The most trusted journalist of the 20th century Walter Cronkite said: "freedom of the press is not just important to democracy, it is democracy". There has never been a more accurate statement and we must always be vigilant regarding the capability of the press to inform us.
The media landscape is constantly changing, but the pace in which it has changed in the last decade is leaving many regional areas across Australia without a strong voice to tell uniquely local stories.
The Morrison Government has commissioned three reports in the last year to assess the state of the media industry and whether regional media companies can survive under the current framework. But this is too little too late for a sector that is trying to survive right now.
It was reported this year that 157 newsrooms have closed temporarily or indefinitely since early 2019. News Corp announced in May that it would close 112 print newspapers in order to shift to wholly digital content, with 36 closing altogether and 76 remaining as online mastheads. This is devastating for so many regional communities, many now without a local voice or trusted news source that they have had for over 100 years.
Then there are the cuts to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. As Treasurer, Scott Morrison cut $83.7 million in 2018. This has resulted in not only job losses in regional areas but also a decline in public interest journalism.
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission found that the ABC is not resourced to fully compensate for the decline in local reporting. Misinformation and disinformation is on the rise and Australians need trusted sources of information.
Regional media is in direct competition with the unregulated digital services of metropolitan media and global internet giants, on everything from drama content to public interest journalism. When stories can't be told and the media landscape and media dissemination is controlled by some of the largest corporations in the world, namely Google and Facebook it falls to government to stabilise the system.
Media ownership laws have always been a matter of contention in Australia. Government must consider structural reform to address digital disruption, structural challenges and the risk of market failure in regional media. There can be no question that regional media is in crisis. After seven years we have seen nothing from the Liberal National Government in the way of evidence-informed policy options for a way forward to support a diverse and sustainable regional media sector, that supports local jobs and tells local stories.
This debate needs courage and leadership from our business and political leaders because delay in public policy development only results in decay. We have a situation in Tasmania currently where all regional media is struggling to grasp what the future landscape looks like. Advertising is in decline and our major newspapers and television reporters are sharing footage because they do not have enough crews or resources to tell local stories that need to be told.
I have always firmly believed that although the media does not tell us what we think, it certainly does influence what we believe. And if it does not have the resources or if it no longer exists, local stories will be replaced by national and international stories which have little or no relevance or consequence to the lives of regional Tasmanians. Locals should have media consumption options. One newspaper states are not good for democracy.
More jobs have disappeared from the ABC in Tasmania this year, redundancies have been offered and their ability, along with our local and regional newspapers to tell local stories is now inhibited. Telling stories is fundamental to a well functioning society. The transfer and dissemination of information is necessary for a vibrant democracy. Media acts not only as a news service. It harnesses community spirit and encourages local and national debate. If people no longer have access to news how will they find out what is happening in their local area? How will they remain engaged in the direction of their community?
Media laws in Australia are from an analog era and do not account for the digital reality. Suggested reform must take into account internet streaming services like Netflix. We need the government to act quickly on a more economically sustainable plan to ensure regional Australians receive the very best local media services now and beyond.
Please support regional media because I believe locals should be telling local stories.
- Helen Polley is a Tasmanian Labor Senator.
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