- "There is common ground among all those who think seriously about the role of the news media and about journalistic ethics that a free press plays an essential role in a democratic society, and no regulation should endanger that role": Opening words of the 468-page report of the independent inquiry into the media by former Federal Court Judge Ray Finkelstein.
- Labor Plan to Control the Media: Headline on Australian Financial Review's front page splash on the Finkelstein report the following day.
In fact, the fix was in from the start. And on cue, came the ominous warnings from the apologists for unrestrained corporate capital, the IPA, that 'free press is to be sacrificed for political retribution'.
Of course, News Limited, whose utter dominance of the Australian media landscape is the source of most of the problems with our slanted, inaccurate and agenda-laden journalism, ran the predictable line from chief executive Kim Williams that "a government-funded media authority has no place in a democracy".
For those who haven't been following the story, the Finkelstein inquiry recommended the establishment of a new body to set journalistic standards across all media platforms, from newspapers to the internet. The News Media Council would be funded by the government, yet remain independent, and would handle complaints about breaches of standards.
The council would have the power to demand publication of a correction, apology or right of reply by a complainant and it would be able to direct when and where such publications should occur. It would consist of a full-time independent chair and 20 part-time members, half of whom would be selected from the public and the other half appointed from the media or from those who have worked in the media. The media representatives "should exclude managers, directors and shareholders of media organisations," Finkelstein said. "The candidates should be nominated by the media and the MEAA (the journalists' union)."
The Media Council would provide over-arching regulation of the media and would replace the current regime involving patchwork self-regulation under the Press Council (a puppet of the press barons) and the ineffective and cumbersome oversight of commercial broadcasting by the Australian Media and Communications Authority (a slow-moving bureaucracy).
"Ordinarily, the preferred option would be self-regulation," Finkelstein says. "But in the case of newspapers, self-regulation by code of ethics and through the the press council has not been effective. To do nothing in these circumstances is merely to turn a blind eye to what many see as a significant decline in media standards."
This gets to the crux of the issues around coverage of this inquiry. Who speaks for the public? The newspaper editors? The IPA? Their response will always be that there IS no problem. The public is satisfied with media standards, they will say. And if it is not satisfied, the free market will provide alternatives.
But the fact is the public is NOT satisfied. The inquiry report provides ample evidence of that. And the idea of a new mass market publisher emerging to challenge an overwhelmingly dominant Murdoch press that controls 70 per cent of the metropolitan market is just fanciful. Perhaps new competitors will emerge, but something needs to be done in the meantime.
"There is considerable evidence that Australians have a low level of trust in the media as an institution and in journalists as a professional group," the report says. "Australia’s journalists, while reasonably in touch with public opinion about the reasons for their poor public standing, seem more satisfied than is the general public with their standards of objectivity and the general quality of their work.
"Interestingly they acknowledge that the media’s role in enhancing the democratic process, particularly by their watchdog role, has become compromised by the media’s own material interests," the report says. "Evidence that those functions are compromised is to be found in the fact that about one-third of working journalists say they feel obliged to take account of their proprietor’s political position when writing stories."
That's right. A significant number of journalists - the supposed protectors of the public interest - see their duty as reflecting the political opinions of the media owners that employ them ahead of advocating for the interests of their readers and viewers. That shouldn't be surprising since one company is so dominant and since the opportunities for alternative employment are so limited.
The ideal solution to the failures of our media - inaccurate or unfair reporting, unbalanced commentary and the deliberate or inadvertent misrepresentation of facts - would be self-regulation, not by media companies (who have a commercial interest in the outcome) but by journalists themselves. It should be a professional tribunal, not an industry regulator. But without statutory backing, their proclamations would lack any punch.
Giving journalists oversight of their own craft makes sense if you believe, as I do, that the mainstream media and journalism are separate and should be seen as such. That the distribution and business models of the media are broken does not mean that journalism is dead. On the contrary, good journalism is needed more than ever. The public needs an independent voice that they can trust.
But what is happening in the response of Finkelstein is that commercial interests are co-opting high-minded appeals to free speech and freedom of the press to protect their own interests. (BTW, it's the same thing that has happened in the attempts to reform resource taxes, the pokies industry and financial sales dressed up as advice). The industry wants you to believe that the government is the bad guy; they don't want you to countenance that the media that supposedly "defends our freedoms" is the bigger threat to democracy.
Finkelstein represents an attempt to provide a voice for Australians when confronted by bad journalism - through a right of reply, through a prominently placed correction when required and through the correction of errors. This is an entirely reasonable and fair-minded solution. Of course, it would not be necessary if self-regulation was working; if newspapers did not bury corrections on page 54 next to the pet food ads or refuse to run them at all; or refuse to run rights of reply in the lettors to the editor. But it isn't.
That most professional journalists won't speak out for themselves on these issues is just another expression of an unhealthy concentration of the press in this country and a paucity of employment alternatives for those who seek to make a living out of their chosen craft. No-one wants to rock the boat.
But in new media, unsullied by commercial influences, we have an opportunity to do what journalists are born to do - to speak up for the voiceless, the powerless and the people who still believe that the greatest currency in a journalist's kitbag is the ability to engender trust.
In the meantime, if you're confused by the press coverage, I would recommend you read the Finkelstein report for yourself. Make up your own mind. That's worth fighting for.