Finkelstein inquiry report cause for ‘cautious optimism’

Former Federal court judge Roy Finkelstein (centre) has delivered his media inquiry report. AAP/Dean Lewins

It was a pleasant surprise that the independent Australian media inquiry, examining print, online and the role of the self-regulatory body, the Australian Press Council, was, for the most part, a satisfying document.

It was hard to know what this Inquiry might deliver, given the political events leading up to its announcement. Its timing was in the wake of the phone hacking scandal that closed Britain’s News of the World. Closer to home Greens’ Leader Bob Brown was sparring with News Limited journalists collectively labelling them the “hate media”; while, Prime Minister Julia Gillard waged her own battle with Murdoch’s Australian accusing it of publishing a false report about her “in breach of all known standards of journalism”. Her message was “don’t write crap”.

Five months on, the Inquiry, led by former justice of the Federal Court Ray Finkelstein QC, with the assistance of academic Dr Matthew Ricketson, has opted in favour of spending taxpayers’ money to replace the Australian Press Council (APC) to improve media accountability. It is a brave and definitive stance. It is preferable to beefing up the existing Press Council, which has been dogged with its “toothless tiger” tag for too much of its 36 years. The recommendation to create the cross-media super regulator, the News Media Council, is a reason for cautious optimism.

I say “cautious” because even during the short five months it took the Inquiry to travel the major cities, hear submissions and produce its impressive 468 pages, there have been shifts in the Australian media landscape.

Billionaire mining magnate Gina Rinehart, who joined WA protestors to chant against the Federal Government’s mining tax, last month lifted her five per cent shareholding in Fairfax Media to 14 per cent. Already with a 10 per cent share in television network Ten, the move raised questions of whether these media share acquisitions were a strategy to get her voice better heard above the din.

Communications Minister Stephen Conroy now has to act on the recommendations of the Finkelstein media inquiry. AAP/Alan Porrit

Back in 1981 Justice Ralph Norris warned of the potential for harm to society when too few own too much. The retired Supreme Court judge had reviewed Victoria’s print media and identified that concentration of ownership was “high” — and that was before News Limited acquired the Herald and Weekly Times. Loss of diversity in the expression of opinion was one concern, he stated. The second, was “the power of a very few men to influence the outlook and opinions of large numbers of people, and consequently the decisions made in society.”

If that sounds familiar, it might be because today, speaking on radio and writing in the Monthly magazine, Federal treasurer Wayne Swan accused a number of Australia’s wealthiest citizens — Rinehart, Clive Palmer and Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest — of overstepping their reach and using their wealth and influence to alter public policy to serve their self-interests.

Yet, concentration of media ownership was not the focus of this latest media review. This is despite the jaw-dropping fact Australia has the highest concentration of print ownership of any democracy, with the duopoly of Fairfax Media and News Limited (Murdoch) accounting for 90 per cent of its daily newspapers.

It is true that the latest Inquiry did acknowledge concentrated ownership shrinks the number of independent voices available to readers. And, it did find that this is particularly problematic in regional Australia where many towns have fewer media choices than the city; and where local outlets were likely to be under-resourced and understaffed. But, while the Inquiry understood that this could be damaging to the democratic function of our society, disappointingly it passed the buck to Government to investigate with “some urgency”.

The Inquiry’s recommendations are a departure from the desirable model of self-regulation that works well in many democracies. Nonetheless, the new super-regulator will be taxpayer-funded, and at arms length from government. This is better than a compulsory media-levy option because it will not disadvantage start-ups or small outlets. The proposal to have an independent panel appointing a broad mix from within the industry and community is also a positive move.

Unlike the APC, no longer will media proprietors have the option of withdrawing their participation, or much-needed funds. This makes it a fairer system for consumers, and a more even playing field for media organisations. The perhaps unfair exception is that fly-by-night bloggers, often responsible for much vitriol, and the ‘lonely pamphleteer’ will not be held to account if their audiences are small.

The report is the product of hard work, and should be compulsory reading for any student of journalism. Filled with case studies, overseas comparisons and media history, it is far from the stodgy document you might expect to be handed to Government. If the proposals are enacted, let’s hope these new measures can curtail the ‘crap’.