media and its think tank boosters to the modest ideas of the Finkelstein inquiry, journalism's ultimate arbiter is the market. If the press' output is no good, the public will not buy it. Or so the story goes.
It's a neat trick that equates freedom of the press with the notion of an unfettered capitalist free market. Anything that stands between the desire of media companies to make a profit by selling audiences to advertisers must automatically be an attack on freedom.
In opposing the arguments of the apologists for lousy journalism, one is cast as a totalitarian and a meddling statist, as someone endorsing the government interfering in our lives. All this from a sensible suggestion from the Finkelstein inquiry that its proposed News Media Council be government-funded (and staffed by journalists and editors).
Not addressed in all this spittle-flecked hysteria is the question of how public funding would make a media regulator less independent than the current arrangement where the regulator is media-funded. Indeed, as we have seen, the Press Council can be quickly deprived of funding should its paymasters find themselves displeased with its adjudications.
To someone who no longer depends on making a living from the media, it is instructive to observe how much one's former employers are acting like any other self-interested lobby under attack. In fact, it's fair to say there is an inverse relationship between the grubby self-interest of their cause and the high-mindedness of their borrowed rhetoric.
As the Guardian columnist George Monbiot put it recently, the "freedom" championed by the press barons is really a bastardised libertarianism, one in which vague notions of liberty are prostituted to justify exploitation. Monbiot cites the backlash against better banking regulation in the wake of the GFC, but the reactionary response to Finkelstein is cut from the same cloth.
"In the name of freedom – freedom from regulation – the banks were permitted to wreck the economy. In the name of freedom, taxes for the super-rich are cut. In the name of freedom, companies lobby to drop the minimum wage and raise working hours. In the same cause, US insurers lobby Congress to thwart effective public healthcare; the government rips up our planning laws; big business trashes the biosphere. This is the freedom of the powerful to exploit the weak, the rich to exploit the poor."When reading these rallying calls, it serves to ask: How is "freedom" compromised by ensuring members of the public, the victims of poor journalistic practice, have a prominently published right of reply or correction? Whose freedoms are we protecting here? The truth is we are being asked to rank the rights of those who own the presses above those with no recourse to the megaphone that mass media provides.
Think of it this way: At its peak, The News of the World was the biggest selling newspaper in the English-speaking world. Judged by the market, this was an extremely successful enterprise. But judged by the principles of journalism, this was a rag staffed by muckrakers prepared to hack the phones of dead children for a story.
Wrapped up in all these self-serving defences of lousy, low-rent journalism is the idea that freedom in the economic market (the idea of freedom that the Right has been espousing as the sole freedom for the past 30 years) is the ultimate condition for democracy to flourish. Most journalists go into the profession by advocating a belief in the internal ends of their craft - which is the enlightenment of their readership irrespective of the commercial imperatives of their employers. That quickly changes under the pressures of careerism and the internalised and clannish cultures of the media institutions that employ them. A good story is a "good yarn". And a good yarn is what sells.
This is at the crux of the breakdown between the notion of a free press - one whose aim is an informed and critical citizenry - and a commercially successful press - one which commands a certain number of eyeballs looking at the ads of the client base - the advertisers. In a landmark paper written 20 years ago, the English philosopher John O' Neill showed vividly how devotion to the idea of the "free market" undermines the relation between journalism and democracy.
"The disruption that the market causes to the relationship between journalism and democracy (is that) to survive within the marketplace, the press has to satisfy the preference of its consumers. However, this market imperative is incompatible with the diversity which the market is claimed to engender: Far from encouraging a diversity of opinion, the marketplace encourages the producer to present news in a way which is congruent with the pre-existing values and beliefs of its audience."*This is another way of saying that the path to success in business is to give the public what it wants. If you're selling refrigerators, that's a good strategy. But in journalism, it's a good way to ensure you compromise what you set out to do - to give people the Truth irrespective of their individual prejudices. Yes, you can make money the other way, but if profit margin and readership were the barometers of good journalism, The News of the World would still be in business. O'Neill puts it this way:
"While truth-telling might be constitutive of journalism as a practice, the free market entails that in practice it plays quite a subsidiary role. It is rather a function of the perceived market at which the story is aimed. A free market in the press will tend to work against the ideal of an informed and critical citizenry. It rarely confronts its consumers with information, beliefs and knowledge which do not conform to their pre-existing prejudice - because it cannot afford to do so."In the end, that's what all this debate is all about. What they can afford to do. They can't afford to do a good job by way of their readers. So they don't. And we're living with the consequences.
(See also similar common sense from Alan Kohler here).
*Professor John O'Neill, 'Journalism in the Marketplace', part of 'Ethical Issues in Journalism and the Media', Belsey and Chadwick (ed); Routledge, 1992.