Press freedom is fragile in this island-continent of 26 million people, where ultra-concentration of media ownership, combined with growing official pressure, endanger public-interest journalism.
Two giant firms dominate the media landscape, making Australia’s media landscape one of the most concentrated in the world. Nine Entertainment group has consolidated its position in recent years by buying parts of Melbourne-based Southern Cross Media and by absorbing the Fairfax Media newspaper chain and the Sydney Morning Herald, the country’s newspaper of record. Meanwhile, News Corp., controlled by the family of Australian-American magnate Rupert Murdoch, is emblematic of the dangers that media ownership hyper-concentration pose to media pluralism. The company’s Australian subsidiary controls more than two-thirds of the country’s leading papers, including The Australian daily, as well as most online news portals. This oligarchic model prioritises business interests to the detriment of public-interest journalism. As such, state-owned broadcasters have taken the lead, with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) and the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS), both of which offer high-quality investigative journalism.
The executives of the big media companies maintain close ties to political leaders, which fuels doubts about the editorial independence of the outlets they own. In 2021, a Senate committee confirmed the existence of a growing culture of secrecy by the administration vis-à-vis the press, of informal pressure not to reveal certain matters, and of intimidation of whistle-blowers under the pretext of protecting national security. On the public service side, the independence of the process for appointing members of ABC’s board of directors raises all the more questions, as the government has embarked on a drastic cost-reduction plan. The network’s budget has been cut by more than half a billion Australian dollars (330 million euros) since 2014, leading to hundreds of layoffs.
Australia has ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Many of the country’s states and territories ensure protection of press freedom. However, Australia’s Constitution does not contain an explicit clause to this effect. This causes growing problems, especially because some states are showing draconian tendencies concerning the free practice of journalism. At the federal level, the Canberra parliament has also adopted, since the end of the 2010s, several problematic laws: those on national security, espionage, and data encryption, in particular, contain provisions authorising officials to violate the principle of journalists’ confidential source protection.
The business manoeuvres regarding the concentration of media ownership are all the more harmful to pluralism, in that the local media have traditionally played the fundamental role of linking information for the populations scattered across Australia’s immense territory. The Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance (MEAA), which advocates for Australian press freedom, noted in an alarming 2021 report that more than 150 local and regional papers closed in the space of a year. In general, business reasoning has put editorial integrity and economic viability of the media behind the concerns of cost reduction, which leads to salary restructuring. This situation has become devastating for the local press, which is on the verge of extinction.
Overt censorship is extremely rare, but the media do reflect certain biases, such as the “mateship” culture – a form of male friendship specific to Australian society – which tends to marginalise certain groups, starting with women. Cases of sexism and gender discrimination are a persistent problem. Senate hearings in 2021 also shed light on the normalisation of racism trend on News Corp. broadcasts, with discriminatory remarks that openly target Australians of Asian and African ancestry, along with Muslims, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
Australian journalists do not face violence or arbitrary detention. But the perception of their security situation is no less worrying: in a 2021 study, nearly 90% of them said they feared “an increase in threats, harassment or intimidation”, starting with threats from the government. Indeed, a 2019 search by the federal police of both the home of a political journalist in Canberra and the headquarters of the ABC created an alarming legal precedent that threatens the survival of public-interest journalism.