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Media inquiry day one: Chicken Little takes the floor

As journalists and academics got ready to outline a new media order at the Finkelstein inquiry yesterday, anti-regulationists lined up to dismiss the process with bipartisan relish. On day one of the inquiry…

Communications Minister Stephen Conroy announces the media inquiry in September. AAP/Lucas Coch

As journalists and academics got ready to outline a new media order at the Finkelstein inquiry yesterday, anti-regulationists lined up to dismiss the process with bipartisan relish.

On day one of the inquiry, editorials were calling it “unnecessary and ill-conceived” (Fairfax) and a potential “echo-chamber of its instigators' paranoia” (News Limited).

Gerard Henderson catastrophised, claiming that government is bent on licensing the press and “assaulting” an economically vulnerable industry whose “real challenge at hand is survival”.

Over at News Limited Andrew Bolt re-posted this fancy with a “bravo.”

But only one of the 21 submissions posted so far has suggested licensing might help address press misdemeanours.

Indeed with the Federal budget set to remain in deficit, and the Press Council and ACMA already struggling to fund their existing content oversight duties, heavy handed regulation would be policy suicide.

The polemicists distract us from what is shaping up as the inquiry’s central business: to what extent the print media need regulating to ensure fair, accurate and ethical reporting, how to tweak the current self-regulatory regime to deal with the boom in online publishers, and whether the government should support “quality” news and opinion production while media business models are in flux.

Freedom and responsibility

Critics of the inquiry have made much of the print media’s historic claim to uphold freedom of speech. However as columnist Andrew Bolt was recently reminded, freedom comes with responsibilities to the public – particularly to accuracy and ethical process.

Unfortunately the forging of this Inquiry in Greens and Labor complaints about News Limited has overshadowed more important and ongoing problems with public access to media accountability.

The Press Council is compromised by being funded by those it regulates - Fairfax, News Limited, and Seven West – but outside our legal system it is one of the few avenues of official complaint about press ethics for ordinary citizens.

True, many people can access an ongoing right of reply to an offending article these days via a blog or tweet - but this will not extract a reply, let alone a correction. And there’s no guarantee that an outraged Jane Doe will attract the same degree of attention for her complaint as the story she deplores.

The Press Council’s own submission to the inquiry is a lengthy unpacking of everything it is doing to improve its complaints-handling process and to make more people aware of their avenues of redress. It wants to develop more effective media standards for a digital era and to increase its ability to mete out penalties.

There’s been some incredulity in the twitterverse about its plan to to attract influential bloggers with discount membership rates, or to restrict Federal Privacy Act exemptions to those internet publishers who sign up as members.

Still in today’s hearings academic and essayist Robert Manne supported a stronger, more active Council, with powers to force corrections, as an antidote to “further statutory limits” on print media freedom.

In a post-inquiry commentary this afternoon he called for better moderation of news blogs such as Andrew Bolt’s, where both posts and comments were “extremely vicious and even more frequently ill-informed”.

Eric Beecher, publisher of Crikey.com.au, also suggested yesterday that the independence of any future Council would be better ensured by government funding – but this in turn would diminish the incentive for publishers to have any frontline, normalised involvement in drafting, implementing and monitoring accountability measures.

Nevertheless the Council’s budget is a key concern, particularly if it is expected to extend its investigative powers and improve its public profile.

Its current funding is under $1 million and it employs only four staff. With its member publishers unlikely to fund an expanded remit, the organisation lacks any clear avenue for achieving its goals - especially as the blogsphere expands.

Self or co-regulation?

In its submission, and a leaked discussion paper prior to the Inquiry, the Press Council has pitched for a new self-regulatory body addressing all media platforms – broadcast, print and online.

The idea of a Media Council, has been on the table since at least 2009. At that time the proposal was resisted strongly by broadcasters and industry bodies alike.

Times have changed though and its possible that the Convergence Review will take a closer look at technology neutral solutions to regulatory tangles.

But at least one legal opinion is keen to see ACMA take up that convergence challenge.

John Corker, visiting fellow at the UNSW Law Faculty, has argued that ACMA is “best suited to oversee a co-regulatory code developed by and for “influential news and current affairs media” publishers”, who would have to register with the government.

Complaints not properly addressed by these publishing companies could be investigated, and upheld complaints reported to Parliament but Corker recommends against ACMA having any powers of enforcement.

This reflection of ACMA’s existing relationship with the national broadcasters will no doubt meet the approval of those camps, but leaves a question mark over the future of the Council.

How Press Council head Julian Disney responds will make interesting listening when he faces the Inquiry today.