There is a high degree of unfortunate irony in the current campaign by Australia’s media heavyweights to preserve freedom of speech and the public’s ‘right to know’ in the face of continuing encroachment by governments and their agencies into the reporting of matters of public interest in this country.

The erosion of press freedom in Australia has been gradual and real.

The problem is not that the big media players are wrong in confronting the government over a range of contentious issues relating to the ability of the ‘fourth estate’ to carry out its traditional watchdog role in our democracy.

The problem lies in the fact that the traditional media faces a broad range of issues which impact directly on its ability to provide the same level of engagement and service delivery which readers, listeners and viewers have enjoyed for years.

Not only has the rise of the massive social media operations such as Facebook and Google dramatically reduced revenue sources for mainstream media but other effects, cultural and sociological, have affected the way in which news ecosystems have operated.

It is not only newspapers, large and small, in city and rural areas which have faced existential challenges, but the traditional electronic media too, radio and television, has suffered.

Country communities which once had access to regular in-depth coverage of local news of all types are now facing the fact that regional radio and television newsrooms are closing or being amalgamated.

Many chain-owned community papers too, have, suffered because the model of group ownership has not delivered the news and event coverage that was once expected by readers.

The problem with central ‘news hubs’ means that the former quality, quantity and scope of local coverage has fallen away.

Declines in reporting of local government, key community issues, social and sports news have not only occurred in this country but a recent report indicated the loss of at least 1,000 community newspapers in the United States. In some cases the local newspaper has simply become a group-owned advertising supplement with little local content. They’re called ‘ghost publications’ in the U.S.

On the electronic media front, regional television and radio stations, have closed or centralised newsrooms and the three big regional television operators are talking about amalgamations such has been the fall in their revenues.

Some community newspapers in NSW, operating on the traditional model of local reporting and being part of the community they serve, continue to operate successfully.

There are indications, from last week’s NSW Country Press Conference, that small, independent community newspapers continue to survive – and, in many cases, prosper with The Courier being recognised for its outstanding contribution to country newspapers in 2019. (See report on Thursday).

The fight to preserve freedom of speech is an honourable one.

What would be detrimental to our way of life in country areas if local, independent and responsible local journalism no longer is available to towns and districts.

In such a case, the ‘right to know’ is denied not by heavy-handed officialdom but through a harmful new economic reality.

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