If you believe, as many do, that the federal government’s media inquiry is an exercise in “get News Limited” then you would have been challenged to hold on to that impression yesterday.
And if you had missed the past several years of media controversies in Australia, and were relying for your view only on the public hearings of the inquiry, you would come away from the past two days with the impression that it is Fairfax Media that is the target of criticism, not News Limited.
Why else would Fairfax Media have appeared before inquiry head Ray Finkelstein all prickly and outraged (what one observer yesterday described as a “f-ck off, who asked you?” attitude) while the men from News Limited were so reasonable and urbane?
Yesterday in the scruffy room at Sydney University, departing News Limited CEO John Hartigan and group editorial director Campbell Reid appeared before Ray Finkelstein and made it clear that they are willing to support better self-regulation.
They acknowledged that the Australian Press Council needs more money, expressed willingness to give it, said they had admonished the single editor who in recent times had failed to run a Press Council adjudication with sufficient prominence, and despite a prickly opening statement dotted with straw men, emerged as the nice guys of Big Media.
This followed the appearance of Fairfax Media the previous day. Fairfax Media thought the Press Council “useful” but “not essential”, didn’t think it needed any more money or power and were not necessarily prepared to pony up the cash if Finkelstein found otherwise.
The inescapable conclusion is that if — as appears almost certain from his questioning — Finkelstein does indeed end up recommending more money and power for the Press Council, it will be Fairfax Media’s doing if some of that cash comes from government — although both publishers oppose this.
The first witness yesterday was me. My submission will appear on the inquiry’s website soon. Most of the questions from Finkelstein concerned what is happening in new media, and its potential for increasing diversity and supporting good journalism. Anyone who has read my work will know what I think on these matters, so enough said here.
For the record, and by way of declaration of my own bias, I told Finkelstein that I thought Crikey should join the Australian Press Council, and had argued for this internally at Crikey, and in things I have written. As a retained contributor, I have no power over whether it does nor not.
My submission also says that the Australian Press Council will need to gain more of an understanding of new media, and its potential for good, if it is to persuade online-only publications to embrace it. And I said that the big publishers should be ashamed that their self-regulation mechanism has been so underfunded for so long, and was in such rotten shape — although under Julian Disney, it has improved more than I would have thought possible 18 months ago and now represents the best, though still wobbly, foundation for improvement.
Then it was Harto and Reid. Harto’s opening statement started assertively. The inquiry, he said, had been established on three premises, all of which were wrong. First, that News Limited in Australia was guilty of the same kind of misconduct as News International in Britain — that is, phone hacking. Second, that News Limited was conducting a campaign against the federal government, and third, that the Australian Press Council was a toothless tiger.
All this was an insult to the many ordinary Australians who bought News Limited papers. And so on and so forth.
There was a big straw man in this. While anyone who has been paying attention knows that government and Greens discomfort with News Limited papers, particularly The Australian and The Daily Telegraph, is part of the context for the inquiry, No serious commentator has suggested that journalists here hack phones. In fact most, including me, have specifically said they don’t think that is happening.
But moving on. The first few questions saw Finkelstein questioning Harto on whether he agreed that News Limited wielded enormous power. Harto prevaricated. “we bring pressure to bear on behalf of our audience”.
Finkelstein asked if it was fair to say that News Limited campaigned “to change the law and change history”. Well, it depended on what you called a campaign, said Harto. And in any case, Finkelstein would have to ask the editors. “I am not the person to ask.”
Thus he confirmed the general impression that the most powerful position in News Limited is to be an editor of a masthead.
Would Harto agree that his organisation should be held to account for its exercise of power, asked Finkelstein. “The way I would prefer to put it is that we are accountable every day to our readers,” Harto parried.
That’s when it began to get nicer. Harto agreed with Finkelstein that a recognition of responsibility was the reason the company set internal standards, had helped set up the Press Council and continued to support it.
And he went on to agree that the council was underfunded, and should have more money, although News Limited wanted to work with Disney over the model he wants to put in place, and relate the funding to the model.Harto and Reid — with Harto often deferring to Reid as the man who has been in the front line of negotiations with Disney — thought government funding for the Press Council “totally inappropriate”. Reid said that News Limited believed the council had grown “large and unwieldy”. Like Fairfax, News did not support it doing research, or moving outside its strictly regulatory functions.
But now Disney had “brought fresh eyes” and focused the inquiry on what it should be doing, Harto and Reid thought the publishers would come up with the necessary, and government should stay out of it. Ask the people who appeared before you yesterday — meaning Fairfax — why they won’t fund it better, they said.
So far so good. Finkelstein then, as he is with all witnesses, moved on to the finer points of what seems to be his preferred model — broadly that put forward in the Australian Press Council submission to the convergence review.
Yesterday, the Fink, as he is referred to in the precincts, seemed to be honing his questions to all witnesses on the basis of this model, trying to test out the finer points.
It seems to be a given that he will recommend more money for the Australian Press Council, and more power. The remaining issues he is testing out are government funding; whether publishers should be “encouraged” to join up by making legal rights and privileges such as exemption from privacy and trade practices laws conditional on membership; and whether the council should have the power to force publication of corrections and apologies, including their placement.
Also in his mind is broadening the reach of the council to online media, including small outlets and bloggers and, probably in the medium to long term, bringing in broadcast media, with whatever legislative and regulatory changes that would mean to the current broadcasting regulator, the Australian Communications and Media Authority.
Perhaps it is because he is focused on models for the future, rather than the past, that Finkelstein did not ask any of the questions that were swapped over coffee between inquiry observers.
Such as, if you adhere to such high standards, Mr Hartigan, how was it that your editors thought it appropriate to run the supposed Pauline Hanson pictures? Other examples of perceived News Limited excess were canvassed around the university canteen, but not in the inquiry hearing room.
The questions over coffee included whether, if we assume a bigger and better-resourced Press Council, News Limited would continue to be so affable if the council found against it over the excesses of its campaigns, such as that conducted against Victorian Police Commissioner Simon Overland.
But yesterday was proof that the view one gets from dealing with the top people at News Limited is markedly different than the view one gets from reading, say, The Daily Telegraph.
News Limited declared itself comfortable in principle with the idea of the Press Council covering broadcast media, comfortable with using its newspapers to lift the council’s profile, uncomfortable with it having the power to specify where adjudications should be published, and very uncomfortable with fines or other penalties.
After the men from News Limited came the representatives of AAP, who also declared themselves happy to pony up more cash for the Press Council, and gave a fascinating insight into how their business, including the outsourcing of subediting, actually runs. One of the most memorable lines was “we are the Switzerland of Australian news media”.
Meaning that because AAP provides content to all mastheads — a wholesaler of news – it had to be rigorously balanced, and hence didn’t get caught up in political battles about bias and campaigning.
We learnt that the service agreements Pagemasters has with Fairfax Media specify that there are to be no more than one error of spelling, grammar or fact in every three pages. And, (before everyone writes in) they don’t do the front pages of The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and the Financial Review, (meaning complaints about front-page errors should go to Fairfax, not AAP).
There have apparently been no complaints that Pagemasters are not meeting their service obligations in this respect.
And, to round off the day, we had Stuart Littlemore. It was a predictably fiery performance. Littlemore’s statement that he did “not want to mince my words” drew laughter, coming as it did just after he had said that journalists are malicious because it enables them to get attention, and that they lack an appreciation of how much they hurt people.
Interestingly, Littlemore pronounced the practice of defamation law all but dead. Media outlets prolonged litigation, the costs were prohibitive, and the new defamation act limited damages, so it was “not worth the candle” for most plaintiffs to proceed.
The right to take action under defamation law, Littlemore said, was effectively a dead right.
As for the Australian Press Council, it was owned by the publishers and he had no time for it. Journalists should be subject to meaningful statutory regulation, just like chiropodists, dentists and every other professional. Until they were, they were not entitled to regard themselves as professionals.
“I know this isn’t going to happen,” said Littlemore “but you might as well hear the other point of view.
“All professions accept the public interest in regulation. If journalists don’t accept that, let’s not hear this twaddle about the public’s right to know.”
And so the inquiry hearing ended, and everyone walked out into the light rain.
Today, Finkelstein will hear for the second time from Paul Chadwick, who previously appeared in a private capacity. This time he will be representing the ABC. Also, there will be appearances by lobbying organisation Avaaz, former Australian Broadcasting Tribunal chair David Flint, and finally, the Australian Press Council.