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Lost cause? The Convergence Review model for news media self-regulation

By MARK PEARSON

Australia’s news media regulatory framework has been the subject of two recommendations for major overhauls in recent months.

It was the $2.7 million Convergence Review, announced in late 2010, that was meant to develop the definitive regulatory model in its final report released in April, 2012.

But along the way political pressures (or opportunism, depending on who you want to believe) prompted the announcement last September of an offshoot – the $1.2 million Independent Media Inquiry – specifically briefed to deal with the self-regulation of print media ethics.

Its architects – former Federal Court judge Ray Finkelstein and journalism professor Matthew Ricketson – argued they could not decouple print news self-regulation from broadcast ‘co-regulation’ in the digital era, so came up with a statutory model including both.

Their News Media Council, proposed in their report of February 28, 2012, would take over from the existing Australian Press Council and Australian Communications and Media Authority with a streamlined news media ethics complaints system with teeth. Refusal to obey an order to correct or apologise could see a media outlet dealt with for contempt of court and ultimately face a hefty fine or a jail term.

I have written previously on my concerns about the implications of these recommendations on Australia’s international standing as a democratic nation with a free media, particularly in light of our lack of any written constitutional protection of free expression.

The ‘Finkelstein report’ – as it became known – was only ever meant to be an advisory to its parent Convergence Review, which ultimately acknowledged but rejected its simplistic model in favour of its own innovative and less draconian one.

But the Convergence Review left it to others to put flesh on its more complex reform proposals, leaving the Finkelstein statutory regulation model to fill the void for Labor and Green politicians riding the wave of concern about media ethics in the wake of the UK’s News of the World inquiry and arguing that ‘something must be done’ in Australia.

According to news reports, the parliamentary winter recess will be used by Prime Minister Julia Gillard, Communications Minister Stephen Conroy and the Greens to rally support for the enactment of a version of the Finkelstein model.

Experts argue they will lack the numbers to drive it home, and it is unlikely a 2013 conservative government would take up the cause, given the antipathy of leading Opposition figures Malcolm Turnbull and George Brandis.

Meanwhile, the Convergence Review’s innovative ‘carrot and stick’ model of self-regulation has all but disappeared from public commentary, overshadowed by the stark divide over Finkelstein’s statutory regulation proposal between the Opposition (and major media players) and the Government, Greens and anti-Murdoch intellectuals.

It is a shame the debate has been reduced to this black and white (red versus blue) battle.

I am working on a longer academic article examining the Convergence Review’s novel but sparsely articulated attempt at dealing with the evolving regulatory demands of Web 2.0 (and 3.0 and 4.0…), but I will share some preliminary thoughts here.

First, to review the Convergence Review’s proposed model. While its final report shared Finkelstein’s concerns about shortcomings with existing regulatory systems, it proposed that ‘direct statutory mechanisms … be considered only after the industry has been given the full opportunity to develop and enforce an effective, cross-platform self-regulatory scheme’. In other words, it was offering the media industry ‘drinks at the last chance saloon’ for a three year period under its model (p. 53).

Its mechanism centres upon the establishment of a new ‘news standards body’ operating across all media platforms – reinforcing the overall review’s preference for ‘platform neutrality’ (p.51).

The news standards body ‘would administer a self-regulatory media code aimed at promoting standards, adjudicating complaints, and providing timely remedies’ (p. 153).

The Convergence Review decided not to be prescriptive about the constitution or operational requirements for such a body, beyond some broad requirements.

The largest news media providers – those it deemed ‘content service providers’ – would be required by legislation to become members of a standards body. Most funding for the new body should come from industry, while taxpayer funds might be drawn upon to meet shortfalls or special projects. (p. xiv). It should feature:

–       a board of directors, with a majority independent from the members;

–       establishment of standards for news and commentary, with specific requirements for fairness and accuracy;

–       implementation and maintenance of an ‘efficient and effective’ complaints handling system;

–       a range of remedies and sanctions, including the requirement that findings be published on the respective platform. (p. 51)

The review’s definition of ‘content service enterprises’ (control over their content, a large number of Australian users, and a high level of revenue drawn from Australia) would catch about 15 media operators in its net.

Others might be encouraged to join the body with a threat to remove their current news media exemptions to privacy laws and consumer law ‘misleading and deceptive conduct’ provisions.

To my mind, this is the most innovative element of the Convergence Review’s proposal, and is something I proposed in my personal submission to the Independent Media Inquiry and blogged about at the time.

The review only deals with this aspect as a hypothetical, and refers readers in a footnote to pages 127-136 of the Independent Media Inquiry report for extended explanation of the exemptions. The review offers just a single sentence by way of explanation:

“In particular, it seems reasonable that only those organisations that have committed to an industry self-regulatory scheme for upholding journalistic standards of fairness and accuracy should be entitled to the exemptions from the provisions of the Competition and Consumer Act 2010 concerning misleading and deceptive statements and from the obligations of the Privacy Act 1988 that would otherwise apply to those organisations.” (p. 51).

My article will explore these further, going into the history of the exemptions and important case law covering on their application.

Take these away, and the review’s recommendations are relatively meek, and unlikely to appease those wanting stricter controls over news content.

The Australian Press Council has been moving quickly to ramp up its purview and powers over its members, and can meet most of the requirements except these. It has already locked its members into four year commitments and has established an independent panel to advise on its review of its content standards.

It is poised to apply this across all media if broadcasters and online providers decide it offers the simplest mechanism to meet the Convergence Review’s recommendations. Either way, it can quite rightly argue that newspaper and online news readers are being serviced by a superior complaints handling system than that which existed before the inquiries.

In my view, the Convergence Review report needed to position its privacy and consumer law exemptions as much more than hypotheticals and to detail its plans for the implementation of these proposals.

But I suspect its members were caught short on time and resources when the Independent Media Inquiry went too far for its liking with its statutory regulation solution.

It’s a shame that a multi-million dollar inquiry like this one has left it to academics like me to dot its i’s and cross its t’s on detail.

It’s a greater shame that politicians wish to capitalise on a moment of public antipathy to the media to introduce a draconian, simplistic solution in a democratic nation with no documented right to free expression.

© Mark Pearson 2012

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.

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Regulating the interaction between journalists and the vulnerable

By MARK PEARSON

This week I am in Shah Alam, Malaysia, for the 2012 Asian Media Information and Communication Centre Conference. The paper I am presenting Thursday is titled ‘Regulating the interaction between the news media and the vulnerable – the Australian experience’.

It will eventually be published in an academic journal, but I provide a summary here.

It reports on a selection of findings from a national collaborative research project examining the interaction between the Australian news media and so-called ‘vulnerable sources’.

It surveys the codes controlling journalists’ behaviour via in-house industry-based codes of practice and those administered by the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA), the Australian Press Council (APC) and the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA).

It looks particularly at codes and regulations controlling privacy, intrusion, grief, children, mental illness and discriminatory reportage. It considers the vulnerable source issue in stories collected during a year’s selective sampling of the national daily newspaper, The Australian.

Special attention is paid to three years of decisions by the APC and the ACMA which have been coded and analysed according to the type of vulnerability involved, the guideline allegedly breached, and the result of the complaint.

It explains that there are many ‘moments of vulnerability’ that escape the hard and fast letter of laws and codes that seem to be left to the moral and ethical judgment of individual reporters and editing teams, demanding a fresh approach to in-house self-regulation.

I collaborated with five other academics and industry partners (listed below) in a $92,000 Australian Research Council Linkage project over two years to examine how journalists interacted with those who might belong to a ‘vulnerable group’ (such as the disabled, indigenous, children, those who have undergone trauma or grief, or those with a disability or mental illness) or those who might simply be ‘vulnerable’ because of the circumstances of the news event.

We decided instead to direct our inquiries, particularly during the newspaper content analyses, to identifying potential ‘moments of vulnerability’ rather than restricting our search to mentions of the pre-identified source groups.

Similarly, the analysis of the complaints decisions of the APC and the ACMA worked to the principle of moments of vulnerability rather than being driven particularly by a source’s membership of a pre-determined vulnerable group.

Taken at its broadest definition, all citizens are ‘vulnerable’ when they engage in any media interview. There is a potential for that interview or its resulting publication to go wrong, with associated embarrassment, emotional pain and in extreme cases even physical retribution from hostile audience members.

A total of 33 items were identified as depicting ‘moments of vulnerability’ from the coverage analysed for The Australian newspaper on the selected day in each of the 12 months of the 2009 calendar year. The sample was too small for quantitative analysis, so no statistical breakdown of the findings will be provided other than a simple count on some criteria. The analysis mainly takes the form of a qualitative study of the items, selecting key examples to explore the ‘moments of vulnerability’ and to offer a backdrop to the matters raised before the complaints bodies examined in the subsequent section.

We identified 33 ‘moments of vulnerability’ identified in the published stories, based upon 31 stories on the selected 12 days’ coverage in The Australian.

The 33 moments of vulnerability were categorised into PTSD/grief (14), mental illness/suicide (9), children (3), disabled (3), privacy (2), aged (1) and discrimination (1). All such moments were also assessed for the level of competing public interest/social importance value evident in the matter being reported to eliminate examples where the public interest arguments were so strong that it could be seen that editors could easily argue their decisions were driven by legitimate matters of social importance.

A process of elimination left us with seven key ‘moments of vulnerability’, centred on Australia-based stories, where public interest issues did not clearly excuse the type of coverage or interaction with vulnerable sources as presented.

The seven selected are summarised in Table 1, grouped according to the type of vulnerability, and each is then considered as a brief case study.

Table 1: ‘Moments of vulnerability’ identified in The Australian on selected days during 2009

Date Page Headline Type of vulnerability Summary and issues
3-2-09 3 DOCS urges fugitive mother to return Child This was a custody issue where a mother had allegedly kidnapped her son and fled overseas. Potential impact of comments by child welfare expert upon mother’s decision to remain at large.
9-4-09 16 D’Arcy puts head down amid crisis Mental illness/suicide Both articles juxtapose champion swimmer’s axing from the national team with that week’s suicide of top cyclist.
9-4-09 16-15 No repeat of headline acts which delivered day of shame Mental illness/suicide
6-6-09 43-44 The night Symonds was cut adrift / Symonds comes to end of the road Mental illness/suicide Links champion cricketer’s alcohol problems with allusions to suicide possibility, with risk of prompting that outcome.
13-11-09 3 Suspect may have killed himself Mental illness/suicide Speculates murder suspect may have self-harmed or suicided, potentially triggering that course of action.
11-8-09 3 Son dead, mother acute PTSD/grief Clearly a ‘death knock’ telephone attempt to speak to family or close colleagues after murder-suicide attempt.
9-9-09 3 Sandilands offends again Discrimination Story repeats a radio host’s offensive remarks about the weight and race of a female comedian in its own recount of the matter.

 

The conference paper explores each in detail. It then goes on to analyse five years of APC decisions between 2006-2010 and three years of ACMA decisions in 2008-10 in a similar approach to that undertaken for The Australian newspaper analysis, with interesting results.

Australian Press Council does not use the word ‘vulnerable’ or ‘vulnerability’ in its Statement of Principles, which addresses other criteria, many of which go to the issues we address in our study. Thus, we are placing (retrospectively) a different lens of analysis on the items of complaint.

The fact that we identified only 12 complaints regarding journalists’ interaction with ‘vulnerable sources’ adjudicated by the Australian Press Council over the 2006-2010 period indicated either:

  • News media interaction with vulnerable sources is not as negative as portrayed by inquiries such as the Independent Media Inquiry;
  • Alternative dispute resolution techniques offered by the APC in the earlier stages of the hundreds of complaints it receives annually are effective; or
  • Complainants are not pursuing their complaints or are withdrawing them at an earlier stage.

Vulnerable sources may well have a desire to complain, but not the energy or competence at the time to do it. Reforms to the Australian Press Council’s structure processes recently announced by its chairman, Professor Julian Disney, might consider some of these concerns.

Our study also examined the reports of the ACMA investigations in the 2007-10 period and identified the following 11 as pertinent to our study of the interaction between the news media and vulnerable sources.

A key problem of the ACMA process is that journalists are working under a variety of codes of practice controlling similar behaviours. Added to this are various ‘guidelines’ documents issued by the ACMA providing further counsel for broadcasters in their handling of sensitive issues. One such set of guidelines is the Privacy Guidelines for Broadcasters. These were reviewed during 2011 and our ARC team made submissions to that review on issues of interactions with the vulnerable, and particularly with issues of consent and withdrawal of consent by the vulnerable, particularly children. Their revised guidelines addressed these issues.

The regulatory, co-regulatory and self-regulatory mechanisms in operation in Australia have been under serious review in 2012, with new models proposed by the Independent Media Inquiry for a statutory News Media Council and by the Convergence Review for an independent self-regulatory news standards body.

There is a separate government proposal for statutory tort of privacy which extends beyond the news media but may include media or public interest exemptions. All acknowledge public concern at the confusing array of ethical codes and processes across media platforms and workplaces.

The news media interact with vulnerable sources in a range of circumstances, but the rules controlling that interaction vary markedly across media platforms and employment groups. The small sample of case studies from The Australian newspaper serves to demonstrate that some interactions with the vulnerable are not prevented by in-house codes and escape the attention of the relevant self-regulatory bodies unless a complaint has been made and remains unresolved. The APC and ACMA cases show that the outcomes of complaints are far from predictable and that sometimes elements of vulnerability appear obvious but are not even examined by the inquiring body. The examples demonstrate there are many ‘moments of vulnerability’ that escape the hard and fast letter of laws and codes that seem to be left to the moral and ethical judgment of individual reporters and editing teams.

Whatever new regulatory system is put in place requires a simple statement of ethical principles covering the usual fairness and accuracy elements, with an additional responsibility placed upon journalists and editors to identify individuals who are particularly ‘vulnerable’ in a news media interaction so that warning bells sound and informed decisions are taken on issues like consent and privacy.

This can only be achieved via genuine newsroom-driven training programs, accompanied up by routine protocols for assessing individual cases of vulnerability as they arise in the field and in the production process. Decisions taken in such circumstances should be documented thoroughly for later review and any rationale on ‘public interest’ grounds should carry justification well beyond audience curiosity, going to serious matters of public importance that could not be offered by less intrusive or traumatising ways.

Line-ball decisions should be made only after consultation with an independent psychologist and an explanation for the decision should be published on the outlet’s website. Only then – when ethical decision-making can be audited in a publicly accountable way – can Australian media organisations lay legitimate claim to effective self-regulation.

Research team

Professor Kerry Green from the University of South Australia led the ARC Linkage Project LP0989758. Other chief investigators on the project included Professor Michael Meadows (Griffith University), Professor Stephen Tanner (University of Wollongong), Dr Angela Romano (Queensland University of Technology) and this author, Professor Mark Pearson (Bond University). Industry partner investigators were Ms Jaelea Skehan (Hunter Institute of Mental Health) and Ms Cait McMahon (Dart Centre for Journalism and Trauma- Asia Pacific). Mr Jolyon Sykes was the research assistant for the larger project, while Mr John Burns, Mr Jordan Lester, Mr Roger Patching, Ms Kiri ten Dolle and Mrs Leisal DenHerder provided research assistance for my AMIC paper.

© Mark Pearson 2012

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.

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Any Australian #privacy tort must feature strong free expression protections

By MARK PEARSON

The Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance has released its latest annual press freedom report – Kicking at the Cornerstone of Democracy – with some excellent articles covering the gamut of media law and censorship issues in Australia.

It is essential reading for journalists, media lawyers and students – updating the material covered in their media law textbooks in an accessible journalistic style.

My article is on privacy law, and I reproduce it here in its extended, unedited form for the benefit of my blog followers:

———

Privacy On Parade

The right to privacy is a relatively modern international legal concept. Until the late 19th century gentlemen used the strictly codified practice of the duel to settle their disputes over embarrassing exposés of their private lives.

The first celebrity to convert his personal affront into a legal suit was the author of The Three Musketeers, Alexandre Dumas père, who in 1867 sued a photographer who had attempted to register copyright in some steamy images of Dumas with the ‘Paris Hilton’ of the day – 32-year-old actress Adah Isaacs Menken.

The court held his property rights had not been infringed but that he did have a right to privacy and that the photographer had infringed it.

Across the Atlantic in 1890 the top US jurist Samuel D. Warren teamed with future Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis to write the seminal Harvard Law Review article ‘The Right to Privacy’ after a newspaper printed the guest list of a party held at the Warren family mansion in Boston.

Warren and Brandeis wrote: “The press is overstepping in every direction the obvious bounds of propriety and of decency. Gossip is no longer the resource of the idle and of the vicious, but has become a trade, which is pursued with industry as well as effrontery.”

Thus celebrities, lawyers, paparazzi and the gossip media were there at the birth of the right to privacy – and the same players occupy that terrain today.

While both privacy and free expression are recognised in many national constitutions and in international human rights treaties, Australia is rare among Western democracies in that it has no constitutional or Bill of Rights protection for either.

That distinguishes us from the United States, United Kingdom, Canada and New Zealand which all have constitutional or rights charter requirements that proposed laws must be considered for their potential impact on free expression.

It is one of the main reasons for the complex array of legislation, court decisions and industry codes of practice limiting Australian journalists’ intrusion into the affairs of their fellow citizens.

The myriad of laws of defamation, trespass, data protection, surveillance, confidentiality, discrimination, consumer law, stalking, court publishing restrictions, suppression orders and copyright all have a privacy dimension. The Privacy Act controls the collection and storage of private information by corporations and government.

There are very few situations of media intrusion into privacy not covered by one of these laws or by the framework of codes of ethics and practice controlling journalists’ professional activities.

Proposals to replace the self-regulatory and co-regulatory ethics systems with a statutory news media regulator would add yet another layer to the regulation of privacy intrusions.

The crux of the proposed ‘statutory cause of action for a serious invasion of privacy’ is whether a citizen should have the right to sue over a privacy breach and receive either an award of damages or an injunction to stop publication.

Over the ditch, Kiwi journalists now have to navigate a judge-made right to privacy, developed interestingly from a celebrity suit in which the plaintiffs lost the case.

Mike and Marie Hosking were New Zealand media personalities who had adopted twins and later separated. They asked for their privacy, but a magazine photographer snapped the mother walking the twins in their stroller in a public place. They sued, claiming breach of privacy. The NZ Court of Appeal invented a new action for breach of privacy, but held it did not apply in that particular case. The Kiwi privacy invasion test requires “the existence of facts in respect of which there is a reasonable expectation of privacy” and that “publicity given to those private facts that would be considered highly offensive to an objective reasonable person”.

But this is set against the backdrop of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act which protects free expression.

Australia’s High Court famously left the door open for a possible privacy tort in the ABC v. Lenah Game Meats case in 2001, when animal liberationists had secretly filmed the slaughter of possums in an abattoir in Tasmania and the ABC wanted to broadcast the footage – the fruits of the trespass.

It is hard to quarantine this latest push by the Federal Government from the News of the World scandal in the UK and the Greens-championed Finkelstein inquiry into media regulation.

The government had effectively sat upon the Australian Law Reform Commission’s proposal for the statutory cause of action for three years before progressing the matter with its Issues Paper last September in the wake of the phone hacking revelations from London.

Few journalists or their media organisations object to the notion of their fellow citizens’ embarrassing private information being kept secret.

However, it is in the midst of a breaking story like that involving collar bomb extortion victim Madeleine Pulver, a celebrity scoop like the Sonny Bill Williams toilet tryst images or the case of the fake Pauline Hanson photos that genuine ‘public interest’ gives way to audience gratification and the resulting boost to circulation, ratings or page views.

Free expression is already greatly diminished by this mire of privacy-related laws and regulations without adding a new statutory cause of action for privacy.

But if this latest proposal is advanced further, journalists should insist upon:

–   a free expression and public interest defence reinforced in the strongest possible terms;

–   removal of the existing laws it would duplicate; and

–   strong ‘offer of amends’ defence like that now operating in defamation law and alternative dispute resolution provisions to deter celebrity gold diggers.

Short of a bill of rights enshrining freedom of the press and free expression, these demands amount to the minimum the news media deserve in a Western democracy.

© Mark Pearson 2012

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.

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Don’t shoot the messenger #RSF #UN #censorship

By MARK PEARSON

Don’t shoot the messenger

(My closing address to Brisbane Model United Nations conference, Queensland Conservatorium, 15 April 2012)

———

What a wonderful concept this is – students from a diverse array of disciplines having the opportunity to put your knowledge and abilities into practice over three days in this model United Nations setting – and to gain so much more understanding and skills through the process.

I have no doubt many of you will look back on this conference as an important landmark in your lives and will take many of the lessons and friendships into successful careers, wherever they may lead you.

You have applied your minds to important and innovative challenges – crimes against humanity, a right to death, impoverished nations, new weaponry, space rights, the economics of polio and the international criminal court. Journalists from the international press gallery have reported on proceedings while representatives of non-government organisations have attempted to negotiate suitable outcomes for their constituencies.

My address to you relates to these latter elements and how one Paris-based NGO – Reporters Without Borders – has worked since 1985 to defend the interests of journalists and cyber-dissidents attempting to report on these kinds of issues internationally and to promote the global right to free expression.

Reporters Without Borders is registered in France as a non-profit organisation and has consultant status at the United Nations.

For the past several years I have been Australian correspondent for RSF, filing regular reports to my colleagues in Paris on the threats to media freedom in this liberal Western democracy.

Sadly, I have had much to report because there has been a legislative creep factor at play which means that politicians will pay lipservice to free expression and media freedom yet continue to propose and pass laws that impinge upon that core democratic value.

Australia is rare among liberal democracies in that we do not have free expression explicitly enshrined in our Constitution and we lack the bills and charters of rights of comparable nations where it stands alongside other important human rights.

Of course we are not among the worst offenders.

But it made news recently when RSF demoted Australia from 18th to 30th position in its World Press Freedom Index among the 179 countries ranked.

First to the latest ranking: what factors contributed to Australia’s decline in its media freedom status since 2010? For a start, the fact that there were five simultaneous government inquiries into news media regulation at the time it was being compiled sent a message to the international community that, for a Western democratic nation, the Australian government and its agencies were entertaining tougher regulatory measures.

They included the Convergence Review, its subsidiary Independent Media Inquiry, the National Classification Scheme Review, the Commonwealth Government’s Privacy Issues Paper and the Australian Communications and Media Authority’s review of privacy guidelines for broadcasters.

Between them they raised the prospects of new controls on print, broadcast and online media; a new tort of privacy; tough new classification systems across media; and the conversion of some self-regulatory bodies to regulatory status.

RSF was specially concerned by suggestions at the hearings of the Independent Media Inquiry that journalists should be licensed and at that inquiry’s recommendation that a government-funded statutory regulator be established, with ultimate powers to refer editors to courts on contempt charges with potential fines and jail terms as punishment.

The trial of Victorian police officer Simon Artz for alleged leaks to The Australian newspaper about a counter- terrorism operation raised several media freedom issues, with Crikey senior journalist Andrew Crook allegedly breaching a suppression order by revealing the name of a former member of Victoria’s Special Intelligence Group involved in the hearing; warnings over Crikey journalist Margaret Simons’ live tweeting from the hearing; and The Australian’s Cameron Stewart being ordered to reveal his sources.

Victorian Police launched an investigation into an alleged hacking of an ALP electoral database by four journalists at The Age, including editor-in-chief Paul Ramage.

Government control over media access to detention centres prompted condemnation from the journalists’ union and RSF issued a release. The Department of Immigration introduced new guidelines to restrict reporting of, and access to, detention centres.

The Federal Court’s ruling that hate speech laws should trump free expression was of concern when a judge ruled Herald Sun columnist Andrew Bolt breached the Racial Discrimination Act in his criticisms of fair-skinned indigenous people.

Senior Fairfax executives were summonsed by the Police Integrity Commission to produce documents revealing sources in September in relation to articles by Herald journalists Linton Besser and Dylan Welch about the NSW Crime Commission.

Fairfax’s deputy technology editor Ben Grubb, 20, was arrested after reporting on a conference presenter’s alleged hacking at the AUSCert IT security conference.

RSF has also expressed concern for some years at the Federal Government’s determination to introduce an Internet filtering scheme.

RSF does not claim its index is a precise scientific measure. It could never be, given the enormous variables at stake, and has to rely on an element of expert qualitative judgment when making the final determinations of a country’s comparative ranking.

The process centres upon a questionnaire sent to partner organisations (18 freedom of expression groups in all five continents), to its network of 150 correspondents around the world, and to journalists, researchers, jurists and human rights activists.

The questionnaire features 44 main criteria indicative of the state of press freedom. It asks questions about every kind of violation directly affecting journalists and ‘netizens’ (including murders, imprisonment, physical attacks and threats) and news media (censorship, confiscation of newspaper issues, searches and harassment).

It also measures the level of self-censorship in each country and the ability of the media to investigate and criticise.

Many countries’ rankings change from year to year but there is little movement at the extremes. Europe typically dominates the top 10, with Scandinavian countries like Norway and Finland among the top few, while the usual suspects feature at the other end of the scale: Iran, North Korea, Vietnam, China, Burma, Turkmenistan and Eritrea.

Free expression is not absolute, although its opposite, censorship, can be.

The major difference is in what the lawyers call ‘prior restraint’ – censorship before publication or broadcast. Those at the top of the scale have high levels of transparency and welcome media scrutiny of government processes, with a minimum of licensing, suppression and no physical intimidation of journalists. At the other extreme journalists are murdered, jailed and tortured, publishers of all kinds require a licence, and Internet access is restricted.

Over the past five years, Australia’s ranking has fluctuated between 16 and 30 of the 179 countries surveyed, typically ahead of the United States but well behind New Zealand in the level of media freedom.

Governments might take issue with the methodology and dispute their nations’ rankings, but the index draws on the energies of experts throughout the world and in Paris and is thus taken seriously in international circles.

It serves to raise awareness about media and Internet freedom, which cannot be a bad thing in an age of government spin.

And there are almost 150 nations RSF ranks lower than Australia in its index.

I devote a chapter of my recent book – Blogging and Tweeting Without Getting Sued – to the difficulties you can encounter when writing about them online.

There I explain that the only country outside the US, Europe and the Commonwealth to rank highly in free expression rankings over recent years has been Japan. Despite having regional charters of human rights, several countries in Africa and Central and South America have shown little respect for Internet or media freedom.

The so-called ‘Twitter revolutions’ throughout the Middle East and North Africa in 2010 and 2011 showed how social media could help accelerate movements for better human rights.

But despite the impact of ‘people power’ in such countries there is still evidence of censorship and intimidation throughout much of the world. No regional human rights convention exists in Asia and the Hong Kong-based Asian Human Rights Commission provides an ongoing chronicle of abuses, many involving the gagging of journalists, bloggers and dissidents.

The countries of the world with the highest level of censorship maintain tight control over expression and take firm action against online writers who use the Internet to question their authority.

These are places where you get labelled a ‘dissident’ and face jail if you blog or tweet to express your political views. Reporters Without Borders has released a list of enemies of free Internet speech: Bahrain, Belarus, Burma, China, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam. They are countries where bloggers, journalists and other ‘dissidents’ have been imprisoned or tortured for daring to write what they think or for encouraging others to do so.

Governments in such countries block access to full Internet use via systems like the so-called ‘Great Firewall of China’. While the Internet is seen by many as a wonderful new tool for democracy, there is a downside to the use of social media and blogs if your nation does not value free speech: your Web-based activities can be monitored quite easily by security forces and your careless use of such media can leave you dangerously exposed.

Blogger Nay Phone Latt was only released from a Burmese jail in January after reporting in his blog about the unfolding demonstrations against the government in Rangoon in 2007 and for describing how hard it was for young Burmese to express themselves freely.

Chinese blogger Ran Yunfei was among several arrested in a crackdown on dissent by government authorities in 2011. He spent six months in prison and was released on the condition he did not speak with the media or continue to share his political views online.

Many more languish in jails throughout such countries today for expressing themselves freely.

Repressive regimes also engage in modern age propaganda techniques such as cyber-attacks on target websites and on ‘phishing’ to steal dissident password information to access their email addresses and other contact details. The US has declared cyberspace the new ‘fifth sphere of war’ after land, air, sea and space.

Some countries have laws making it an offence to insult the royal family, with Thailand, a nation with an otherwise free and vibrant media, the most active in its use. It is called ‘lèse majesté’, and in that country it can carry a maximum jail term of 15 years.

Authorities have charged as many as 100 people a year with the offence in recent years, with several unsuspecting foreigners including an Australian jailed because of their published criticisms of royalty. Many other nations have lèse majesté laws or similar.

As you enter your international careers, you need to be concerned for both your own safety and the liberty of others in your blogging and social media activity.

In my book I explain how you need to be extra careful that your words or images do not implicate someone in a country with a stronger censorship regime than your own. Remember, your blogs, tweets and Facebook pages can be accessed by authorities in other countries, even if they have an Internet firewall in place for their citizens. Also you need to be careful with what you write about the activities of your friends and colleagues from other countries. I’m sure you would not want another blogger’s imprisonment or torture on your conscience if the security agencies in their home country arrest them over something you have posted from the cyber-safety of your free expression haven. You need to bear this in mind because your new networks may well extend to vulnerable individuals living in such regimes.

So what can you do to help elevate free expression as a fundamental human right?

I would encourage student journalists to sign up with RSF and perhaps one of the other free expression NGOs like Article 19 or Index on Censorship. The rest of you might become more active within Amnesty International which also has a strong free expression chapter.

Free expression is a right Amnesty regards as “important for the personal development and dignity of every individual and vital for the fulfillment of other human rights”.

And rightly so. For without free expression, victims of human rights abuses would be unable to communicate their predicament and their supporters would be prevented from issuing their rally cries for change.

While the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights enshrined free expression for all the world’s citizens at Article 19 in 1948, it was only ever meant to be a declaration of a lofty goal and has many limitations.

Better safeguards came internationally in 1966 when the UN adopted the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which also protected free expression, again at Article 19.

But many countries have not ratified the covenant and you are left without regulatory bite. Complaints about individual countries’ breaches can be brought to the Office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights, but the processes can take several years and are often unresolved.

The journalists among you should have truth-seeking and truth-telling as your absolute mission.

The rest of you might sometimes have other obligations which sometimes limit your ability to reveal everything about a topic, but you should make it your own mission to defend the rights of others to speak their minds.

In journalism we use the expression ‘don’t shoot the messenger’ – and we mean it both literally and metaphorically.

While the world has changed markedly since the UN was established in 1945, a constant has been the natural tendency of those in power to gag their critics.

Active membership of organisations like Reporters Without Borders and Amnesty International can at the very least remind those who abuse their positions that they are being watched, and at best motivate them to change their ways.

© Mark Pearson 2012

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.

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Inquiry’s #Finkelstein was judge who fined company for contempt over comments by its Facebook fans

By MARK PEARSON

Independent Media Inquiry chair Ray Finkelstein had already broken new legal ground and fined an online publisher for contempt for hosting misleading comments on its Facebook page before he was appointed to the inquiry last year.

His decision as a Federal Court judge in Australian Competition and Consumer Commission v Allergy Pathway Pty Ltd (No 2) [2011] FCA 74 in January 2011 established the leading Australian precedent on publishers’ responsibility for the comments of others on their websites, Facebook pages and Twitter feeds.

He found the alternative health company’s actions in not removing ‘misleading and deceptive’ claims about its allergy treatments by ‘fans’ on its Facebook page (and ‘Twitter pages’) was in breach of earlier court orders to desist from making claims that it could ‘diagnose and treat allergies’.

As Crikey reported at the time, he fined both the company and its director, Mr Paul Keir, $7500 each for the disobedience contempt.

He has now chaired an inquiry which has a core recommendation with exactly that potential outcome – along with possible jail terms – for news bloggers and media outlets that refuse to publish corrections or apologies as directed by a new statutory News Media Council.

Of course there are key differences here, too. Allergy Pathway was not a news publisher – and it was disobeying an earlier court order under consumer law.

However, then Justice Finkelstein broke new ground on an issue where other jurisdictions like the US and the UK have offered protection to ISPs and blog hosts over the words of commenters on their sites.

Until a higher court decides otherwise, his decision means every Facebook user and website host (and Twitter user! – see below) is legally responsible for ‘publishing’ the comments of others on their sites.

The extent to which they might be immediately liable for an offending comment or whether they would be protected by taking it down within a ‘reasonable’ time has not yet been determined.

Certainly, Justice Finkelstein’s decision established that they would need to take reasonable steps to remove any such comments the instant they had been brought to their attention.

The Allergy Pathways decision goes to some lengths (paras 14-17) to define a Facebook ‘profile’ and ‘fan page’ and a Twitter feed.

But at paragraph 18 Justice Finkelstein seems to show a misunderstanding of Twitter by stating the ACCC’s argument as “once Allergy Pathway is aware of the statement having been placed on its Facebook or Twitter page and does not remove it, then it is liable for contempt”.

Call me an ignoramus, but I am left wondering: What is my “Twitter page”, and how can someone else post something there? Does he mean my own list of tweets, for which I am clearly responsible myself? Does he mean a #hashtag I have established on a topic? Surely I could not be responsible for others’ comments there? Or does he mean someone putting my handle in their tweet, for which I could surely not be held responsible?

He proceeds to track the legal precedents for host liability through defamation posted on golf club noticeboards, through to bulletin board hosts and Internet Service Provider liability.

“The effect of these cases is that merely facilitating the commission of a wrong will not result in liability but it is another thing to procure or conspire in the commission of the wrong, in which case liability may be imposed, particularly if the procurer is aware of the material being published and has accepted general responsibility for its publication,” Justice Finkelstein wrote.

He concluded: “It has been shown, indeed it was not disputed, that Allergy Pathway knew that persons had published testimonials on its Twitter and Facebook pages and that it took no steps to have them removed. …

“While it cannot be said that Allergy Pathway was responsible for the initial publication of the testimonials (the original publisher was the third party who posted the testimonials on Allergy Pathway’s Twitter and Facebook pages) it is appropriate to conclude that Allergy Pathway accepted responsibility for the publications when it knew of the publications and decided not to remove them.

“Hence it became the publisher of the testimonials. In any event it is clear that it caused them to continue to be published from the time it became aware of their existence, which is enough to put Allergy Pathway in breach of the second limb of its undertaking.”

I might be missing something here, but the good judge appears to have bundled the company’s responsibility for comments by others on its “Twitter page” in with responsibility for comments on its Facebook page.

I can live with the latter – and as a result of this decision media organisations and public sector groups like the Queensland Police are now monitoring their Facebook comments very carefully – but how on earth can we control the former? And what is a ‘Twitter page’ upon which others might comment?

Please enlighten me in the comments section below.

Another theory is that Mr Finkelstein and his advisers were not quite as expert on the workings of the Internet and social media as punters might expect from a $1 million-plus government inquiry. The have already been criticized for using the term ‘hits’ rather than ‘page views’.

As for the fact that Mr Finkelstein already had ‘form’ in the fining of publishers for contempt is not that great a surprise. It is what senior judges are sometimes called upon to do.

However, it puts into context his core recommendation for a statutory solution with appeal to a judge like him with the power to fine or jail a news publisher or relatively small blogger for disobedience contempt.

Mark Pearson is professor of journalism at Bond University and Australian correspondent for Reporters Without Borders. His views here do not purport to represent those of either of those organisations.

© Mark Pearson 2012

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.

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Attack by The Australian supports case against ‘enforced self-regulation’ #Finkelstein

By MARK PEARSON

The Australian’s associate editor Cameron Stewart has argued that the immediate endorsement of the proposal for a statutory media regulator by some media academics was indicative of the irrelevance, ineptitude and Leftist bias of journalism educators generally.

Like any piece of attack journalism, it used carefully selected truths and sources to develop a positional and very political assault on the journalism education sector and the former (and current) journalists who teach, research and publish there. It is an old and flawed argument.

While I disagree with this kind of journalism and its use by a leading masthead, I think it presents a unique lesson on why Finkelstein’s core proposal for a News Media Council with statutory powers to order corrections and apologies is so wrong.

Journalism educators have quite rightly taken umbrage at the article in the Weekend Australian and, as I blog, are composing a unified response to the attack.

This is the right course of action – to first seek redress and a right of reply from the publisher of the offending article.

If the identified individuals felt strongly enough about the imputations it contained about them – and if they had the resources available to them – they might take legal advice and perhaps sue for defamation.

For reasons I have outlined previously in Crikey, most principled journalists and editors do not resort to this measure because they value the free exchange of ideas too highly and do not wish to set such an example for others.

If the aggrieved journalism educators are dissatisfied with The Australian’s response, under the current regime they might instead make a complaint to the Australian Press Council over any unfairness, bias or inaccuracies in Stewart’s article they feel breaches that body’s Statement of Principles.

If the Council is unable to mediate a resolution, this would then be adjudicated by its complaints panel of (mainly) non-affiliated citizens and journalists, chaired by legal academic Julian Disney (or its vice-chair).

If the Council found The Australian had indeed been unfair, biased or inaccurate, or had unfairly refused to run a right of reply, the Council might decide to uphold the complaint and demand The Australian run its adjudication in full. As that newspaper’s parent company, News Limited, is an abiding member of the Council, it is likely that adjudication would be published. If not, it would at least appear on the Council’s website and among its regular releases on adjudications.

As outlined in several submissions to the Finkelstein inquiry, and noted at length in its final report, these processes could do with considerable improvement.

But consider the course of events under the proposed statutory body detailed in the report.

The early steps in the process would be fairly similar to the Council’s system, although the proposal would have the whole matter conducted ‘on the papers’, without legal representation, within a few days.

The ‘independent’ panel would be chaired by a retired judge or eminent lawyer appointed by the government of the day, and would have a different constituency with fewer media members.

However, rather than being told to publish the decision, The Australian might well be ordered under statutory powers to publish a correction, apology, retraction or right of reply.

The Australian might feel so strongly about its claims that it refuses to do so. After all, to ‘correct’, ‘apologise’ or ‘retract’ something over which you hold the heartfelt belief is true, however misguided, is itself an affront to those who hold such beliefs so strongly. Indeed, to be forced to apologise when you do not mean it is to be compelled to state a falsity.

The Australian’s refusal would be the disobedience of a statutory body and, under the Finkelstein proposals, would trigger a charge of contempt to be adjudicated by a court of law, with the usual penalties for contempt available to a judge – a fine or a jail term. (The report flags some opportunity to appeal the Council’s decision within that process – with all the accompanying legal costs for both sides.)

Some of my journalism education colleagues might be feeling so angry about the article that they might want Stewart or his editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell fined or jailed over this story. I suspect, however, that most would share my disdain for the possibility of such an outcome in a free democratic society which has no protection for free expression in its Constitution or Bill of Rights.

However, no matter how misleading and misplaced we may feel Cameron Stewart’s piece may be, there is no disputing the fact that some journalism academics immediately supported the proposal for a statutory regulator with such powers and potential consequences.

The ground seems to be shifting somewhat on that front. One of those attacked, Johan Lidberg from Monash University, initially (cautiously) supported the core recommendation but now states “A statutory based media regulator is highly problematic” (email to journalism educators, 10.3.12).

UTS Professor Wendy Bacon, and Swinburne’s Margaret Simons, have each written strong and well documented endorsements of Finkelstein’s criticisms of the mainstream media’s ineffective self-regulation, but have stopped short of endorsing the statutory enforcement option.

And so they should.

Wind the clock back to late 2010, and we had this very editor-in-chief of The Australian, Chris Mitchell, threatening to sue journalism educator Julie Posetti for defamation over her tweets covering comments made by a former staffer from The Australian at a Journalism Education Association conference – the now infamous #twitdef episode.

Allow me a little licence with the scenario because the Finkelstein reforms might not cover tweets and the actual case was contentious partly because of its twitter brevity.

But let’s say a UTS student had reported the comments in that university’s student newspaper, and Mitchell had not sued, but had instead complained to the proposed ‘independent’ News Media Council about the article, on the same grounds of unfairness, inaccuracy and bias.

And what if, like Posetti, the student newspaper had stood by its article and refused to publish a retraction, correction or apology?

Well – assuming the newspaper met the definitional criteria of the new body as ‘news media’ which are far from clear – then we might well be facing the prospect of a journalism student or editor being jailed for what would otherwise may have been a defamation damages payment, and for which a defamation defence might well have applied.

Hypotheticals I know, but you need them to flesh out the potential implications of a new media regulator that would instantly convert ethical codes into punishable laws.

Only by using examples close to home can we understand the intransigence of both complainants and publishers. An analysis of both APC and ACMA complaints over recent years will reveal complaints over political views – a disproportionate number related to the Israel-Palestine dispute – where opinions are held so strongly that some proponents would face jail rather than retract or apologise.

One of the academics informing the Finkelstein inquiry, Denis Muller, has written a defence of the proposal on smh.com.au. It is worth quoting his final two paragraphs in full:

“It is proposed that the new council would have power to order corrections, apologies and rights of reply, and say where they should be published. The question of fairness arises here: if wrongful harm was done in a page one story, why shouldn’t at least the first two or three paragraphs of the remedial material also appear on page one? If a sanction was ignored or refused, the council would have the right to apply to a court for an order of compliance. The media company concerned could argue its case. Only if it lost and still refused to comply would it become legally liable — not to the council but to the court for contempt.

“Ideally, the media would do all this themselves: make a legally binding arrangement to set up an accountability body, properly funded, with transparent processes, credible sanctions and agreement to comply. History tells us it is unlikely, but maybe this report will act like a cattle prod on their collective hide.”

I might be wrong, but I read that final sentence as a hint that the whole statutory regulator proposal might be a trumped up threat to the mainstream media to get their regulatory house in order – not unlike David Calcutt’s 1990 warning to the British tabloids that they were ‘drinking at the last chance saloon’.

That may well be the case, and if so it seems to be already having an effect, with publishers meeting last week to discuss a revamp of the Press Council.

But if it is true, what a shame that Finkelstein should send such a message of endorsement of statutory media regulation to the regimes throughout the world who have already adopted it.

 

Mark Pearson is professor of journalism at Bond University and Australian correspondent for Reporters Without Borders. His views here do not purport to represent those of either of those organisations.

© Mark Pearson 2012

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.

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News Media Council proposal: be careful what you wish for #ausmedia #MediaInquiry #Finkelstein

By MARK PEARSON

The Finkelstein (and Ricketson) Independent Media Inquiry report released yesterday is a substantial and well researched document with a dangerously flawed core recommendation.

An impressive distillation of legal, philosophical and media scholarship (compulsory reading for journalism students) and worthy recommendations for simpler codes and more sensitivity to the needs of the vulnerable are overshadowed by the proposal that an ‘independent’ News Media Council be established, bankrolled by at least $2 million of government funding annually.

This Council would have the ‘power’ to order corrections and apologies – but not to fine or jail journalists. That would be left to a higher court if a media outlet did not comply.

Several academics and small publishers have given it their approval. Even the Greens have applauded it, having demanded such an inquiry in the midst of the News of the World scandal in the UK and continued adverse coverage in News Limited publications locally.

The politicised circumstances of the inquiry’s birth fuelled a cry of ‘something must be done’ about the news media – for once and for all.

Criticism of the recommendations by the larger media groups on free expression grounds have been dismissed as a defence of their vested interests. It should surprise nobody that News Limited chief executive Kim Williams holds such a view, but such pigeon-holing of Finkelstein’s serious critics is a great shame. History is littered with examples of politicians withdrawing citizens’ rights to free expression because they did not like what they had been saying about them at a particular moment in history.

Scratch the surface of this proposal and you will find a harsh new regime which stands to damage Australia’s reputation as a democracy and might well come back to bite the politicians, academics and publishers who are supporting it today.

The key problems are with independence, enforcement and duplication.

The report details a process whereby the Council would be funded by the government, yet kept at arms length from it via an ‘independent’ board headed by an appointed ‘independent’ chair.

Only the chronically naïve would believe true independence could be established and maintained through such an appointment process in a relatively small government-funded instrumentality. It would, after all, be the government selecting the initial appointments committee.

Even the appointment process to the High Court suffers criticism from time to time, and the independence of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s chair and board has been questioned in recent history by the same academics and politicians applauding this new ‘independent’ body.

Those very people argue that News Corporation editors do not need explicit directions from Rupert Murdoch  – that their very appointment implies they will toe the line. That may well be the case, so why would it be different here?

Although this statutory body will not have the power to fine or jail journalists, its appeal lies in its ‘regulatory teeth’, powers that the Australian Press Council has lacked and the Australian Communication and Media Authority has been loathe to use.

At face value, the News Media Council would only have the power to “require a news media outlet to publish an apology, correction or retraction, or afford a person a right to reply”.

However, what if a news blogger or publisher should disagree with such a direction so strongly that they refused to comply with such an order?

Well, then they would be cited for contempt and tried in a court which would have the power to fine or jail them. Several Australian journalists have suffered that fate in recent years. Such a court would be charged with the relatively straightforward task of determining whether the publisher has disobeyed an order of the statutory council.

Only then might publishers get the opportunity for an appeal – again by a judge in court:

11.78   In order to preserve the ability of the News Media Council to act swiftly, there should be no internal appeal from, or internal merits review of, a determination. Nor should there be external merits review via the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.

11.79   It would, however, be neither desirable nor possible to preclude all judicial supervision of determinations. In any event, because enforcement may need to be by way of court order, judicial supervision would be built into the process. In the course of enforcement proceedings a collateral challenge to a determination may be available and this would provide a sufficient mechanism for judicial supervision.

And who can guess what such appeals might cost your impoverished blogger or start-up publisher in legal fees – pitted against publicly funded prosecutors and their team of silks? So much for a quick and cheap dispute resolution process.

It’s a slippery slope – all rosy for its supporters who can only see themselves calling to account the multinational News Corporation and its anti-Left line.

But they might consider how this might operate under a change of government, perhaps under a Howard-like government with individuals sitting on the Council like those appointed to the ‘independent’ ABC board during that period?

And what if such a Council orders a leading environmental news site or magazine to publish an apology to a mining magnate for the ethical breach of publishing a ‘biased’ and inaccurate report about the company’s waste disposal practices, based on sensitive material from confidential sources? Where would the power and resources rest in a court appeals process in that situation?

To publish such an apology or retraction would be an affront to the blogger, and in their principled belief it would be a lie to do so.

Yet, they would face a hefty fine or jail – or risk losing their home in an expensive court appeal process – if they chose to stand their ground.

This proposal effectively converts the MEAA Code of Ethics and the scores of in-house and industry codes of practice into laws – enforceable, ultimately, in the courts.

I suggested in my personal submission (PDF) to the inquiry and in my appearance at its Melbourne hearings that Australia already has enough of those laws. Hundreds of them. I suggested alternative mechanisms using existing laws. I argued that we did not need more media laws and more expensive legal actions and that a government-funded statutory regulator would send the wrong message to the international community. It is the approach adopted by the world’s most repressive regimes.

Which brings us to the matter of duplication. I have seen few serious ethical breaches that could not be handled by existing laws like defamation, contempt, consumer law, confidentiality, injurious falsehood, trespass and discrimination. There are existing mechanisms to pursue them properly through established legal processes.

All of the serious examples cited at 11.11 of the report could have been addressed using other laws such as defamation, ACMA remedies or breach of confidence (or the proposed privacy tort). But the new regulator would do away with all the normal trappings of natural justice, dealing speedily with matters on the papers only without legal representation a media defendant would expect in a court of law.

Small publishers and bloggers might well be bullied into corrections or apologies because they would not have the time, energy or resources to counter a contempt charge in the courts.

This proposal (bizarrely titled “enforced self-regulation” at 11.33) risks duplicating the offences via ethical code breaches, with a big stick of a contempt charge hanging over a media offender who might well have been able to defend an action taken through the traditional channels.

The cost of this inquiry and its $2 million proposed annual funding would be much better spent on media literacy campaigns for the community, law and ethics training programs for journalists and bloggers, and the establishment of a one-stop referral service within the ACMA so complainants can get help in making their complaints through existing channels.

The budget would probably even cover a means-tested advocacy service to help poorer complainants pursue the most serious breaches of existing laws through the courts.

Australia is rare among Western democracies in that we do not have free expression or media freedom enshrined in our Constitution or in a Bill of Rights. Other countries like Britain and New Zealand proposing similar regulating mechanisms have free expression as an explicit right informing their jurisprudence.

The High Court demonstrated this week (PDF) that it is in no rush to progress its so-called “freedom to communicate on matters of politics and government”.

While rejecting the notion of licensing news media, the proposal quite rightly points out the problems in deciding the ‘news media’ that will be policed – in itself a defacto system of licensing journalists. It admits it could have no jurisdiction over foreign news outlets, which means the paparazzi and hundreds of offensive bloggers need only operate under an offshore enterprise.

Supporters of this News Media Council proposal should look again at the scenarios that could play out under a tough new regime of media regulation duplicating the court system. They might well heed that lyric from Australian songwriter Paul Kelly: “Be careful what you pray for. You might just get it.”

Mark Pearson is professor of journalism at Bond University and Australian correspondent for Reporters Without Borders. His views here do not purport to represent those of either of those organisations.

© Mark Pearson 2012

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.

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