Sunday, March 4, 2012

Freedom from the Press

  • "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. 
Is there a better example of the failure of the media to report fairly and accurately on news that affects its own interests? The Finkelstein report, however even-handed and considered and well-contexted its arguments about the failures of self-regulation, was never going to get a fair hearing from the mainstream media.

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.



  1. Thye biggest threat to democracy in Australia at the moment is a shrill, shallow and self indulgent media, lazy, and driven by anything but priciple, in the apparent goal of power without responsibility for the conseuences of their deceit.

  2. Talk to some journos and they will tell you: if your politics don't conform, you will be managed out of your job. And if you leave Fairfax for News,or vice versa, unless you're a major name, you can never go back.

  3. Most people will, I suspect be too busy to read this long, rambling disquisition that doesnt even have an Exec Summary.

    It's the key recommendations (pp 290 - 300) that count - and yet again, we discover that whatever the problem (something to do with phone-tapping in the UK and hyper-concentration of mass media ownership in Australia, I seem to recall), the answer proposed (YET AGAIN)... is to establish a censorship regime for Australian blogs!

    I am GLAD that for once I find myself on the side of the IPA and Andrew Bolt. Let them do some fighting to keep the internet free for a change.

    By enthusiastically endorsing Fink's report (presumably without any internal party consultation at all?), Bob Brown has shown once again that he regards the Greens as his personal fiefdom. He takes 10 minutes to negate all the great work for free speech done by Senator Ludlam over several years. Not my problem any more – not directly. I left the Greens last year over Libya, when it turned into a war party under his crapulous leadership – more gung-ho to rearrange foreign nations for the benefit of Israel than even the ALP!

    I note my own submission to the inquiry wasn't deemed sufficiently conformist to merit listing on the Department's "selected" list of submissions. The Govt website did explain it would list only submissions not considered "offensive". That, I'd guess, is a fair guide to the type of censorship we can expect if ever, God forbid, Fink's “News Media Council “ becomes a reality.

    Here's my submission to the inquiry so readers can judge whether such material should really be dropped straight downthe Memory Hole:

  4. Footnote to my previous comment. I incorrectly stated the Finkelstein Report doesn't have an Exec Summary. and apologize for the error. The sentence in question was intended to read "doesn't even have AN ACCURATE Exec Summary".

    I make that claim because what I regard as the real headline - the extension of Govt regulation to even quite low traffic websites - is obscured and not at all obvious ih the Exec Summary.

    This may explain some of the initial enthusiasm for the report. Hopefully it will abate when the MASSIVE SCALE of Fink's proposed expansion of government interference with the blogosphere becomes more apparent.

  5. Thanks for your comments, I note the Margaret Symons on Crikey today said the report says that 70% of Australians trust the ABC and other media elicits lower levels of trust. In 2012 the ABC program changes leave it competing with commercial media for credibility

    Did The Financial Review front page really put "Labor plan to control media" next to a lizard-like cartoon of James Packer heading another article. Cute!

  6. Yes, good analysis and thank you, and Margaret Simons' effort in Crikey is also valuable.

    Of course the problem is circular, one of the reasons we have such an anti-democratic media is that that media distorts the public discusssion on its role in our so-called democracy.

    We need to break that circle.

    The 'how' to do that should be the essence of public debate.

    But we won't have that debate because the anti-democratic media doesn't let us.
    And so it goes, around and around ending up where we didn't start namely the acknowledgment that we can't have a democracy when we have a media opposed to democracy.

    Even the Finkelstein Report is part of that problem as it makes the unwarranted presumption in the opening para "that a free press plays an essential role in a democratic society,".
    Contained within that short phrase are ideological presumptions that our press is 'free', whatever the hell 'free' means, it is such a buzz word as to be totally meaningless and that where a society has an effective oligopy of media resulting in 'class warfare' [to pinch a phrase from the OO used today [?] with reference to Swan's speech] we can still have a real 'democracy', yet another meaningless buzz word.

    Pretty disappointing all round and particularly so because it was so easily predicted.


    1. Great post. Freedom's just another word for 'nothin left to lose.

      I think Finklestein's recommendations are sensible and would go a small way to lifting the standard of public debate.

      Chomsky's propaganda model still holds up remarkably well as a framework for analysing the media, and that is the kind of broad discussion we need to be having.

  7. Are there any examples of industry self-regulation that results in actual protection of the public good?

    1. GP's are not allowed to perform heart surgery without a further 4 years or more of training.

      Teaching students can't be head masters.

      In every industry there are rules and controls.

      Our precious media seem to think they can say and do what they like and presume any old lies will do.

      Like the "debate" on refugee rights. None of the prats bother to understand the difference between a voluntary resettlement scheme for refugees recognised in other countries and those who seek refugee status here.

      the first have no righs, the second have 100% rights but not if you read our trash media.

      Even those who pretend to be serious about the "issue" see it as an issue rather than the absolute right to seek asylum from persecution so they babble about "border security".

      And people smuggling, even though even the courts now recognise the ignoranct behind that bullshit.

      It is not smuggling when it is quite legal is it?

  8. Interested to hear your thoughts on the possible inclusion of blogs and their ilk under Fink's proposal, Mr D.

    For instance, would this affect this site? If so, what potential impacts could you foresee? Would it affect the direction and targets of your posts?

    It would be interesting also to see what other 'prolific' bloggers such as Andrew Elder have to say on this too.

  9. Mezzuculo, the principles of good journalism don't change whether it's a newspaper or a blog. However, there is a difference between a comment or opinion site and what purports to be a straight news account.

    I've got no problem with any media outlet expressing an opinion - and Finkelstein makes that case too. The problems arise when opinion is dressed up as straight news.

  10. The ABC (Radio National 'Drive') had someone on from News Limited [Samantha Maiden] this afternoon [09 March 2012], asking them what they thought of the appointment of the new ABC Board Chairman.


  11. What needs to happen is for Fairfax media control to be broken, split into several separate entities that cannot be remerged or controlled by one party. I don't know if the government has this power or not, but in my view this would be the most effective way to return the quality of the media.