News Limited is working hard to discredit the Finkelstein media inquiry before it has even begun public hearings in Melbourne tomorrow. Mark Day used his regular column in The Australian’s Media section today to dismiss the likes of Robert Manne, Eric Beecher and myself as predictable Murdoch critics.
In the column, headlined “Inquiry’s focus on manipulation is a joke”, Day ran a line that satire and jokes are the big media growth area, as if to suggest a society should not take media regulation seriously. He then did this very interesting segue towards the end:
“If the public can be relied on to discern the difference between straight reporting and gentle joking and p-ss taking, can’t those same people be trusted to make up their own minds about what they read in newspapers?
“Much of the brouhaha over reporting and so-called bias in opinion and analysis columns is based on the assumption that there are those in the media hell-bent on manipulating public opinion and dictating political outcomes.”
Got it in one, Mark. Rather than addressing this very question, he left the accusation hanging and concluded by quoting the British “no media rules at all” advocate Brendan O’Neill who opined that “we are free-thinking creatures, capable of coming to our own conclusions about the world we live in”.
In a nutshell, Day is arguing for self-regulation, continuing the “power without responsibility” formula in the country with the highest level of newspaper concentration of any democracy.
If you thought Day’s perspective on the inquiry was arrogantly dismissive, what about Saturday’s Herald Sun where Andrew Bolt, launched this extraordinary attack on the retired Federal Court judge, Ray Finkelstein. Bolt wrote:
“Conroy set up an inquiry with a Leftist ex-judge, which a spokesman confirmed would ‘look at some aspects of the style and content of reporting by media organisations’.
“And the ex-judge has now has sent a letter to editors, impudently asking them to explain to what extent “you subscribe to the view that the press has social responsibilities. A follow-up question is how this social responsibility is, or should be, implemented”.
“Excuse me, but who gets to define and police a newspaper’s “social responsibility”? Bob Brown? A stolen generations propagandist?”
To allow its highest profile and most widely read columnist to use Sir Keith Murdoch’s old paper to dismiss Finkelstein’s stellar career as the ravings of a left-wing propagandist is an extraordinary move by News Ltd, especially with Rupert Murdoch actually in Melbourne visiting his mother.
For some context here it is worth remembering what David Cameron, the Murdoch-backed Conservative British Prime Minister, said about media regulation and practices at that feisty one-hour press conference on July 8 just after the phone-hacking scandal went nuclear. Cameron said he was “champing at the bit to start the inquiry into press regulation”: ”I want to get this sorted. This is a black cloud hovering over press, parliament and police. We have got to remove this cloud.”
As for media regulation, he said it “should be truly independent … independent of the press, so the public will know that newspapers will never again be solely responsible for policing themselves”.
When it came to media mogul grovelling, Cameron declared: “In future, politicians have got to stop trying to curry favour with the media, but instead regulate properly It’s on my watch that the music has stopped. And I’m saying loud and clear, things have got to change. The relationship needs to be different in the future.”
The terms of reference for the Finkelstein inquiry are quite broad and the issues paper demonstrates a sensible understanding of the complexities and challenges at hand. The format for oral evidence is also quite relaxed and will encourage a free-flowing exchange of ideas.
I’ve got an hour tomorrow afternoon and intend to range widely over issues such as ownership diversity, licensing, the fit and proper test, internet comments, rogue bloggers, rights of reply, corrections, political power, media business models and The Australian Press Council.
As an example of what should be debated, it was interesting to see Andrew Bolt apologise to readers on his blog on Sunday night because some comments are not getting published. He effectively launched an attack on his employer because “for legal self-protection, I am not able to moderate my blog any longer. All comments must go through our moderating team”.
He described the new moderators as being: “… very, very careful when going through the comments. This means delays and a touchiness about publishing anything remotely dangerous.”
Bolt then declared that this amounted to “the erosion of the right to free speech”, which was “a dangerous state of affairs in a democracy”.
No it does not. Since when has not publishing racist, s-xist, inflammatory, inaccurate, defamatory, abusive and mindless contributions been an attack on free speech? It’s called quality control.
If Bolt wishes to ventilate these sorts of comments he should publish his own blog. After all, News Corp shareholders have has spent millions on lawyers dealing with his continuous over-reaches.
Interestingly, I’ve submitted a letter for publication in The Australian tomorrow, which responds to Judith Sloan’s attack on coverage of Alan Joyce’s salary. The letter includes a passing criticism of Rupert Murdoch’s 47% pay rise to $US33.5 million in 2010-11.
Whether this letter is published will be an interesting test of how far free speech goes at News Ltd, which can then be discussed at the inquiry tomorrow.