to establish that they did not know or did not believe that the disclosure would endanger or prejudice the effective conduct of the operation. That shift of onus in circumstances where they didn’t know that they committed an offence in the first place seems, on the face of it, to be inappropriate. It should be the Crown that has to prove intent from the outset, not a person prove their innocence in circumstances where no-one tells a journalist investigating what special intelligence operations are going on.
Just by way of example, if what was being disclosed were things which are otherwise entirely appropriate matters for the public interest, such as bribery or corruption, you wouldn’t realise that those matters were necessarily the subject of a special intelligence operation nor would you think that it would be necessarily be prejudicial to any investigation to disclose those matters to the public, because what you’d be seeking to do is to shed light on something inappropriate and of which the public ought to know. So that’s troubling.
The other area is immigration and border protection. Again, since our submission was put in, there have been amendments which have reduced the difficulties that arise from the non-disclosure provisions from the Australian Border Force Act 2015. But it is still an offence to disclose information in relation to immigration and border protection matters where that disclosure might, under the definition of immigration and border protection information in section 4, be expected to prejudice the prevention, detection or investigation of or the conduct of proceedings relating to an offence or contravention of a civil penalty provision. You may not know whether any investigation is going on, but you could still be liable for an offence if your disclosure to the public had any effect on that investigation which was adverse to it. That seems inappropriate. Indeed one of the reasons you might be disclosing it to the public is to force the department into undertaking an appropriate investigation or encouraging the police to do so. It’s troubling that that could still be an offence.
The other one is information the disclosure of which could or would reasonably be expected to cause competitive detriment to a person. One thinks, for example, of the contractor that provided such awful services in Woomera. Disclosure of the effect on a client of mine, Shayan Badraie, was dreadfully affected by his experience in Woomera and ultimately obtained damages from the Commonwealth government for the effect on him as a six- year-old. In those circumstances, clearly, saying anything public about it would be of competitive detriment to the service provided to the Commonwealth.
CHAIR: On this, I’m just fascinated by that. Why is that the responsibility of the public? I’m just surprised. I’m wondering what the logic was behind even having it in there in the first place. Obviously, you disagree with it—
Dr Morrison: Yes.
CHAIR: but what was the reason given for even having it?
It just strikes me as such an odd protection to put in place for commercial entities when, frankly, they can defend themselves.
Dr Morrison: I suspect the Commonwealth wouldn’t want to inhibit its ability to negotiate with tenderers and wouldn’t want tender documents or the details of contracts to be disclosed.
CHAIR: It’s to prevent that and this is an unintended consequence of that?
Dr Morrison: Yes. So I suspect there is an appropriate basis for confidentiality, but it should not extend to anything which might cause a competitive detriment simply by disclosing inappropriate conduct by a service provider to the Commonwealth. On the contrary, it’s in the Commonwealth’s interests and the public interest for that information to see the light of day, and it’s certainly in the interests of those being held in detention. So that provision is one which really needs some further thought and amendment, and so also, I think, does the one about disclosure that may prejudice the prevention, detection or investigation of or the conduct of proceedings. It shouldn’t be thrown, as it is, on an individual to have to prove that, in disclosing matters of general public interest which the public ought to know about, they’re not prejudicing some investigation which may or may not be proceeding and which they are not entitled to be told about. I just wanted to add those comments because, whilst there has been significant improvement in respect of the two acts that we specifically focused on, that improvement doesn’t go far enough, in our view.
Senator HANSON-YOUNG: It strikes me that there is an absolute double standard here. On one hand, when it’s about issues of national security or of immigration and border protection, there is this massive shutdown of information and the threat of harassment of whistleblowers and the threatening of journalists. The Guardian, for example, had their offices raided because of information in relation to issues dealing with border protection and immigration, and yet, only a couple of weeks ago, we had a leak from a minister’s office to the media in relation to raids on the AWU—and that’s apparently just the rough and tumble of politics. I find it extraordinary that the double standard runs through government. How is a court meant to now interpret how serious these other breaches would be when you’ve got government ministers and their staff flagrantly breaching the rules?
Ms Talbot: All of those things have ramifications for journalism in particular. There does seem to be a bit of a disconnect in focusing on the importance of freedom of speech in particular areas and yet having limitations on other areas. Clearly the most important thing is for law to be applied evenly across the different subject matters, whether it’s unionism, national security or border protection. Clearly, there are some sensitivities around that, but, to have the fundamental premise of freedom of speech being the presumption and then any limitation on that being clearly demonstrably necessary an proportionate to the risks that are faced is essential for the integrity of the legal system more broadly, and for the integrity of the journalists’ ability to report fairly and freely on government activities.
Senator HANSON-YOUNG: How does a court interpret the rights of whistleblowers in all of this? I accept that you’ve said there have been some amendments to some of the laws, but we also are meant to have whistleblower protections. How far does that go to meeting the needs of public interest journalism, or does it not even necessarily refer to that? Is it the whistleblower themselves, not the journalist who’s doing the investigation?
Ms Talbot: That’s a part of the issues that we were trying to bring forward in our submission. It’s not only the journalists themselves that need protection; there’s also a need to make sure that people who are making disclosures that are in the public interest don’t suffer penalties from that. In the submission, we’ve highlighted perhaps some of the starkest examples of when people who are disclosing injustice, or even criminal activity in terms of special intelligence operations, themselves become subject to criminal laws. The integrity of the entire processes all around becomes undermined, because if there’s illegal activity happening, and there’s no threat to national security if that illegal activity is revealed, there’s a clear public interest in understanding that illegal activity has happened. Watergate is one of the most famous examples of government activity that deserved to be reported on, and there would potentially be an argument that, under these laws, those journalists, or perhaps the people in the hotel, could be subject to prison terms.
Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Even though they were uncovering significant illegal activity? That itself is the issue, or should be the issue.
Ms Talbot: It should be the issue.
Senator HANSON-YOUNG: It’s common sense, right?
Ms Talbot: The law needs to allow enough space for us to scrutinise the actions of our governments and government officials, including where that scrutiny might lead to embarrassment or penalties. It could be revealing mistakes. It could be revealing corruption. It’s in all of our interests that that information can come to light, that journalists have access to sources and that neither party is penalised.
In terms of the whistleblowing that you were referring to earlier, there was recently the report of the inquiry on whistleblowing. The legislation around whistleblowing is currently very fragmented. Some of the recommendations around the legislation that came out of the report were in line with the recommendations that we made, but currently it’s very fragmented. It’s very industry specific. The steps that people have to go through are quite uncertain.
CHAIR: There’s a difference between the public sector and the private sector as well.
Ms Talbot: The public sector, the private sector and corporations—yes. One can never be certain that, once they go through those steps, they’ll have done it in an adequate manner and will enjoy the limited protections that do exist. So there is definitely a need to clarify and unify whistleblower protection—and across the jurisdictions as well.
CHAIR: Just to follow on from, there’s one question that I’m fascinated by. Dr Morrison and Ms Talbot, I’d like to get your take on it. I obviously don’t have anywhere near the experience you have with this. I’m quite an outsider and quite a layman here. But there seems to be—I don’t whether this is just an outside observation or whether it’s correct—almost a bracket creep when it comes to what is national security. You can understand, if there is a project underway that is about to immediately stop some kind of terrorist activity—either Islamic terrorism, white nationalism or whatever—why you’d want to have some protections around that to protect people, sources and different things. I can understand the term ‘national security’ and why you have to have national security restrictions on things. I think everybody agrees in principle. But you were talking about how things like immigration start creeping into national security, and then government documents and this and that. Has it always been thus, or is there this creep of the term ‘national security’ being used more and more—
Page 10 Senate Thursday, 23 November 2017 CHAIR: Yes, as a catch-all for more than just what people out there would think is national security?
Dr Morrison: I suspect it has always been thus. I can perhaps go back a little further than Anna in my recollection.
CHAIR: Why is that?
Dr Morrison: In the UK, the Official Secrets Act affected all public servants and their ability to disclose information. We used to have D-notices in Australia.
CHAIR: What were D-notices?
Dr Morrison: These were notices to newspapers not to disclose any information on particular topics which were regarded as of national security by ASIO or ASIS. Going back to the 1960s, they were quite commonly used—
CHAIR: And they could just issue a letter in writing that you cannot disclose information on say— Dr Morrison: Yes—not to publish anything on the topic of certain matters.
Dr Morrison: That was the way we operated back in the 1960s. That fell away coming into the 1970s. There’s nothing new about major restrictions. The problem has been that, in the two areas that we’ve identified, it’s the width of the restrictions. The concern we have is it might inhibit appropriate and public interest reporting, which is, ultimately, in the interests of everyone, including the Commonwealth government. That’s the concern. Just to take one example, under the Australian Border Force Act it is made an offence to disclose information which would or could reasonably be expected to found an action for breach of a duty of confidence. The problem about that is: if you’re talking about medical records not being disclosed, that’s a perfectly reasonable thing. But if you’re talking about an offence of child abuse, for example, or a medical practitioner abusing their position—not unknown—or an offence by one person in detention against another, the mere fact that any reference to it will necessarily bring the medical records into play shouldn’t preclude that information being made public, most particularly when the making of it public is likely to promote a proper external and reviewable investigation and not merely the matter being dealt with internally and not disclosed. The public interest is better served if there is significant pressure on officials to change their practices and to make sure that they’re not embarrassed again by that disclosure.
So it’s important, in these matters, that we strike the appropriate balance. Our concern is that the balance falls too heavily in favour of non-disclosure. All our experience to date would suggest that where inappropriate conduct has come to light, in general, and providing it doesn’t affect immediate operations of the security forces or investigating police, and subjects to those matters, it should be open to the public so that appropriate pressure is put on those who should be investigating to do their job thoroughly.
Senator SINGH: I think the government was shamed into realising that eventually, with a certain amendment that it recently put through the parliament.
Dr Morrison: Yes. And it’s the amendments that I’ve been referring to, not the original legislation. There were significant improvements made, but we would suggest that they don’t go far enough because they’re sufficiently ambiguous and create sufficient difficulties to inhibit proper investigative journalism.
Ms Talbot: The big concern with that is not only the existence of those laws and the penalties and the fact that somebody might be subjected to those penalties but the chilling effect that they give rise to, as well. A lot of the legislation that Dr Morrison has just been referring to is about facts that—like special intelligence operations, for example. People don’t know if they exist. So that will put a caution in the mind of any journalist who wants to report on any activities of ASIO that they might, just by doing that, be subjecting themselves to criminal penalties. So it’s not only the fact that the penalties might be used but the chilling effect that those penalties give rise to.
In terms of what you were saying before, Senator, about the creeping effect of some of the use of counterterrorism law, there’s a lot of guidance in international law about how to balance these competing concerns. We agree wholeheartedly that protecting the community from terrorism is really important and is perhaps the most important role of government, but that has to be done in balance with human rights, freedom of speech, freedom from detention and things like that. There’s so much guidance at international law that can be really useful to help find where that balance can be struck. There are four pillars of counterterrorism that the UN has published. One of those is about eliminating the conditions that are conducive to terrorism. In that pillar, they talk about the importance of ensuring that people are treated well. It’s not to create excuses; that’s how the pillar is expressed. The fourth pillar is specifically about protecting human rights whilst countering terrorism. Clearly,counterterrorism laws are about protecting the most fundamental human right, which is the right to life. It’s not as though anyone would argue. It’s not as though I would argue that counterterrorism laws in and of themselves are contrary to human rights and contrary to the ability of journalists to report as they need to report, but reviewing that international law could be really useful in understanding how the balance can be struck. It all comes down to necessity and proportionality. Is this restriction necessary to achieve the aim of countering terrorism? Is the restriction proportionate to doing that when you balance the freedom of expression with the right to report on what’s happening, rights to privacy and all of that? It’s a very simple balance when you bring it down to necessity and proportionality. It helps to balance, as you were saying, Senator.
Senator SINGH: You talk about the Public Interest Disclosure Act having limitations. You acknowledge it does provide some protections for those who reveal misconduct in breach of the Border Force Act. You talk about how protections are limited in the Public Interest Disclosure Act. Do you want to talk a bit more about whether there is any opportunity to strengthen that piece of legislation?
Dr Morrison: The difficulty really arises from the specific drafting of legislation restricting the rights, because those restrictions generally override any public interest rights that might exist. So one really has to look to a particular piece of legislation and the two examples that we have taken are the Border Force Act and the ASIO Act. There would be others. They are the two that seem to us to be the most obvious concerns. Whilst pressure, including pressure from the Senate, has resulted in modification of both of those pieces of legislation and very appropriately so, what remains is still troubling in terms of the likelihood that it will inhibit whistleblowers, public comment and the disclosure of information which would generally be in the public interest and yet would not, in practice, have any significant effect upon national security or, indeed, border force operations in the true sense. It’s perfectly consistent with having a strong border protection policy to treat those who are in detention—who, after all, have not been convicted of any offence—with humanity and civility. Sadly, that hasn’t always been the case. Those are matters on which, clearly, it is in Australia’s interest for there to be free and proper reporting. Similarly, if an ASIO operation of which a journalist is unaware is disclosed by someone who genuinely believed that what they were reporting was matters of inappropriate conduct by government officials, or misconduct or criminality, then I wouldn’t have wanted to inhibit that reporting, unless that was reckless or contrary to the knowledge of the journalist. Whilst the amendments improve the situation they still throw the onus on the journalist to prove that they either were ignorant or were entitled to be ignorant of the likelihood of an ASIO operation. The inhibiting effect on public comment in matters that on the face of it the journalist might reasonably have thought were not going to be matters of national security seems to me, when one strikes a balance between national security and the public interest in free speech, to be leaning the wrong way. That is where we are troubled about this.
Ms Talbot: I don’t have much to add to that, other than the fact that I think the Public Interest Disclosure Act, as it is currently drafted, is very complex. It is complex to navigate the different reporting requirements—who needs to be informed before you’re able to do what, and benefit from the protections that exist in the act. Further on that, the people who enjoy the protections under the act are limited. There could be grey areas with contractors, potentially, depending on the relationships that exist there, or for people who just become aware of information and aren’t covered by the act and then are subjected to the penalties that exist in these other pieces of legislation. So I think there is certainly room for improvement in that legislation. I haven’t reviewed them lately, but my memory of reviewing the UK legislation for a previous submission is that I think it was a little bit more robust than ours.
Senator SINGH: You go on to talk about potential breaches of international human rights law. I don’t recall that being highlighted enough during the debate, in the sense of it being raised, whether by your organisation or other bodies, as a stop sign, so to speak. The government currently breaches a number of international human rights laws that it seems not to care about when it does so. Do you think that that argument can be strengthened in some way?
Ms Talbot: Which argument?
Senator SINGH: The argument that we are in breach—I think you talk about article 17 and 19 of the ICCPR. As you know, we now have a seat on the UN Human Rights Council, which makes us slightly complicit, in my view, if we are going to be domestically breaching some of these international instruments that we have signed up to. Is there a way that there can be more debate at the political level about that in relation to this issue?
Ms Talbot: I would be very supportive of more debate at the political level in relation to a human rights act or some similar sort of legislative protection of human rights. There are so many international documents explaining the way that Australia is not meeting its international obligations. We were just reviewed by the UN Human Rights Committee last month and the findings from that were scathing in terms of our protections of a number of
]the articles under the ICCPR. We have been visited by a number of UN experts—special rapporteurs—in the last couple of years. The outcome of those reports, particularly in relation to the Australian Border Force Act, was that it was very clear that those experts felt we were not complying with our obligations under international law. But it is not only the international bodies that are having these findings; it is our own parliamentary human rights committee, which, in its reports on this legislation, has flagged very serious concerns about, for example, the ASIO Act going too far in restricting freedom of expression. We have been advocating for a human rights act for some time. We think it would be a really valuable document. The debate would also be really valuable. We had the debate a few years ago and it was clear that the Australian people were supportive, at that stage, of having legislative human rights protections. If the political will is there to have that debate again we would welcome it.
CHAIR: Thank you. That was quite timely and very relevant, with everything that is going on at the moment. Ms Talbot and Dr Morrison, thank you so much for your submission and for making yourself available to our inquiry.
CARROLL, Mr Jim, Director, News and Current Affairs, SBS O’NEIL, Ms Clare, Director, Corporate Affairs, SBS
WICKS, Ms Mandi, Director, SBS Radio, SBS
CHAIR: Welcome. I now resume this hearing of the Select Committee on the Future of Public Interest Journalism. I note that you very, very kindly came today and disrupted quite a few different plans that had been put together, so I appreciate you making this special effort to be at this hearing today—I just want that acknowledged on the record. We’re treating your submission on our database as submission no. 62. Do you wish to make an opening statement?
Ms O’Neil: Obviously, you have our submission and thank you again for the opportunity to appear at this committee. I thought for our opening statement it would be useful for Jim and Mandi to discuss the services we provide. We’ll kick off with Jim—he’s been with SBS for about 41⁄2 years as director of news and current affairs— and then Mandi, who has been in her role for six years. They’ve both got a wealth of experience and insight into the role of our news services.
Mr Carroll: Thanks, Clare, and thanks, Chair and senators. I really appreciate this opportunity to appear today and look forward to your questions. SBS is dedicated to informing all Australians about the issues and events that matter to them and their communities from around the world and here at home. We provide independent, balanced content across television, radio and digital platforms.
As director of news and current affairs, I’d just like to give you a brief overview of our services and then pass over to my colleague Mandi to speak about our radio services. SBS news and current affairs—our offering is unique in the Australian media landscape and is ranked as Australia’s most trusted news source in this week’s Essential survey.
From SBS World News, Insight, Dateline and Small Business Secrets on our main channel, The Feed on youth focus SBS Viceland to NITV News, The Point and Living Black on Australia’s national Indigenous television channel, our focus is on delivering unbiased, non-sensationalist and in-depth coverage of stories relevant and reflective of this diverse nation.
World News is the most distinctive news service in Australia. The TV bulletin is the only one broadest nationally in prime time on any free-to-air network. It is the only bulletin that predominantly covers global news. Stories are commissioned across platforms so that they are delivered via broadcast, online and social media platforms. Apart from our coverage of world and national affairs, a core priority for the news division, in collaboration with the radio programs in languages other than English, is to share constructive stories of individuals and communities from culturally diverse and Indigenous backgrounds and their positive contribution to Australian society. Through our strong connections with communities, developed through our 40-year plus heritage, we are able to tell the stories from a knowledgeable, trusted and respectful perspective.
In current affairs we also have some of the media’s most respected content. Insight is the leading forum for first-person stories about the issues that matter due to their impact on individuals, communities or the whole nation. Dateline is our much-awarded and Australia’s longest running international current affairs program, looking at the conflicts, challenges and triumphs around the globe. Small Business Secrets highlights the importance of multicultural and Indigenous entrepreneurs to this vital sector of the Australian economy while also providing invaluable advice to those wanting to start or improve their small businesses. The Feed, which broadcasts nightly on SBS Viceland, engages younger audiences by exploring serious issues with a sometimes irreverent approach. Its investigations into areas like bullying, visa rorts and the treatment of young Muslims leaving their faith have won wide acclaim.
As someone who started in Australian media 40 years ago, and having held senior roles in all three commercial newsrooms, I can vouch for the distinctiveness of SBS’s editorial strategy in news and current affairs, and I could not be more proud of the work my team does. Our coverage of world news is without parallel. Our Canberra bureau is one of the most proactive in the capital. Our digital and radio teams work diligently on explainers to break down often complex issues, giving due consideration to those new to this country. It would be a rare day that our new service doesn’t cover a story of an inspirational migrant, refugee or Indigenous Australian. This is due to our belief in and commitment to our charter to educate, inform and entertain all Australians and accurately reflect our diverse multicultural society. On many of these tasks, we work closely together with our colleagues in radio, and with that in mind I now pass over to Mandi to tell you more about their services.
Ms Wicks: Thank you, Jim, and thank you, Chair, for having us here today. In our content and our organisation, SBS normalises the diversity of Australia. We tell stories of culturally and linguistically diverse
Australians with dignity. Across a variety of genres and platforms, we explore and celebrate the cultures that make up our community, building understanding and promoting social cohesion. Our radio services are a vital part of this as we broadcast news and information across Australia in nearly 70 languages. SBS Radio focuses on Australian news and on providing an Australian perspective on international news. While audiences can access news from their home country, and often do this also through SBS television’s suite of World Watch bulletins, SBS is often the only service providing Australian news in languages other than English. We provide news about Australia and news from listeners’ home countries with the independence and balance that has always been a hallmark of SBS’s coverage. Just some of the benefits of this multilingual and multicultural news service include communicating settlement information for new migrants, enabling participation in a democratic society, and providing government and other advertising in languages other than English. While ratings are not available for radio services in languages other than English, for communities we do survey, we are consistently rated the most reliable and trusted news service.
We recently carried out a review of our radio services, which involved establishing a selection criteria and then applying it to the census 2016 data, to determine the languages that we should service in the future. The review process involved extensive community consultation to finalise the selection criteria, and the revised language services actually commence this week. We were delighted to add seven new languages to the schedule, while unfortunately we did discontinue a number of other languages which didn’t meet the published selection criteria. Of these new languages, six are considered high-needs languages and one has a significantly large population to then qualify for entry to the schedule. The seven new languages are Telugu, Karen, Tibetan, Hakha Chin, Rohingya, Mongolian and Kirundi or Rundi. All content in the new languages will be available digitally via on- demand audio podcasts accessible via the SBS website and SBS Radio app to meet the needs of those audiences.
Digital access to radio programs is a key part of our strategy. With more individuals and communities accessing audio content online through apps or social media, we absolutely need to be on the platforms that they’re choosing to use. Over the last year, we’ve seen a 100 per cent average monthly increase in users to our language website and a 75 per cent increase in average monthly podcast downloads, which shows just how important those services are. Through our platform and content strategy, we’re ensuring we remain relevant for today’s audiences and that we are genuinely helping people navigate life in Australia and in the community in which they now live. We welcome your questions.
CHAIR: It’s probably been a criticism made more of ABC than of SBS, but a position has been put forward by some of the commercial media outlets—in print and certainly in television in different capacities. Fundamentally, the argument is that you’re crowding out private investment and private business and that part of the reason why the economic model for journalism is struggling or failing is that they can’t possibly compete with the public product that you’re providing. If we’re serious about a vibrant journalism space that’s not publicly funded, the IPA argument is pretty much that we should go as far as to even completely privatise you or cut your funding, with variations of that extreme view—other people have views in between that.
Ms Wicks: With more advertising.
CHAIR: More advertising and moving towards privatisation. I know that’s a much bigger debate that you’ve been having for many decades, but it seems to have been framed also in the view of the challenges facing journalism. Would you respond to that.
Ms O’Neil: Certainly, as we know from a number of appearances at estimates and so forth, it is an issue. As far as journalism’s concerned, I think we play a very distinctive role in the Australian news and current affairs market. I don’t think there’s any suggestion that our news or our current affairs programs look anything like the offering from our commercial counterparts. We obviously adhere to our charter in all that we do, but news and current affairs—and Jim may want to elaborate—is an area where we definitely look to be very distinctive in the multicultural space.
Mr Carroll: Having had wide experience across the commercial networks, I think our product is chalk and cheese compared with what they produce on a daily basis. The kinds of stories that we focus on do reflect the diverse nature of the community. We are nationally focused and internationally focused, whereas certainly the commercial TV networks are very focused on local news. So I don’t think we’re competing in that space with them. Even in the digital environment, I look back at the stories that have worked most effectively for us and, from both a video perspective and a text perspective, these are stories that the commercial players don’t run. They have no interest in these kinds of stories. I can understand maybe some comparison with the ABC given their generalist nature and the fact that they produce local news in each market, but we don’t do that.
CHAIR: How many people are employed in your division? I don’t like using the word ‘journalists’ because it’s so complicated now. Is someone who’s making internet content a journalist? The word means different things to different people, but how many people are employed in your division?
Mr Carroll: We’ve got 160 people across news and current affairs, but that includes everyone from administration through to me.
CHAIR: Again, I know people have complicated roles. How many of them would be what a layman would call front line?
Mr Carroll: Content makers?
Mr Carroll: It would be in the 120 to 130 range—the bulk of them. My view is that someone who helps from a production assistant perspective is a content maker.
CHAIR: That’s actually quite a lot. What exactly is the team responsible for producing? Is that for producing news on two stations?
Mr Carroll: That’s world news across all platforms—television, radio and digital. It’s Insight, Dateline, The Feed and the World Watch production process as well. We produce about 650 hours of television every year, so I would argue that that’s actually a pretty small team for the amount of content that we put out on a daily basis. We provide radio news services to ALC that all the in-language programs have access to, and we have—
Senator SINGH: Sorry to interrupt, Mr Carroll. SBS seems to have maintained what you’ve described during a time of fiscally constrained budgets, from which I understand SBS has not been immune under this government. So you’ve got that issue—budget cuts, forward revenue decline and all of that—and then you’ve got this changing media landscape with the online world of social media and people receiving their news from other sources which may not be authentically honest. That comes to the question of what we’re looking at here—how we maintain public interest journalism in these difficult times. SBS seems to have been able to do it, and I’m interested in how you do it. I know you do have some kind of partnering with private companies—for example, Viceland, I think.
Mr Carroll: Yes, but not so much in the news space.
Senator SINGH: When we talk about news, I think SBS has stayed true to its charter and to quality of delivery of public interest journalism. So—I don’t know—do you want to share your secrets on that?
Ms Wicks: From a radio perspective, we’ve just been through a review looking at our operating model. We can see that another 1.3 million people have come to Australia in the past five years. An extra 950,000 people say they speak a language other than English. From our perspective, a lot of them are at the younger end of the audience—to your point—and so for new languages we’ve made the decision to do them only in the digital space, because we have to be efficient with the funding that we have. To create a linear radio service for them and digital is not necessarily going to be viable. But we’re also comforted, as I say, by the fact that they are very much at the younger end of the demographic, which we know is where they’re seeking to consume news and information— still audio, but on demand and when they want it. As part of the review, though, we did make that tough decision to discontinue 12 languages, on the basis that we are stretched quite thinly as an organisation.
Mr Carroll: There’s been a constant evolution in the way that we operate. About 31⁄2 years ago we decided to create a one newsroom structure. Previously we had a radio division, an online division and a TV division, and there were instances of duplication which we needed to remove. We worked very hard on structuring that, and that’s been very effective. Our journalists were retrained and deliver content across those three platforms. That’s the expectation of those journalists now. We commission stories across the three platforms rather than having a TV chief of staff, a radio chief of staff and an online chief of staff, and that has been very instrumental in us achieving efficiencies. We have reallocated resources we’ve been able to save to the growth area, which is in the digital environment. So our digital team is bigger but our TV and radio teams are, essentially, marginally smaller as a consequence of the kinds of efficiencies that we’ve introduced.
Ms O’Neil: There are certainly infrastructure efficiencies as well. For example, the studio that’s used for World News has one operator—is that right, Jim?—
Mr Carroll: Yes.
Ms O’Neil: whereas more traditional news studios have several. You’re absolutely right, we are operating in quite a fiscally challenged environment. As I know each senator here is aware, we do have a shortfall every year following on from the withdrawal of the advertising flexibility legislation, and we’ll be facing that again in the upcoming year. So it is a constant challenge for us to remain very efficient in how we operate to ensure, where we can, that the services we provide to our audiences aren’t affected.
CHAIR: One of the issues we’ve always had in dealing with SBS, and the public broadcasters more broadly, at Senate estimates has been the structure of how your funding arrangements work. You’ve got this three-year—I think you call it triennial—
Ms O’Neil: Triennial funding, yes.
CHAIR: I know this is something that you express in different capacities for different issues, but how does that relate to being able to keep and maintain journalists? I mean, don’t get me wrong; everyone’s in a precarious position with their jobs. Every six years we don’t know whether we’re going to be here or not—or even whether we’re Australian! But you tend to get this sense of, ‘Well, we don’t know; it depends on what the funding is next year as to whether we’re there or whether we’re cancelled, we’re this or we’re that.’ Again, I’d imagine everyone has this issue in the media these days. It just seems to be more precarious when you’re working on a three-year funding basis. Maybe this is for Mr Carroll as well to answer, but to what extent does that make it difficult to maintain or keep good staff, if there’s no certainty of revenue flows?
Mr Carroll: Having worked in the commercial sector, it really isn’t very different. Budgets vary greatly, and in some ways having three years to plan is more than you get in other corporations. But that’s just part of the challenge of operating any business.
CHAIR: So it’s not unique—that’s what you’re saying?
Mr Carroll: That’s right.
CHAIR: Ms Wicks, there are the ethnic—I’m sorry; the migrant, non-English kinds of radio programs that you run. We always go through this. I note the number of languages. We always say, half in jest, that you do more than the Vatican and all those things. I think you were up to a hundred plus. You cut a few last year. What is it now?
Ms Wicks: We just have discontinued some, so we are sitting around 68.
CHAIR: As to those 68, does each produce its own news?
Ms Wicks: It’s a combination. As Jim mentioned, there is a central team in NACA, in News and Current Affairs, that’s constantly producing a core bulletin, if you like, in English, and then, depending on when a language program is on air—is it two pm, four pm, six pm?—they’re drawing from that core bulletin and translating into language, but then, of course, they’re also pulling other material that is relevant to their community. For a radio program we generally say it’s 70 per cent Australian based at the very least. So it is Australian news and information but then there are also a lot of features and local stories about those communities.
CHAIR: Let me give you an example. On Monday night I was at a fundraiser for victims of a recent earthquake in Iran that the Persian community in Sydney put on. My parents are kind of involved with the community as well. I was there. SBS Radio Persian was there. They were obviously producing some kind of a story for it. All of that, though, comes out of their one budget. There are no special budgets for special projects or whatnot. How do the budgets for these different programs work?
Ms Wicks: It’s quite transparent internally, and it depends. Generally, depending on how many radio programs you have per week, you get an allocation of production hours. There is sort of a ratio to it. They are all completely aware of how that sits by language, depending on—
CHAIR: Persian radio—I could be wrong—has two hours or four hours a week?
Ms Wicks: Two hours a week—that’s it. So it has the same resources as other programs that sit around two hours a week. There’s an element for Persian that is radio, but we’ve also recently deepened our investment in digital, because that, again, is a growing community and at the younger end.
CHAIR: I don’t want you to say anything that wouldn’t be publicly available elsewhere, but, for Persian or Pakistani or whatever, if something’s got a two-hour radio kind of thing, what does it cost to be able to produce two hours of radio in that language per week? What is your allocation for it? If it is commercial-in-confidence then don’t say.
Ms Wicks: We would probably say it was.
CHAIR: That’s fine. What is your overall radio budget?
Ms Wicks: It’s about $23 million.
CHAIR: What do you produce for those $23 million?
Ms Wicks: We produce 68 different languages of varying sizes: from Arabic 24, which is a 24-hour radio service, through to the ones that are two hours a week, plus—How many radio stations are there?
Ms Wicks: There is Radio 1, 2, 3; currently there’s 4; and then we do music channels: SBS PopAsia is for our younger audiences—
CHAIR: Yes, I know PopAsia.
Ms Wicks: PopDesi, SBS Chill, and SBS Arabic 24.
CHAIR: So that is eight or nine stations?
Ms Wicks: That is seven.
CHAIR: So with $23 million you run seven radio stations—
Ms Wicks: Plus all our digital investment.
Ms O’Neil: Plus the digital platforms. So each language has its own Facebook page or site— Ms Wicks: Facebook profile.
Ms O’Neil: There are podcasts. There are audio streams. There are web pages for each language.
CHAIR: You do all that. And I can only assume the costs associated with being able to do it in 68 different languages is more than—obviously there are costs associated with that. So you’re saying with $23 million you’re able to produce seven radio stations, programs in 68 different languages—obviously, varying degrees depending on [inaudible]—and, on top of that, the digital platforms that come to support that, as well as the podcasts, radio and all those kinds of things. That seems like a lot. That’s a pretty lean, efficient—
Ms O’Neil: We’re very efficient.
Ms Wicks: We’re very lean.
CHAIR: But, seriously, there tends to be this unfair criticism of public broadcasters—a perception, perhaps, sometimes put by people who oppose it—that they’re run like 1980s bureaucracies of old and that they’re inefficient. I struggle to see how a commercial entity could produce the amount of volume and content that you’re able to produce with that small amount of money.
Ms Wicks: There’s an extraordinary amount of content. As you mentioned, you have the hurdle of taking content and having to translate it—which is time, and time is money. But, in addition, the key thing about our broadcasters is that they are from communities. So they’re very much embedded in communities. So, unlike commercial news outlets, they spend a lot of time actually out and about in the communities.
CHAIR: Yes—they’re community leaders. It’s prestigious.
Ms Wicks: Well, being a part of the community and getting the stories that are so distinctive. And, increasingly, the stories that come out of the language programs are then translated and go back through news and current affairs for broader Australia. In SBS, we’re doing a lot now to take one great story, repurpose it on all platforms, translate it back into English and also get it out onto English language platforms.
CHAIR: So how does that work? Let’s use the example that I was using. It’s relevant because I was there. If SBS Persian radio comes to a Persian function, a Persian event, and they’ve got a camera there which they took from SBS and they’re filming and something happens, or there’s a story there or they decide there’s another story, what’s the process for that going from their show there to being put on SBS World News the next night in prime time? What’s the coordinating process between that to getting it to there?
Ms Wicks: It’s actually an area that we’ve worked really hard on the last 18 months. Within radio, we have one person whose job it is to, literally, look across all the language programs and all the output for that purpose of pulling out the great stories and then pitching them back to the news and current affairs team. There are probably 50 to 60 stories a month that you would take and develop into something. Jim, do you want to talk a bit further?
Mr Carroll: And some can be very significant. Say, for example, over the past week a regional story came out of the Punjabi program which was about people being scammed as they attempted to secure visas here in Australia.
CHAIR: Yes, I saw this. So that came from radio?
Mr Carroll: It started in radio, and then we put our investigative team within The Feed onto it. Then we also joined forces with Fairfax, so it ended up as a front page story on Fairfax press and online. There’s constant collaboration, and that continues to grow between ourselves and the ALC, because there are so many great stories from within those communities that no other media organisation has access to. And it comes back to that point. That is why we are so distinctive.
Ms Wicks: With five million people in Australia speaking a language other than English, we get those stories because of language. We can go into those communities and speak to people in their language to actually get really exclusive stories that are not otherwise told by any other organisation. Our focus, as I say, is very much: pull out those stories in language but also get them out to all Australians through Jim’s English language platforms.
Senator SINGH: How does that work when, I think, in your submission you referred to the Reuters report that said 54 per cent, or thereabouts, of people consume their news through Facebook? I know that SBS is quite active on Facebook, but, in the example you just gave, how does that work when you have so many people just using that one platform to engage as their news source?
Ms Wicks: Social media is a distribution platform as are online, radio and television. All the languages have a profile. A story like that we will obviously publish on SBS Punjabi Facebook for that audience. It’s quickly shared. We can see that where you do get one really important, distinctive story people click through and read it, and we can see that at that point they discover all the other content we would have online and the traffic increases to the stories that we are also doing in that language. So for us it’s a referral site to bring people across through one story to raise audiences across much of the other contents. It’s the same if you put that story out on world news.
Mr Carroll: We are very proactive on Facebook, particularly through a program like The Feed that has very high engagement levels. We will put large amounts of video content on various social media sites, and it works very effectively for us.
CHAIR: You’d be getting more viewing some of those on social media than you would on—
Mr Carroll: On the TV channel? Correct.
CHAIR: One of the challenges you must be facing now is how you adequately measure, because the traditional model of measuring, the TV ratings views, is completely irrelevant for something like The Feed. I’ll be honest, I don’t think I’ve ever sat down and watched The Feed on TV, but I’ve seen so much of the content through my phone, through Facebook or through people messaging me—that’s how I consume it. Have you actually ever sat down and watched it? Have you ever watched it?
Senator SINGH: Yes.
CHAIR: Oh, shaming me!
Senator SINGH: Sorry, Sam.
CHAIR: My point is that I’ve seen it but I haven’t.
Senator HANSON-YOUNG: You’ve just described all of the various different, wonderful news services that SBS provide. You’ve talked about the budget constraints that you’re under. What do you see as the key challenges for public interest journalism now and going forward? Do you think you can keep rolling on the way you are or are you treading water, in a way, waiting to see what happens next?
Mr Carroll: We’re always challenged from a news perspective in that we want to maintain our most popular TV programs. Insight is consistently, across the 40 weeks that it’s on air, one of SBS’s most successful formats. It is an ageing audience, so I think the big challenge for us is how we connect content like that that we actually think has an appeal to younger demographics but who will never come and watch it on television. It goes back to your issue about how we create content for those platforms where the fish happen to be—so fishing where the fish are. We work very hard on that all the time about allocating resources where the biggest audiences are but balancing that with our need to provide high-quality content, like Insight, Dateline, The Feed and World News, in its traditional format because we’ve got an ageing population. We still connect strongly to the 55-plus demographics. It’s a constant balancing act, but it’s what we’re there to do.
Ms Wicks: I would say one of the biggest challenges is that transitioning of linear to digital. SBS isn’t currently funded specifically for digital, so it’s that constant—
Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Isn’t?
Ms Wicks: Isn’t—so from my perspective, we’re always thinking about a particular language group and understanding that linear radio is very important often to the original migrants, so we can’t discontinue the radio services, but we have more and more migrants arriving who want content but just want it on a digital platform. It’s that constant balance within the funding remit that we have.
Ms O’Neil: From a funding perspective, we are very challenged. As I mentioned earlier, we are going to have that upcoming hole in our budget—
SELECT COMMITTEE ON THE FUTURE OF PUBLIC INTEREST JOURNALISM
Thursday, 23 November 2017 Senate Page 19 Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Which is worth how much?
Ms O’Neil: Just under $9 million—$8.7 million—and then of course in the following year we’ll be coming up to triennial funding again. So there is a constant challenge to us financially. Going on from the cuts a few years ago, we have really found all the efficiencies we can, if I can put it that way, in the back office. Any further budget constraints will start to affect our services, including journalism. What exactly would go is obviously hard to say and would be subject to a review, but it will definitely eat into the services that Australians are provided with.
Senator HANSON-YOUNG: You obviously have to deliver digital services, because that is what—
Ms O’Neil: Exactly—what keeps us going.
Senator HANSON-YOUNG: And it’s what the commercials are complaining about—that everything’s going digital, so they can’t run the same traditional ads on television, and those ads don’t have the same value, so they can’t charge as much, and the vicious cycle. It’s naive to assume that just because you’re public broadcasters you don’t face the same transitional challenge. What percentage of your budget do you spend currently, and what percentage do you think you would if you were funded specifically for delivering services on a digital platform?
Ms O’Neil: Sorry—just so I understand the question: do you mean what percentage of our current budgets are spent on delivering digital services across NACA and ALC?
Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Yes.
Ms O’Neil: I think we’d have to take that on notice.
Mr Carroll: I think it’s so enmeshed now that it would take some time for us to—
Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Perhaps you could give us a ballpark figure. Obviously I don’t want you to have to go away and spend too much time on it, but a ballpark figure would be helpful. And in that I guess what I’m thinking is if there’s no—I think it’s extraordinary that you’re not funded for digital services, because we relate in a modern kind of—innovation—
CHAIR: It’s bizarre, because you’ve had to find the money to do it anyway, so—
Ms O’Neil: Exactly. We’ve had to I guess find a way to do it, and I think certainly one of our priorities for the next round of training or funding will be that if we can get some additional funding for digital growth then that’s an area we’d be looking to.
Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Yes. It just seems crazy. Otherwise, you’re just going to be stunted, aren’t you? Ms O’Neil: And also we’re not reaching the audiences that we’re funded to reach. We need to be able to reach the community, reach all Australians.
Ms Wicks: You have to make tough decisions about your—
Senator HANSON-YOUNG: So I guess that’s the next question, isn’t it? How much do you think you need, or what kind of increase do you need, to be able to deliver digital services so that you can adequately fulfil the charter that is very specific for SBS in terms of being able to deliver news and other content to non-English- speaking and migrant communities?
Ms O’Neil: I think we’re doing it very well now within the envelope that we have. What we could do is a question of the length of a piece of string. We’d love to be able to enhance our services and provide more languages or more news and current affairs that are aligned with our charter, but we’d have to sit down and take a look at what our priorities would be if we had an unlimited—
Senator HANSON-YOUNG: You did read out some viewership numbers when you were talking about the growth in some digital stuff. Do you have a breakdown of that—say, five years ago to 2017, the numbers of viewers of traditional radio and television versus online and on demand?
Mr Carroll: We track it on an annual basis, so I can give you some examples off the top of my hand. In video chapter views, for example, where there is far more of a focus on video, we’re doing four times what we did last year, and that’s come as a consequence of a refocus of resources. Unique browsers are probably up 30 or 40 per cent this year, and that’s essentially around text online. So, we’re seeing substantive growth there. But the interesting thing, if you look at a program—our World News, Monday to Friday, is actually up on last year, which is pretty rare in the TV environment. It is up around eight per cent. But the 25-to-54 demographic is starting to decline, so clearly we have to try to capture those. Insight is a program that, as I mentioned a few times, is sustaining its audience performance in the TV environment, but we also think there is growth potential in the digital environment for a program like that. That’s the kind of strategic focus that we have on an ongoing basis. Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Are there extra costs associated with providing quality journalism, public interest journalism, in the digital space, above and beyond traditional, older formats?
Mr Carroll: I guess I look at investigative journalism, and I think that seems to be an area that works well on digital platforms, because, obviously, you can combine text and multimedia assets. I think, again, that’s something that we’re trying to resource up a little. But what we expect out of that additional commitment are stories not just in the digital environment but also in the traditional linear television environment. Everything we approach is about cross-platform. We’re not going to say, ‘Well, we have to put more resources just into digital.’ Our expectation is that we utilise our resources to deliver content across all of those platforms. I think, being a relatively small news division, we’ve been quite effective at doing that because we have that national and international focus, which the other media companies don’t have.
Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Mr Carroll, you mentioned several times that you’ve worked across commercial and public broadcasting. As someone who’s been in there and is now reflecting back, what are the challenges that you see for the commercial space when it comes to public interest journalism? I think you’re in an interesting spot.
Mr Carroll: Having been in that space, clearly financial resources in commercial TV are—
CHAIR: He’s saying it like he’s been so traumatised by it! You’re taking him back!
Mr Carroll: It is very tough, and I think there seems to be more focus on quantity rather than quality. I think if you look across the commercial television networks there is a hell of a lot of news being pushed out across every timeslot, from early in the morning through to 7.30 at night. I think the financial challenges for them—if they look at investigative reporting, does it rate like it used to, programs like 60 Minutes and Sunday Night? I think they spend a lot of money producing those kinds of long-form stories, but it’s challenging from an audience perspective. They’re tough decisions to make. Do you want to maintain your reputation in that space? If it’s not delivering the commercial outcomes, it’s very tough for them, I think.
Senator HANSON-YOUNG: What do you think the differences are? What are the extra challenges that you’ve got working for a public broadcaster versus commercial? I’m specifically interested in public interest journalism—or, as Newscorp said to us yesterday, just ‘journalism’, because all journalism is in the public interest.
CHAIR: In fairness, they were saying the definition of journalism means it’s in the public interest—that it’s not journalism if it isn’t.
Mr Carroll: I think we have similar challenges, but, because of the unique nature of what we do at SBS, the fact that we need to deliver on charter and we want to deliver on charter, and the structure of us having to deliver content to our in-language radio programs, having to focus predominantly on international news on our traditional world news programming and then having to also fulfil our viewer needs on digital platforms—it’s how you divide up those resources; how you most effectively service all of those audiences and connect through not just to the 55-pluses but also to the 25 to 54 demographic.
Ms Wicks: I would also say, bearing in mind that our charter is about multicultural multilingual, that as a public broadcaster we take a lot more time and care, probably, in providing context to stories as well. We’re mindful that people don’t have assumed knowledge on issues, so we spend a lot of time giving people backgrounders and providing what the facts are around particular issues in order for them to get a balanced perspective and to make up their minds about certain issues. We take our role very seriously in terms of educating and informing around what’s happening in Australia. It could be the same-sex survey: it must be run across every language program—both perspectives, of course—with a view that we’re trying to inform and educate so people feel that they belong and can have a voice in Australia in the community in which they now live. I think that that is an added responsibility in what we do. We take that extremely seriously in all of the journalism that we do.
Mr Carroll: I just looked at some of our most popular stories in the digital environment this year, and they are explainers. It’s about new visas, explainers about same-sex marriage around the world and where Australian migrants were born. These are our top-performing stories in the online environment. The commercial players aren’t going to produce those kinds of stories, so that’s what we need to focus on.
Mrs Wicks: With new migrant communities, we actually often spend a lot of time talking to them about what a democracy is. So, if they have come as a refugee community, sometimes they don’t want to hear the balance in our news. They’re not used to that. So we actually spend quite a bit of time explaining what SBS’s purpose is and why it’s important in Australia that you get a balanced perspective and that we will always continue to approach those issues that they may or may not want to hear about, to be honest, because that’s part of tackling the big stuff in order to try to encourage that social cohesion over the long term.
Senator HANSON-YOUNG: There are challenges to public interest journalism: funding constraints, lack of trust in news—we’ve heard that over and over again. We had some witnesses yesterday from ANU who’d done a significant study about the fact that trust remains low—low but steady, probably like Malcolm Turnbull’s polls right now. Or was it Canberra University. It’s only because no-one’s here to defend them that I get a free shot. However, trust in journalism and news value seems to be low. Trust in politics is low. How do you, as a public broadcaster, avoid the temptation of others to interfere with your independence at a time when you’ve got significant funding constraints?
Mr Carroll: Just on the question of trust, I did make the point that we, along with the ABC, are the most trusted news outlet in Australia. I think it’s in our editorial processes every day that we have an experienced, committed team. They work at SBS for a reason. If they wanted to make more money, they’d go somewhere else. They are passionate about the work they do. They are passionate about delivering on charter, and that’s the environment that we have. In terms of fake news or trust, we have layers of checks within our organisation. That’s not to say that we always get it 100 per cent right. Our international affiliations are with the most credible news organisations in the world, and we live and breathe it every day. So we—
Senator HANSON-YOUNG: You don’t feel like there’s a creeping from the expectation of either the public or the body politic to interfere with the independence of journalism from the public broadcasters?
Mrs Wicks: No, I think we see that as one of our points of difference that we really value. Certainly, in a language environment, when we research communities, that is the No. 1 thing: they come to us for trusted news and information. We would never want to mess with that, and I think that’s really important. Around any key issues, we spend a lot of time talking to staff about making sure you’ve got that perspective—both sides—because our audiences, to be honest, are very, very engaged in the services and they’re very quick to point out if they have any questions about the content. So I think that is our point of difference, and that’s what we’re valued for.
Mr Carroll: As well, I think that journalists can be as passionate as other people in the community about particular issues, and that’s always important for us in achieving a balance. One of the things that we’ve very much focused on over the past four or five years is our cadetship program. We recruit young journalists every year, and most of those young journalists have progressed into more senior roles within the newsroom. They are trained on how to deliver accurate and balanced stories, and that’s an important part of our—
Mrs Wicks: And we do annual refreshers as part of our business.
Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Surely, the word ‘balance’ is interesting though, isn’t it? Just because there are two opposing views doesn’t mean that they’re equally balanced or that there is actually an expectation within SBS or the community that you have to give equal time to somebody who’s advocating for vaccinations versus someone who’s saying, ‘No, they’re dangerous’.
Mr Carroll: That’s the common argument that’s presented—the antivaxx case. It comes back to the evidence base in arguments like that. I’m on the board of the Australian Science Media Centre. We’re very conscious of getting the facts right on those kinds of stories. We don’t see that as a balanced argument—that it’s an argument with various points of view.
Senator HANSON-YOUNG: ‘Balance’ isn’t a code for overriding—
Mr Carroll: Fifty-fifty, no.
Ms O’Neil: There’s no equal time requirement or anything like that, but our code of practice, in particular section 2, does require news and current affairs—the same as for ALCs—ensuring you provide an impartial and balanced perspective. I think one of our points of difference is that we really don’t do much in that pure commentary space. We’re quite a factual news and current affairs service. I think that’s probably where a lot of those issues run into problems—where there is more of that commentary and opinion type piece.
Senator SINGH: You may not have heard the previous witnesses. We had the Australian Lawyers Alliance here talking specifically about the challenges for public interest journalism in relation to national security legislation. I think your submission also touches on this, to the extent of whistleblowers coming forward when there are now in place certain pieces of legislation that may put a particular journalist and the reporting of such stories that they obtain through whistleblowers or the like into some kind of legal and/or criminal situation. Does SBS see the legislative framework that we currently have for, in the main, national security reasons as being prohibitive to the ongoing exploration of investigative stories that are in the public interest, which may mean they don’t get reported?
Ms O’Neil: As a general position I think we’d always want journalists to be able to report on matters where there is a public interest in doing so. National security is obviously a very sensitive area. There are quite good shield laws for the Commonwealth but not necessarily in states and territories. There is very inconsistent surveillance devices legislation around Australia. It would be great if there were some consistency. In some places you can report on things in the public interest and in some places you can’t—or there are more hurdles to jump through. In relation to that particular piece of legislation, SBS was a party to a submission I think at the time the bill was introduced with all the other media organisations, so it was joint, and SBS joined with the ABC and with commercial media in articulating some of the concerns around the restrictiveness of that piece of legislation. I don’t think our position has changed.
Mr Carroll: Just to add to that, I don’t think we have had a great history of domestic investigations at SBS, certainly in recent times. Most of ours have been through the Dateline program, which have tended to be international investigations. Certainly, due to the high level of collaboration between ourselves and ALC and the fact that we now have a small investigative unit working within SBS, our concerns may intensify as time goes on.
Ms O’Neil: Whistleblower laws, shield laws—all of those things are critical to maintain a healthy fourth estate.
Senator SINGH: But it’s where we’re talking about that word ‘balance’ in relation to ensuring that those stories that are in the public interest are able to be investigated and reported on without fear of—
Ms O’Neil: Imprisonment.
Senator SINGH: Imprisonment—exactly right. You’re probably aware of some recent amendments that the government put in relation to its Australian Border Force Act, coming out of the restrictions on people who are working in offshore detention facilities speaking out, for example. You say that some of your investigative work is through overseas sources, but they still obviously have a very strong Australian public interest factor to them— and ‘overseas’ could be as near as Papua New Guinea.
Mr Carroll: Manus was a difficult story for us to report both in terms of access and responsiveness. Senator SINGH: I think it’s a very good example.
CHAIR: Thank you Ms O’Neil, Ms Wicks and Mr Carroll for being with us and participating in our inquiry.
MORRIS, Mr Gaven, Director, News, ABC
SUNDERLAND, Mr Alan, Editorial Director, ABC
CHAIR: Welcome. Mr Sunderland, can I just begin by saying how apologetic we are that we no longer have Senator Roberts with us to ask you all the questions that he otherwise would have. I know you’ve been beefing up on where you get your science from for a long period.
Mr Sunderland: I’ve never met a senator I don’t like!
CHAIR: He was never a senator.
Senator SINGH: That’s true.
CHAIR: He was officially never a senator—just another foreigner taking our jobs. We’ve got your submission down as no. 58 as part of this inquiry. Do you have an opening statement?
Mr Sunderland: No—you’re familiar with our submission; we’re happy to just take questions.
CHAIR: At a previous inquiry—and a lot’s happened since then—the CEO of Fairfax made some comments regarding the ABC. I’m sure you’re well aware that some of the private broadcasters and others have made comments in the past. Again, I’m paraphrasing what are more complicated arguments in this but, essentially, by having a public option in the field such as yours, you’re crowding out the commercial space. You’re competing with them in. Frankly, in part, the death of the economic model for public journalism in a private sphere is your presence in the market. I’m sure you’ve heard these arguments before. In fairness to them, they were more nuanced than that but I did want to put that to you.
Mr Sunderland: I understand that, and I’m happy to respond. The position we would take is that, from the day the ABC was created—and you can go back to the 1930s—these debates have been had about the appropriate role of publicly funded journalism within the spectrum of the journalism that was on offer. Those issues were thrashed out then. They’ve been thrashed out on various occasions ever since and, to my mind, the fundamentals have not changed. There has always been a model in Australia—a mixed model, which I think has been our great strength in the media sector compared with some situations overseas—where alongside for-profit media sits a publicly funded media that is free to those who pay for it, who are of course the Australian taxpayers. All that’s really changed since the 1930s is that the number of platforms on which people seek to get their news and information have expanded. It expanded in the 1950s when television came along, and we were created with the same charter, the same responsibilities in the same way. As those platforms have exploded across mobile, online, on demand and streaming, we have sought to perform exactly the same function on every single platform.
The fundamentals are, at the end of day, that one either believes in the importance of a publicly funded strand of journalism within the overall mix in Australia or one doesn’t. From our point of view, obviously, we do it, we support it and we believe in it. We make no apologies for the fact that we need to be relevant to the people who pay for it, which means we need to be on those platforms where they are increasingly going to find their news and information, if we’re going to do our job and if we’re going to deliver value for money.
Mr Morris: I think one of the arguments around this has been that, in some way, we are crowding out others from the news space, particularly those who are seeking to obviously earn a living from it. Look at the top 10 rankings of news websites at the moment: seven of them are free, and the ABC’s one of those. The idea, as Mr Sunderland said, that we’re there to provide an essential service to Australians that they’ve already paid for through their taxes is a key one, but it isn’t like the market these days is dominated by digital outlets that are seeking to raise revenue as that many of them are free.
CHAIR: The allegation by Fairfax was that the ABC pays Google for prominence—I think that was the more specific part of that allegation; not allegation, accusation; it wasn’t put in those terms—and that that created an unfair playing field. I just want to put that to you.
Mr Sunderland: We are talking search engine marketing here as opposed to search engine optimisation. If we are talking search engine marketing, the ABC has always had, by any standard, a very modest marketing budget. That is appropriate and it goes to the fundamental principle of relevance and value for money. If people are going to pay for our content, they need to be able to find it. They need to be able to see it. They needed to know it’s happening. Within modest bounds, we have always advertised what we do and ensured that there is a degree of prominence attached to it. In my assessment, engaging in reasonable amounts of search engine marketing to make sure that our results are found when people search for us is little different in principle to hiring the side of a bus, taking out ads in the green guide or paying for billboards, all of which we have done in the past. It is the modern equivalent of marketing. That is essentially what it is. We have always done marketing. Again, the idea that the public have paid for our content and we have made it and that should be enough doesn’t take into account the value of relevance in us doing our jobs. So, in the normal course of events, we make sure that we take reasonable steps to ensure that people can find our content, and we think that’s important.
CHAIR: Again, the hoo-ha about it did strike me as a bit odd. If the Australian taxpayers are paying for it then you would want them to know it’s there, right?
Mr Sunderland: Exactly.
CHAIR: It makes sense. What is the point of making it and then putting it in a cupboard or on a shelf somewhere where it’s not going to achieve its objective?
Mr Sunderland: That is exactly the case. As I say, we have on occasion paid those who have criticised us to advertise our content prominently. We have put ourselves in TV guides. We have put ourselves on the Foxtel platform. We have put ourselves everywhere we reasonably can to make sure that people are getting what they are paying for.
CHAIR: Are you able to very quickly give us a rundown of how your news and current affairs journalism division effectively operates? How many people are we talking about? Where are they? Can you give us a topline idea of how much of the ABC budget is going towards that part of your charter.
Mr Morris: We have roughly 1,200 staff in the news division, but there are also many journalists in the radio and regional divisions who are also contributing journalism to Australians. We obviously have people in every capital city in every state and territory and 48 regional locations and, beyond that, in 13 foreign bureaus around the world. These days I think I can fairly say that our journalists work harder than just about any other journalists anywhere in the world because there is no longer any delineation between television reporters, radio reporters and online reporters. All of our journalists file for all of those platforms. Even if you look at Four Corners, which produces the highest quality investigative current affairs in the Australian context, increasingly that team is producing those stories for digital audiences as well.
CHAIR: Something about Four Corners which blew me away was how many episodes they do. Is it something like 40 a year?
Mr Morris: It is about 40 a year, and we would like to do more. CHAIR: Panorama does something like 22.
Mr Sunderland: Correct.
CHAIR: And PBS’s Frontline do something like nine.
Mr Morris: I think what you have seen from many of the public broadcasters overseas, because of reality or priority, is a disinvestment in some of this form of journalism. We think the opposite is needed. I think that the more of our editorial resources we can put into original journalism and enhancing the fact base for all Australians through doing investigative journalism across all of our platforms the more value we will be returning to the public at a time when other commercial operators are either not choosing to be in that space or can’t afford to be in that space. The message back to our journalists is that the very nature of the public media is to be providing a service that is in the public interest with money that is provided by the public.
CHAIR: There always seems to be this kind of challenge. It is a bit different because SBS, now that it has commercial advertisers, has a commercial focus in competing for advertising dollars, which is what it needs to do if there is to be any advertising revenue. I want to ask about getting that balance right between the objective of meeting the charter, which is obviously what you do, and measuring the success of the ABC based on ratings, which you obviously do to an extent. There always seems to be this odd kind of conflict between the extent to which it’s your responsibility to pursue programs that people want to see—and ratings measure that; there’s nothing wrong with that—and the extent to which you do things solely on an altruistic basis, on the strict basis of what you independently believe should be seen. I guess that challenge is at the heart of every public broadcaster.
Mr Sunderland: If you go back to our charter you’ll see that the need to do both is absolutely entrenched in the charter. Programs of broad appeal and specialist content are right there in the charter, acknowledging that we need to find a way to do both. The short answer, of course, is that if you reduce it to a binary situation you’re creating a conflict you don’t need to create. If you look at the way the ABC judges itself through our KPIs, our aims and ambitions—if you look at what’s in our mission—you see that we make it clear we need to look at reach. You’ve heard our managing director say that in an ideal world 100 per cent of Australians would find something in the ABC every week they could value and enjoy. That in no way says that therefore everything we do must appeal to 100 per cent of Australians. The reason we value reach over share most of the time is that we want to feel that there might only be half an hour a week for one person or 10 hours a week for someone else and so we have to tick both boxes.
We look at our content and assess it, as a leadership team at the ABC, around our reach on each and every program. We then cross-reference that against the quality of it, against the distinctiveness of it and against the trust. And we measure all of these things on a regular basis. If we were to make lowest common denominator programming that was cheap and cheerful and everybody loved, it might arguably push our ratings and reach up a little bit but we’d see our quality, distinctiveness and value measurements start to fall. We value both of those, so we’ll look at a program and say: ‘Nine hundred thousand people are watching that, but we’re making 10 other programs that the same 900,000 people are watching. Why don’t we make one fewer of those programs and put it into something that maybe only 50,000 will watch, but a different 50,000 that we haven’t reached yet?’ We place a lot of value on incremental reach, finding new audiences and distinct audiences. It’s a reality that we have to balance both all of the time.
CHAIR: So you think it’s a false choice?
Mr Sunderland: Absolutely.
CHAIR: You’re saying that debate is actually a false debate?
Mr Sunderland: It just minimises it, and it’s something you don’t need.
Mr Morris: There’s one other factor in there that’s impossible to measure but is almost crucial to the way we operate, and that is impact. Certainly the programming—the stories we’re telling; the journalism we’re doing—has impact with the community. A really good example of this is the Four Corners ‘A bloody business’ episode, the one about the live cattle trade to Asia. It was one of our worst rating programs of the year for Four Corners but one of the highest impact programs of the year. If we were only measuring ourselves by ratings or by reach, there would be many things that we think are at the core of what we do in journalism that we wouldn’t do—and that the commercials, for that reason, do not do.
Mr Sunderland: When I talk to our staff and train our staff in editorial values, the phrase I most commonly use is that we need to get the biggest possible audiences for the stuff that we’re here to do.
Senator SINGH: I would agree with the position, which I think you yourselves put, that the ABC does have that high degree of trust with the Australian public in relation to its journalism. Particularly I think that comes through because you do uphold high editorial standards. But I think that in relation to this inquiry one of the most important programs the ABC broadcasts is Media Watch. I understand that there was a fact-checking unit within the ABC but now you collaborate with RMIT—is that correct?
Mr Morris: Yes.
Senator SINGH: What happened there? Why did you get rid of the fact-checking unit as part of the ABC’s structure?
Mr Morris: During the Gillard government we were granted some additional funding to do some specific editorial initiatives, and one of those was a fact-check initiative. That really was not to check the basic facts of stories in the news that we were already producing but was, as you’re probably familiar with, to analyse public statements by politicians, corporate leaders or others in the public sphere, get to the fact base of those and really provide rich detail around that. That funding was discontinued, and so we had to stop.
Senator SINGH: When was that discontinued?
Mr Morris: That was in the 2014 budget, so we then had to scale back on some of those initiatives that had been specifically funded out of that previous funding grant. We thought the Fact Check initiative was a good one, and that type of journalism is important in context. So we came at it from another direction, and we went to the academic community and sought partners to be able to work with us on an initiative like that, and RMIT, very thankfully, joined us, and now we essentially collaborate on that. We’re using funding from both of us, using people from both of our teams, and using the students and the curriculum of RMIT to play a part in that initiative. I’m very proud of that. I think that’s a really good model for us to be looking at. We don’t need to be solely funded for some of these activities if we can find great, particularly publicly minded partners to come along with us. That’s the model that the RMIT ABC Fact Check now works under.
Senator SINGH: Okay. As with Media Watch, the idea of that is not for the ABC itself to be looking, necessarily, at its own content, because you already have your own editorial standard procedures and all of that. It’s for you to provide, in the public interest, the truth in relation to what else is being broadcast in Australia as news and see whether or not it’s true or fake. Part of what we’ve been investigating in this inquiry has looked particularly at the challenge of fake news on social media platforms. So how does the fact-checking unit deal with that? I think the Reuters report said it was 54 per cent of people now consuming their news through that particular platform. How does the fact-checking collaboration with the RMIT work in relation to focusing particularly on that platform, as opposed to your everyday tabloid rubbish that I know Media Watch deals with very well?
Mr Morris: The remit of Fact Check, I suppose, is less about interrogating the media and more about interrogating what public figures say through the media. Quite often it will be something that a good senator or another politician may have said in the public sphere on which people are debating the fact base to what they’ve said. So what Fact Check will do is apply research skills to that and really get down to, as you put it, the truth of that issue. Quite often it is a statement that has been portrayed through the media, but it is usually by a public figure who has been saying it in a public kind of way, so it’s not necessarily a media analytical tool.
As a slightly broader comment, I think what we have been seeing in the information marketplace, even in the last 18 months to two years, is a return to value among audiences for verified information, for trusted content and for explanation of context. That suits us fine, because we think that is right at the heart of what we’re here to do. I think when you analyse the audience returns, particularly on our digital platforms that we are now getting, our success in recent times on digital platforms—our audience growth on digital platforms—is around people seeking explanation and context, a lot more than any other strategy to produce popular content or anything else. So the more we do in-depth journalism, or the more we try to explain complex things, the better the audience returns we’re getting for that. I think that’s very encouraging, and I think that should be encouraging, potentially, for other players in the media market. Audiences are seeking out and finding real value in fact-based journalism and in really well-done context and analysis.
Senator SINGH: So, you are saying that an individual might see some kind of headline in, let’s say, a less- trustworthy online source, and then they’ll go to the ABC’s website to get the real facts and the details, to see if it is correct?
Mr Morris: More than that, I think it is people saying that there is a complex out there being debated at the moment. Let’s say it is the coverage of the Paradise Papers, a big international investigation into where companies are potentially putting their taxation and otherwise not so. That is a complex issue that is difficult to understand. It seems to be important and it is a question of where I can find someone somewhere who will explain that issue to me properly. Or it could be something in the daily political context, where, yes, there are sources you can go to that will produce a bit of click bait around that and make it as interesting and as exciting as it might be. But I think that, increasingly, audiences are seeing a false promise in that type of content. They think the headline is really sensational and they click into the article but it doesn’t really have what the headline said it was going to have, and they decide they are not going to go back there so much. What we are increasingly seeing is audiences saying that they want to understand the issue and they come to organisations like the ABC, and if they get good explanations and good context around that they are feeling a lot more fulfilled than we thought they might a couple of years ago.
Senator HANSON-YOUNG: I think that is a really interesting point to pick up on. One of the things that keeps being thrown up is this idea of trust—trust in the stories that are being written, a lack of trust as to what the inside agenda is, why that particular story is being told at that particular time, and who’s pulling the strings. There seems to be not just a lack of trust but a heightened sense of scepticism as well. One would argue perhaps that rather than that being the result of an apathetic public it is actually a highly-tuned and engaged public. Why do you think the ABC consistently gets listed as having a higher trust index than your competitors?
Mr Sunderland: It is always difficult to analyse this. You are right, the trend is absolutely clear over time and has been consistent over time. We are very proud of that and we would like to see it go even higher. The one thing I can say is that it has been a hallmark of the ABC from the time it was created that it places its independence and its integrity above all else. There will be a great many views as to how well we live up to the standards that we set ourselves, but the standards are plain for all to see. People love the fact that the ABC is beholden to no-one. Cheques aren’t being written by advertisers that we need to manage and deal with. We are funded to be independent, we are funded be impartial, and we are funded to belong to the Australian taxpayer. That buys us a lot of credibility right off the mark. And that in my view explains why people sign up to that ideal of having a source of media that is impeccably independent and impartial in its aims and its approach. Our ability to maintain that trust depends on our ability to live up to our ideals. But our ideals are what people associate with the ABC as a brand in the marketplace.
Senator HANSON-YOUNG: How do you balance that with the rough and tumble of the political agenda? You are publicly funded. There are people—I have colleagues in the Senate, of course—who argue that you are biased.
Mr Sunderland: I have been in public broadcasting for 38 years and I am familiar with the arguments from all sides. I was in the press gallery in the Paul Keating era. We copped it then and we cop it now. It is the reality we live under. We have very robust mechanisms to defend ourselves against that. We have a very solid independent board, we have a strong managing director, who is our editor-in-chief, we have a great set of editorial policies, and we have a strong commitment to independence. At the end of the day we will be judged on our performance, and the extent to which we can withstand that depends on us holding to our principles. But, without wanting to sound Pollyanna-ish, it’s not that difficult. The fundamentals are straightforward. We know that we will be consistently criticised because good public interest journalism—which is, after all, what we’re here to talk about—is difficult. It’s challenging, and it will always unsettle somebody, and it will normally unsettle those who are in power, because that is the nature of good public interest journalism.
CHAIR: You’re very zen about the criticism. You should come into politics! There are lots of Senate vacancies going!
Mr Sunderland: The reality is that the nature of the ABC makes it easy for us to be zen about it, because we know why we’re here and we know what we’re here to do.
Mr Morris: And I do have this conversation a lot with my teams in the news division. And I say to them that every Australian has, rightfully, a point of view on our coverage, on the stories we choose, on the way we treat them, on whether we’ve done them well enough and on whether we’ve done them thoroughly enough. And we have to respect every single one of those opinions, even when, on the face of it, we might think they’re unfair or they’re over the top or whatever else. They pay for us. They have a right to have a point of view on us. I think the only time we should be sensitive about that is when they’re either malicious or coming from a perspective driven by things other than finding value in the stories and the reasons we’re providing a service. And we try our best to believe that—that Australians have a right to comment on what the ABC does and to point out where they think we haven’t done well enough or we’re not representing a perspective fairly enough. I think that’s a perfectly valid thing to go on when you have a publicly funded media that is well-resourced by the taxpayer.
Senator HANSON-YOUNG: It was put to us yesterday that in order to carry on being zen, for lack of a better description, the ABC does at times run a story against the opposition, for example, if the government’s having a bad week and all the coverage has been about the mess the government’s in. What’s your response to that? It was an accusation that was put to us.
Mr Sunderland: Our response to that sort of accusation always is, ‘Tell us which story that was and allow us to deal with the criticism.’ My role at the ABC is one of editorial oversight, and I know that that doesn’t happen. I know that what does happen is that we work very hard to provide appropriate scrutiny of all. So, that is a legitimate criticism—that we are scrutinising one side and not scrutinising the other. That goes to our intentions; it doesn’t go to outcomes. We never seek to balance up stories to make sure everyone’s getting an equal clip around the earholes. We do ensure that we’re providing appropriate levels of scrutiny to contested areas. So, if there is a great deal of scrutiny of a policy position and another position that we feel is not being given sufficient scrutiny, we’ll say, ‘Make sure we cast the same eye over both.’ But in terms of trying to weigh up, we long ago realised that any attempt to weigh up and balance our coverage to avoid criticism is a waste of effort anyway, so why don’t we do what we’re here to do?
Senator HANSON-YOUNG: So it’s not like when an umpire on a soccer field says, ‘Okay, you’ve kicked enough goals, you guys; let the other team have a free shot.’
Mr Morris: Well, I think we’ve got 22 million umpires on the field, and that’s fair enough. But in the full context of what we do across the course of a year across all the different outlets we have we are very mindful to ensure that we are maintaining a sense of balance and a sense of fairness to whoever it is that we are applying— hopefully—a good journalistic blowtorch to.
Senator HANSON-YOUNG: I just want to swap into some of the other areas we’ve been looking at. What’s the action plan, I guess, from the ABC to ensure that younger audience members still access good-quality journalism and seek it out? We’ve been told that the shift is away from the traditional platforms and even the traditional brands and, despite the truth index and the trust index that the ABC carries, younger people are still looking for their snappy news on BuzzFeed.
Mr Morris: This is the area I think I’m, genuinely, most optimistic about. When I was a young journalist at the ABC, the bosses always used to tell you: ‘Don’t worry about the younger audience. They’re never going to be interested in what we’ve got to offer at the ABC—politics, analysis and international news and all of that kind of stuff. When they get to their 50s, they’ll come to us. They’ll be interested in it then.’ Then along came mobile phones, and what we are now seeing in terms of an audience profile for ABC news, for instance, is that two-thirds of our audience on mobile are under 40 and they’re mostly consuming the sorts of stories that we’ve always pursued. So we’re getting good audiences at the moment for what is going on in Zimbabwe on the mobile, and 66 per cent of the audience there is under 40. For the first time in the ABC’s history—and we’ve still got big broadcast audiences that are traditionally older and like watching news on a schedule and listening to the radio in a linear way—we’re seeing under-40 audiences engaging with us on social platforms and through our own platforms on mobile.
Senator HANSON-YOUNG: They’re not having to wait for the seven o’clock bulletin.
Mr Morris: They’ll never watch the seven o’clock bulletin. They’re simply never going to watch it, and we see that in our audience profile. The seven o’clock news has an audience profile in under-40s in single digits. They’re just never going to go there, and we used to worry ourselves sick about that because it was like: ‘Wow. If we’re not going to get them at seven o’clock, they’re not going to watch 7.30; they’re not going to watch Four Corners.
We’re in trouble here.’ But what we’re seeing now is, increasingly, if we can put the stories that we’re doing at seven o’clock, on 7.30, Four Corners, Australian Story or whatever else in a form that’s interesting to people consuming those stories on digital platforms, suddenly there’s a youth audience that’s up for that and who are interested in those types of stories. I think that is the most promising and optimistic thing about where journalism is going and for the ABC.
I reflect back to our teams—take the day after the election when the entire nation was confused about who the government was going to be, for the first time in the ABC’s history, 10 million Australians engaged with us to find out what was going on. It does not matter what broadcast event, what event was happening in the nation, how popular television used to be or radio used to be, we’d never had 10 million Australians come to us in one day. That’s because you’re still getting good broadcast audiences—though declining over time—you’re getting live audiences to things like NewsRadio, the news channel and the digital coverage. You’re reaching out to people who we wouldn’t have reached on social platforms, and you put all of that together and we can now reach audiences we never imagined 10 years ago.
Senator HANSON-YOUNG: What is the funding profile for delivering those services out of your budget?
Mr Morris: What we have sought to do—and this is attention, obviously, on an annual basis when you sit down and work out budgets. We know we’ve got to increasingly serve that great content to digital audiences and we know our funding is either static or falling, so that is about internally transforming the business as best we can. You’ll have seen earlier this year the Investing in Audiences strategy at the ABC. That effectively consolidated a lot of the internal non-content structures to free up many millions of dollars to reinvest in content. A lot of that then goes back into ensuring that we’re not only maintaining good content but we’re able to make it for digital audiences. I think, in every corner of the ABC, you’re now seeing transformation underway where we’re saying: we’ve either got to do a little less of something, do something a little differently or change the way we allocate funding between content and non-content sources to enable us to keep a contemporary audience experience.
Mr Sunderland: That explains the most recent restructure the ABC has proposed, which is moving further away from organising ourselves around platforms and more around content. So if you have a good—
Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Which cuts across whatever platform.
Mr Sunderland: Exactly. If you have a good multiskilled newsroom that is creating great news content, whether it be audio, video or text, then you are well positioned without having to decide which one is more important to send that where the eyeballs and the ears are.
Senator HANSON-YOUNG: How do you avoid the criticism that that’s asking staff to do more for less?
Mr Morris: It’s a tricky one, and our staff are doing more than anyone else—I think there’s no doubt about that. Anybody who makes an accusation that the ABC staff aren’t working as hard as anybody in the industry—it’s just not true any more; it may have been once. You see one of our journalists out on a story, and they are filing online, they are filing radio and they are filing television, and that is a heavy burden that we—
Senator HANSON-YOUNG: And they’re often doing it all on this.
Mr Morris: And they’re often doing that, and that’s a heavy burden for them to carry. What we are trying to do is be more judicious about either the outlets that we serve or the stories that we cover. A conversation that’s very active, for instance, in our local newsrooms at the moment is about the nature of marking stories for the sake of marking stories. Let’s do less of that. Let’s do fewer stories and try and do a better job of covering those in a richer way, and hopefully that kind of balances out something of the extra demands on the different platforms. I think there’s a reason for that. You take a seven o’clock news from 20 years ago and it would literally tell you all the things that happened, in a very ‘bulletin of record’ kind of way. We don’t need to do that anymore. What we’re trying to say is that the seven o’clock news might have fewer of those individual items in it, but let’s focus on the ones that really matter, let’s try to put more context around that and let’s do it across platforms. That’s the kind of dynamic we’re trying to work with in terms of editorial teams.
Senator SINGH: But you have to do that within the budget constraints and the resources that you have. If you look at that in a regional context—speaking as a politician here—often it’s the ABC that don’t turn up, because you don’t have the resources; you’ve only got one camera on a Saturday or what have you that can turn up. So you end up watching that 7 pm bulletin, and it’s full of stories from Victoria or New South Wales—
CHAIR: What’s wrong with New South Wales!
Senator SINGH: and it hardly has any local content, because of the lack of resources that you have on the ground.
CHAIR: I can’t believe you’re implying that nothing happens in Tasmania!
Senator SINGH: The chair is being very helpful here—not! Mr Morris, do you see that resourcing issue? I know that you’ve gone through another restructure and obviously you try to gild the lily or whatever to try to sustain the brand that you have, of providing that quality journalism, but do you think that those ongoing challenges of resourcing, or the lack thereof, and your budget constraints mean that, in providing stories across the country—which the ABC obviously has a commitment to, and its charter focuses on that—there is a big challenge?
Mr Morris: It’s a big challenge, but it’s one we take responsibility for and we will do, with what we’re given, the best we can. I note that we are the only on-the-ground active broadcast newsroom left in a market like the Northern Territory. In Tasmania we still have a good sized news team down there.
Senator SINGH: That’s all you have.
Mr Morris: That’s true, and whether they’re making the editorial selections that align with yours is obviously something we could discuss, but what we have done in recent times is reflected on the fact that maybe we are a bit too thin in parts of regional Australia. So there is a Connecting Communities initiative that we are rolling out at the moment, which is 80 new roles in regional Australia—multiplatform journalists and content makers. It is a $15 million investment, as a reallocation of that money we took off the non-content side of the business, to reinvest in being able to do more original content gathering in regional Australia. That’s 80 new roles that will go into regional Australia at a time when we recognise that some of the other media organisations are having to scale back what they’re doing in regional Australia.
Senator SINGH: Well, you’ve already scaled back enough, so I think you’re just putting back what some of what you already had taken out, to be honest.
Mr Sunderland: It depends what we’re talking about here. People often compare us with a local media organisation or a radio station or a TV network. The ABC, of course, is all of those things at once, and so you can look at the way in which we’ve organised our television production for television feature content, documentaries; you can look at the way we’re rolling out our news resources on the ground; you can look at our music networks. Every single part of the ABC has been under financial pressure, and that’s understandable—every media organisation is under financial pressure, often far more intense than ours. So, yes, we have made decisions about how we do that. I guess the thing I would stress is that the most recent changes we’ve been through in the last 12 to 18 months have been designed to do two things. First of all, most generally, it’s been to free up money out of structure to be put into content. And when we’ve put it into content, we’ve put it into two things: we’ve started a big, new fund for regional journalism, and we’ve started a big, new fund for television original content. There will always be debates about what is the most efficient and effective way to partner with the private sector, to partner with independent film-makers and to make that content. There have been changes, and they have had an impact, and Tasmania’s been one of the areas where it’s had an impact. But, at the end of the day—
Senator SINGH: And South Australia and WA.
Mr Sunderland: Yes, exactly. It’s been one of the areas— Senator SINGH: I’m not just speaking about my own state.
Mr Sunderland: No, I appreciate that, Senator. That has been the case, all in the interests of delivering an outcome for audiences that is more and better regional news coverage and more and better original Australian content. That’s the primary aim that we make apology for having.
Senator HANSON-YOUNG: I will ask a bit of a provocative question. We’ve had commercial news outfits present and submit to this inquiry. Obviously, we also heard, in the last round of media reform legislation, lots of commentary around the fact that things are really hard right now for them and they want the government to act so that they can keep delivering news services. We’ve had you guys today. We had SBS previously. Why aren’t you squealing more loudly? The commercials are saying the world’s terrible and everyone’s leaving them and it’s going online, and now they want the public, the government, to step in and help them. Surely, you have challenges.
Mr Sunderland: Yes, of course we have challenges; there’s no doubt about that. I’ve been around long enough to know that, if you go back 20 years, we had 1,000 more employees working for one TV station and radio networks. We now have multiple outlets, fewer people, and we’re doing far more. I guess the point we take on this is that we understand and have great sympathy for the fact that the business model for public interest journalism is difficult. When you look at newspapers, if you look at anybody, the idea of golden rivers of classifieds paying for the luxury of quality journalism has largely disappeared, and those golden rivers of classifieds are now flowing to somebody else who has no interest in public interest journalism. That is a huge challenge. In that context, against that background, the ABC is in an extraordinarily privileged position. We’re in an extraordinarily privileged position because our funding comes direct from the taxpayer, because they recognise the value of what we do. Point No. 1 for us is to continue to deliver that, with whatever constraints affect us. We live in the real world; we know things’ll be tough. We get that. The difficulty for us is that, while we can see the challenge that’s confronting the business models of so many organisations, it makes zero sense to us to threaten, reduce or kill off the one business model that’s working—that’s been working for 80 years—that says that, if you fund quality journalism, we will deliver it. So, from that philosophical point of view, it makes no sense to seek to damage the one model that continues to deliver—
Senator HANSON-YOUNG: So, because they’re finding it difficult and doing it hard—
Mr Sunderland: Exactly. If there was ever a case for the ABC, there has never been a greater case than there is now.
Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Yes.
Mr Sunderland: The second, purely pragmatic reason—and even Mr Hywood himself acknowledged this—is that I fail to see how damaging, killing off and reducing the ABC will actually deliver any relief to those who are struggling with their business model. Mr Morris made reference earlier to seven out of the 10 biggest websites being free; broadcast journalism has always been free in this country, supported by advertising. There was no market for people paying to turn on Channel 9 and Channel 7. Killing off the free model, killing off the taxpayer- funded model, will simply make the outcome for audience members worse than it already is.
Mr Morris: I’ve always reflected on this. I think the thing that would make our colleagues in the commercial media a lot angrier than they are now is if you had an advertising-based model for or you privatised the ABC. If you went down the path of doing anything like that, that’s when you would see a lot of blowback from an increasingly stretched revenue-earning industry. We’ll always be between those two arguments, I think.
CHAIR: I’m not sure that would upset people like the IPA.
Mr Morris: The IPA isn’t trying to make revenue out of a media service, so it probably wouldn’t.
CHAIR: There is a point that someone made. I want to put it to you. It’s a small point on iview and protecting the content. The point is this: it appears that, in the past year or so, there has been a bit of a shift at the ABC. I’m not sure whether this is because of the new CEO’s leadership. Previously—and I don’t know if this was a strategic decision or what was the case—the content was kept on iview and you wouldn’t post your own content on social media platforms. There now seems to be much more of a case where Media Watch and others will take content out of iview and place it on Facebook, Twitter or wherever. They seem to be doing a lot more of that now. Was that a strategic decision or does each program do it on its own? I know there is always a challenge. The second you put something on Facebook et cetera, ownership of content becomes complicated because they can suddenly do what they want. These are the kinds of challenges. I’m fascinated about whether that was a conscious decision or evolution.
Mr Sunderland: It’s hard to generalise. Gaven may want to say something, particularly about the strategy of News. There is no doubt that iview remains centrally important to us as the home of our television for on-demand viewing. That really is where you’ll get the full deal. That’s where you’ll get all of the main content. The reality of social media is that the vast number of people who use it now as their main front door to get to content will find things via Facebook and they’ll browse through YouTube. Like just about every other major media organisation, we understand and accept that we need to have a presence there, and that would have ramped up in recent years, not as a result of any single decision. In fact, we have a statement on our presence on third-party platforms which I can direct you to. It basically points out that we will often put our content on a third-party platform because we know that will get it in front of people who we think should see it, but we acknowledge that there can be compromises. Increasingly, third-party platforms are advertising supported and they’re compromised to some extent in the way you can get the full version. Our policy at the ABC is to put that out there and say, ‘Look at this stuff. If you want to see it in full, if you want to see it clean and uninterrupted, if you want to see more of it, come back to our platforms and you’ll find iview and you’ll find the news—
Senator SINGH: I understand the importance of iview and the fact that the ABC pushes it a lot, but why is it that the content on iview disappears so quickly?
Mr Sunderland: We’re working on that as we speak. We’d like it to stay there longer; we’d like more of it to be there. It is simply the question of an intersection between a broadcast rights environment and the modern online world. We will be doing this increasingly to get the maximum value from what we do, particularly with more expensive TV productions. They are co-productions with our partners and written into those productions are rights arrangements around how often you can screen them. In the old days, we’d buy the right to show it five times on the main channel. Then you started buying the right to have it up for a certain period on—
Senator SINGH: I understand that there are rights arrangements, particularly if they’re overseas productions and all of that—
Mr Sunderland: And it costs money to go beyond that.
Senator SINGH: but SBS don’t seem to have those issues. They also have overseas productions.
Mr Sunderland: Yes, we all have those issues to various extents and for various reasons. If you’re buying a one-off program that’s nowhere else in Australia, you can quite often negotiate very different rights around it. The reality is that, to one level or another, we all face them. One of the areas we spend most of our time at the moment is smoothing that out and getting more consistency. Believe me, Senator, we’d like to have it up longer too.
Senator SINGH: All right, but you wouldn’t have that arrangement or that problem with your own content created productions, like Four Corners, for example? Is that right?
Mr Morris: Strangely, you do for this reason: there is often the use of music in a Four Corners episode which has commercial rights sitting behind it or you will use agency video or archive video that may not necessarily be out. Again, you’re right. The instinct is: how can we clear much of that away so that we can put a great ABC documentary or a great current affairs program up and have it there as a permanent resource. But it’s a change to the television production model, because that’s not how the television production model has worked in the past. For instance, for Four Corners, Foreign Correspondent or a long film, you have to use non-commercial music, which is a change to how they’ve produced them in the past and it’s a compromise for a television audience on what you might have produced previously, or you have to re-edit it afterwards to effectively change what you broadcast for an online rights environment.
Mr Sunderland: There’s one final point that I will raise on that because it is a point too—
CHAIR: It’s all about the music.
Mr Sunderland: Unlike broadcasting, on demand online costs money. Every time an extra person looks at it, it increases the amount of storage needed, the amount of capacity needed and the size of the pipes needed. It is expensive. The ABC alone, even compared to the SBS, is alone in getting zero return for that. SBS carries advertising on its streams and the more streams the more advertising revenue flows. Everything we do in the new environment is a net cost to us, and that goes to the quality of the signal, the size of it and the number of streams we can have. These are all considerations.
Senator SINGH: It goes back to my resources argument. With more resources, the ABC could invest in some of the platform issues that the new public interest journalism landscape is facing to remain a source that people can access more widely. The ABC has an enormous amount of archived content that could be viewed as opposed to throwing on too much BBC over the summer, if the resources were there to resolve some of these licensing issues and the hurdles that you’ve described, which would be of benefit to so many Australians.
Mr Sunderland: Some of it’s about resourcing and some of it’s about us prioritising areas where we can renegotiate or restructure and reorganise. These are all areas that are currently part of our strategy.
Mr Morris: You make a fair point in both of those questions. In relation to the complexity of making a piece of content for many platforms, there are a lot of processes. For instance, you have a great Foreign Correspondent coming up, it’s returning for summer this year and it’s a brilliant first episode. What we’ve really sought to do with that is ensure it’s not only a great film for Monday night for ABC television; it’s a great digital piece, it’s a great Apple news piece, it’s a great Facebook piece, it’s a great YouTube video and it’s a great online article. All of that obviously takes resources that aren’t just about making a television program. So, increasingly, that is a very complex set of production elements that you have to think through when you want to take one great piece of content and provide it to many audiences who consume it in different ways. That’s the sort of complexity our teams deal with on a daily basis now.
Senator SINGH: And they need to, obviously, because this is the world we live in—right?
Mr Morris: Exactly.
CHAIR: Mr Morris and Mr Sunderland, thank you for that. That was a very insightful presentation and Q&A session. Thank you for making yourselves available.
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