A few year’s ago, I suggested the producers of A Current Affair should be in jail for fraud. No one paid any attention, and there’s still no evidence the police ever investigate cases of malfeasance by the mainstream media — even when they’re offered prepackaged investigations by Media Watch.
So time for another try. Last night on Media Watch Paul Barry presented at some length the case of Woman’s Day, which carried a detailed report on the wedding of Kate Ritchie (apparently “Australia’s favourite girl next door”, although I confess I’d never heard of her) that had apparently been fabricated out of whole cloth.
As Barry pointed out, the magazine would have gone to print before the wedding even took place. Not surprisingly, several features of the imaginary description turned out to be wrong. The photos, too, were faked. In this case, the description “fairytale wedding” was more than usually accurate.
This is not like a reporter getting a name or a date wrong; it’s not the sort of mistake you can make unknowingly. Nor is it an isolated case; any regular viewer of Media Watch can call many examples to mind, of media outlets deliberately deceiving their readers or viewers for financial advantage. Just the sort of thing that ordinary people, without the resources of big media companies behind them, regularly go to jail for.
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The only possible defence I can think of to a prosecution for fraud would be to argue that these magazines and TV programs are in fact purveyors of fiction, and that no reasonable consumer would expect their stories to bear any relationship to the real world. But if nothing else, it would be a salutary experience for the editors of Woman’s Day — or for that matter the producers of Barcelona Tonight — to be forced to take the stand in court to make that argument.
Unfortunately, we’ve chosen to go down a different road when it comes to media regulation. Instead of leaving it to the police and the legal apparatus, we have a special regulatory regime with a regulator that, as is the way with such things, turns out to be largely captive to the industry it’s supposed to be regulating. Even the most egregious breaches of the rules are met with nominal penalties. No one goes to jail, or ever even has to fear such an outcome, and fines are generally paid with someone else’s money.
People who want to promote greater fairness and accuracy in the media tend to advocate more regulation, enforced diversity of ownership and greater powers for a government media corporation to compete against the private sector. But these things are at best a blunt instrument. Most likely they would make matters worse, by taking the focus further away from the substantive offences that are the real problem.
Fraud is fraud, whether it’s fleecing money from little old ladies in the street or from magazine subscribers and advertisers. Treating it as a breach of some technical regulation just reduces accountability all round. It’s not just the media, either; white-collar crime in general suffers from the same problem, of regulation crowding out real law enforcement.
So here’s a suggestion: let’s give deterrence a try. Put some cases in the hands of the police. Arrest some editors and producers, and send them to jail if need be. In other words, treat them like ordinary citizens, not members of a privileged caste.