In a useful run-down on his blog, journalism law academic Mark Pearson outlines some objections to the government’s proposed media reform legislation. It is a little brief and although it starts out promisingly, political concerns quickly rush to the fore. Here’s his first objection, near the top:
Here we have a piece of legislation proposing a statutory mechanism for the supervision of industry-based self-regulation of print and online news media.
That, dear readers, is ‘regulation’.
Fair enough, and we’ll get to my reaction to this point later.
But for people interested in understanding the implications of the proposed laws in terms of the Privacy Act, Pearson’s blog post is very useful. There has been no explanation like his from the ABC, Fairfax or News Ltd. Kim Williams, the News Ltd CEO, appeared on Sky News, but he simply echoed the uninformative tropes that were spun on the media reform issue by the Daily Terror and the Australian. These kinds of rants merely use the public’s ignorance as a bludgeon with which to punish the government.
Pearson, on the other hand, goes through the detail of what could happen if the laws got through Parliament, and how they could materially affect publishers of news. He informs us, which is one of the things that journalists who go to school to study the profession are told is a key component of their craft. Please read his blog post if you have time – you will not regret it.
Pearson then looks back to what he says is the ‘politics that has cruelled this whole media regulation review over the past 18 months’.
What he’s referring to are reactions from politicians to the hacking scandal that engulfed the media in the UK, the repercussions of which continue to play out. As part of the debacle, News Corp’sNews of the World newspaper was shut down in July 2011.There was also Bob Brown’s famous “hate media” spray in May 2011 that took place in front of a group of reporters at Parliament House.
In essence, Pearson is saying that dissatisfaction among politicians on the Left combined with universal horror at what had happened in the UK motivated them to launch the Finkelstein Inquiry, which began in mid-September 2011 and reported to the government in February 2012. Between February 2012 and March 2013 the communications minister, Stephen Conroy, was also looking at the Convergence Review, which was about media ownership rules.
Or he wasn’t, I don’t know. It seems like a long time to make us wait. Waiting ensures that the original emotions associated with the issues drift away from popular consciousness and it dulls the debate, opening it up to exploitation by interested parties.
What a lot of people have completely forgotten about is Robert Manne’s Quarterly Essay on News Ltd’s Australian, which came out in September 2011. Titled Bad News, it made points that are extremely germane to how the current debate is panning out. But it’s old history, you might say. No, it’s not. Just listen to what Manne says, keeping in mind Bob Brown’s expressions of unhappiness.
It is an unusually ideological paper, committed to advancing the causes of neoliberalism in economics and neoconservatism in the sphere of foreign policy. Its style and tone are unlike that of any other newspaper in the nation’s history. The Australian is ruthless in pursuit of those who oppose its worldview – market fundamentalism, minimal action on climate change, the federal Intervention in indigenous affairs, uncritical support for the American alliance and for Israel, opposition to what it calls political correctness and moral relativism.
Note that Manne was still working on the essay when Brown made his position plain in May 2011, but it’s no coincidence that they both sing from the same score. I wrote about Manne’s essay when it came out. And I also wrote about the reaction from News Ltd a week later. That reaction mirrors in its tone and general character the reaction we’ve seen in the past few days of News Ltd newspapers to Conroy’s proposed media reform laws.
Which brings me back to Pearson’s claim that Conroy is seeking ‘regulation’. Now it should be kept in mind that media companies have internal documents that lay out how their journalists should report on things. There are also professional bodies that have standards and codes of conduct.
The Press Council, which Conroy wants to make his Public Interest Media Advocate oversee, also has documents that describe how journalism should be carried out.
The Media Advocate would make sure that these standards are adequate, and also that media companies that belong to the Council conform to those standards. The point to take home is that there are journalists and editors in Australia who make a mockery of such standards, and who ignore completely any call to fairness or objectivity. See the response from the Australian to Manne’s essay (apart from the substance of the essay itself), and how it and the Daily Terror responded to Conroy’s proposed laws.
Objectivity goes out the window when the staff get the word from above; above the CEO there is also the figure of octogenarian Rupe, who loves the media business and makes no bones about influencing editorial decisions. If you want to read how objectivity can be edged out the door, there’s this case study on one of Murdoch’s takeovers that you can buy and read.
For a lot of people, and that no doubt includes Bob Brown, the idea of putting a bit of lead in the spine of the Press Council can only be welcome in the face of how things really operate in the media in Australia, where News Ltd owns a tabloid in every capital city apart from Perth, and the Australian sitting on top of the heap.
I am reminded of those early 20th Century magazine illustrations showing what was thought by many at the time to be the baneful influence of the Chinese on Australian society; such expressions of xenophobia were common for a long time and usually showed an octopus – on each leg was the word for some moral hazard such as ‘customs robbery’ or ‘immorality’. In place of those labels you could now have the name of one of the News Ltd tabloids, with the head of the beast showing the face of the New York-based proprietor.
It’s the coordinated nature of the actions taken by those tabloids and that broadsheet that are the real issue here. There is no chance for individual journalists to dissent. Here’s something I wrote in that September 2011 blogpost on Manne’s essay:
For journalists at the newspaper there might be moments of conflict. From my own experience this seems to be true. I was at a book launch at the University of Sydney in October 2007 where the topic was the media, and I remember making a comment to the gathering about the lack of press freedom in Japan, where I have lived. Another person in the room said that, at News Limited newspapers, there was also no freedom and that journalists were routinely told what to write.
There’s also the case of Asa Wahlquist, previously a News Ltd journalist, and the way she was constrained when it came to reporting on the environment. That debacle played out from November 2010 until the legal threat against journalism academic Julie Posetti was finally allowed to expire last year.
These things tell us, like Manne tells us, that freedom of the press comes with responsibilities. Newspapers that enjoy media freedom – entrenched in common law and in statute in liberal democracies like Australia due to a gradual process that has played out over many hundreds of years, not just since 1788 – must also conform to the standards they themselves publish, and that are published by the bodies that they belong to.
It is this that Conroy is seeking to ensure, and while I agree that there is a moral hazard in seeking to curtail hard-fought freedoms, I also think that the media realpolitik forces the hand of a responsible government where abuse of those freedoms means the views and opinions of a plutocrat who commands vast influence are given precedence by default over those of the common man and woman.
There is nothing democratic about that.
MARGO: Please read Jonathan Holmes piece Trivial pursuit: When the Australian gets personal;
When one of the biggest bruisers in the playground tries to crush all criticism, not by argument, but by metaphorically bashing his critics in the face, there’s only one word for it. It’s bullying. And it’s especially ugly when it comes from a newspaper that so loudly, and so often, claims the right to hold all others to account.