Journalism, amid stories of cats up trees, football scores and celebrity gossip, is about speaking truth to power. The news media wields power too, and when you speak truth to it, the result is much the same as when the news media speaks truth to governments or businesses or unions or churches – you are either ignored, or spun or shot at for delivering an unpalatable message.
I am talking about the Australian media industry’s response to the findings of the Independent Media Inquiry to which I was appointed last year to assist the chairman, retired Federal Court judge Ray Finkelstein, QC.
The inquiry, set up after the News of the World phone hacking scandal erupted in Britain, immediately drew criticism for being payback by a floundering government under attack by the media in general, and News Ltd in particular. This context was acknowledged early in the inquiry’s report.
When invited by Communications Minister Stephen Conroy to participate, I could have declined on the ground it was irretrievably tainted.
I didn’t for several reasons. First, I was assured the inquiry would be conducted independent of government. Many are rightly cynical about politicians, as has been on grisly display recently in Federal Parliament.
The inquiry was conducted independent of government. You either have to believe me on that or call me and Finkelstein liars, because in an opening statement at the public hearings he said he would not have accepted the role unless independence was guaranteed. In any case, the words ”dupe” or ”supine” do not spring to mind when characterising Finkelstein, as any who attended the hearings would attest.
Second, inquiries into the news media are rare; the media calls for inquiries into itself in inverse proportion to the regularity with which it calls for inquiries into other institutions in society. Any institution can benefit from an independent inquiry, as Paul Chadwick, a respected media commentator, told the inquiry.
Third, I was well placed to make a contribution, having spent the past three decades working in newsrooms (most recently as this newspaper’s media editor) and in universities teaching and studying journalism.
Fourth, it is common ground, certainly in academic literature and even among some media commentators, that the Australian regulatory system is weak, fragmented and, especially since the rise of online media, inconsistent. So, there is a problem in an institution vital to a democratic society and the prospect of finding a solution. Reader, I took the job.
When the report was released on March 2, its central recommendation of setting up a News Media Council to regulate news and current affairs across all media was widely attacked, often in inflammatory language. 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.
Really? What is actually recommended differs from the existing system in only one key aspect, namely government would fund the News Media Council.
It would draw on standards of journalistic practice already existing across the industry. If a complaint to the council was upheld, the adjudication would need to be published prominently in the media outlet – a suggestion to which the industry strenuously objected.
But as Professor Rodney Tiffen, who assisted the inquiry, wrote in The Australian Financial Review on March 20: ”This objection is an assertion of their right to exercise censorship, to restrict, not increase, information available to the public.”
The news media is ”arguing for their right to withhold from readers the news that their paper has been criticised”. That is what it boils down to.
I do understand industry and public scepticism about a statutory authority regulating news media – even the federal government’s staunchest supporters have blanched at some of its missteps, and who is to say they wouldn’t mishandle the introduction of a News Media Council?
But consider what we faced. Self-regulation does not work, according to the Press Council, even though it has been in place for 35 years. It is badly underfunded and industry players can come and go as they please, which they have done. The industry, however, says it’s all good and no, the Press Council can’t have any more money.
In short, the industry has created the problem or allowed it to continue. If it really wanted to avoid government-funded regulation it could put its own house in order. It has had a stab at this in negotiations with Press Council chairman Julian Disney, but a core weakness of self-regulation was exposed again by West Australian Newspapers’ simultaneous decision to withdraw from the council.
Acting only when a statutory authority looms underscores the industry’s unwillingness to provide genuine accountability to its audience.
The industry could have acknowledged that the inquiry had stated a hard truth, and then set about improving the self-regulatory system. It could have committed to rebuilding public trust in the news media, which according to numerous opinion polls analysed by the inquiry is alarmingly low.
The industry could also rebuild public confidence by encouraging a newsroom culture where the industry reports on itself thoroughly and without spin, by, for example, appointing readers’ editors and explaining openly to readers how editors make difficult decisions to publish important stories that necessarily upset some and damage others’ reputations.
There are certainly knotty questions inherent in regulating the news media, but Australia hasn’t got within cooee of them because what little debate there has been about the inquiry’s report has been crowded with knee-jerk responses that on other issues the news media would label as the voice of vested interest.
That is why I feel dispirited.
Matthew Ricketson is a journalist and Professor of Journalism at the University of Canberra who assisted Ray Finkelstein QC in his Independent Media Inquiry.
This Article was originally published in “The Age” and is reproduced with permission and thanks.