By MARK PEARSON
The Federal Government’s announcement of an ‘independent inquiry into the Australian media’ yesterday might well be a positive development if it were not politically driven, confused in its objectives and artificially narrow in its focus on the print media alone.
A ripple effect from the UK News of the World scandal combined with the machinations of a minority Australian Labor government to trigger this new inquiry, billed as a subsidiary of the existing Convergence Review of telecommunications and broadcast media regulation.
While it is described as ‘independent’ – chaired by retired judge Ray Finkelstein QC ‘assisted’ by University of Canberra journalism professor Matthew Ricketson – it has set off my press freedom alarm bells for other reasons.
Those individuals are excellent choices, but sadly the politician who announced it – the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy Stephen Conroy – has ‘form’.
He has long been the vocal advocate of an Internet filtering scheme for Australia and has only been prevented from introducing such an unworkable vehicle of web censorship by his lack of numbers in the existing Parliament.
Further, he has been at war with Rupert Murdoch’s News Limited over its coverage of his government and has accused it of pressing for ‘regime change’.
Yes, Prime Minister’s Sir Humphrey Appleby advised: ‘Never hold an inquiry unless you know what its outcomes will be’. If the minister’s advisers are working to that script, then media freedom advocates might well be worried.
While Senator Conroy announced the inquiry will focus on newspapers and their online operations, the terms of reference promise much broader objectives.
Focussing on the print media seems at odds with the overarching Convergence Review, particularly if other media and their codes of practice are not going to get the same level of attention as their newspaper cousins.
The terms of reference of this new media inquiry require it to report upon:
a) The effectiveness of the current media codes of practice in Australia, particularly in light of technological change that is leading to the migration of print media to digital and online platforms;
b) The impact of this technological change on the business model that has supported the investment by traditional media organisations in quality journalism and the production of news, and how such activities can be supported, and diversity enhanced, in the changed media environment;
c) Ways of substantially strengthening the independence and effectiveness of the Australian Press Council, including in relation to on-line publications, and with particular reference to the handling of complaints;
d) Any related issues pertaining to the ability of the media to operate according to regulations and codes of practice, and in the public interest.
These are important issues and worthy of considered investigation, but it is hard to see how an examination of the print media in isolation can resolve them. If there is a News of the World style of tabloid journalism in operation in Australia, you will find it in the two main commercial television networks’ evening ‘current affairs’ programs – Today Tonight and A Current Affair – not in genuine journalism and not in the print media.
There is a mishmash of in-house and industry codes of practice in operation as well as the Press Council’s Statement of Principles and the iconic but rarely enforced Media Alliance Journalists’ Code of Ethics.
Their review and a move to uniformity would be relatively easy. Most cover common values and ethical principles.
But the problem is not in their wording but in their dissemination and enforcement.
Most journalists operate under three such codes simultaneously – their own corporation’s code, an industry code, and the broader journalists’ code. Test any reporter on all three and my guess is they would fail dismally.
Your average citizen knows even less and does not really know where to file a complaint if they have one.
An important Press Council function has been the referral of complaints to other relevant bodies because they relate to different media or the behaviour of individual reporters rather than the outlets themselves.
The Press Council has done some great work over many years, particularly in its sponsorship of research and in its representations to parliamentary inquiries. But despite ramping up its complaints mechanisms it still cops cynical clichéd animal metaphors to describe its efforts, labels like ‘toothless tiger’ and ‘publisher’s poodle’.
Like much humour they are based on some truth, with the Council’s maximum penalty as a self-regulatory body being a request to the publication to publish its adverse finding, and its publisher-based funding raising questions about its independence. Funds have been slashed in recent years, as I have reported in The Australian.
The Council’s fundamental problem is that it has tried to be both an advocate of press freedom and an adjudicator of complaints against newspapers. While it has performed both tasks remarkably well with scant resources, it will be forever open to criticism until that dichotomy is addressed.
Its new chairman Professor Julian Disney is well aware of the problem and has been actively pressing for more funding and a cross-media regulatory role.
However, his expressed hope this week that the inquiry might lead to government funding should sound shrill alarm bells.
At what point does a government-funded body lose its ‘self-regulatory’ status? Would government funding of the Press Council trigger new animal metaphors as critics question the link between the government of the day and its self-regulatory decisions?
Perhaps ‘Labor’s lapdog’, the ‘Coalition’s fat cat’ or the ‘Greens’ gerbil’?
Seriously, though, there are some effective models for government funding of truly independent enterprises without government interference. The ABC is one that has worked relatively well for almost 80 years, although its board nominations and programming decisions have sometimes been questioned.
There are already hundreds of laws controlling the media in this country. I have built my research and publishing career around teaching and writing about them. We already have a government-funded regulator in the ACMA.
And we already have a government-funded self-regulator in the ABC’s Media Watch program. For mine, it is the most effective and best known of them all.
Instead of more regulation of the media, we need better public access to the complaints and legal mechanisms that already exist.
A better public ‘spend’ than greater regulation would be on more in-service training of journalists in sound legal and ethical practice, school and public education campaigns about media responsibility, and the establishment of media complaints referral services.
Government funding of self-regulatory bodies is a slippery slope and, despite its eminent leadership, this inquiry carries way too much baggage to inspire confidence.
© Mark Pearson 2011
Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer! My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.