Wed, 12 Jun - 09:13
Viewed 73 times

Transcript: ABC Radio Breakfast with Fran Kelly

Topics: Freedom of the press; funding for the ABC; priorities for the media sector.

 

FRAN KELLY:

Well, a Parliamentary inquiry into media protections now seems almost certain. Labor has thrown its support behind a top-level review of the restrictions placed on journalists by the sweep of national security laws introduced since the 9/11 attacks.

 

[Excerpt]

KRISTINA KENEALLY:

I’m urging the government to consider constituting a specific Parliamentary joint committee that can look at this very question. How do we ensure that our national security is maintained but yet we are upholding the freedom of the press? A look at the legislation we have passed, a look at suggestions that are coming forward from media organisations and other experts is what we now need to do.

[End of excerpt]

 

FRAN KELLY:

That’s Kristina Keneally. She’s the Shadow Home Affairs Minister, speaking on TV Breakfast a short time ago.

The Prime Minister has been consulting senior media executives about such a probe including yesterday sitting down with the ABC Chairwoman, Ita Buttrose, and our Managing Director, David Anderson. The national broadcaster has raised its concerns about last week’s police raids and the implications for a free press in this country. Paul Fletcher is the new Communications Minister, he was also at the meeting yesterday I understand. Minister, welcome back to Breakfast.

 

PAUL FLETCHER:

Good to be with you, Fran.

 

FRAN KELLY:

The Government’s been hinting for a few days now about an inquiry. Now we see Labor strongly on board. Will the Morrison Government agree to a fresh look at the laws impacting press freedom in this country?

 

PAUL FLETCHER:

Well, can I make the point that press freedom is a bedrock principle in a democracy – it’s a very important principle. It means that editorial decisions are made by media organisations independent of government. I mean it is interesting to see our Labor opponents who are a bit all over the map on this because as recently as 2013 Labor in government was proposing something called the Public Interest Media Advocate, which was described by a senior media executive at the time as an attempt to have government sanctioned journalism. Mr Dreyfus, the Shadow Attorney General, has also been all over the map on this. He was beating his chest last week and then it turned out that he had written to the government last year insisting that we have an immediate inquiry. So …

 

FRAN KELLY:

[Interrupts] Well let’s not worry too much about the opposition. What does the Government think? What’s your attitude now to an inquiry? Should we have one?

 

PAUL FLETCHER:

Well, the Prime Minister said yesterday that it’s important to recognise that nobody’s above the law, that includes journalists. Of course we understand that journalists are anxious about the events of last week the Australian Federal Police executing a search warrant, or two search warrants. And the Prime Minister said if there’s a suggestion, or evidence, or analysis that reveals the need for further improvement of the laws the Government’s always open to that.

 

FRAN KELLY:

Well, what does that mean though? I mean, yes the PM seems to have been moving along on this, as did Mathias Cormann. Now the Prime Minister’s spoken to a whole lot of media editors and you have too. I mean we’re now at a point where the community concern here and overseas is heightened. I mean it was even cited by Julian Assange’s lawyers as part of what they call a worldwide assault on journalists. These raids last week were reported around the world. As Communications Minister is it your advice to the Prime Minister we need a review?

 

PAUL FLETCHER:

Well, it’s important to get some things in context here. Firstly, the AFP is conducting investigations into Commonwealth officials who it is alleged have breached provisions of the Crimes Act dealing with the duty of those officials to keep information secret. So the inquiry’s into Commonwealth officials, not into journalists. Secondly, the AFP was executing search warrants. It needs to go to a judicial officer to get those search warrants granted and the AFP is subject to the rule of law – as are media organisations and journalists, and as indeed is every citizen. What that means is that if there is a question as to whether search warrants have been duly executed it is open to the organisation that’s the subject of it to mount a legal challenge. All of this is governed by the rule of law.

 

FRAN KELLY:

[Interrupts] Sure. But that’s exactly what we’re talking about. Are the laws still fit for purpose? I mean we’ve had 70 separate laws since the 9/11 terror attacks, some of them effectively criminalising journalism with jail terms of up to 10 years. Labor, for instance, wants to amend the 2014 Foreign Fighters Bill to legislate exemptions for journalists and whistle blowers who reveal information in the public interest. You know, should those…would that law be a good place to start looking at?

 

PAUL FLETCHER:

Well, Fran, the point I’d make is that the law under which the AFP is carrying out its investigation at the moment is a law that has been on the statute books for many decades.

 

FRAN KELLY:

That’s true.

 

PAUL FLETCHER:

So the suggestion that in some way what we’re seeing is a new development is inconsistent with those facts. I’d also make the point …

 

FRAN KELLY:

[Interrupts] But we’ve also had many laws since then, Minister, and you’d have to agree with this that have put more onus on journalists and more punitive penalties on journalists and whistle blowers.

 

PAUL FLETCHER:

And we’ve also had laws passed in the last couple of years, indeed effectively an update of the provisions under which the AFP was operating, which now include a defence for journalists who receive information which, in their judgement, is in the public interest and they deal with it in that fashion. So in fact the Parliament, the democratically elected Parliament, has weighed up these factors. Press freedom has never been absolute, it’s always been balanced against other factors such as, for example, the law of defamation, the law of sub judice which says that you can’t report things that would prejudice somebody’s right to a fair trial, national security considerations and others.

That’s always been the case and there’s always a balance of these factors in a democracy. What’s important is that the balance is struck in laws made by democratically elected Parliament and that it is open to parties to go to court under the law to, for example, challenge whether a search warrant has been validly executed. So these are important principles in terms of the way that freedom of the press operates.

 

FRAN KELLY:

Yes. But even in terms of those processes, have we got the balance right? I mean Australia’s laws appear to be laxer than others. I mean, in the case of the ABC raid the police warrant was granted by a court registrar in Queanbeyan. In contrast, let’s look at how warrants work in Britain: a police application for journalistic material has to be approved first by the DPP, then put before a judge – not just a registrar – with the media represented, and on no account can it seek to identify a journalist’s sources. So the government in this country keeps defending the independent in the police. But is it too easy under the laws we have now, and the laws that we have brought in since 9/11 for the police to pursue journalists without proper checks and balances? What do you think?

 

PAUL FLETCHER:

Well, the point I’d make is that there is always a balance of these factors. That the events of last week did not occur under laws that have been brought in just in the last few years but in fact provisions that have been in place for many decades. But again, I’d repeat what the Prime Minister has said: if there is evidence or analysis that suggests the need for further improvement to these laws, the Government’s always open to that. But he’s also said …

 

FRAN KELLY:

[Interrupts] Okay. What does that mean though? Because I’ve got the listeners writing in at the rate of knots I can tell you saying why are they beating about the bush? What’s going on here? I mean, should… let me ask you this question, should the Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security do a review? Labor suggests it should, but Labor also says that they’d be open to a new joint committee of both houses to recommend changes to make sure the right balance is struck between national security and the public’s right to know. Do you think it's important that a committee takes a look at this issue now?

 

PAUL FLETCHER:

The Government is aware of these calls and these suggestions. The Prime Minister has been in discussions with senior media officials. I’ve been in discussions with senior executives of media organisations…

 

FRAN KELLY:

[Talks over] And what have they been telling you? They want an inquiry?

 

PAUL FLETCHER:

… and the Prime Minister and I met with the Chair and the Managing Director of the ABC yesterday. It was a very constructive discussion. We had a discussion of the issue of press freedom. Ita Buttrose as Chair of the ABC, put to the Prime Minister and to me her concerns and the ABC’s concerns. We had a constructive discussion about it. I’m not going to go into the details of the discussion but it was a constructive discussion and the Prime Minister’s comments to her were in line with what he’s been saying publicly.

Now, I’m not going to add to what the Prime Minister and Mathias Cormann as Leader of the Government in the Senate have said about where we go from here. But I would say the Prime Minister has been in discussions as have I with senior executives of media organisations. We understand that this is an issue which makes journalists anxious…

 

FRAN KELLY:

[Interrupts] So will you take action?

 

PAUL FLETCHER:

What we want to do is approach this matter in a sober and consultative and calm fashion. As the Prime Minister has said, we’re always open if detailed analysis reveals that there’s a need for further improvement in the laws, well, we don’t rule that out. But beyond that, I’m not going to add to what the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Government in the Senate have said about where we take this in terms of process right now.

 

FRAN KELLY:

So you’re not guaranteeing any action to come on this front? Beyond consultation.

 

PAUL FLETCHER:

Well, the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Government in the Senate have stated where we go to from here and I’m not going to add to what they have said about these matters…

 

FRAN KELLY:

[Talks over] But they haven’t said where we go to from there, that’s the point.

 

PAUL FLETCHER:

…other than to emphasise that press freedom is a bedrock principle in a democracy and we are always open to looking at a further improvement to the laws if a sober analysis of the evidence suggests that that’s required.

 

FRAN KELLY:

Minister, can I ask for your view. You’ve said this twice now that press freedom is a bedrock principle in our democracy. Would you join the calls for those who are saying it’s time for Australia to have something like a Press Freedom Act to give the press some legal backing to do their jobs and put some rules around this. We don’t have a bill of rights which most of our Five Eyes partners do. Would you support something like a Press Freedom Act?

 

PAUL FLETCHER:

No. I think it is premature to be leaping to particular solutions or responses. The execution of two search warrants by the AFP last week has led to concerns. The Government is aware of those concerns, we’re aware of the anxiety that these causes working journalists, we certainly are aware of that and recognise that.

As the Prime Minister has said we’re open to a sober analysis of what the issues are but let’s do that in a sober and reflective way and let’s be clear that the facts of last week occurred under laws that have been in place for many decades. So the premise of your question Fran, that the events of last week are a result of legislation that’s been introduced in recent years is, with respect, not factually correct.

 

FRAN KELLY:

Okay. You’re listening to RN Breakfast. It’s 18 past eight. Our guest is Paul Fletcher. He’s the new Minister for Communications, Cyber Safety and the Arts.

Minister, in yesterday’s meeting with the ABC, I believe funding was discussed. It’s usually an issue between the public broadcaster and governments. The Government has imposed an $84 million funding cut over three years on the ABC. Labor had promised to restore that cut had it won government. Will you?

 

PAUL FLETCHER:

Well, let’s be clear. The funding for the ABC is over $1 billion a year over the next three years. Nominal funding is being maintained and in addition there’s an additional $43.7 million to support local news and current affairs. So…

 

FRAN KELLY:

[Interrupts] But there is a cut? An $84 million cut over three years.

 

PAUL FLETCHER:

There’s an efficiency dividend which is consistent with what is required of just about every government funded organisation. So the ABC is being treated no differently to any other government funded organisation in being asked to provide an efficiency dividend.

We had a very constructive discussion yesterday about the approach that the new Chair and the new Managing Director are taking and that was certainly one of the subjects of discussion in the meeting. We also spoke about the efficiency review which the Government has provided to the ABC, but I would say the tone of the meeting was constructive and productive.

 

FRAN KELLY:

Okay. Just finally, you’ve only have a couple of weeks now to think about your priorities for the media industry as the new Minister. Do you have some thoughts? What will they be?

 

PAUL FLETCHER:

Well, certainly it is important that we have a vigorous media sector and much of the media sector in Australia of course is privately owned. The national broadcasters are very important but much of the sector is privately owned and facing significant challenges due to changes in technology, competition from global players like Google, Facebook, Netflix and so on.

So it’s important to make sure that we’ve got a regulatory framework that is fit-for-purpose, that isn’t backward looking, and already a number of media organisations have made the point to me that there are features of our regulatory structure which are based upon the industry as it stood even 30 or 40 years ago. And so I think those are likely to be areas that will need further examination. It’s important that we have a vigorous media sector and in terms of the privately owned players, it’s important that regulatory settings are not artificially holding them back.

 

FRAN KELLY:

And what might that mean, changing the regulatory sector? In what area?

 

PAUL FLETCHER:

Well, I’ve been in the portfolio for less than two weeks so at this stage I’m interested in articulating principles not specific measures. I do believe a principle of competitive neutrality is very important, that organisations are competing in the same market to the maximum extent possible should be treated the same way in the law.

 

FRAN KELLY:

Alright. Well, I’m sure we’ll be speaking to you again as you develop these policies. Paul Fletcher, thank you very much for joining us.

 

PAUL FLETCHER:

Thanks Fran.

 

FRAN KELLY:

Paul Fletcher is the Minister for Communications, Cyber Safety and the Arts.

 

- Ends -