Indeed, ever since the release in February this year of the independent media inquiry, commissioned by the federal government and headed by former Federal Court Justice Ray Finkelstein, journalists have been running around like headless chooks, doing everything but addressing the real issues.
And those issues are that trust in the media in Australia is amongst the lowest in the world; that journalists rank below s*x workers and lawyers in trustworthiness and that newspapers rate well below the ABC as a trusted source. (Essential Media, 2011)
Throughout the debate over Finkelstein, the media and individual journalists have rather dishonestly presented it as a choice between the current system of piecemeal, ad hoc and media-funded newspaper regulation and the full brownshirt model. The histrionics from the editorial writers, particularly against academics, are clearly self-serving. And the inability of many defenders of the media to put this story in an international context is also telling.
To recap, the Finkelstein Report recommended the creation of an independent statutory body to oversee the enforcement of standards of the news media. The government-funded body would take over the functions of both the Australian Press Council and the news and current affairs standards functions of the broadcast regulator, ACMA.
"The News Media Council should have secure funding from government and its decisions made binding, but beyond that government should have no role. The establishment of a council is not about increasing the power of government or about imposing some form of censorship. It is about making the news media more accountable to those covered in the news, and to the public generally." (Finkelstein)In a free-wheeling debate this week on Twitter, I engaged with the widely respected News Ltd economics writer George Megalogenis about the issue of regulation. His view, conveniently, reflects the House position - that regulation will be a lawyers' picnic, a step down the road to the erosion of free speech and an opportunity for "vested interests" to "push barrows" (the media, on his view, is never a "vested interest"). Curiously, he also accuses serious critics of merely wanting regulation to silence their political enemies, which seems a rather patronising position to take.
Now debating George about journalism is a bit like undertaking hand-to-hand combat with Mother Teresa about poverty, such is his standing. But I was a journalist too, for 26 years no less. And my field, like his, was economics. So I know how the sausages are made. The difference is I'm outside the media now and I can perhaps see the issues a little more clearly than he can from inside the fence. At least my employment is not at stake.
Again and again in our debate, he talked about not trusting "the government" to regulate the media. To mind, this misconception seems to stem from a lack of understanding between the government of the day and the apparatus of government. Ultimately, the people make the laws through their elected representatives in parliament. (I don't seem to recall voting for Rupert or Gina or Kerry.)
But put that aside for a moment. For the most part, I agree with George that editorial independence must be preserved, that market-based solutions are often better and that the first instinct should be self-regulation. But this depends on the existence of a couple of things - firstly, that the market is functioning properly and, secondly, that self-regulation works. In both cases, the answer is negative.
On the first point, Australia has over the years become one of the most concentrated newspaper markets in the world. But it wasn't always that way. In 1923, there were 26 capital city dailies and 21 independent owners. Today, a single company - News Corporation - controls 65 per cent of the total circulation of metropolitan and national daily newspapers. Fairfax Media has about 28 per cent.
The argument of George's employer is that "the market" delivers accountability. If people don't like how his newspaper deals with a subject, they can express their opinion by not reading it. But even those with a cursory understanding of economics know that in a highly concentrated market, these mechanisms do not work. There are few alternatives and consumers have little sway.
The second point is that in capitalism, newspapers are not so much accountable to their readers as to their advertisers. The clients are the advertisers. The readers constitute the audience whose eyeballs are sold to advertisers. Most journalists find that fact uncomfortable to deal with. But it's the truth. Just listen to Jack Cowin, the hamburger king whom Gina Rinehart has put on the board of Fairfax. His frank view (and it is a fair summation of how the system now works) is that the purpose of a newspaper is "to portray the facts in a manner that is going to attract readership''.
With the media's business model busted, the commercial pressures on journalists to massage the facts in a way that panders to their established market's prejudices are greater than ever. Any argument against regulation needs to take account of this. It is not good enough for George shut his eyes, put his fingers in his ears and shout slogans about press freedom as an absolute.
Case in point was the behaviour of the News Ltd papers in their coverage of the federal government's carbon pricing scheme. This took the form, particular in the popular tabloids, of a deliberate scare campaign that misrepresented the facts for both the commercial and ideological interests of their proprietor.
An example, quoted in Finkelstein, was a Daily Telegraph story from May 11 last year, purporting to show the impact on a family’s budget of the carbon pricing scheme. This was before its consideration in parliament and before a carbon price had been set. "The item contained estimates of the extra annual cost of food ($390), power ($300) and petrol ($150) to the family in question. Since the carbon price was at that stage unknown, there was simply no basis for assessing the cost impacts on food, power or petrol. Also the story omitted any reference to the widely mooted income tax cuts."
The story wasn't just wrong. It was a fabrication. And a deliberate one. But what recourse has the public when misreporting of this nature is so widespread? The Press Council is widely known to be a lapdog for the newspapers. Its funding is regularly cut and its adjudications are not binding.
The media inquiry listed a number of reasons why self-regulation isn't working. It divided these two categories. The first was structural - commercialisation of news, concentration of ownership and the shift to 'infotainment'. The second category was behavioural - violations of privacy, injuries to the reputations of individuals and institutions, and political partisanship.
My view and the the view of many other serious critics of the current regulatory regime is that it lacks transparency, justice and accountability.
The proposed News Media Council of the Finkelstein report is designed so that it provides "redress in ways that are consistent with the nature of journalism and its democratic role. Like the APC, its members should be comprised of community, industry and professional representatives. It should adopt complaint-handling procedures which are timely, efficient and inexpensive. In the first instance it should seek to resolve a complaint by conciliation and do so within two or three days. If a complaint must go to adjudication it should be resolved within weeks, not months."
Against this background, it simply will not do for the press to merely shout Abbott-like slogans about "freedom" and reject the ample evidence that public confidence in the media is low, that our market is overly concentrated and that self-regulation has failed us.
As a former journalist myself, I recognise all too well the condescension of many journalists such as George to the wider public. It is as if they see themselves as both above it all and separate from the issues that surround the media. And this is part of the problem with the media – their refusal to see their own agency; that their own behaviour is the issue.
That the outwardly most reasonable member of the News Ltd machine should so thorougly refuse to engage with the arguments for more effective media regulation and public accountability speaks volumes in my view.