It’s time to report on the reporters, to inquire about the inquirers and to opine on the most opinionated. An independent inquiry will examine print and online media, focusing on ethics, regulation and the Australian Press Council, announced Communications Minister Stephen Conroy yesterday.

Fairfax Media and News Limited agreed to take part fully in the inquiry, although News Limited chairman John Hartigan said it was “regrettable that the way in which the inquiry has been set up was a politically motivated compromise”.

Greens leader Bob Brown had been pushing for a parliamentary inquiry into media ownership and ethics, but welcomed the smaller inquiry — although Conroy went out of his way to note on AM this morning that this inquiry is completely different to the one for which the Greens were pushing.

But what does the inquiry actually cover? Many are complaining that the inquiry is fairly limited in its scope. Here’s the official terms of reference straight from Conroy’s media release:

An independent panel will be appointed to inquire into and report on the following issues, while noting that media regulation is currently being considered by the Convergence Review:

a) The effectiveness of the current media codes of practice in Australia, particularly in light of technological change that is leading to the migration of print media to digital and online platforms;

b) The impact of this technological change on the business model that has supported the investment by traditional media organisations in quality journalism and the production of news, and how such activities can be supported, and diversity enhanced, in the changed media environment;

c) Ways of substantially strengthening the independence and effectiveness of the Australian Press Council, including in relation to on-line publications, and with particular reference to the handling of complaints;

d) Any related issues pertaining to the ability of the media to operate according to regulations and codes of practice, and in the public interest.”

This is just more pandering to the Greens, writes Mark Day in The Australian: “The Gillard government’s media inquiry is a sop to the Greens — a piece of window-dressing designed to demonstrate that it can be seen to be doing something. But it’s not doing much. The terms of reference do not contain the word privacy, which some commentators believe is the next great target for social engineers, lawmakers and regulators.”

Michelle Grattan in the Fairfax-owned Age noted that media ownership wasn’t being examined presumably because the government doesn’t want to cop any more flak from News Limited newspapers: “Stephen Conroy says everyone knows News Ltd has 70 per cent of newspapers. So? The question is the consequences. The argument that it would be unrealistic to require News to divest is a furphy — it’s a matter of rules if assets come up for sale.”

Her colleague Katharine Murphy is also insistent that media ownership — even if Conroy is calling it “media diversity” rather than using the O word — is a critical part of Oz media in need of examination:

“The fact that a single proprietor owns 70 per cent of newspapers is a significant failure of Australian public policy. This is not some hectoring anti-News Limited declaration by me. It wouldn’t matter if the owner in question was God himself. It is in the public interest to have many voices, a variety of sources of information and opinion. It is also in the public interest to look for ways of preserving quality public interest journalism in challenging times.”

Conroy acknowledged that the Press Council was like “a toothless tiger”, declaring to the group of press gallery journos assembled in front of him yesterday: “I don’t think any editor and any of you quake in your boots about a complaint to the Press Council.”

The Press Council welcomed the inquiry, outlining in a press release all the planned changes of reform and how it desperately need more funding to achieve those aims. “These improvements will not be achievable without substantial increases in the council’s financial and staff resources and in the long-term security of those resources. This includes support from non-media sources, including governments,” said Press Council chair Professor Julian Disney.

The panel — led by former Federal Court Justice Ray Finkelstein QC and assisted by Dr Matthew Ricketson, a journalism professor at Canberra University — will report their findings back to government by February 28, 2012. Nick Leys profiles Finkelstein in The Australian, noting that he is “… renowned for his individualist streak and reforming stance on key commercial issues. In a 40-year career, he is considered a modernising influence in commercial litigation in this country.”

Much noise has been made that the media inquiry will overlap the Convergence Review and should have been folded in to that review. Conroy’s statement notes that the media inquiry will work with the Convergence Review committee “to ensure that findings are able to be incorporated into the ultimate report of the Convergence Review by end March 2012.”

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey