“What is the problem you are trying to solve?” Fairfax Media CEO Greg Hywood asked the federal government’s media inquiry head Ray Finkelstein yesterday afternoon, in a prime example of the way journalists prefer to ask questions than answer them. He was responding to Finkelstein floating ideas for a more powerful, better-funded Australian Press Council.
I suspect Hywood’s question — and the little speech Finkelstein gave in answer — will be remembered as a key moment in the inquiry public hearings. The question summed up the views of those who, like Hywood, say the inquiry is not needed, because there is no big problem with media standards in Australia, and that we would have no inquiry if it were not for the far away News of the World telephone-hacking scandal and the dive through that window of opportunity by local politicians hostile to Rupert Murdoch.
The team from Fairfax Media — Hywood, company secretary Gail Hambly and the boss of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Sun-Herald, Peter Fray, had arrived with a suggestion of attitude, and began their presentation with assertion.
The Australian Press Council didn’t need more money, they said. It just hadn’t spent its resources wisely, on the things that really mattered. As for more power, they opposed the council being able to force the publication of apologies, retractions and adjudications on complaints, because no “outside agency” should be able to tell an editor what to publish, and where.
“I’m CEO, and even I don’t tell the editors what to publish and where,” said Hywood.
Team Fairfax was, with this line, batting against not only the current Press Council chair, Julian Disney, who wants more money and power for the council, but also two previous chairs, Dennis Pearce and Ken McKinnon, both of whom had told Finkelstein that the council has nowhere near enough money to be effective, and that the publishers were less than whole hearted about their self-regulation body.
McKinnon had given Finkelstein a clear message just before Team Fairfax arrived. Fix the money, he said, no matter where you get it from. And don’t believe the publishers when they tell you everything is fine, because it isn’t.
McKinnon said he saw no problem with government funding for the Press Council, providing it was at arm’s length. The risk of interference from government was no greater than the risk of interference from the publishers.
In one of the frustratingly half-told stories of the inquiry, McKinnon said he had once “over lunch” been told by an editor that he would happily double his publication’s funding to the council in return for a guarantee that there would be no adverse adjudications against his newspaper.
McKinnon did not name the editor, nor was he asked to. The ABC’s Jonathan Holmes and I caught up with him outside, and asked the obvious question, but he said the man was still working as an editor, he didn’t want to embarrass him, and in any case he was sure it had been a joke.
McKinnon also told the inquiry that News Limited CEO John Hartigan had once complained the Press Council was too harsh. McKinnon had replied that Harto should be grateful it was so, because the Press Council gave his publications a protection they otherwise wouldn’t have .
The Press Council, McKinnon told Finkelstein, was a better option than statutory regulation of the press, but it could only do its job properly if it got more money.
Then came the lunch break, and we arrived back from our sandwiches to find Team Fairfax and its support staff taking up the front row of the pokey inquiry room, which is in one of the less palatial parts of Sydney University.
Finkelstein introduced a certain school-masterly tone by asking Hambly if it was her fault that the Fairfax submission was late — arriving so recently, apparently, that he had not had time to read it.
Then Hywood launched into his opening statement, arguing that no more regulation of media was needed. The media was not perfect, he said, but it did a good job. Present systems were adequate. The media did not have to be impartial, and a perception by government that some parts of the media were biased was not sufficient reason for government regulation.
Then it was on, back and forth, the Fink (as he has become known around the precincts of the inquiry) versus Hywood and Hambly and occasionally Fray, with the Fink’s fellow inquiry head, professor Matthew Ricketson, chiming in. It was robust, with Team Fairfax even interrupting its avuncular questioner at times, something no previous witnesses has done. The Fink, over the hearings so far, has established himself as the one who sets the pace, quizzing, floating ideas, and being devil’s advocate.
After all the academics, previous Press Council chairs and publishing small fry who had appeared so far, Team Fairfax put on a slightly jarring display of corporate confidence. Some said arrogance, although it would be wrong to imply they were rude. Merely used to power.
The Fink asked if the Press Council was useful. Hywood agreed it was useful, but not essential. After all, people could always sue. The Fink: wasn’t legal action out of the reach of most people? Well, said Hywood, that depended on how strongly people felt about things. And they could go to the Press Council if they didn’t want to go to law.
Said Hywood. “Until this inquiry, there was not a high level of concern about the resourcing of the Australian Press Council.”
But what about its low profile parried the Fink? Wasn’t that one of the reasons it didn’t get many complaints?
And what did Hywood mean when he said the media was already heavily regulated? Was it just the normal laws that applied to all citizens, or were there extra? Hywood mentioned defamation. But that applied to all citizens, said the Fink. “It affects us more,” countered Hambly.The Fink said that surely the Press Council was not an ordinary outside agency. “You fund it. You are members of it,” he said, floating the idea of a Press Council with extra powers and more resources. “I assume that if power exists it will be rationally exercised. You seem to be assuming that it will be irrationally exercised.”
Would Hywood accept that the media exercises power?
Hywood was not willing to do so. The media asked questions, and reported on that.
But, said the Fink, wasn’t it part of the role of serious media to set agendas and influence decision makers? Hadn’t Hywood argued that elsewhere?
Hywood conceded that editors and journalists made choices about what to report and how to report it. “If there is power involved, it is the power of those choices.”
So shouldn’t there be accompanying responsibilities, said the Fink? Why shouldn’t the exercise of those responsibilities be overseen by a third party?
Hywood responded that if such oversight came from a statutory body, it would inevitably lead to government “pushing, pressuring, bullying” the press.
That was when the Fink floated his idea of an Australian Press Council with government funding and strong incentives to publishers to join up, and stay joined.
And then came the moment. Hywood said: “Can I ask you a question? What is the problem you are trying to solve?” There was always a risk when imposing more regulation. Why do it?
Fray chimed in saying that many complaints Fairfax received were personal, vexatious and from serial complainants. There was no evidence of systemic problems.
The message from Fairfax was clear. They were doing a good job. There was no problem Finkelstein needed to fix, and there was great risk to freedom of the press if he tried.
It took a bit of too and fro, but moments later the Fink bit back. He had, he said, received submissions from the Privacy Commissioner assuring him that people’s privacy was invaded by the press. He had a report from the Office of Police Integrity in Victoria saying that reporters had uncritically published material from sources that was false, yet devastating to people’s careers. He had a submission from a group representing disadvantaged people whose dignity was undermined by the media, and who had no capacity to complain or litigate or respond.
“These are serious people putting forward serious problems,” he told Hywood.”We do not live in a world that is free from complaints about the media … These are not serial complainants or stupid people.”
Hywood switched to the question of government funding. Once the Press Council took such money, it was vulnerable to political interference, he said.
Here, Ricketson intervened. Didn’t Fairfax take money from government in the form of advertising, he asked? Yes, said Hywood, the government was a client, but advertising dollars did not affect editorial. The independence of editorial was rigorously maintained. People at Fairfax were not motivated by their pay cheques alone. “We work for the public good. We think about this every day. This is why we come to work every day.”
But, said Ricketson, if it was possible for Fairfax to erect walls between the flow of government money and the editorial decisions, might it not be possible to erect similar walls between government funding to the Press Council and its work in regulating media?
It was a telling question, and there was no definitive response. The discussion moved on.
Hywood assured the Fink that when a story involved an impact on people’s careers, the level of checking went up “not a notch, but 10 notches”. But he didn’t really answer the Fink on the issues raised in the OPI Crossing the Line report. (To be fair, Fairfax newspapers were not the main ones fingered in the OPI’s expose.)
Finally, the discussion turned to the difference between fact and opinion, and then to media diversity, with Team Fairfax arguing there was plenty of diversity of media voices in Australia, and the barriers to entry were low. There was Crikey, there was The Monthly, there was The Conversation. (Nobody pointed out that the latter title does indeed depend on government funding).
And so it drew to an end, with Hywood reprising parts of the A.N. Smith lecture he had given the previous night at the University of Melbourne, in which he outlined the business strategy for a profitable, if leaner Fairfax in the digital age, with public interest journalism at core.
Tomorrow, the main witnesses of the day will be the big daddy of newspaper publishing, News Limited.
*Declaration: and before News Limited, and before you read this, it will be me. I have made a submission to the inquiry, and have been invited to appear. At the time of writing, my submission is not yet on the inquiry website — it should be soon.