How the freedom of the press affects businesses

How the freedom of the press affects businesses
Photo: LightField Studios, BS

Press freedom is an integral part of a democratic society. It is the right to circulate opinions without censorship from the government. In most western nations, Australia included, the press has the freedom to publish what they want, without interference from government, even when editorial views are in direct opposition to official government policy. That’s how press freedom works.

In some countries, journalists face incredible danger when doing their job. In Nicaragua, a journalist was recently shot dead while presenting a live feed related to opposition protest rallies against President Ortega. This is by far the only incident of its kind.

In many countries, press freedom is gradually being eroded, helped by those politicians who are keen to undermine public discourse on sensitive subjects. Even the US press is under pressure thanks to Trump’s hatred of the media, proving you don’t need to live under an authoritarian regime to witness how governments regularly encroach on press freedom.

Press freedom and democracy

The loss of press freedom is dangerous in many ways, not least for the democratic process. What businesses don’t always take into account is that a free press is the key to economic growth. Full freedom of expression ensures a level playing field for businesses.

Where the press does not have the freedom to investigate and report upon corruption, companies are more likely to engage in fraudulent activities, cronyism, and bribery. Press freedom also supports a stable business infrastructure where transparency is essential.

A matter of trust

In a society where the press is gagged, and journalists cannot report on human rights abuses without living in fear of their lives, trust is sorely lacking. The people don’t trust each other, let alone the press, which is often a mouthpiece for those in power. When trust is lacking, innovation is hampered because uniform, rigid ways of thinking become the norm.

Even in countries like the UK, where the media is notionally free to report on issues without fear of reprisals, press freedom is under threat from government proposals to penalise journalists for leaking information. In the US, whistle blowers have no protection from prosecution if they go to the press.

These issues are all important for businesses – or at least they should be.

The Fairfax-Nine merger

In Australia, the recent Fairfax-Nine merger has thrown a spotlight on the issue of press freedom. A surprise announcement revealed that Nine Entertainment has taken over Australia’s oldest newspaper group, Fairfax Media, in a $4 billion deal. This means the Australian media will become one of the most concentrated industries in the world, with a 73.4% control of the online news sector.

Analysts say this will inevitably affect press freedom in Australia. A University of Luxemburg research study concluded there was a direct correlation between press freedom and economic growth. In countries with a high degree of press freedom, businesses have greater access to the information they need to innovate and grow. Market volatility is higher, which affects forex signals and stock market activity, but corruption is minimised, and transparency is greater.

Investigative journalism under threat

The future of many of Australia’s regional newspapers might be under threat following the Nine takeover and senior journalists from the Sydney Morning Herald, Fairfax’s flagship newspaper, have been scathing about the decision to give Nine, a free-to-air TV network, a controlling share in the business. They claim investigative journalism will be diluted as the new company pursues a bigger slice of the online media pie.

If journalism does take a backseat going forward, pulp news is likely to take precedence over more serious news coverage. This can only harm businesses, who need serious news coverage to make robust operational decisions.

Whether critics of the Fairfax-Nine merger are right remains to be seen.