The public hearings of the federal government’s media inquiry got under way this morning with a distinctly anti-statutory regulation tinge.

Robert Manne reprised his concerns about News Limited’s conduct, the dominance of the Murdoch Press and its impact on civic health. And the inquiry heard from Deakin University’s Dr Martin Hirst and former ABC producer Ivo Burum.

All agreed, with different emphases, that the “marketplace of ideas” (a concept that got a thorough workout in questions from inquiry head Ray Finkelstein, QC) was not working all that well.

Hirst asserted that only a narrow range of political points of view gets a run in the mainstream media. Manne talked about the “big mistake” of the Hawke-Keating government in the 1980s in allowing Murdoch to gain such dominance of the Australian media scene.

But what should be done about it?

None of the witnesses advocated increased statutory regulation of the media. Far from advocating the licensing of newspapers, Hirst said he would consider removing the licensing of broadcast media, since the justification for this was spectrum scarcity, which was no longer an issue in the digital age.

Manne, under questioning from inquiry heads Finkelstein and Matthew Ricketson, advocated an increased role for the Australian Press Council. He rejected suggestions of giving it the power to  fine journalists, but saw a role in it brokering issues of right of reply, and possibly mandating the publication of corrections.

A beefed-up self-regulatory presence, founded on the Press Council, is an area of emerging consensus in the submissions to the inquiry published so far. The questions that are outstanding include whether it should be government funded, and how internet sites (such as Crikey) might be either made or encouraged to sign up.

Manne said he had no problem with the idea that a proprietor would express his or her bias through their media outlets. He just thought there should be more diversity. Breaking up the Murdoch empire in Australia might give diversity a chance.

Manne has also undertaken to provide the inquiry with a printout of comments defamatory of himself and Tim Flanney from News Limited blogs. This capacity to publish casual defamations was, he said, something new to which the inquiry might well want to turn its attention.

The witnesses agreed that the internet opens up new possibilities for citizens to inform themselves and participate in media but that so far this was a “molehill” compared to the mainstream media.

But an area of government action, congruent with NBN policy, might be to encourage alternatives in new media, with Hirst and Burum showcasing a project under which they are training Aborignal Australians in the Northern Territory to use mobile media technology to tell their own stories.

An interesting line of questioning from Finkelstein was on the “marketplace of ideas” concept. Did it capture the justification for freedom of speech? Hirst disliked the idea, saying it characterised citizens as consumers, rather than as participants in democracy.

At the time of writing, Crikey publisher Eric Beecher has just begun his presentation. This afternoon the inquiry will also hear from Crikey founder Stephen Mayne.

UPDATE:

The head of the federal government media inquiry, Ray Finkelstein QC, has floated the idea of a compulsory levy on media organisations to be used to fund a beefed up Australian Press Council.

In questioning Crikey publisher Eric Beecher, Finkelstein said he had thought of an alternative to government funding of the Australian Press Council, which had been proposed by Beecher. “I see no alternative,” said Beecher.

“Well I’ve thought of one,” said Finkelstein. He suggested the Government make a levy compulsory, calculated on either revenue or audience size.

Beecher responded that such a levy might be unpayable by small media outlets, including blogs that had no revenue. It might work as a disincentive to entering the market.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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