Nine's Hugh Marks: 'We shouldn’t fear truth'

Hugh Marks, Nine CEO
By Hugh Marks, Nine CEO | 26 June 2019
Hugh Marks

Full text of Nine CEO Hugh Marks’ speech at the National Press Club:

Women and men of the media, together with my colleagues David & Michael.

Thank you to the National Press Club for the opportunity to discuss Media Freedom in Australia in 2019.

We are operating at a time when a combination of factors - including technological change, bad legislation across several fronts and over zealous officials in the judiciary, bureaucracy and security services - have steadily eroded the freedom within which we the media can operate.

Put simply it is more risky and more expensive to do journalism that makes a real difference in this country than ever before.
It is important to note it hasn’t just got harder for journalists. These factors impact whistle blowers and other confidential sources as well. Indeed, in many cases the risks and costs are higher.

As a society, we shouldn’t fear truth. We shouldn’t fear debate. We shouldn’t fear opinions. The Australian public’s right to know makes our democracy function. It’s paramount. Full stop.

Sure sometimes it’s uncomfortable. Embarrassing. Awkward. And yes it seems that some in government, business and other institutions would prefer that this right didn’t exist.

But investigative journalism exposes wrongs that need to be put right. It shines a light on conduct that needs calling out. It starts important debates.

Laurie Oakes righted a wrong – here in Canberra – in 1997. With access to “leaked” documents, he exposed MP’s rorting travel allowance entitlements and ripping off Australian taxpayers. Three ministers resigned, as well as the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff.

Likewise, Joanne McCarthy’s courageous reporting for the Newcastle Herald into historical sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests also led to a Royal Commission. For so many victims, there was finally some justice. And some closure.

Whistle-blowers talk to journalists because they know that – way too often – it’s the only way the truth can come out. The only way a government, institution or a bureaucracy will be forced into action. Action that benefits the public in tangible, enduring ways.

In 2017, Chris O’Keefe broke the story on Nine News Sydney about gross negligence at Bankstown Hospital that left one baby dead and another infant with severe brain damage after a mistake involving toxic gas.

Senior government officials knew about this disaster 10 days before Chris found out. They were sitting on it, arguing about whether to tell the public. Only one brave whistle-blower, frustrated that our authorities were paralysed by indecision, tipped off Chris. It forced the NSW government to act.

These stories - and many more - took our journalists days, weeks and months of painstaking work and detailed checking of facts to get it right, to inform the public, to do our job.

But if we don’t invest in finding out truth. In the public’s right to know. We’ve let ourselves down. And we will be all the worse for it.

So why is media freedom in this country under serious threat? Why is it increasingly difficult for all of you guys just to do your jobs?

I’ve been discussing this with my colleagues across our business and the consensus is, unfortunately it’s many things. All of which need action.

First and foremost, our governments and institutions are becoming more secretive. Much too often these days the words ‘national security’ are conveniently invoked as a means of shutting down the flow of information and debate on the most spurious grounds. To spare serious examination, public ventilation or just garden variety embarrassment. It’s a twisted default position ….

The balance in the national security debate is now too weighted towards secrecy and away from the public’s right to know.

Second, it’s the persecution of, and lack of protection for, legitimate whistle blowers. Whether they be from government. Or from industry. All too often brave people persecuted because our institutions don’t respect the public’s right to know. We should admire those who speak out over legitimate injustices. All too often it’s the way real change happens. Again for the benefit of the public.

The balance for whistle blowers is too weighted against them speaking out - an action that is so incredibly hard to undertake in the first place.

Third, it’s the way defamation laws and the implementation of those laws don’t achieve the outcomes they are meant to achieve. Yes, of course holding journalists to account is important. Rightly. Importantly. We should own our mistakes. But not to the extent where current defamations laws mean a journalist goes gets into the ring with the unscrupulous, the dishonest and the corrupt with two hands tied behind his or her back.

Richard Baker, a senior investigative journalist at The Age, explained it to me this way: Everyone has a right to defend their reputation. But the way the defamation law has been playing out and manipulated has genuinely made me pull punches that really need to connect if the public interest is to be properly served. These laws need updating and rebalancing.’

The onus of proof in defamation law as it now operates is wrong. Particularly when it comes to truth. And what’s in the public interest. Better balance is needed to ensure defamation law deals with serious matters. With serious harm. The growth of costly judgements based on Facebook posts or Google reviews show the law has failed to keep up with the way the world has changed, just look at the judgement this week in the Voller case – how can we do what the court suggests.

If we get this right it will provide more opportunity for wrongs to be remedied faster. And in turn ensure the onus for journalists and their publishers is fair and reasonable

Fourth, media freedom is also impacted by the huge rise in the granting of, and lack of transparency in relation to, suppression orders. And the complexity of access to information under FOI laws. I’m not going to do justice to in my 7 minutes but which are equally important to the operation of a free media. And the public’s right to know.

Michael Bachelard, Investigations Editor at The Age, told me...:Doing investigative journalism in Australia right now feels like navigating an obstacle course of legal hazards. Including the web of court suppression orders. Courts should be open and transparent and right now, particularly in Victoria, they are far from it.

What a mess. This would be the stuff of pantomime, were it not so serious. And all at a time when the changing media landscape has diverted revenue to tech companies who don’t contribute to public interest journalism while at the same time increasing the costs of running newsrooms built around quality journalism.

All of which underscores why we’re here today, and why we must push hard for action to protect and expand media freedom right now – as in immediately.

Doing what journos do best is never easy. Breaking big stories and conducting major investigations that serve the greater good is tough, relentless work. But work rendered increasingly difficult by the myriad of hurdles I’ve mentioned.

It’s not right. And it’s going to hurt everyone. Our democracy depends on transparency and openness. It can be done.

Before I end I do want to note one thing. Not all reporting under the guise of journalism warrants investment or defense. Journalism that employs unnamed sources to run rumours about individuals which have no basis in fact, or journalism which cuts and pastes from other sources to get a quick click are destructive to our community and erode the trust and respect our society holds for us.

For us to move forward and argue effectively for Media Freedom we have to, as an industry, ensure we meet the responsibilities of that Freedom. And hold ourselves to account when that fails.

Our National Security is of course something we should all respect. In some cases journalists, must put these interests before their desire to publish or broadcast.

We have a broader responsibility to ensure we all contribute positively to debate. And we call out those that don’t do the work. Or hide behind untruths or made up stories. Because the last impediment to media freedom is poor journalism.

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