Speech at the Inaugural Global Media Freedom Conference,

Canada Water, London

July 2019

Let me say this right at the outset. I come from a career in publicly funded journalism in Australia, well paid and well supported by the public, and I am standing here on a stage in London joined by others who have also enjoyed secure and well-paid careers in journalism. That puts me in a privileged position.

This conference has a strong focus on journalists who have been far less privileged and who face far greater dangers, and so it should. So it should. I have colleagues around the world who are being threatened, fired, arrested, detained and murdered because they have dared to do their jobs as independent brave reporters. It is and always will be a number one priority to advocate for their safety and their very lives in the face of the repressive and totalitarian forces arrayed against them. Global action to protect journalism is vital, and this conference may well prove to be an important step in that process.

But before we all lean back and bask in the glow of the good work we seek to do, safe in the knowledge that journalists in our countries have freedom and rights, I want to take the conversation in a different direction. Bashings, arrests and murders are cruel, bloody and undemocratic ways of bullying and silencing journalism, but they are by no means the only ways.

Last month, in a development that was reported around the world, Federal Police raided Australia’s main public broadcaster, the ABC, where I worked as Editorial Director until a couple of months ago. They went through computer files, video content and reporter’s notes and seized a number of documents. Legal action to overturn that is currently underway, but at its heart that raid was an attempt to uncover the source of important and controversial stories that criticised the action of some Australian troops in Afghanistan. My former colleagues at the ABC and their sources are facing dire consequences for daring to do that story, and you can easily imagine the chilling effect that is having on others who are pursuing difficult and controversial stories that are clearly in the public interest.

Last year, there was an even bigger crisis at the ABC, one that resulted in the departure of the Managing Director and the Chairman of the Governing Board. At the heart of that complex dispute were allegations that the ABC was under pressure to get rid of journalists whose work had annoyed the Government of the day. The ABC had already suffered significant cuts to its budget with more on the way, all at the hands of a Government that regularly accused the broadcaster of being biased, unAustralian and unfairly critical of them.

It seems to me that what has been happening to the ABC in Australia follows a familiar pattern around the world, where Governments seek to curtail, control or even close down independent public broadcasters. Let’s remind ourselves of a few of these.

In Tonga, the chair and the general manager of the public broadcaster were sacked by the Government over claims their reporting was too critical of the government.

In South Africa, SABC is drowning in a sea of neglect and debt that threatens its survival.

Across Europe, there are concerns that the loss of independence of public broadcasters in places like Hungary and Poland is now spreading further, to places like Austria.

In Switzerland, the forces arrayed against the public broadcaster forced a referendum in a bid to abolish its funding. The public voted it down convincingly.

In Asia, the Japanese broadcaster NHK has had to go to court to fight for the retention of its compulsory licence fees, while in South Korea journalists at the public broadcaster have gone on extended strikes twice in the last five years because of clear government interference in their independence.

Meanwhile, here in the UK, the BBC is dealing with the impact of losing hundreds of millions of pounds in much needed funding because of the removal of the licence fee exemption from over 75’s. In effect, the BBC has been forced to do the Government’s dirty work for it or close down significant areas of output.

And most recently in Brazil, the public broadcaster EBC first of all had its independence from Government stripped away, and now it is being dismantled completely.

All of these examples are about public broadcasting, the section of the media that is meant to belong to the people, to citizens not governments.  There is clear evidence that public broadcasters around the world are under unprecedented pressure. In some cases it threatens their very existence. In other cases it exposes them to the death of a thousand cuts – loss of funding, loss of independence and relentless pressure to get on board and support the powers that be.

And the great irony is that this pressure is coming at a time when public broadcasting has never been more important, it’s never been more needed, and it’s never been more valued by the public it serves.


Let me pause for a moment and go back to the basics. It was less than a generation ago that if you wanted to buy a house, sell a car, find a job, check what the weather was going to be tomorrow or find out if your team won, you bought a newspaper. If you wanted some entertainment as well, you switched on the TV or the radio. In that world, where the means of mass communication were only open to a lucky few there were rivers of gold and licences to print money for the big media companies, and that helped fund the news we all read, watched and listened to.

Now, as we all know, those rivers of gold flow to the big online and social media companies, to Google, Apple, Facebook, none of whom see themselves as being in the news business. The business model to fund journalism, particularly public interest journalism and of course local journalism, is drying up and everyone is worrying about what to do to keep it alive.

We know that the public values good journalism and we know that the need for citizens in a democracy to have access to independent, accurate and insightful information about the world they live in is vital. So as business models disappear, how can we fund journalism as a public good, so people can get access to reporting without fear or favour?

Well, we already know one answer to that question. Public broadcasting IS that model. That is precisely why it was established in the first place, and that is precisely why it needs to be protected, defended and extended more than ever before.

What else do we know?

We know that, in almost every market where a genuine independent public broadcaster operates, it is far and away the most trusted source of news. In Australia, the ABC consistently enjoys a trust rating of 80% in survey after survey. When it comes to its news reporting, that figure rises to 90%. Public broadcasters are THE most trusted news source here in the UK, in Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Hong Kong, Ireland, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, the list goes on.

So at a time when business models for journalism are collapsing, attacks on journalism in repressive regimes are growing and the public is crying out for independent and accurate news they can trust, public broadcasting is a vital part of that solution: trusted, valued and well established.

Not perfect. Not perfect by any means, and always in need of ongoing efforts to ensure it understands the communities it serves, delivers the news they need and can be held to account by them.

But in this era of threats to global media freedom, when governments and their citizens are gathering on occasions like this to discuss what can be done, and when privately funded journalism increasingly finds it hard to pay for the kind of journalism it used to do, public broadcasting at its best is going from strength to strength.

To take the ABC in Australia as an example, it spent many years of its existence as the third or fourth most popular broadcaster, outspent and outmuscled by private media. It was trusted and loved by the public, but not always as relevant or popular as it could be. Today, as other media has been forced to move away from expensive serious news and boots on the ground journalism in regional Australia, the ABC has stepped up. It has also expanded into online and mobile reporting, putting its news content where it needs to be to find audiences in a mobile phone dominated world.

As a result, it is within a whisker of emerging as the dominant source of online news in Australia. It undertakes major news investigations, it attracts more viewers to its election coverage than anyone else, it regularly dominates the major journalism awards.

Equally importantly, at a time where local and regional news is fast disappearing, the ABC maintains an unparalleled network of regional bureaus in 48 locations producing local news and current affairs. And it also delivers lifesaving emergency broadcasting, officially partnering with emergency services to deliver vital information on bushfires, floods and cyclones.

I was proud to be part of this organisation for many years and see that kind of fine work, but I was also there in recent years to see an Australian Government slash the ABC’s funding and imperil some of that work, and to hear an Australian Prime Minister create front page news by describing the ABC as unAustralian because it covered news that was embarrassing or difficult for the Government of the day. The exact quote was that the ABC “takes everyone’s side but Australia’s” and lacks “some basic affection for the home team”.

I don’t believe people want a media that barracks for the home team. I believe they want brave, independent and sometimes uncomfortable journalism.

We can look around and see variations of this kind of political pressure everywhere. Independent, powerful journalism is under threat, but instead of valuing what we have, instead of championing the importance of public broadcasting, ensuring its independence is fiercely protected and it is adequately funded, it is being squeezed and cajoled and pressured and threatened as never before, by legal actions and funding cuts and political interference.

I strongly believe that it is time for Governments to step up to the plate, to recognise the message that is being delivered not just by public broadcasters but by their own citizens – that they value independent public interest journalism done without fear or favour, they trust it and they want it preserved.

It is easy – important, but easy – to condemn the arrest, imprisonment and murder of journalists around the world. It can be much harder, but I believe equally important, for Governments to commit to funding and supporting something they cannot control to suit their own agendas – a free public media that arms citizens with the news they need in a challenging world.

And if Governments are slow to do this, or reluctant to take up the challenge, then we need to find ways for the public to lead the way. We need to band together around the world and give a voice to those citizens who want a truly independent source of news that belongs to them and is accountable to them.

Alan Sunderland


July 2019