tip off

Smelling an adverse ruling, The Australian turns on Press Council

The Australian has turned its particular brand of venom on Julian Disney, chair of the Press Council. Former Media Watch executive producer David Salter writes that self-regulation of the press is clearly no regulation at all.

Self-regulation, at least in the ethical fantasyland of News Corp, is only a worthwhile system of media accountability so long as it doesn’t inquire into the abuse of a newspaper’s power to pursue vendettas and parade its own paranoia.

On Saturday The Weekend Australian published a bizarre front-page story attacking the chair of the Australian Press Council, Professor Julian Disney, for what the Oz claims was “a potential conflict of interest” in Disney’s conduct of an APC inquiry into a complaint against The Australian.

The basis of the piece was a legal opinion, commissioned by the Oz and sent to the council, which alleges “serious error” and “bias” during the adjudication hearing. It requests that Disney remove himself from considering the matter because of a tenuously assumed connection — way back in the 1980s — to a person (now deceased) named in the original Oz story that was the subject of the complaint.

Never mind that the APC’s own rules specifically exclude legal argument from adjudications; never mind that The Australian has knowingly now breached the confidentiality rules that apply to the adjudication process; never mind that all members of the council, including News Corp, are bound by its policies and decisions. Oz editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell can clearly sense an adverse finding coming at him down the chute and has decided to launch a pre-emptive strike against the APC and its chair.

Those who may be bemused by this bizarre response from the Murdoch national daily might benefit from knowing a little media history. The substance of the original story that prompted a complaint to the APC was an allegation carried by the Oz that former Labor federal minister Arthur Gietzelt had been a secret member of the Communist Party, or at the very least was a “sympathiser”, or had communist “links”. As such, the piece argued, Gietzelt (who died in January) could have been a security risk.

This brand of McCarthyist, reds-under-the-bed smear journalism may seem preposterously old-fashioned, but it’s very much the house style for any paper edited by Mitchell. It was Mitchell, when editing The Courier-Mail, who in 1996 ran blanket coverage of assertions that historian Manning Clark had been a “Soviet agent of influence” and was secretly awarded the Order of Lenin by the USSR. A subsequent APC investigation found these allegations to be false. Their adjudication ruling said, in part:

The newspaper had too little evidence to assert that Prof Clark was awarded the Order of Lenin — rather there is much evidence to the contrary. That being so, the Press Council finds that The Courier-Mail was not justified in publishing its key assertion and the conclusions which so strongly flowed from it. The newspaper should have taken further steps to check the accuracy of its reports.”

Despite being urged to do so by the Press Council, Mitchell and The Courier-Mail have never retracted their false allegations.

There is nothing civilised about this current dispute. The Oz  — already smarting over a strong adverse APC finding last week — is now in its familiar take-no-prisoners mindset, as its editorial on Saturday demonstrated so unsubtly. The council (of which News Corp is by far the largest single funder) is dismissed as “erratic in its rulings”, “ponderous”, “ineffective” and “unmoored from its foundations”. It has “lost the plot” and “run off the rails”.

Even worse is reserved for Disney himself. In a remarkably personal attack the editorial deplored his “peculiar tastes and political predilections”, accused him of “poor stewardship”, “biases” and “ideological activism”. He was mocked as the “censor-in-chief” and “emperor of taste”. Disney has been taught a lesson (as if it were needed) on how viciously the Holt Street mafia will retaliate if anyone challenges their methods or opinions.

More importantly, this whole unpleasant episode demonstrates the hypocrisies that underpin the media self-regulation construct in Australia. In response to the perceived threats of the Finkelstein Inquiry and the Convergence Review, newspaper proprietors rushed to “strengthen” the Press Council’s authority and increase its funding.

Now we have proof that this was all window dressing. If the APC’s processes and findings don’t suit a powerful member such as News Corp, it refuses to play by the rules and trashes the chair’s reputation. Self-regulation is no regulation at all.

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  • 1
    Chris Key
    Posted Monday, 11 August 2014 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

    I am bemused that a once valued newspaper has spent so much effort over the last few years wrecking its reputation through biased reporting and campaigns.

    I can only conclude that, since most paid newspapers are likely to be extinct in a decade, there is an opportunity to create some political goodwill before the paper is gone.

  • 2
    klewso
    Posted Monday, 11 August 2014 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

    Oh for the good old days - when they got to edit and Con-troll most of what we got to see in print?

  • 3
    SusieQ
    Posted Monday, 11 August 2014 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

    Maybe if we all ignore the OZ, it will go away? Best thing they ever did, putting the thing behind a paywall.

  • 4
    JohnB
    Posted Monday, 11 August 2014 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

    The endless discussion on the minor press services of the bias of Australia’s largest news organisation and the imminent failure of #2, if not the whole print world is tedious.

    For the past several years, I have experienced the worst of both worlds: nothing worth buying on dead tree newspapers. Little worth reading on electronic newspapers. This includes Crikey and its many associates, including the Guardian, OLO, The COnversation - volunteer, not-for-profit and commercial.

    Surely reduction in the “sour grapes” quotient and an enhancement of the “new and interesting” quotient would be a Good Thing.

    While I am offering suggestions as to what not to do in order to avoid being entirely soporific, I suggest that Crikey limit poll-driven commentary to one round-up per quarter, plus allowances for during the actual election period.

  • 5
    JohnB
    Posted Monday, 11 August 2014 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    What’s up, Crikey? Banished to the Moderator’s Purgatory because I used the word “soporific”?

  • 6
    dazza
    Posted Monday, 11 August 2014 at 5:33 pm | Permalink

    media self-regulation simply does not work. In fact, self regulation in any industry simply does’t work.
    Why we don’t need a media-regulating body and why the barons and hacks are dead against the idea, is obvious for everyone to see.

  • 7
    Liamj
    Posted Monday, 11 August 2014 at 6:21 pm | Permalink

    With the ABC and Fairfax mostly happy to ‘see no evil’ in return for only routine monstering by the Sun Kings trolls, its good that somebody is counting the bodies that News Corpse feasts on. Once upon a time, there was a profession called journalism…

  • 8
    leon knight
    Posted Monday, 11 August 2014 at 6:44 pm | Permalink

    Plenty of good journalism still available at the Drum, Crikey, the Guardian Aus, and the Saturday paper - no need at all to waste time,money, or emotion on gutter papers like the Aus and the Tele…or listen to the likes of Bolt and Hadley on the radio.
    And media watch tells us pretty much all we need to know about what we are avoiding.
    And then the joy of Insiders and Q&A, watching the antics of such as Henderson in action…rich indeed.

  • 9
    The Hood
    Posted Monday, 11 August 2014 at 9:07 pm | Permalink

    What ever happened to one time News Ltd head in Oz Kim “bollocks” Williams who loved to dish it out but couldn’t take the slightest criticism of his own incompetent reign at News and in fact sued anyone who had said a nasty word against him. What is it about News Corps ability to attract hypocrites of the highest order.? But then their master is the greatest hypocrite of all.

  • 10
    Luke Redgen
    Posted Tuesday, 12 August 2014 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

    It’s worse than no regulation: it creates the illusion of regulation, which although some of we, hardened cynics, might see through, but the public at large could also misconstrue as genuine oversight.

    It also permits the logically fallacious argument of “it’s better than nothing”.

    People deserve better protection from powerful, loud and agenda-centric media deception and patent fear mongering, and one that involves an independent body.

  • 11
    Yclept
    Posted Sunday, 17 August 2014 at 9:19 pm | Permalink

    If only the APC would concentrate on the bias at the ABC, the never ending, left, communist bias that is the ABC that threatens civilisation as we know it, then all would be well with the world. Wouldn’t it Rupert?

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