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Beecher: media inquiry has mandate to address problems

There are three major problems confronting Australian journalism — and the good news about the media inquiry announced this week by Senator Stephen Conroy is that it contains a specific mandate to address each of them.

The first problem is credibility. Very few Australians trust or respect journalists. The revelations about News Corp’s illegal phone hacking in Britain have reinforced that mistrust and, because News Corp dominates Australian journalism, acted as the key catalyst for this inquiry.

The second problem is the collapse of the business model that currently funds quality journalism in the commercial sector, mainly the journalism produced by four newspapers (SMH, Age, Financial Review and The Australian).

The third problem is the concentration of newspaper (and therefore journalism) ownership in the hands of News Limited — a problem that has actually been compounded by the arrival of the internet as a news source, which in terms of audience size is dominated, as in print, by News and other newspaper publishers.

The government media inquiry has been instructed to investigate journalistic credibility by addressing the effectiveness of the Press Council, ostensibly the body that regulates the behaviour of newspapers.

Many people refer to the Press Council as a toothless tiger, but that grossly exaggerates its importance. In reality, it is a meek pussy cat funded primarily by the newspapers it purports to regulate. Its wisps of hot air represent the self-regulation you have when you don’t want any regulation.

If the inquiry can formulate a regulatory structure with teeth — one that compels newspapers (and websites such as this one) to correct their editorial misdemeanours prominently (not buried at the bottom of page two) and quickly (within hours or days, not months) and therefore shames media companies into acting responsibly — that will be a major achievement.

Then there’s the collapse of the funding model for quality journalism, which is explicitly addressed in the terms of reference. The inquiry’s panel — former Federal Court judge Ray Finklestein and journalism lecturer Matthew Ricketson — have been given the task to investigate “how such activities can be supported … in the changed media environment”.

This allows them to evaluate a whole range of alternative funding and subsidy models, as well as how start-ups and entrepreneurs are encouraged and fostered in all kinds of industries in all kinds of countries, to recommend relevant mechanisms that potentially provide replacement funding for existing quality journalism as its revenue sources erode. And to encourage mechanisms to fund alternative journalism start-ups that would expand the 30% of the market that News Limited doesn’t own.

As for the unaddressed issues of bias and of News Limited’s dominance of journalism — these are red herrings. How could any inquiry possibly recommend anything in these areas other than rhetoric? News Corp and bias (often co-jointly) are permanent fixtures on the Australian media landscape, and short of forcing News to divest mastheads or trying to regulate bias — both ridiculous propositions — there is nothing an inquiry could do and therefore no point in putting such spurious topics on its agenda.

Don’t listen to the cynics and the vested media industry interests. The truth is that a retired judge known as The Fink, and former reporter who loves essay-writing, have been handed a grand opportunity by the federal government to make valuable reforms to the fraying institution that is Australian journalism.

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  • 1
    wallaby
    Posted Friday, 16 September 2011 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

    Trust in journalists is certainly an issue and the lack of trust is due to a number of factors. One reason is the lack of will by journalists to have a good look at themselves. Let me give you an example.

    The Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) is the national journalist’s professional association and trade union. The Australian Journalist Association (AJA) is part of this union.

    In the most recent ‘Future of Journalism (2010) report published by the MEAA

    the results of a telephone survey of 881 members of the general public about their attitudes towards journalists and journalism, are detailed.

    In the opening comments to the segment about the survey results, the following statement can be found. “Journalists regularly find themselves languishing towards the bottom of the list when it comes to surveys of “most trusted professions” … “
    yet the only survey questions which actually related to journalists and trust were:
    “ Who do you trust to tell you the news?” and “Who do you trust online?”

    Not one question investigated the reasons why the public have such a poor perception of the journalistic profession? Perhaps, the MEAA didn’t want to know!

    By the way, can anyone tell me why the AJA’s Judiciary Committee/Ethics Panel is not listed under the Complaints Section on the Media Watch’s ‘Resources’ Web Page?
    The Australian Press Council, is and so to is ACMA. Could it be that Media Watch has a problem with the way this complaints panel operates? I have asked Media Watch, twice in fact, but I have not been blessed with a reply.

  • 2
    Jan Forrester
    Posted Friday, 16 September 2011 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

    As a freelance journalist where our article word rate has not increased in at least a decade, and whose union, the MEAA gives absolutely no support to the expanding freelance sector of their membership, let me nonetheless wonder aloud why the government has shrugged off a real inquiry into the future of manufacturing where we could hope for real support for real innovation rather than the usual government submission to calls for protection.

    In other words do we have a government and opposition which does not know how to move away from the status quo in the face of considerable international manufacturing, trade, political, economic changes. You betcha. The inward focus of our politicians, with admirable exceptions, is mindboggling. Maybe it is just a reflection of us.

    Music, publishing, radio, TV, film has gone/is going through astonishing changes post-digitisation. The value of digitisation is its democratisation in the use and distribution of production. There are efforts worldwide to find new models for quality journalism and its distribution. Crikey is one such example, and its unique approaches to news reporting/think pieces is why I support it.

    My concern with the impetus of this inquiry is the bad relationship this government has with News Limited. No question that Australia is, in the end, a small market which News can dominate and cross-subsidise to ensure it does.

  • 3
    Jan Forrester
    Posted Friday, 16 September 2011 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

    As a freelance journalist where our article word rate has not increased in at least a decade, and whose union, the MEAA gives absolutely no support to the expanding freelance sector of their membership, let me nonetheless wonder aloud why the government has shrugged off a real inquiry into the future of manufacturing where we could hope for real support for real innovation rather than the usual government submission to calls for protection.

    In other words do we have a government and opposition which does not know how to move away from the status quo in the face of considerable international manufacturing, trade, political, economic changes. You betcha. The inward focus of our politicians, with admirable exceptions, is mindboggling. Maybe it is just a reflection of us.

    Music, publishing, radio, TV, film has gone/is going through astonishing changes post-digitisation. The value of digitisation is its democratisation in the use and distribution of production. There are efforts worldwide to find new models for quality journalism and its distribution. Crikey is one such example, and its unique approaches to news reporting/think pieces is why I support it.

    My concern with the impetus of this inquiry is the bad relationship this government has with News Limited. No question that Australia is, in the end, a small market which News can dominate and cross-subsidise to ensure it does.
    However, Australians are showing they will buy offshore via online. And many of us are reading overseas news sites for specialist and international business, economic and cultural news because we don’t find the breadth in Australia.

    An inquiry won’t fix journalistic quality or reputation, it may have invite and get some useful innovations/models for suppporting quality journalism. However, attempts to regulate markets in the past through cross-ownership restrictions collapsed in the face of the digital revolution. The change process will take time and involve not just media but the creative industries, journalists, academia, copyright organisations. There are already some lessons there - particularly in music.

  • 4
    B. Kenundle
    Posted Friday, 16 September 2011 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

    it is a meek pussy cat

    Comment moderated.

  • 5
    Boerwar
    Posted Friday, 16 September 2011 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

    This allows them to evaluate a whole range of alternative funding and subsidy models,..

    Subsidise Mr Murdoch’s income?

    Let me think about subsidising, for example, ‘The Australian’s’ systematic assault on climate science…

    Or subsidising Mr Bolt by way of subsidising the ‘Herald Sun’…?

    But wait, subsidising Mr Akerman…?

    Um, no thank you.

    Next, please.

  • 6
    michael r james
    Posted Friday, 16 September 2011 at 6:21 pm | Permalink

    …short of forcing News to divest mastheads or trying to regulate bias — both ridiculous propositions . There is nothing an inquiry could do and therefore no point in putting such spurious topics on its agenda.

    Yet the US regulators forced Murdoch to sell his beloved New York Post when he bought tv stations. (He bought it back years later after he got the politicians to weaken media cross-ownership law; and the new owner had bankrupted the Post — not that Murdoch runs it any more profitably but he likes it for its megaphone status in New York politics.)

    And Murdoch closed the NotW, the most profitable paper in his entire global empire. (The reasons do not matter in the current context. It happened.)

    I think the only ridiculous proposition is that nothing can ever change in the ownership profile of Australia’s print media. That we cannot even entertain the idea.

    And try this thought experiment: what happens when a Murdoch no longer runs News Ltd?

  • 7
    Celina Andreassi
    Posted Saturday, 17 September 2011 at 12:50 am | Permalink

    I’m a bit confused. The article starts saying that the main 3 problems with Australian journalism can be addressed by the inquiry, but then when it gets to the 3rd problem (ownership concentration) it says that really nothing can be done about that. As the gentleman above me, I strongly disagree with this statement. Divestment IS a perfectly reasonable measure to push, it has been done not only with Murdoch, but with other media empires in other parts of the globe. In fact, it’s not only reasonable but imperative.

  • 8
    anthony tan
    Posted Sunday, 18 September 2011 at 4:27 pm | Permalink

    The only one of these problems that may be addressed by government is the concentration argument, which is dismissed as a red herring and so on. Yet competition is really the only solution to the first two. Unless you want government funded media, which is a truly bright red herring.
    It’s completely wrong, by the way, to refer to journalism as an institution. Fraying or not, it’s a craft that has many degrees of quality and much variety of effect. Some it has always been frayed or even shoddy. (A zoo, as one colleague said of his very influential environment.) Some of it has been generally good. Many individuals within its ambit have been great.
    What we’re all waiting for is management that is actually good at this. It’s obnvious that in print and its related media, management has no clue and probably has not had for some time, having rested on the comfort of their unchallenged positions. After all the hype it’s apparent that the thousands of shouting blowhard bloggers will never amount to a good report on the actions of Victorian Government or anything else. (With apologies to Mr Wikipedia, whose analogy I just mangled.) TV, of course, has never required anything more than a boorish taste (Mr Leckie) or an ear for political favour (Mr ABC)

  • 9
    Laura Hampson
    Posted Monday, 19 September 2011 at 12:05 am | Permalink

    This is a scandal:
    http://www.expendable.tv

    Read the Transit Report. They withheld evidence from a lawyer requesting it. They misled parliament. They covered up. The AFP lied. Look at the cables and emails uploaded. And more is coming from them, day after day.

    But the MEDIA? Where the hell are they? These are real letters, real emails, real cables, from government, exposing them to the world. It is horrific.

    But not a peep from the press at all. Not a word.

    Free press in Australia? You are joking! Unlike Watergate there appears to be no free press her to expose SchapelleGate.

    THIS is the problem with the media…. it isn’t free. It is riddled with agenda. It is closed even to the point of hiding corruption.

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