There is a respectable point of view among those who analyse media businesses that the smartest thing serious news journalism could do is move to the political right.
Why? Because most of those with the willingness and capacity to pay for news content are comparatively wealthy individuals in business — business news being one of the things they are willing to pay for. Also, that these are the individuals premium advertisers most wish to reach.
Among this school of analysts are those who see The Australian’s conservative bent as being not only about the personal views of the proprietor and editor, but also about business good sense. It follows from this that Fairfax Media, with its more liberal leanings, is not being so smart.
Which brings us to Gina Rinehart, and the views expressed on Wednesday by Hungry Jack’s founder, Ten Network board member and Rinehart adviser Jack Cowin, who is quoted as saying the Fairfax board should have the power to change the editorial direction of the company. He said newspapers were a business and that ”the purpose of the newspaper … is probably to portray the facts in a manner that is going to attract readership”. And: ”The purpose of a company is to try to make a profits and if the editorial policy … is not optimising the opportunity then it’s the role of the directors to try to change the direction.”
All of which raises that old chestnut of whether journalism is just a business, like any other, or whether it is a public trust. Nothing new about that debate, but like everything else in media and citizenship it is rendered newly urgent by the changes technology is making to how we can inform each other, and be informed, and because of the impact of that technological change on news media business models.
It is worth pointing out that the “journalism is a public trust” view is represented not only by lefties, but in the documents and principles that the media industry, including proprietors, have signed up to. Indeed, proprietorial self-interest requires at least lip service to the “public trust” point of view. If journalism businesses have no wider duties to the public interest, why shouldn’t they be regulated just like any other business? Why not, for example, remove the news media’s exemption from misleading and deceptive conduct in consumer law, and the exemption from federal privacy legislation?
The proprietors’ opposition to the Finkelstein report’s suggestion of a statutory regulator for media rests on the idea that there is something unique and different about the business of journalism — that it is not only about “portraying the facts in a manner that is going to attract readership”. That it must be independent, and free from influences that prevent it from reporting the facts in accordance with the evidence.
Since we live in a highly contested media age, where my words tend to be misinterpreted or even entirely fabricated, I should straight away say that I am against increased statutory regulation of journalism. I subscribe to the view that there is a public trust that makes journalism special. I am just pointing out that one cannot at the same time argue as Cowin does, and also argue against journalism being regulated as other industries are regulated.
When it suits them, today’s media proprietors and the boards they appoint assert that they have public interest duties beyond the mere maximising of profits. And they are right when they say those things. Would they have followed through consistently on what public trust requires.
We need to think clearly about what we mean by editorial independence, and what is important about it.
Cowin was not arguing for a simple “Gina Rinehart rings the journalists and tells them what to do” model. He was talking about the board setting broad editorial directions. And this is not necessarily inconsistent with that foundation document, the Fairfax charter of editorial independence, which defines independence as the right of the editor to manage news coverage, within the budget. But the board appoints the editor.
Meanwhile, the Australia Press Council’s principles talk about accuracy, fairness and balance, and clear distinctions between fact and opinion. Depending on what Cowin has in mind, one can see some potential problems there for a newspaper that sees its purpose as being to “portray the facts in a manner that is going to attract readership”.
The Media Alliance code of ethics is clear in its precede that while many journalists work in private enterprise, “all have … public responsibilities” to truth, fairness and accuracy and animating democracy. So the idea that journalism is not just another business has wide acceptance, across the political spectrum, from working journalists to (when it suits them) proprietors.
But that doesn’t entirely dispose of Cowin’s point, because as we are seeing at Fairfax Media at present there IS a connection between profitability and the things we value about journalism. There is no independence in penury, poverty and begging. One of the reasons the industrial media enterprises of the present and past have achieved independence from government is because they have been vastly profitable, and that is its own well-spring of power.
Which leads us to the reason this “not just another business” argument is newly urgent, because no matter what Rinehart does or does not do, no matter what the future of the Murdoch empire, we are seeing what Jeff Jarvis has described as the decentralisation of journalism as an industrial complex.
In a world where anyone can publish news and views, doing so is no longer only about being employed as a journalist, in a journalism business. Others are in the journalism game. Close to home, the AFL is building a newsroom. We have yet to see where its output will fall on the spectrum between advertising and journalism.
And worldwide, there are propagandists and others in the knowledge business, including academics and NGOs — all of them now media proprietors and claiming to be publishing news. And that’s before you get to all the citizens. (Last night, I saw nine fire trucks pass my house. I searched mainstream media sites to find out what was going on, without success. It was on Twitter — @tomcurrans — that I found the first enlightening news, with a picture and brief and accurate report posted by someone whom, to judge by his tweets, does not define himself as a journalist.)
If we think about it, we have never really measured journalism quality by profitability. Therefore declining profitability does not automatically mean bad journalism.
What do we mean by editorial independence? We don’t mean, I think, freedom from the will of the proprietor. Nor from the power of the board to appoint its chosen editor, with all that she might bring. What we mean, what all the codes and principles constantly point us towards, is a discipline of slavishness to the evidence. We might do better to talk about journalism of integrity, rather than independent journalism.
So a proprietor might direct their journalists to particular topics of interest, just as an NGO such as Human Rights Watch might direct its journalists. But if either proprietor instructs reporters to render the facts only in ways that increase profitability, or advance any other cause, then the media enterprise is not really about journalism. It is just another business, and might well be regulated as other businesses are regulated.
Journalism means the freedom and independence to follow the evidence, research where that evidence leads, and render the results with integrity. Profitability is one of the means of creating a space in which that can be done.
But it is no guarantee. And nor is it the only way.