The Finkelstein Inquiry into media regulation: Experts respond

Former Federal Court judge Ray Finkelstein spent five months considering more than 60 submissions from 22 organisations. AAP Image/Dean Lewins

An independent inquiry has found that the way media is regulated in Australia is not rigorous enough to ensure accountability and transparency. It proposes that a new statutory body, the News Media Council, be created to set and enforce journalistic standards across all media – including online.

The Finkelstein inquiry was convened following the News of the World phone hacking scandal in Britain. Former Federal Court judge, Ray Finkelstein, was charged with assessing the effectiveness of media codes of practice and the impact of technological change on traditional media.

The Conversation spoke with media experts to see whether the recommendations go far enough.

Andrea Carson, Lecturer in Media, Politics and Society, University of Melbourne

The terms of reference for this inquiry were fairly narrow and there was much commentary, and I would agree with it, that it avoided talking about concentration of media ownership. This is an important problem in Australia because we’ve got one of the highest concentrations of media ownership in any democracy.

So for that reason, I’m cautiously optimistic about what the Finkelstein report has found. And pleasantly surprised to see that the inquiry recommends replacing the Australian Press Council (APC), which has been dogged with the toothless tiger moniker for most of its 36 years, with a new body which also encompasses all platforms of media, to be called the News Media Council (NMC). It’s a start in the right direction to get some sort of universal standards for the Australian media.

I’m also reluctantly supportive of its arm-length funding of the new body by government, as long as it can be guaranteed that there won’t be government interference. It will be interesting to see exactly how that’s going to be guaranteed. That it is going to have broad representation from the community and industry groups is also encouraging.

I agree with the report that at this stage there’s not the evidence to support direct government funding for new and existing media, other than of course ABC and SBS.

The inquiry raises more questions than it answers. How much funding exactly is appropriate for the government to provide? How will the government ensure that that amount remains constant and is increased periodically, in order to guard against the new NMC becoming no more than what the APC was, but with a different name?

The NMC is recommended to have a rather extensive role, which also raises the question of how much funding is going to be adequate.

The turn-around times for complaints seem fairly speedy, and compelling the media to publish complaints, and tracking and reporting industry trends is a big role for this new body. I hope that by compelling journalists and editors to publish complaints that it doesn’t deliver a new era of self-censorship as journalists do what they can to avoid the compulsory process of complaint resolution, and this is particularly a problem for the ABC, which has compulsory complaint processes.

There are many recommendations as to how the right of reply should work, but again this raises questions about what’s actually going to happen in practice. The word “should” is used a lot. And of course, what is going to happen if an organisation refuses to publish or publishes in a form that is not consistent with the recommendation? For example, what if it puts a small apology on a back page when the offending story was on page one. Who’s going to oversee that? And what sorts of penalties will apply if an organisation doesn’t comply?

And also, just finally, the inquiry seems to squib on the question of the immediate future for regional media. It openly acknowledges that the regional media of Australia has fallen on tough times and much of it is under-funded and under-resourced, and that the public interest in these remote communities is not being well-served because of this lack of funding. And yet, that question has been passed on to government to come to some sort of conclusion about. It’s disappointing there’s not a stronger finding.

Brian McNair, Professor of Journalism, Media and Communication, Queensland University of Technology

The media council that is recommended [by the Finkelstein Inquiry] is actually quite a strong recommendation. It’s certainly stronger than the current situation in Australia or in Britain, for that matter, with the Press Complaints Commission, which is an industry body that is non-statutory. This [new council] is a statutory body, it has teeth and it’ll have funding. The recommendation is also that the council’s recommendations be binding on Australian media companies. And it applies to all the platforms, which is important. So for all those reasons, it potentially makes it quite an effective and powerful body overlooking the media.

It’s an Australian body, but in international terms quite a strong and decisive outcome if it is indeed implemented.

The concerns are obviously that if it is a strong body, how will that strength be used? I’m not usually supportive of statutory press regulation in terms of political viewpoints and so forth. And I would need to see more of the detail of what kind of powers this council had. But the obvious danger would be that a future government could use this to suppress or bypass legitimate media scrutiny. It’s difficult to say without knowing what kind of issues would be acted upon by this council. There are various set of laws to govern issues like defamation or inaccuracy and they’ll remain in place.

The report says very clearly the government will have no role, apart from the funding role. If the government has no role in terms of appointments to that council, then you can see the scope for undue political influence would be limited. But that’s the risk of having any kind of statutory regulation of media. But it’s not a pre-censorship body, it’s not stepping in before publication, it’s saying it will be available to people after publication as a way of getting redress on inaccuracy, on unfairness and other kinds of issues like that. At the moment Australian Communications and Media Authority and the Australian Press Council are supposed to be doing that, but they aren’t effective.

So summing up, the report says because the current regulation is not effective, we need this new council. There will be no government involvement beyond the funding and the funding is necessary to get the independence from the industry.

Johan Lidberg, Senior Lecturer in Journalism, Monash University

My immediate response is very positive. I had thought the inquiry would be much more watered down but this is positively surprising. It’s overall quite brave of both Judge Finkelstein and Professor Ricketson to be so concrete in their suggestions.

In my submission to the inquiry, I was very much for the one-stop model. I’m very pleased that they are recommending that with the new News Media Council.

I had a two-step process to get there, to allow the Australian media one more go at cleaning up their act via co-regulation, where the newspapers are under the same rules as broadcast. The Finkelstein report takes it one step further and goes straight to a statutory body, which I was initially a bit sceptical about. But having read the inquiry’s rationale for going straight to a statutory body, I must say I do cautiously support that, providing that the new body is completely independent from government. And the way they’ve constructed it, it has a good chance of being quite independent.

But the report is putting forward a concrete model that needs to be discussed, of course - but it is clearly doable.

They also point out in their report that pretty much all the media company submissions to the inquiry recommended the status quo. I read some of them. They were quite flippant, quite arrogant. Now that’s just not on, I’m very disappointed in the Australian media for not seriously engaging with this inquiry. To keep claiming that nothing needs to be done when we have low trust in Australian media at the moment is frankly irresponsible.

Clearly, the Australian media wields the power that needs greater accountability, the current system we have is fragmented, weak and unsatisfactory in terms of handling complaints. In that light the Finkelstein report will be a great contribution and thus far I’m quite happy with it.

We also have to remember that the convergence review is about to report too and they’ll have their input. So in the weeks and months to come we need to engage with this issue so we come up with the best possible solutions.

What would be really poor is if we maintained the status quo. So we really need to watch carefully because there will lots of cries of foul from the media industry, but they need to be handled with vigour.

Alexandra Wake, Lecturer in Media and Communication, RMIT University

I think the News Media Council is a good idea and something that really needs to be done. I’m pleased that it’s going to be government funded - that is important.

The report also says that we need to do more to monitor regional news and I think that also is an extremely important consideration. I’m glad Finkelstein has made a point of saying that.

I was very disappointed that he didn’t see the need for government-funded journalism, because I fear for the industry and I fear for the ongoing journalistic practice in this country, and if we want to have a decent democracy then we do need to have more voices and properly funded journalism.

I also worry that the council won’t go far enough. A quick search of the report for the words “spin” and “public relations” shows that they are mentioned less than a dozen times. I’m really concerned about a small number of people who have an inappropriate amount of influence in the media. What is not widely appreciated is the role of PR people and lobbyists - the people who are controlling the news agenda. Finkelstein needed to say that this is the opportunity - with this council - of binding public relations people as well to a code of conduct that makes them honest and accountable and truthful. Most news outlets do not say where people’s interests lie, or where these news stories are coming from.

I’m pretty confident that the recommendations will get taken up. I think [Communications Minister Stephen] Conroy wouldn’t have put the report out there unless he was actually planning to go through with this.