As own goals, it’s up there: just as the idea of another media inquiry had all but vanished from the political cycle, News Ltd — having campaigned hard against the idea of an inquiry — wrenches the spotlight back onto the whole issue of media standards with a spiteful attack on the Prime Minister, so over the top it required a hasty withdrawal.

John Hartigan insisting that there’s no need to bother checking facts used in an opinion piece (and calling the Prime Minister “pedantic” while doing so) merely reinforces the impression News Ltd has a very strange view about how to conduct national affairs coverage.

The problem for News Ltd isn’t that Glenn Milne’s piece was atypical, it’s that it’s entirely typical. It’s the result of a transition from “campaigning journalism” to partisan journalism, in which an entire editorial line, dominating opinion and reportage, is aimed at the removal of the political parties identified as the enemy — Labor and the Greens. In pursuing such a campaign, facts become entirely optional — it’s the editorial line that’s important, not facts or consistency.

Normally the facts ignored or misrepresented relate to policy — the campaign by The Australian and The Telegraph against the carbon pricing package, for example, or whatever other policy issues crop up on the political radar from time to time (you can pick from many pieces by the Tele’s Gemma Jones, for example, but her effort on congestion pricing was a ripper). Milne’s effort only differed in that the facts ignored by him happened to relate to personal issues rather than policy matters. That’s why it hit the fence so quickly.

It was also of a piece with the extended streak of misogyny from The Australian towards the Prime Minister, which goes right back to the election campaign: the logic that something Gillard’s then-partner did without her knowledge, before she’d entered politics, in some way reflects on, somehow taints, her capacity for judgment and high office a decade and a half later. That’s another bullsh-t standard that would never be applied to a male politician.

So where to with a media inquiry?

There are several major problems with (yet another) inquiry, and I’ve yet to see its advocates sufficiently address them:

  • there have there been several inquiries by all sorts of bodies over the past 10-12 years, including Parliament, the Productivity Commission and the broadcasting regulator, with little result except a steady erosion of media diversity and handouts to the powerful broadcasting lobbies;
  • there’s an inquiry under way already looking at media diversity, the Convergence Review;
  • the government has already promised to move ahead with the ALRC’s recommendation regarding a statutory right to privacy, from the commission’s 2008 review; and
  • having politicians undertake a major inquiry into media diversity and media regulation raises major concerns about personal and political agenda.

A media inquiry therefore needs to be carefully targeted at specific issues, directed to make concrete recommendations, and must be demonstrably independent.

Last point first: instead of politicians, why not establish an expert panel appointed by the Parliament. It could even be allocated by political representation — three nominations each by Labor and the Coalition, one by the Greens, one by the independents; but the goal would be to avoid politicians inquiring into the industry that is central to their political and personal careers. Such an inquiry would thus lack the status of a parliamentary inquiry, but benefit from greater perceived independence. It would also need funding for secretarial support.

Targeted at what? Not privacy, which is the subject of a separate process and been done to death already. And rather than talking nebulously about the need for media diversity, any inquiry should focus on actual mechanisms to protect and strengthen media diversity, without limitation. Does the current quantitative, radio-print-TV, licence area based mechanism still protect diversity or are there stronger mechanisms needed to protect existing diversity in the commercial media?

And how can diversity be strengthened? Forced divestiture shouldn’t be excluded, but should be rejected as fundamentally unfair and potentially unworkable. Encouraging more media entrants is unlikely to be successful when the recent history of the sector is of decline and consolidation, not rampant growth. So, can existing sources of diversity such as the ABC, SBS and community broadcasting be strengthened? (I’ve previously argued for additional funding for ABC news and current affairs). Special attention also needs to be paid to the needs of regional communities, who enjoy significantly less diversity in traditional media than urban communities.

That, oddly, is the easy stuff. Media standards regulation itself is much more problematic. There are a couple of issues in the mix. There is widespread unhappiness with the performance of ACMA in the regulation of broadcasting licensees, with a perception that it’s a weak regulator that takes far too long to decide whether to slap broadcasters on the wrist for egregious breaches of community standards.

Part of this is the problem of ACMA’s own legislative requirements — it is saddled with a laborious process that means people can’t even formally complain to ACMA until broadcasters have “dealt with” their complaints first, and then ACMA must consult with the broadcasters in the interests of natural justice before making a finding. A review could thus look at improving the current broadcasting complaints process — a good place to start would be to radically shorten the period in which broadcasters have to respond to complaints from 60 days to, say, five or 10 days.  It might also look at extending the regulators’ remit beyond licensees only, to employees of licensees, so that individuals who regularly breach codes of conduct or industry standards face action by the regulator as well as the company that owns the licence they broadcast under.

But part of it is, unfortunately, cultural: ACMA has a full suite of regulatory powers to impose its will on broadcasters, but permanently appears terrified of offending the industry it “co-regulates”. Such issues aren’t amenable to any review, only to a more aggressive executive and less risk-averse lawyers.

Then we get to media standards in the press, and at that point we move beyond any legislative framework. Calls for a “fit and proper person” test for newspaper ownership are probably unconstitutional and a serious threat to free speech: it shouldn’t be up to Parliament to determine who is allowed to speak publicly. It also in effect takes us down the path toward licensing internet usage, given the transition of the print media online. So what then is the solution to a major media outlet engaging in blatantly partisan and inaccurate campaigning under the guise of journalism?

Well, elsewhere we don’t go trying to “solve” that. Theoretically, we tolerate bad speech as the price of free speech, rather than trying to regulate or censor it beyond certain basic requirements about doing actual harm. But, the objection comes, these outlets are so powerful that their “bad speech” does real damage. How true is that? Evidence suggests voters are now less trusting of the commercial media than ever, and talkback radio and The Daily Telegraph are among the least trusted outlets. Instead, voters trust the public broadcasters, and particularly the ABC, more than ever.

Perhaps the issue of media standards ends up being the same as that of media diversity — it’s more about fostering existing sources of high-quality content rather than trying to engineer outcomes from the commercial media market.

Peter Fray

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