As was noted this week on the Inforrm blog, the “War of Leveson’s Report” is already underway.  The leakers, briefers and spin doctors are firing the first shots – designed in part to gauge the strength of the opposition.  A similar war is being fought in Australia – which is some months ahead of us – and there are some interesting lessons to be learned.

In February 2012, Judge Finkelstein’s Independent Media Inquiry reported – having taken only 5 months from start to finish.  It came up with a model of “enforced self-regulation”.  As Gordon Ramsay put it in our post at the time, the proposal was to establish

An independent statutory body – the News Media Council (NMC) – would be established, free from government influence through an independent appointments procedure, but funded via government.

The principal function of the NMC would be “to promote the highest ethical and professional standards of journalism” through: the preparation and review of standards, via setting both non-binding aspirational principles and detailed codes of practice.  Its remedial powers following complaints and own-motion investigations would be:

  • To require publication of a correction
  • To require withdrawal of a particular article from continued publication (via the internet or otherwise)
  • To require a media outlet to publish a reply by a complainant or other relevant person
  • To require publication of the NMC’s decision or determination
  • To direct when and where publications should appear (Para 11.74).

It would have no power to award compensation or impose fines.

This modest proposal appeared to command wide public support but the Australian media did not like it.  They proceeded to conduct sustained campaign of “rubbishing” the report. We had a post about this in June from Professor Matthew Ricketson (who assisted Judge Finkelstein).

The Government has now been considering the report for 6 months.  Action has not yet been taken. The disinformation campaign is in full swing.

First, seven media CEOs (three of which were from Murdoch owned “News” companies) wrote to the Prime Minister expressing their

“strong and united opposition to some of the recommendations in the Convergence Review and the Finkelstein Review”.

These were, “dangerous to free speech”,  Magna Carta was invoked.  It is noteworthy that two major media groups – Fairfax and Network Ten – did not sign up to the letter.

The Prime Minister’s courteous response was then spun on the basis that she was offering a compromise based on “more stringent self-regulation” (note the similarity with David Cameron’s reported decision to reject statutory regulation in favour of “tougher, more effective form of self-regulation”).  As David Salter put it on “Crikey” Murdoch’s broadsheet “The Australian”:

“made the PM’s courtesy letter their “exclusive” front-page lead, under the preposterous headline: “PM seeks truce over media rules”. There was not a single quote in the story to substantiate that heading — in fact, not a quote of any kind from the letter. Nevertheless, its use of the word “truce” stood as an unguarded admission by News that it has, indeed, been waging a war on the government over media regulation”.

On 21 August 2012 “The Australian” had a report under the headline “Cabinet cools on print media regulator”.  Meanwhile the Australian Newspaper Publishers’ Association has reported that “Support for the Media Grows in regulation debate”.   This report carefully steers clear of analysing the actual level of public support for the media – which continues to remain low – concentrating instead on a few “anti-regulation” cheerleaders.

The Australian opposition party has jumped on the media’s bandwagon – with opposition leader Tony Abbott expressing his admiration for Rupert Murdoch and suggesting that media freedom and freedom of speech will be “major issues in the lead up to the next election”. We had a post about this last week from Australian commentator Katherine Murphy. The Opposition legal affairs spokesman George Brandis has attacked

“the deliberate and concerted attack by the Labor Party and the Greens, and the authoritarian Left in general, upon freedom of speech’’

Meanwhile, in response to a complaint about inaccurate reporting of the Finkelstein recommendations, “Crikey” reports that Australia’s own version of our PCC – the Australian Press Council – has decided that it would not adjudicate.  It said that

The Council has decided it should not adjudicate on complaints relating to the Finkelstein and Convergence Review’s reports because of its possible conflict of interest.”

The position in England is rather different.  The opposition has been very supportive of Leveson and is not going to be reconciled with Rupert Murdoch any time soon.  Nevertheless, the unrelenting campaign of vilifcation of the modest Finklestein proposals provides a clear indication of what we can expect in England when Lord Justice Leveson reports.   In defence of their narrow self-interest the press are planning an all out attack on any proposals that have teeth.  It will be interesting to see how far the Government will stand up for the man they appointed to inquire into the culture and ethics of the press.