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The media regulation debate in a democracy lacking a free expression guarantee


The latest edition of Pacific Journalism Review is out – a special issue edited by Chris Nash, David Robie and Johan Lidberg on ‘Rebuilding Public Trust’.

My contribution carries the same title as this blog. Here are the abstract and conclusion, but if you’re really interested you’ll need to get PJR for the body of the article and the references – and, of course, another 13 articles by some of the region’s top journalists and researchers.


Two major inquiries into the Australian news media in 2011 and 2012 prompted a necessary debate over the extent to which rapidly converging and globalised news businesses and platforms require statutory regulation at a national level.  Three regulatory models emerged – a News Media Council backed by recourse to the contempt powers of courts; a super self-regulatory body with legislative incentives to join; and the status quo with a strengthened Australian Press Council policing both print and online media. This article reviews the proposals and explores further the suggestion that consumer laws could be better utilised in any reform. It concludes with an assessment of the impact of the inquiries and their recommendations upon free expression in a Western democracy lacking constitutional protection of the media.



The Convergence Review report cleverly proposed the removal of some existing protections instead of the imposition of draconian new regulations, but then failed to flesh out their possibilities. It needed to position its mechanism of privacy and consumer law exemptions for signatories to its new pan-media self-regulatory body as much more than hypothetical and to detail its plans for the implementation of these proposals.

Australia already has one statutory regulator with powers to punish ethical transgressions – the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC). In an era of increasingly commercialised and converged media, it seems reasonable that at least some forms of irresponsible journalism might be addressed via the legislative mechanism prohibiting misleading and deceptive conduct by any corporation against media consumers.

Such a legislative solution already exists, as identified by the Convergence Review – and it only requires an amendment to the existing news organisation immunity from prosecution under the ‘misleading and deceptive conduct’ provisions at Section 18 of the Competition and Consumer Act 2010. The proposal to take away media exemptions from prosecution under this section would leave them accountable for misleading and deceptive claims and behaviour in their editorial functions.

While misleading and deceptive conduct does not take in all unethical behaviour by news organisations or the journalists who act as their agents, it could well be read to cover such sins as lies, inaccuracy, subterfuge, and lack of verification of the false claims of others. The amendment would mean both the ACCC (and private citizens) could launch prosecutions over such behaviour, with the force of the regulatory powers it already holds. The key to this would be an amendment of the ‘prescribed information provider’ exception (Section 19) so that news organisations would no longer have the blanket, almost unchallengeable protection for misleading and deceptive conduct which was introduced after their lobbying in the late 1970s and early 1980s. They would only earn this exemption if they were signatories to the new self-regulatory body and abiding by its requirements.

I have previously backgrounded this news media exemption to consumer law provisions under the predecessor to the existing legislation, the Trade Practices Act 1974 (Pearson, 2000). The media operated for more than a decade under that law without special exemptions from its misleading and deceptive conduct provisions. In 1984, Section 52 (the ‘misleading and deceptive conduct’ clause under the TPA) caused concern in the case of Global Sportsman v. Mirror Newspapers (1984) 2 FCR 82 when it was held that the publication of statements – including statements of opinion made in the ordinary course of news – could constitute conduct which was “misleading or deceptive”.

Successful lobbying by the media led to the government of the day introducing the exemption from the provision for “prescribed information providers” unless the deception occurred in relation to the publication of advertisements or in articles promoting the information providers’ own commercial interests. “Prescribed information providers” included “…a person who carries on a business of providing information” and included obviously newspapers, holders of broadcasting licenses, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) and the Special Broadcasting Service Corporation (SBS).

The exemption – known as the ‘media safe harbour’ – acknowledged the fact that news organisations could not vouch for every claim made by those quoted in their news columns or stories (Applegarth, 2008). However, the instant news material was sponsored, or run in return for some compensation in cash or kind, or was used to promote the news organisation’s own operations (such as in a promo), it fell within the Act and left any misleading content open to prosecution of the media proprietor.

This rendered journalists and their organisations particularly vulnerable in the realm of advertorials, if it could be shown that space had been devoted to the promotion of a company’s products or services just because they happened to be advertising or they had reached some arrangement or understanding with some corporation to that effect.

If such claims were proven to be misleading or deceptive the media outlet was held responsible and could face an injunction preventing publication or a damages claim from those adversely affected.

The provision raised serious questions about media companies’ cross-promotion of their related corporate interests, particularly in an age where concentrated conglomerates had substantial shareholdings and sponsorships across industries. The exemption has been struck down by superior courts in two recent cases. The High Court found against a media organisation under the former Trade Practices Act in ACCC v. Channel Seven Brisbane Pty Ltd [2009] HCA 19.  That decision related to false claims on the tabloid television current affairs program ‘Today Tonight’ about goods and services. The reform would extend this to other ethical breaches. The NSW Court of Appeal had earlier ruled that Nine’s ‘A Current Affair’ did not qualify for the exemption over misleading claims made by their staff who posed as prospective customers in an expose of a home construction company. Their false claims were made in the course of their investigation – not while carrying on the business of providing information – and they had failed to reveal that they were in the information provision business during their inquiry. As Justice Applegarth has noted: “Statements made in the course of an investigation are said to lack such correspondence because they do not occur ‘in the course of carrying on’ a business of providing information.” (2008, p. 3).

Of course, the consumer laws apply to corporations rather than individuals, so journalists themselves would not be liable personally, well exemplified in the Current Affair case cited above. However, it is likely their employer organisations would pressure them to comply when faced with the prospect of ACCC prosecutions and contempt charges for disobeying any resulting orders.

The Convergence Review’s suggestion that a similar ‘carrot’ be applied to the exemptions to privacy law is more problematic. The ‘Journalism’ exemption to the Privacy Act 1988 at s. 7B(4) references privacy standards issued by the Australian Press Council as newspaper organisations’ ticket to a waiver (APC, 2011). Media organisations simply have to avow they are ‘publicly committed to observe standards’ on privacy as documented by their representative organisation. However, the proposed reform would require more of them than simply being ‘publicly committed to observe standards’ and to have published them.

If they refused to sign up for the Convergence Review’s ‘self-regulator’ they would have to follow in their journalism all of the privacy protocols applying to other corporations and marketers. Permissions would need to be sought and documented every time a citizen was named or identified visually in a news story or column and every time ‘private’ details about them and their lives were being published. It would be a logistical nightmare for a news organization. There are already a myriad of laws of defamation, trespass, data protection, surveillance, confidentiality, discrimination, consumer law, stalking, court publishing restrictions, suppression orders and copyright controlling the news media’s handling of private information. The recommendation comes at a time the government is also considering a proposal for a ‘statutory cause of action for a serious invasion of privacy’ – giving citizens the right to sue over a privacy breach and receive either an award of damages or an injunction to stop publication. If the statutory tort were introduced, then the removal of the Privacy Act exemption for media companies would appear to be overkill given the array of other laws in the field.

Reactions to the suggestion of a statutory regulator have certainly been strident and at times histrionic. Assistant to the Finkelstein inquiry, Professor Matthew Ricketson, responded in The Age to accusations that “… we would all be living in Stalinist Russia or even Hitler’s Nazi Germany with its Reich Press Chamber if the government acted on this recommendation”. He continued:

Really? What is actually recommended differs from the existing system in only one key aspect, namely government would fund the News Media Council. (Ricketson, 2012).

While he quite rightly took offence at such reactive rants, Ricketson was wrong to suggest that government funding of his proposed News Media Council was the only point of difference from the status quo.

Arms-length government funding of a self-regulator certainly sounds some alarm bells, but there may well be mechanisms to secure its independence, just as the ABC is publicly funded yet independent. The greater concern is with the body’s ultimate power to refer disobedient media outlets to courts with the distinct possibility they might face fines or a jail term if they continued to disobey the council’s order. Such powers place strong emphasis on the word ‘enforced’ in Finkelstein’s system of ‘enforced self-regulation’ and pushes it a long way towards the full government regulation its critics fear. The proposal would effectively convert ethical codes into laws – ultimately enforceable in the courts.

This has certainly been a long overdue debate in Australia, but it has occurred in a politicised context that has been counter-productive and has undermined the likelihood of the implementation of any of the proposals.  Several academics and small publishers stepped up to give the Finkelstein model their approval (The Conversation, 2012). Labor and Greens applauded it and pushed for its enactment, having demanded such an inquiry in the midst of the News of the World scandal in the UK and continued adverse coverage about them in News Limited publications locally (Kitney et.al, 2012).

Criticism of the recommendations by the larger media groups on free expression grounds were dismissed as a defence of their vested interests. It surprised nobody that News Limited chief executive Kim Williams opposed statutory regulation (Meade and Canning, 2012), but such pigeon-holing of Finkelstein’s serious critics is misplaced. 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.

And, while the concerns of the Left at Murdoch media treatment might have helped trigger the inquiries, despite public protestations against the proposals by Opposition figures (Kerr, 2012), it is questionable whether a Conservative government would act to dismantle a new statutory regulator and its ‘independence’ could well be tested. The Howard conservative government lacked an impressive free expression record. It famously appointed arch conservatives to the ‘independent’ ABC board, ramped up anti-terror laws and cynically exploited exemptions to freedom of information requests. That government’s foreign minister, Alexander Downer, confessed to newspaper publishers in 2006: “Freedom of information always seems a great idea when you are in Opposition but less so when you are in Government” (McNicoll, 2006).

The Australian Press Council – with a suitable name change – could become an effective pan-media self-regulator and fulfil similar functions to the one proposed by the Convergence Review. That review’s suggestion of encouraging membership with the carrot of consumer law exemptions is also a mechanism worth considering.

A uniform code of practice across all news media is a vital reform. It is essential that media outlets and journalists conform to ethical codes. It is in their interests that they do so, because it is these very ethical standards that distinguish them from the many new voices seeking audiences in the new media environment. But Australia has a confusing array of self-regulatory and co-regulatory documents guiding ethical standards of journalists and their outlets. No single journalist could possibly be expected to understand and operate effectively within deadline, paying heed to all that might apply to him or her, including the MEAA Code of Ethics, an in-house code, an industry code and the related laws and formal regulations that might apply.

This moots strongly for a single code of ethics applying to journalists and their employers across all media, similar to the existing MEAA Code of Ethics, addressing fundamental principles of truth, accuracy, verification, attribution, transparency, honesty, respect, equity, fairness, independence, originality and integrity, with exceptions only for matters of substantial legitimate public concern. Of course, this could be supplemented by industry or workplace ‘information and guidance’ documents to help explain to journalists and editors the fact scenarios and precedents applying to a particular medium or specialty, along the lines of the Australian Press Council’s guidance releases. As Ricketson (2012) has suggested, media outlets need to be more pro-active in developing better in-house processes for assessing ethical decisions and in explaining those decisions to their audiences. All reforms will, of course, need to be supplemented with better training of journalists about their rights and responsibilities and broader education of ordinary citizens to raise their level of media literacy.

Australia is rare among Western democracies in that it does not have free expression or media freedom enshrined in its Constitution and no federal bill of rights with such a protection. Other countries like the UK and New Zealand proposing similar regulating mechanisms have free expression as an explicit right informing their jurisprudence. The closest Australia has come to any such protection came in a series of decisions through the 1990s, starting with the Australian Capital Television Pty Ltd v. Commonwealth and Nationwide News v. Wills cases in 1992, where the High Court introduced and developed a so-called “implied freedom to communicate on matters of politics and government”. The court held this principle was fundamental to the system of representative government, but it demonstrated recently in Wotton v. Queensland (2011) that it was in no rush to progress this implied freedom. The Australian Capital Territory and Victoria have enacted limited charters of rights in the form of human rights acts, both of which enshrine free expression at the state and territory level, but neither applies to other jurisdictions and each is problematic even in its application in to its own jurisdiction (Pearson and Polden, 2011, pp. 38-39).

The lack of any formal written guarantee of a free media makes proposals for statutory regulators even more of a threat to democracy in Australia than in most comparable nations and this fact did not appear to weigh heavily enough with the architects of the Finkelstein report or those who rushed to support it. ‘Enforced self-regulation’ is not a suitable solution – at least not until free expression earns stronger protection from a more enthusiastic High Court or in a national bill of rights. Stronger self-regulation with the carrot of consumer law exemptions for compliant media outlets would strike the appropriate balance of freedoms and responsibilities in the interim.

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


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


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


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


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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Media regulation: my interview with @RichardAedy on @RNmediareport



I was interviewed for the ABC Radio National Media Report program last week on the upcoming Independent Media Inquiry report.

You can hear the full program here,  where you can also view the complete transcript.

I’ve just copied below the segment of the transcript featuring my own comments:


ABC Radio National Media Report 

Finkelstein Inquiry into Newspapers

Broadcast:Friday 24 February 2012 5:30PM 

…Richard Aedy: …There are other perspectives beyond those of the Press Council and the publishers. Mark Pearson’s Professor of Journalism at Bond University on the Gold Coast. He’s particularly interested in that intersection between journalism and the law and he’s come up with one of the most novel submissions to the inquiry.


Mark Pearson: There are already so many laws controlling the behaviour of news organisations and journalists, we don’t really need any more. We need to make those that exist more effective. But if there had to be something more, the consumer law that exists at the moment, and already applies to the media in many ways, could be extended to cover heinous ethical breaches.


Richard Aedy: Didn’t the media used to be subject to those laws?


Mark Pearson: Yes they were the old Trade Practices Act. It’s now changed its name to the Competition and Consumer Act. It was introduced in 1974 and it has a provision, basically banning misleading and deceptive conduct, which is normally applying to advertising. But for the first few years, some court decisions held that it might also apply to misleading claims made in news stories; the editorial columns of newspapers and their equivalent in broadcast. So because they didn’t want this impingement on free expression and because of lobbying by the major media groups, they had an exemption to that introduced for prescribed news providers which basically, unless it was in advertising or promoting their own products and so on, they would be exempted from these misleading and deceptive conduct provisions.


Richard Aedy: Right. So to clarify. You don’t think we need additional laws. You don’t even think we need tougher existing laws. What you think we need is a much better understanding of what the laws are and perhaps getting rid of this exemption the media has had to what is effectively, I think, corporations law?


Mark Pearson: Well I certainly wouldn’t propose getting rid of that exemption because otherwise we’d be back to that 1970s position where the media were being prosecuted for their news columns. But I don’t think some tinkering with that would do any great harm which would cover the most drastic ethical breaches, clearly contrary to the public interest, where there’s been real misleading and deceptive conduct involved, of the order of your cash for comment kind of situation.


Richard Aedy: Right. I was going to say give me an example. Well all right that’s a good one. And who would be the regulator? Would it be what, the ACCC?


Mark Pearson: Well it would be the ACCC. The more the media is moving towards breaking down that firewall between editorial and advertising the more they need to be treated like just another business except where they’re doing genuine public interest journalism.


Richard Aedy: So what about the Press Council and Julian Disney asking for greater powers and saying, well look we could do with some government money for this?


Mark Pearson: I think it’s always dangerous to start introducing government funding for media self-regulatory bodies. The instant the government starts funding such things, the instant you have genuine government regulation.


Richard Aedy: But what’s wrong with that? I know editors and journalists always say this would be terrible, real government regulations. But lots of industries are regulated by the government. Why shouldn’t the media be?


Mark Pearson: Well one of our biggest problems in Australia is that we don’t have a Bill of Rights. We don’t have a Constitution with any formal protection of free expression. So it means that these other laws as they’re applied, the courts don’t have something else to look to. The High Court’s made a few decisions introducing freedom to communicate on political matters but all of that’s a little vague. And so there’s really no underpinning of free expression in this country other than a tradition that we’ve had which has been intruded upon time and time again through these hundreds of laws.


Richard Aedy: Mark Pearson from Bond University. He too opposes any move by the Press Council to accept money from the government. But the big worry for the industry isn’t really that the Press Council will get some of its funding from Canberra. It’s that Mr. Finkelstein will recommend that Canberra becomes altogether more involved.



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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My piece in The Drum: Media regulation made simple by ‘responsible truth-telling’


Some of you might have missed my opinion piece at ABC’s The Drum Opinion published on December 22.

I reproduce it here for your interest and you might like to add your comments to the other 100+ featured on The Drum .


Media regulation made simple


The solution to the news media regulation problem lies in two or three simple words, depending on whether you choose to hyphenate: ‘responsible truth-telling’.

Those words should replace the myriad of codes of ethics, codes of practice, and statements of principles that Australian journalists are expected to follow in their daily reportage.

It might sound idealistic and over-simplified but that’s what it comes down to. It is a phrase that can be read to incorporate truth-seeking, across all platforms of new, social and legacy media, by those practising the pursuit many of us still call ‘journalism’ and by those blogging, tweeting or standing on soap boxes in public parks claiming to be speaking in the public interest.

As the Supreme Court of Canada recently decided, ‘responsible communication on a matter of public interest’ is worth protecting and irresponsible communication should be discouraged.

Regulation in the form of laws has worked reasonably well to deal with irresponsible investigations and publications and harmful falsities and continues to do so.

Just because ‘co-regulation’ via the Australian Communication and Media Authority and ‘self-regulation’ via industry groups, the Australian Press Council and the journalists’ union have floundered, does not make straight-out government control of the media any more acceptable in a Western democracy.

There is already an oversupply of regulation of the media and free expression generally in this country – across all levels of government and via quasi-governmental and self-regulatory and co-regulatory bodies. Added to this there is considerable censorship of free expression in government and the corporate sector in the form of ‘spin’.

Australia’s free expression is particularly fragile because it lacks any formal expression in our Constitution, especially when this is combined with at least five inquiries into the news media this year (2011) and proposals for a press regulator with government teeth, against a backdrop of Senator Conroy’s attempts at imposing an internet filtering scheme.

The Convergence Review quite rightly takes a 21st century broad-brush view of media regulation, but the Media Inquiry chair Ray Finkelstein QC appears focussed on a mechanism to prop up the very 20th century complaints system of the Press Council, proposing some government sanctions on the publication of findings and some taxpayer funding to supplement the reluctant sponsorship of the major newspaper groups.

My own submission to the Media Inquiry proposed there should be no more laws controlling the media in this country – just better access for media consumers to the laws that already exist and a one-stop shop for the handling of complaints. It also suggested a reworking of consumer laws so that ‘prescribed news providers’ do not get an automatic exemption from the ‘misleading and deceptive conduct’ actions over their news material.

No journalists can be expected to operate effectively within deadline paying heed to all the five or six codes that might apply to them.

A single code of ethics applying to journalists and their employers across all news media, under the banner of ‘responsible truth-telling’ would address fundamental principles of truth, accuracy, verification, attribution, transparency, honesty, respect, equity, fairness, independence, originality and integrity, with exceptions only for matters of substantial legitimate public concern.

It would be supplemented by industry or workplace ‘information and guidance’ documents to help explain to journalists and editors the fact scenarios and precedents applying to a particular medium or specialty.

Any government funding could establish and maintain a one-stop media complaints shop for referring consumers’ concerns to the appropriate self-regulatory or co-regulatory body and an accompanying media literacy campaign for the broader community. The several million dollars spent on these inquiries would have been better spent on this.

Broader citizen access to broadband and the sands of time will solve most of the media regulation problems we have today, but applying existing consumer law to the news media would help. That’s the way it was for a few years after the Trade Practices Act was introduced in 1975 until intensive lobbying by media groups won them a news provider exemption from its operations.

Why revisit consumer law? Because these days most news provision is ‘just another business’ and the only news media candidates for any regulation with teeth are usually operating across state borders in ‘trade or commerce’ and are therefore subject to the provisions of what has been rebadged the Competition and Consumer Act.

The Web 2.0 environment has motivated the traditional media to focus more strongly on commercial interests than it has ever had to do previously, breaking down the traditional ‘firewall’ between advertising and editorial material. Traditional revenue streams have reduced to a trickle. That’s why they have staff freezes and can’t increase their funding of the Press Council.

Such an adjustment to consumer law would mean a scandal on a scale of ‘Cash for Comment’ or the News of the World episode could be handled for what it is: irresponsible deception of media consumers by powerful, cynical, corporate players.

It’s not a radical suggestion. The ACCC entered the Cash for Comment fray early on, but backed off when the then Australian Broadcasting Authority started investigating. Perhaps it should have persisted. Just two years ago the High Court found against Seven under the former Trade Practices Act in a case false claims about goods and services. The reform would extend this to other ethical breaches.

‘Responsible truth-telling’ would remain protected, as it should be in a Western democracy. The onus would be on the ACCC to prove the irresponsibility or falsity of the misleading material or actions and that it was contrary to the public interest.

Media Inquiry chair Ray Finkelstein dismissed my suggestions as ‘impractical’ when I appeared in the Melbourne hearings last Thursday. He seemed intent on his Bandaid-like solution for the Australian Press Council.

He might be willing to take another look at it now that the Convergence Review has flagged its own big-picture approach and its intention to return to the drawing board of media regulation.

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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