Listen: Hope Media chair Stephen O'Doherty chats to Hope 103.2 journalist Clare Bruce
By Clare BruceFriday 6 Mar 2020
In a devastating blow to the media in Australia, the national news agency Australian Associated Press (AAP) has announced it is closing its doors in June, after 85 years of operation.
500 people will lose their jobs, including 180 journalists.
The rapidly changing face of the digital media landscape, and the lack of regulation in the industry, are being blamed. Media commentator Misha Ketchell, editor of The Conversation, has called the move “a nail in the coffin for a world in which facts and evidence matter”.
While many Australians aren’t familiar with the name AAP, it plays a crucial role in the news we all read on a daily basis. For decades it has been the media’s crucial first port of call for reliable, factual, up-to-the-minute reporting.
To help us get a handle on this, Clare Bruce quizzed Hope Media chair and seasoned journalist Stephen O’Doherty—about what AAP is, and how its loss will affect everyday Aussies.
Listen to the audio above, or read their conversation below.
CB: Many people would never have heard of AAP – and yet their lives are touched by it every day. Can you give us the short explainer version of what it is?
SO: It’s a news agency, and people may be familiar with other agencies, like Agence France Press (AFP), Reuters, Associated Press (AP). They provide a basic coverage of events that go on all day, all night, and provide those to their subscribers. And their subscribers are other news organisations.
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So a lot of what you see as breaking news, whether it’s on television, or you hear it on the radio, or see it on your favourite news site, a lot of that has been reported first by AAP, and picked up by its subscribers – who pay a fee to AAP for that coverage.
How important is it to everyday Australians?
I think of AAP as a piece of essential infrastructure for Australian media—and a piece of essential information infrastructure for Australians.
“When I heard the news that AAP was closing its newswire, it was like a death in the family.”
When I heard the news that AAP was closing its newswire, it was like a death in the family. ‘That can’t happen’, was [my] response; ‘How will we function in a new world without the AAP backbone?’ Because it is a backbone for all Australian media – and consequently for what people know about their world in Australia today.
How do newspapers, TV and other media companies use AAP’s services?
If you’re running a news organisation, you have a limited number of reporter resources available to you. You subscribe to AAP because their reporters will go everywhere, whether there’s going to be a story that day or not.
For instance, they’ll sit through every day of a court hearing, every day of a royal commission, they’ll always cover government events, they’ll always be there at Parliament House in the gallery. You know that you’ll always have the basic court coverage, or the basic political coverage, because AAP’s charter is to go and be at those events, and to then provide the uncoloured, very objective reporting about what was said.
Increasingly these days, journalists are writing more opinion-style pieces. There’s a lot of colour and opinion or they’re reflecting the view of their readership… but the AAP gave you the basic factual services.
One of their really important services recently has been a fact-checker. And the fact that that will go as well, with the loss of 180 jobs, is devastating.
In your journalism career, what are some of the ways that you used AAP? Has it been crucial for you as a journalist?
Oh, yes. I mean, every journo relies on it. It’s the basic coverage… it’s like your lifeline to the world.
I was a cadet journalist back in 1980. We had telex machines in those days, so the news wires (from) AP, AAP, Reuters, they’d come in on a telex machine. It would go all day, and the sound of it as the telex typed lines on the thermal page, is ingrained into the memory of many journalists of my era.
I well remember being in a newsroom in my first job in journalism, when the wire came through that police were reporting that a dingo had taken a baby at Ayers Rock. And so began the start of the whole Azaria Chamberlain saga. That was one of the first cables that I remember seeing. Every newsroom in the country got that same cable at exactly the same time, and then the race was on. Everyone then follows up.
So it’s the first port of call; it’s the essential lifeline to information.
So what will take the place of AAP when it’s gone?
In the absence of that, it’s hard to know exactly who will cover that function. It’s said that some of the larger news organisations, News Corporation, Nine News, for instance, may put on additional staff to do that, but I seriously doubt that they’ll be able to cover everything in the way that AAP did.
And this raises to an even more important level, two things:
The Role of Services Like the ABC, and Hope News
Firstly, the role of the ABC in providing that basic coverage that all Australians rely upon. Government cuts to the ABC are very problematic for Australia’s democracy.
And secondly, the importance of other news organisations in committing to invest in new journalistic ventures – for example, Hope 103.2’s newsroom – a significant investment by our supporters, our listeners, into an independent news organisation, that is making things known to people with a high degree of accuracy, a very high degree of objectivity. And in our case, (it’s) a service that also includes Godly perspectives on things. It doesn’t leave God out of the equation as secular services, I guess by needs, must do.
Why is independent journalism important? What have we taken for granted, that we could now lose?
Since the beginnings of journalism – for example when news sheets were produced in order to raise important questions of the social consequences of the industrial revolution – since those very early days, the right of people to have information on which to base opinions about their world, has been paramount.
In closed countries, we know they control the press in order to make sure people don’t actually know what’s going on, and they get a propagandised and filtered view of the world. So free press is essential to a free democracy, and a free press is not as effective if it’s got a limited number of sources.
“Through this massive disruption by digital media… the number of independent sources of news are shrinking.”
So what’s happened through this massive disruption by digital media of our traditional news sources – particularly newspapers – what’s happened through this disruptive period is, the number of independent sources of news are shrinking. The closure of AAP means yet another, and a really profound, closure of an independent news source that was providing factual information for people, so that they could take part in their own democracy. That’s why it’s so profound.
We need information to be good citizens. That information, we need to have from primary sources wherever possible. And AAP was a primary source, because it’d go to the press conference, it would write what was said, and then others could make their judgment on it, including people reading about it on their favourite social platform.
What does a world look like without unbiased, factual news services?
So in the absence of that, what have we got left? We’ve got journalism that’s written by, largely, activists.
So you could say, ‘lots of people are still going to report what’s happening in their local neighbourhood’ – citizen journalism, people using Facebook as a source, all the rest of it. And yes, that’s good, and citizen journalism certainly has its place. But, as one commentator Margaret Simons, was writing, ‘these people are usually participants’. They have an axe to grind – or in some cases, there are people who deliberately create fake news, for whatever perverse purposes they have. That can’t be good.
“If our sources are corrupted by their own self-interest, then we are a less informed society, and a less informed society is a more dangerous society.”
If our sources are corrupted by their own self-interest, then we are a less informed society, and a less informed society is a more dangerous society.
I don’t want to be critical of news organisations that are investing in journalism, it’s very important. Some of these larger organisations and even the smaller ones, will do their utmost to cover the most important events, and to get people there, and to network where they can to get coverage.
How Sites Like Google & Facebook Undermine the Media
But why is AAP closing? Why has this happened?
One of the reasons for the closure of AAP as stated by its board, is that the re-broadcasters, the re-sellers, the Googles, the Facebooks, the aggregators of the world – and there are lots of aggregation websites – they just take the work that’s done by working journalists, and they’ll repost those, and basically they completely undermine the model of those who make their living out of writing and then posting good news stories.
We know that newspapers are scrambling to find new sources of revenue because their advertising has been completely undermined by the digital advertising now available, from people who are, as the productivity commission has reported, taking the work of others and reposting it.
You go to a news service that aggregates other peoples’ front pages, then that’s what you’re supporting. They haven’t contributed to the writing of those front pages. They haven’t contributed to the journalism. But they’re selling advertising based on somebody else’s work.
Google and Facebook have a lot to answer for, don’t they?
Well, I think we’re yet to have the government’s full response to the ACCC’s investigation on digital media and its profound effects, that was back towards the end of 2018. The ACCC’s been doing some good work on this. And I do hope we get better regulation. Australia may indeed be able to lead the world in this area.
So the new Hope Newsroom is a real positive!
It is, and I’ve got to say that Hope 103.2 of course is a proud part of the community broadcasting sector in Australia – that means it’s listener supported; we don’t receive funds from other places, we have a limited amount of sponsorship we’re able to carry. So we’re largely listener supported, and people know that twice a year we stop to raise money for that. It was so incredibly humbling to see that listeners came with us on the journey to create our own newsroom. Because they ‘get’ this.
What role can community media play in the changing media landscape?
There is huge ability for community media generally, to start employing journalists – where jobs are being lost in other commercial media, to be able to pick up some of those jobs.
Most importantly, (we have a role) to create that diversity of opinion and sources that’s so essential to a proper pluralistic democracy. There are some things we think that the government may be able to do to assist community broadcasting to pick up some of the slack.
And in fact there is a community media news project that’s running which is trying to help community media stations network themselves around the country and share material. So something we produce in Sydney, for instance, could be used on air by other stations around the country. That’s, I think, one of the really bright spots in a pretty gloomy picture.