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Broad terms for media inquiry but what about ownership?

Communications Minister, Stephen Conroy, announced the terms of reference for the media inquiry on Wednesday. AAP

The Australian government has announced the terms of reference of its planned media inquiry, which will look at the powers of the Press Council, recent technological developments and the ability of the media to act in the public interest.

The inquiry will be led by former Federal Court judge, Ray Finkelstein QC, with the assistance of Dr Matthew Ricketson, Professor of Journalism at Canberra University.

The inquiry will examine:

a) The effectiveness of the current media codes of practice in Australia, particularly in light of technological change that is leading to the migration of print media to digital and online platforms;

b) The impact of this technological change on the business model that has supported the investment by traditional media organisations in quality journalism and the production of news, and how such activities can be supported, and diversity enhanced, in the changed media environment;

c) Ways of substantially strengthening the independence and effectiveness of the Australian Press Council, including in relation to on-line publications, and with particular reference to the handling of complaints;

d) Any related issues pertaining to the ability of the media to operate according to regulations and codes of practice, and in the public interest.

The inquiry was announced in the wake of the phone hacking scandal involving Rupert Murdoch’s News International and comes after Prime Minister Gillard accused Murdoch paper The Australian of breaching “all known standards of journalism” by publishing a false report about her.

Here are some expert reactions to the terms of reference.

Bill Birnbauer, senior lecturer in journalism, Monash University

Any examination of alternate media models that might enhance quality journalism in Australia is to be welcomed. Newspapers are and will remain at the heart of investigative and quality reporting for some time, but for diversity and our democracy other models must be encouraged. Tax deductibility for donations to non-profit journalism centres is one way and relates directly to the second term of reference.

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

My impression of this debate, as it developed since the phone hacking scandal, was that legitimate concerns about concentration of ownership in the Australian media are being conflated with what I would regard as politicised complaints about criticism of the government in The Australian.

You have legitimate questions about how media ownership is distorting the quality of public debate in Australia but that is being confused with concerns about News Limited and how they were anti-government and the tone of debate was not appropriate and so forth.

To me, that contradicts the principle of a free press, which is that they can criticise the government in any way they like. As long as they don’t break the law, you can’t seek as a government to constrain the tone or content of criticism of government. You can counter it and try to mete it back but you have to effectively let a free and independent media say what it likes.

Looking at the terms of reference, it seems to have been turned into something different, which is really looking at impact of technology on the business model, which is a genuine concern. How do you defend quality journalism when the traditional advertising-supported model or print business is under pressure?

That’s a concern that’s legitimate for government to look at, to assist the industry and thereby sustain the quality of journalism in a democracy.

As for looking at the effectiveness of the Press Council, well, I am not aware that there’s been a lot of complaints about the Australian Press Council.

Regarding codes of practice, there is a legitimate set of questions about how you manage issues like libel, damage and privacy. Is it easier for the media to violate people’s privacy or defame now you have institutions like Wikileaks? Perhaps there is a case for review of that.

Obviously, there is an attempt to have no direct reference to News Limited and bias. I think the government is on a dangerous track if it seeks to constrain free speech or commentary in a free press.

David McKnight, Associate Professor, Journalism and Media Research Centre at University of New South Wales

I think it’s rather good. It’s better than I thought. It’s mainly about two things.

The first is getting redress or much better complaints procedures, which can only be a good thing. They have gone for the small and practical rather than the big and systemic.

The second thing it’s about is the slow moving but relentless problems of newspapers, particularly unsubsidised newspapers, by which I mean The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald. The way in which the business model of advertising support for professional journalism is really in crisis.

It’s not clear what such an inquiry can do but at the very least it can stimulate public debate about what we do when the more in-depth newspapers really enter a definitive crisis stage.

To be a frank, I think a lot of discussion has already gone on between the Press Council and the government about having what seems to be a new body, partly funded by the government and partly by the newspaper publishers, which would be a national media complaints body.

No one really wants to have a government body telling newspapers they must do this or they can’t do that. No one in the debate accepts that is the way to go.

So the problem is how to have something better than a fairly toothless self-regulatory body, which publishers are not obliged to take part in anyway, and the thing no one wants which is government appointees saying you must publish this apology to this person.

The inquiry is not primarily going to look at bias or ownership questions, which are the big and difficult issues. There’s one bit in section D which is interesting, where it says it will look at “any related issues pertaining to the ability of the media to operate according to regulations and codes of practice, and in the public interest.”

There is a tiny window there to raise issues of bias and the extraordinary monopolistic ownership of Australia’s newspapers.

A lot of people think newspapers are old hat and legacy media and not important anymore. That is absolutely not true. The internet is fabulous for opinion but it hasn’t created a model for general news. Most general news still originates from the failing business model of journalism. Most original news still comes from newspapers. Radio and television have very, very small newsrooms.

So the fate of newspapers is still absolutely critical to having an even a partially informed public that goes to vote every few years.

Jay Rosen, Associate Professor, Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, New York University

So let me see if I have this straight: if one company owns 68% of print circulation and 77% of the capital city and national circulation that is not something the government needs to look into, right?

Okaaaaayyyyy, Australia.

Well, I understand the hesitation. I do. A free press is a precious – and fragile – thing. Too much government interest in its problems could crush it. The government is not wrong to fear that, if that is what people in the government feared.

But if they were afraid to take on the Murdoch forces because the Murdoch forces are too many and too powerful, then this fear will only make those forces more powerful. It would have been risky to look into News Ltd. and what it is doing to Australian democracy. But let’s be clear. It is also risky to avoid looking.

Julian Disney, Chair of Press Council and Professor at University of New South Wales

The Press Council commenced last year a sustained program of reform to strengthen its effectiveness. It will advise the inquiry about the progress made so far and the further improvements which are under way.

It will identify other steps which are needed to achieve the level of performance which the Council believes is necessary and the community is entitled to expect. These will require supportive action by governments and other bodies.

These improvements will not be achievable without substantial increases in the Council’s financial and staff resources and in the long-term security of those resources. This includes support from non-media sources, including governments.

Michael Ashley, Professor of Astrophysics at University of New South Wales and media observer

While the government hasn’t wanted to appear to target News Limited, that is clearly where the main problem lies, both in terms of News Limited’s market share and their editorial approach on matters such as the climate debate. Overall, the Murdoch media empire has cost humanity perhaps one or two decades of time in the battle against climate change.

Stephan Lewandowsky, Australian Professorial Fellow, Cognitive Science Laboratories at University of Western Australia and media observer

It is an obvious truism that a democracy cannot function without an independent and strong media that holds the powerful to account and provides the public with a diversity of opinion.

What is often overlooked but is equally essential is that the diversity of media opinion must be based on a uniformity of fact: people are entitled to their own opinions but not to their own facts.

In Australia, part of the media have lost sight of this constraint and have replaced the reporting of factual reality with the spin of ideology and opinion.

The Australian media —- foremost among them the large News Limited organs – have failed the public in their reporting of climate change by creating a phoney debate about climate science that is notably absent from the one arena where scientific knowledge is debated, namely the peer-reviewed literature.

The inquiry announced today sends a welcome signal that recognition of the deplorable state of the Australian print media goes far beyond the scientific community.

However, the terms of reference neglect to address two crucial issues.

First, the concentration of media ownership in Australia, where one media conglomerate owns 167 newspapers and controls 70% of the national market—with nearly complete dominance in several cities.

Second, it appears that the inquiry will not examine the actual track record of media outlets but will instead focus on strengthening the Australian Press Council, the body responsible for handling complaints against the media.

While this can only be welcome, today’s front page headline in The Australian, which spins the inquiry as being a probe of the ‘media guardians’ rather than the media itself, provides a striking illustration of why the terms of reference fall short of what is needed.

Wendy Bacon, Professor of Journalism, Information & Media Studies Group at University of Technology, Sydney

These terms of reference are very open to interpretation.

I am very pleased there isn’t a narrow focus on privacy, which I think would have gone over old ground. I think there’s opening to discuss some important issues.

It’s an opportunity for those who allege there is systematic market failure to deliver comprehensive news and current affairs from diverse view points to come up with evidence for that, in the way that Robert Manne has done in his Quarterly Essay.

There is huge pressure not to talk about the concentration of media ownership which is really quite bizarre. We are having an inquiry but not talking about the thing that most people think is the problem.

It’s slightly bizarre you can’t speak directly about it but I think you can cover it within the terms of reference that we have here.

The particular point where this comes up is how to enhance diversity and the number four point on “any related issues on the ability of the media to operate in the public interest.” That clearly allows people to talk about broader issues.

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