Peter Beattie may be the
consummate politician, but last night he barged into territory almost
no other consummate politician would dare to visit. In a thoughtful
speech at Melbourne University he not only assailed the Australian
media for its low standards and lack of accountability but, just to
twist the knife no other politician would dare to even pick up, he
publicly tore strips off his only home-town newspaper, the Courier-Mail.

media, quite rightly, insist on governments being accountable,” said
in the annual Arthur Norman Smith Lecture about journalism
issues, “so
why is it that the media have failed to put their house in order,
especially when they are held in such low esteem by the public?”

Citing examples of errors that weren’t adequately corrected in the Courier-Mail,
Beattie asked: “With the power that the media wield, is there any
argument that they have a duty to act responsibly and in an accountable

But despite his bravery – the kind of bravery other
senior politicians might call foolishness – there is absolutely no
chance of any kind of meaningful self-regulation to apply independent
scrutiny to the Australian media’s own performance.

He talked, for example, about options like using “a form of freedom of
information legislation to require a media outlet to reveal what
evidence it used in compiling a story,” or the Press Council using FoI
to require documents to be produced in a set period, or the US system
of in-house newspaper ombudsmen to independently represent readers and
act as an internal critic for the newspaper.

he’s whistling up the wrong street if he thinks the owners of the most
influential media in his state – the newspaper company which owns
Brisbane’s only daily and Sunday papers, plus the papers in the next
three biggest markets of Gold Coast, Cairns and Townsville, plus nearly
all Brisbane’s suburban papers – would ever make itself independently
accountable for its ethics or its professionalism.

With so much power and the culture of arrogance that comes with it,
News Limited has no interest in setting standards of scrutiny on itself
that it applies to all other Australian institutions.

Peter Beattie deserves support and praise from anyone who cares about
the role of a responsible media in a democracy. But he’s naive if he
thinks that group includes the owner of his state’s newspaper monopoly.