By Kevin Rennie
April 13, 2013
The near capacity crowd at the Centre for Advanced Journalism’s session The Post-Mortem on Journalism Reform: What Happens Now? belied the conventional wisdom that media reform in Australia is dead (Details and the live blog are here). The venue was the aptly named Elisabeth Murdoch theatre at Melbourne University. But let’s not dwell on her infamous son despite the presence of his large press prints all over the issues discussed.
Convergence and concentration: Whither/wither media reform?
Panel members left little doubt that there is no chance for major reforms to legislation or self-regulation in the near future.
Julian Disney, Chair of the Australian Press Council, was the most optimistic. He would like to get his ambitious agenda revitalized: broadening Council membership to all the so-called converging media: print, broadcast and online; establishing community input; enhancing complaints procedures; defining journalistic ethics, standards and codes of practice; gaining the ability to initiate complaints.
On the issue of media concentration there was no consensus. Media Watch presenter, Jonathan Holmes, spelled out the financial reality – no one is going to buy a stand-alone daily newspaper. He hopes that here may be greater diversity in the medium term through the emergence of independent online news sites with real penetration.
There is little or no precedent for this in Australia at this stage. Players such as Crikey, Global Mail and New Matilda resemble feature magazines with no meaningful news gathering capacity. Perhaps he has the soon-to-be-launched Guardian Australia in mind. It will be a different voice but is hardly a truly new player.
Perhaps the most intriguing part of the discussion concerned political bias in the mainstream media. The panel consensus, led by Greens Senator Scott Ludlam, was that bias is okay so long as we get a broader range of opinions by having more media outlets and owners.
This publisher pluralism depends on the problematic proliferation of real online alternatives mentioned above. However, the old joke still fits: Freedom of the press is owning one. If new online organisations are controlled by the big end of town, the traditional media hegemony will continue, based on the shared worldview of the usual suspects. It may just mean more opportunities for the IPA turks and other think tankers to strut their neo-liberal stuff.
Projecting public interest
Controlling the excesses of partiality, the audience was told, would only come through monitoring instances where bias leads to distortion of facts (lies for instance) or unbalanced coverage (more of jolly old Lord Whatshisname the climate scientist). The Press Council and media monitors like Media Watch are virtually powerless to rein in political bias per se.
Standards that might be applied in this regard include: distinguishing between news and views; checking sources; contacting the key people before publication; fact checking. The kind of vilification that some News Limited papers poured on Senator Stephen Conroy recently seems beyond the reach of any code or regulations. Even the court of public opinion is unlikely to find in favour of politicians or political parties who seem to be regarded as unfair game.
Just as worrying was the lack of redress for individuals who have been treated unfairly by the media. Julian Disney saw it as a real problem but Jonathan Holmes was not as concerned as he believes it rarely happens. Great to hear that people’s privacy is being respected at last. The shameless commercial current affairs shows must have abandoned the foot in the door and the camera at the bathroom window.
Social media campaigns were suggested as one of the few ways to call out the worst cases. It is the hands of the public. Julian offered the prospect of community roundtables and a Press Council community advisory group. Fine in themselves but hardly a knockout blow to gutter journalism.
He believes that netizens will have to provide the teeth and the quality research if the self-regulator is to do its job. Perhaps we should follow his suggestion that concerned citizens coordinate complaints to the Council. Perhaps the Public Interest Advocate will be a citizen appointment. Hands up anyone? Some philanthropist is bound to foot the bill to defend all the libel suits and legal maneuvers to reveal confidential sources.
Organised and effective consumer activism is a big ask. A media version of Choice is a pipe dream at present. The growing band of bloggers who try to keep the moguls and their minions honest will have to carry the burden for the near future.
Cone of Silence
We were presented with the ultimate Catch-22. Senator Ludlam is concerned that science, in particular climate science, is often not reported at all. It seems to fit into one of Donald Rumsfeld’s known unknowns (or unknown knowns perhaps).
How do we complain about a void? Even the notion of balanced coverage, which supposedly applies to the ABC, is primarily concerned with quantity not quality. We often get a negative report about the government followed by an attack from the opposition. Or vice versa. Very even-handed!
Objectivity is in the eye of the beholder – often in both senses when it’s in your face. Of course you don’t have to watch/read/listen. You could live in a current affairs cone of silence. Or share your concerns in an online silo with the like minded.
The ABC elephant
The question of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s future under a Coalition government did not raise as much attention as it deserves. Jonathan Holmes expects argy-bargy over funding and some meddling with its online operations such as a level paywall to foster competition with the private monopolies. Doubtless at least one nameless mogul will want a lot more from his loyal advocates of free press and free speech.
Let’s hope that we don’t have to relive history, with the ABC Board split into two camps like the Howard/Costello factions that paralysed it. Expect worse kinds of bloody-mindedness, but there are not many people with former MD Jonathan Shier’s unique talents lurking around Liberal circles. With continuing support for Aunty by the Nationals, perhaps Barnaby Joyce will get to pick the next managing director.
Scott Ludlum is hopeful that its amended Charter will enshrine the ABC’s online role. Unfortunately this ignores the Coalition’s past actions when it controlled both houses of parliament. Is it too much to ask that someone from the media ask some probing questions of Turnbull and Abbott about their intentions before the election? At least then we’ll know what were the non-core promises in the event of a change of government.
A similar forum should be held to discuss the very present problem of journalists’ rights to protect confidential sources. The panel was rightly outraged that five may soon be filing their stories from pokey.
Julian Disney would like to extend other privileges to professional journalists, if and when a suitable definition can be adopted. He’s keen to extend standards and regulation to online media. That may or may not include citizen journalists, bloggers and social media users. There wasn’t time to explore this idea. Unlikely and impractical as his proposal seems, any privileges enjoyed by ‘real’ journalists would not be exercised by the rest of us.
That completed the circle as Julian’s initial point was that freedom of expression should provide opportunity for all to express their views, for as many as possible not just a few.
Holding ‘em to account
Meanwhile, the forces of light will be looking for help in keeping the media honest. Margaret Simons, Director of Centre for Advanced Journalism, indicated that university journalism schools could only have an educative role, not a proactive one. It is a challenge for the many students who attended the forum and the others around the nation who would like to see change happen sooner than later.
So it’s over to you. Don’t let the barons wear you down!
Update: The video of the session is now online: