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Australia has a greater need for a robust and effective system of media self-regulation than Britain and the United States, the countries that provided  the DNA for our journalism.

The reason is our unique system of compulsory voting, which requires citizens to turn up to vote regardless of their level of engagement or knowledge.

This is my conclusion after listening to the first day of evidence of the federal government’s media inquiry headed by former Federal Court judge Ray Finkelstein and Canberra journalism academic Matthew Ricketson.

The first day’s evidence was dominated by three well-known critics of Rupert Murdoch, a point not missed by the editorial writer in The Australian yesterday. (I am sure the inquiry would welcome appearances by any number of Murdoch editors should they choose to give vernal evidence)

Political scientist Robert Manne, online publisher Eric Beecher and shareholder activist and blogger Stephen Mayne all lamented that News Limited controlled 70% of the metropolitan and national newspaper circulation in Australia, and more in some cities that have only one metropolitan newspaper.  “Laughable”, “lamentable”, “risable” “unique” were some of the descriptions used.  But none advocated any government action to reverse it.

But a moment in Manne’s evidence led me to the conclusion that the public interest  requires a higher standard of self-regulation here than in the US and Britain, where Finkelstein and some witnesses went in search of ideas for regulation because of the cultural, political and media similarities between the three countries.

Finkelstein had asked Manne whether the growth of the internet would diminish the influence of one group of newspapers.

Manne replied that never had an engaged citizen been so empowered to trawl the world for information and political opinion on the internet. But his concern was for the non-engaged citizens who do not seek out information as actively as others. These were the people susceptible to the world view of one person who may control 70% of the newspapers and a good share of the online space through his newspaper websites.

When you consider that perhaps the most the distinctive feature of Australia’s parliamentary democracy is compulsory voting, the argument becomes telling. It is especially powerful when you consider the trend towards a more competitive, more shrill and more commentary-based political coverage in our newspapers and online. And this is the age of editorialising in headlines; in some newpapers, the notion of a headline bearing some resemblance to the text of the story appears to be an unnecessary complication to be avoided. The impact of headlines and front-page editorialising can be powerful on people who don’t read much further.

Day one of the inquiry was also the day Finkelstein put t0 bed the big red herring of the debate about his media inquiry.  Manne and Beecher argued strongly against government or statutory control of media content. When Stephen Mayne suggested a “light-handed licensing scheme for editors and proprietors”, Finkelstein exploded out of the blocks and seized his opportunity to reassure the newspaper people who see him as having cloven feet. Finkelstein said: “The idea of licensing is as close an idea as going back to the Dark Ages as you can find.” Mayne quickly retreated somewhat and said he only had it in mind a last-resort mechanism.

In so far as it is possible to  read between the lines on day one of the inquiry, Finkelstein through his questioning appears much more interested  in beefing up the Australian Press Council with more resources, more powers, more speed and more coverage to include online journalism more completely.

He has even raised questions about addressing the major weakness of the Press Council system, the lack of sanctions against newspapers who do not publish adverse adjudications or do not publish them prominently enough.  Finkelstein said that in the US it would be First Amendment anathema to order newspapers to publish something they did not believe in. Perhaps the answer would be for editors to have the right to refuse to publish but if they take that course they must supply the Press Council with  money to buy advertisements in the  newspaper — that way the criticism of the paper is in paid advertising, not editorial space. The editor can preserve his principles, but they come at a cost if his peers have found him wanting in a due process.

Beecher argued passionately for the inquiry to help save quality journalism or “public trust” journalism he said was  practised by The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, The Australian Financial Review and The Australian. Only these newspapers, with staffs of 200 or 300 journalists, could hold our institutions to account effectively. But their business model was collapsing because of the drift of advertising from print to online.

Beecher even argued that the role of government should be to support such journalism, so vital was it to a healthy democracy. He said this could be viewed as similar to the government funding of the arts through the Australia Council.

Finkelstein wondered whether this might lead to political leverage on what was covered. Good question. Beecher did not appear impressed either by Finklestein floating the idea of a levy across newspapers and online publishers to provide more resources for the Press Council.

Beecher went into yesterday’s hearing looking for a subsidy, and came out looking at a tax.

Day one set the scene for a revitalised Press Council to step up to the plate. The head of the council, Professor Julian Disney, was due up first this morning.

My prediction is that this inquiry will go the way of all media inquiries — lots of criticism of media performance, some draconian remedies suggested, the judge finds it all too difficult to reconcile freedom of the press with greater control … and we end up with an improved system of self-regulation because everyone agrees it is better than the alternative, which is political regulation. It is a scenario recently painted  by Paul Chadwick, former journalist, Victorian Privacy Commissioner, and now head of  editorial policies at the ABC. And he is up this afternoon.

Peter Fray

This crisis will cut hard and deep but one day it will be over.

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I know what I want to see: I want to see a thriving, independent and robust Australian-owned news media. I want to see governments, authorities and those with power held to account. I want to see the media held to account too.

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Peter Fray
Editor-In-Chief of Crikey

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