What a red letter day this is for the future of media — and yes, I know there have been a few of them recently , but the ink (or selected online font colour) is surely a deeper shade of ruby today.
First, today Ray Finkelstein, QC, will hand to communications minister Stephen Conroy his report resulting from the federal government’s media inquiry. So far there is no indication of when it will be released so it will be a while before the almost inevitable controversy breaks. More on this below.
Second, stunning overnight evidence before the Leveson inquiry in Britain has revealed that the newsrooms of The Sun and News of the World were operating in a way that resembles organised crime associations, with what Met deputy commissioner Sue Akers described as “regular, frequent and sometimes significant” amounts of money paid to a network of corrupt officials in health, army, government and elsewhere.
As well, the newsrooms had access to details of people on the witness protection program. There has also been evidence that senior executives at News International knew from as early as 2006 that hacking was widespread, but failed to act.
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Nobody is suggesting that there are any Australian newsrooms that have become nests of organised crime. We have nothing like the problems of British newsrooms in this country, thanks be.
Yet the troubles in the press in Britain undoubtedly form part of the backdrop to the setting up of the Finkelstein inquiry, and to the climate in to which his recommendations will be made.
And the issue of whether journalists and media proprietors have been sufficiently vigilant in maintaining the ethical health of their organisations is common to both jurisdictions.
Consider this. If Australian media organisations had known that the Finkelstein inquiry was going to happen, bringing with it the risk of statutory regulation, what would they and should they have done to make sure the case for such regulation was weak?
Would they still have underfunded the Australian Press Council, for example, and treated it with contempt? Or would they have spent personal and organisational resources on making sure it was high profile, well resourced and always active? Hindsight can be a wonderful thing.
Some measure of what might have been achieved, had those now objecting to any move to increase regulation put themselves out a little, is given by the fact that the higher profile rendered by recent events has led to the Australian Press Council receiving double the number of complaints in recent times.
Had the industry treated the APC as more than window dressing, the push for more media regulation would be weak indeed, no matter what was happening in Britain.
This week has provided another reason to reflect on media standards. Lindy Chamberlain again has been in the headlines, still pursuing a justice that was denied to her largely because of media misbehaviour more than 30 years ago.
There is always a temptation to see the problems of our own time as being more intense, or worse, or unique than at any time previously.
But for those of us who were alive when the Azaria Chamberlain story first hit the headlines, the memories serve as a corrective. The media convicted Lindy Chamberlain in a way that was nothing short of shameful. There is a good montage of some of the headlines from that time here. There was the reporting of theories that the name Azaria meant human sacrifice. The reporting of suggestions that Azaria was always dressed in black, reporting of false suggestions that a bible kept by the Chamberlains had under linings in a story about a woman killing a man. On and on.
If a similar incident happened today, would the media behave better, worse or about the same? Are those universally accepted standards of truth, balance and verification — any more of a restraint today than they were then?Think of the St Kilda schoolgirl, the Pauline Hanson nude pictures that were not Pauline Hanson and so on. We surely cannot be confident that things have improved.
So much for the bad, what about the good? Is there less less public interest journalism now than there was then? Most commentators think so.
We can hardly complain about a lack of coverage of politics. How many others, faced this morning with newspapers promising “the most comprehensive coverage” of the federal leadership ructions, turned away with a groan.
Of course it is important, and dramatic, and news. Yet there is no doubt that such journalism is easier to write than stuff to do with policy and complex issues, and we have more personality based coverage these days and less of the other.
Meanwhile, political journalists are in one of their periodical bouts of self examination regarding their obligations to sources, versus their obligations to the public and the truth. Specifically, if Kevin Rudd was lying when he claimed not to have undermined Julia Gillard by stealth, (and I wasn’t there, so I don’t know whether he was lying or not) should those journalists on the end of off the record briefings expose him, as suggested by Simon Crean?
This is an extremely difficult issue, yet we can legitimately ask what use are political journalists if they are being used to stoke a political contest, yet are restrained from telling us the full story of that contest? More on this another day.
Journalism is two sided.
The Leveson inquiry is nothing short of an inquiry into widespread corruption, implicating all the institutions of society. When a society has got itself into a corrupt mindset, with many people not directly involved either wilfully blind or blinded by habit, who will step outside the accepted means of getting things done and reveal the rot?
Only a journalist — and in this case it was The Guardian’s Nick Davies, a man who has been scathingly critical of his own profession in the past.
It is the promise of such exposure that is the reason that freedom of the media is so important and must be protected, most of all from government control. Yet the example of Davies should also tell us that journalists who are blind to the faults of their own profession are unlikely to be able to uncover problems anywhere else.
So we have the two sides: media as corrupt and corrupter, and a free media as safeguard and watchdog and cleanser of public life.
What is the Finkelstein inquiry likely to do about all this. Where will it recommend the balance be struck, and what should our response be to its recommendations?
On the issue of media standards, there were two broad classes of submissions to Finkelstein: those that claimed there was no problem with the news media, or none that should require government action, and those that argued for reform of some sort, including statutory mechanisms to impose standards.
In his statements in the public hearings the Fink appeared to be leaning towards the reform camp, though he also made it clear that he regarded the idea of licensing newspapers or journalists as repugnant to freedom of speech.
From analysing the submissions and the Fink’s line of argument to witnesses appearing before him, it seems the most likely recommendation is a mix of statutory big stick and carrot, to get news media organisations to sign up to a media standards council of some sort — perhaps the Australian Press Council or perhaps a new body — with the long-term aim of covering all media, not only print and online. It seems likely he will recommend that this body be funded in part by government.
The broadcast news media seem largely unaware of what might be coming here, focused as they are on the big money decisions to be made by the Convergence Review, which reports next month.
Often overlooked are the other parts of the Fink’s terms of reference, which deal with diversity and sustainability in news media.
Various ideas were pitched to him on this. Numerous submissions (including my own) backed the idea of tax deductible status for donations to not-for-profit journalism organisations. Hardly anyone advocated direct government funding for new media outlets, but there were various suggestions, including from our latest philanthropically funded news start-up, the Global Mail for grants for start-ups and other government moves to foster innovation and entrepreneurship in news media.
A reasonable test of the result of the Fink’s recommendations will be this: if, in Australia, we had a system of embedded corruption in which the media was playing a part, would the system recommended by the Fink increase the chance that the corruption would be exposed, and tackled?
Would it so increase ethical awareness that it would help to prevent it from occurring in the first place?
On the other hand, if we had a corrupt government, or a government inherently incompetent, would the Fink’s regime allow and enable it to be exposed?
And if a Lindy Chamberlain hit the headlines again, would she get a fairer shake of the stick, would the reporting regarding her more closely reflect the facts, and would she have meaningful recourse against unfair treatment?
For the answer to these questions to be “yes” the recommendations must on the first hand promote media diversity, independence and freedom, and on the other hand make maintaining newsroom ethical cultures a matter of urgent corporate self interest.
It is the latter area in which the industry has been failing. If I am right about what the Fink will recommend, to my mind it could be a reasonable balance.