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Mar 5, 2012

Simons: how the Fink nailed the media inquiry

You will find it difficult to get an idea of what the Finkelstein report on news media regulation actually says, or why it has reached its controversial conclusions, from reading the mainstream media.

Start with this. You will find it difficult to get an idea of what the Finkelstein report on news media regulation actually says, or why it has reached its controversial conclusions, from reading the mainstream media.

The irony is lost on no one, judging from all the eye-rolling in the ministerial offices this morning, except perhaps those editors and reporters who will deny it is so.

On Saturday and again today, the newspapers were full of opinion, mostly from the interested parties, but harder to find was a decent summary or report of the Fink’s substance and arguments. A newspaper reader would struggle to discern that the Fink had some critical things to say about the way the media performed. Indeed, some breakout quotes used by the tabloids suggested he had been only complimentary.

For the record, the Fink’s report is not calling for direct government control of the media, nor does it contain a bid by Labor to control the media, as the headline in The Australian Financial Review claimed, over a fair and balanced article by Laura Tingle that said nothing of the sort.

So what follows is a summary of this weighty and scholarly, though admirably clearly-written, report. Whatever you think of the key recommendation this is a considerable work, particularly given short time frame the team had to do their work.

So to follow is my cheat sheet. If you want to dive into the report yourself, here’s the link. If you do dare to wade through it, I would start with the clear executive summary and recommendations. Then scan, but put aside for calmer reading and reflection, section two, with its erudite summation and history of the justification for a free press and the long struggle against licensing and regulation from Gutenberg to the present day.

Here, too, you will find a summation of the responsibility that comes with that freedom. The Fink concludes that there is a “compelling case” for a free press, but that there is also agreement that the news media wield power and profound influence, and with this comes responsibility. He writes:

“What is lacking, at least in Australia, is a robust discussion on what institutional mechanisms are necessary to ensure the press adheres to its responsibilities …  This is the situation this inquiry must address: how to accommodate the increasing and legitimate demand for press accountability, but to do so in a way that does not increase state power or inhibit the vigorous democratic role the press should play or undermine the key rationales for free speech and a free press.”

Scan, and save as a reference document for years to come, section three, which examines the news media industry with a focus on newspapers. It is the best pulling together of data on trends in Australian news media consumption and business models available. It concludes, in summary, that newspapers are still profitable, though profoundly challenged. It also makes it clear that many of those challenges have been with us since the ’50s, including declining circulation, but have been masked by rising population. The Fink doesn’t say it, but an available conclusion is that the industry has been slow to recognise the need for change.

This section also concludes that Australia’s newspaper industry is among the most concentrated in the developed world. This is important later, since it forms part of the case for increased regulation.

Section four should be read in detail, not least because it is the one you are never going to see fairly reported in the mainstream media. It tackles media standards. The Fink begins by quoting newspaper executives saying that there is no problem with the Australian media. He goes on to test the validity of these claims, starting with the words:

“Media proprietors often defend their adherence to standards by reference to their readers. So, rejecting any suggestion of bias against the government on the part of News Limited, (then News Limited CEO) Mr Hartigan said such claims were an insult to readers, who were capable of making up their own minds. Often, however, readers are not in a position to make an appropriately informed judgment. They expect news stories they read to be accurate. Usually only the authors/publishers, and the subjects of the story, know the extent to which a story lives up to that expectation. Over time, though, the public develop perceptions about the media that have an important influence on their opinion of the media.”

Thence to an analysis of public opinion data over the decades, including a detailed meta-analysis of 21 surveys. The result is devastating, and adds up to nothing short of a crisis of confidence in the news media — with the sole exception of the ABC. Says the Fink:

“Over the decades, the ABC has been consistently identified as a trusted source of news and information by between two-thirds and four-fifths of people, whereas other media organisations struggle to get even half the people to say they trust them.”

There is nothing in the submissions from the newspaper publishers to rebut these consistent findings by public opinion pollsters, other than the claim that readers make their choices every day by buying the products. But, says the Fink:

“The Australian newspaper market is far from the ideal truly competitive market which imposes considerable discipline on suppliers of products. In highly concentrated markets, and the Australian newspaper market is one such market, that discipline is dissipated and consumers have little choice and little power to influence what is supplied.”

So to the cases, and the Fink examines studies of media performance by the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism, including material published in Crikey, the recent quarterly essay by Robert Manne and other sources that have found the Australian public has lacked fair and impartial reporting on important issues of public policy, including carbon policy. He quotes findings that include News Limited tabloids were so biased that they could be said to have campaigned against the policy.

The Fink remarks that there is nothing wrong with newspapers having an opinion and advocating a position, even mounting a campaign:

“Those are the natural and generally expected functions of newspapers. Notable examples include The Australian on problems in remote indigenous communities, The Age on the Reserve Bank’s note printing companies that led to bribery charges being made and The West Australian on compensation claims by soldiers returning from the war in Afghanistan … However, to have an opinion and campaign for it is one thing; reporting is another, and in news reporting it is expected by the public, as well as by professional journalists, that the coverage will be fair and accurate.”

The Fink then mentions recent controversies and abuses, including the Tristan Weston affair referred to it by the Victorian Office of Police Integrity:

“The Herald Sun published an editorial on 28 October, the day after the OPI’s report was released, in which it argued the OPI report proved the newspaper was innocent of pursuing a vendetta against Mr Overland. It said the report showed Mr Weston had pursued the vendetta. What the editorial did not say, which is apparent from the OPI’s report, is that the Herald Sun allowed itself to be an insufficiently questioning player in the campaign by Mr Weston and others. That is, its journalistic standards, particularly on independence, fairness and accuracy, were wanting.”

The Fink also mentions the Mooroopna mother who was virtually accused by the media of murdering her sons, before it was revealed that they died in a tragic accident. The columnist who had earlier suggested the mother was a murderer then wrote in a column that the public should not be so quick to judge others. It was a truly Orwellian shift.

Also mentioned are the Pauline Hanson pictures published by News Limited Sunday papers that weren’t Hanson at all. Says the Fink:

“Essentially, in the rush to print, the journalists at The Sunday Telegraph carried out only very rudimentary verification.”

Then there is the insensitivity to victims of crime. Exhibit: The Sydney Morning Herald’s treatment of a fire at Quakers Hill, Sydney, with a front-page photograph showing an elderly man lying in his bed on the street, his mouth was agape and his eyes closed.”

And privacy? Exhibit A is the Madeleine Pulver collar-bomb case, with the television media camping outside her house for four days, and pictures published of her walking the dog, despite the fact that she was a child, a victim, and that her father had pleaded for her privacy to be respected.The news media, Finkelstein says, does a great deal of good work. Journalists and editors pursue their jobs with dedication and skill. Yet in all these cases, the media failed its own frequently proclaimed standards. People were damaged, sometimes profoundly, and in most cases had no meaningful recourse.

The proprietors and newspaper executives’ claims that there is no problem that needs addressing do not stand up to scrutiny.

Chapters five to eight deal with the way in which media is currently regulated, from the laws of the land through to the role of the Australian Communications and Media Authority and the Australian Press Council. It also deals with other self-regulation systems and comparable models overseas. If you are familiar with this material already, you can skip these chapters, though perhaps pause for a thorough reading of the history of the MEAA Code of Ethics, and the Australian Press Council, which demonstrates how at every stage the publishers were dragged kicking and screaming into self-regulation.

This material is important, because the Fink has clearly taken it into account in assessing how likely it is that the industry is capable of self-regulation. He looks at this history, together with the clear statements by publishers such as Fairfax Media CEO Greg Hywood, that they would not increase funding for the Press Council, in reaching his conclusion that more is needed, and that self-regulation without mandatory adherence will not work in addressing the problems he has identified. In the attitude of the publishers, he concludes, not much has changed, and the crisis in public confidence is simply denied.

This section also contains a review of overseas models, including the recent New Zealand Law Commission report on news media regulation (as Crikey reported), which was clearly influential on the Fink. A key quote:

“… there must be some effective means of raising standards of journalism and of making the media publicly accountable. What the media have lost sight of is that they accepted the idea of press regulation by having set up the APC to make a positive contribution to the development of journalistic standards.

“Logically it follows that that regulation should be effective. Indeed one would not expect that the media is only prepared to accept regulation that is ineffective.”

Chapter nine is an examination of remedies, including whether or not there should be an enforceable right of reply, and an enforceable right of access to the news media. Yes to the first, concludes the Fink, no to the second.

Chapter 10 is an erudite, and for public policy nerds, fascinating overview of the theory of regulation, and its public interest justifications. This locates the Fink’s recommended model on the second step up of a pyramid that has at its apex total government control, and at its bottom pure self-regulation. What the Fink is recommending is “enforced self-regulation”.

Finally, the Fink pulls all this together in the argument for reform in chapter 11. There is a problem in the news media. The costs of its failure to adhere to its own standards are born, not by the media companies themselves but by injured individuals and society at large.

He concludes that a self-regulation system such as the Australian Press Council, that can be undermined at will by withdrawing funding, and that players do not even have to sign up to, is not effective and not likely to become effective. He acknowledges recent reforms, but does not believe they overcome the fatal flaw of publisher unwillingness to get real.

He canvasses the options — from doing nothing, to licensing of news media. He rejects licensing, because it would mean government control of the media — abhorrent in a liberal democracy. He laments the ineffectiveness of the present system. He concludes:

“Ordinarily, the preferred option would be self-regulation. But in the case of newspapers, self-regulation by code of ethics and through the APC has not been effective. To do nothing in these circumstances is merely to turn a blind eye to what many see as a significant decline in media standards. Australian society has a vital interest in ensuring that media standards are maintained and that there is public trust in the media.”

The remainder of the report lays out the details of how the recommended News Media Council would work. Government funded, and with the big stick of court action in the background, but otherwise with procedures very similar to those presently followed by the Australian Press Council.

However it would be much better resourced — 20 members, with a full-time chair. Half its members would come from public, half from media but not managers directors or shareholders. The chair would be a judge or lawyer. Its funding would be on a triennial basis, and overseen by the Auditor-General to protect it from political interference. Members would be appointed through an arm’s-length committee, similar to the process now in place for the boards of the ABC and SBS.

The news media council would have jurisdiction over all news media, print as well as broadcast. This section includes the eye-popping suggestion that websites and blogs with more than 15,000 “hits” a year would be covered. It would have the power to require publication of corrections, apologies and rights of reply. If there was no compliance, it could apply for a court order, meaning that any breach of the court order would become contempt of court.

Finally, the Fink canvasses the question of whether various kinds of government support should be given to news media or start-ups. He canvasses, but does not come to conclusions, on suggestions of tax deductibility for donations to not-for-profit news media enterprises, and direct government subsidies. All this, he recommends be referred to the Productivity Commission. He also suggests part of the function of the new News Media Council should be to monitor the health of the industry.

So, that’s it. What the Fink actually said. You read it here first.

CLARIFICATION: Monday 5 March, 3.20pm: The initial version of this story referred to a “departmental cheat sheet” and linked out to the full document of Finklelstein’s recommendations. That description was incorrect — the cheat sheet consists of Margaret’s copy above and the link is to the full report. The copy has been amended to reflect this.

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58 thoughts on “Simons: how the Fink nailed the media inquiry

  1. Brisbane James

    Personally I’d just like to say I find the “Fink” moniker lightly amusing. Nothing more.

    Seems a bit of a mixed bag.

    On the one hand, I’m really sick of facile dogwhistling, opinion and outright Lies being reported as Factual News.

    On the other, setting up a system that can control the expression of someone’s point of view on a blog really does seem Orwellian.

    Is there no sensible middle ground?

    I think there needs to be some kind of Bad Thing that can happen to those journalists who Lie and Steal. Media has an exceptionally priveleged and powerful position in todays “Information Age”, and it needs to be accountable.
    History seems to prove they are not capable of keeping themselves honest.

    Logically someone else needs to keep them to some kind of minimum standard.

    How would it be possible to set up a non-partisan, bias-free regulatory body?
    Who would staff it? How would they be selected? Get a good answer to that problem, and it ought to be applied to many other power-wielding authorities.

    Maybe even as high up as governments themselves!

    Democracy (being the least-worst option, I’m constantly told) isn’t a bad theory I suppose, but when it comes to the topic of media regulation its too close to home: just say those who are to regulate our flow of information need to be elected by the public.
    Then the only ones with a real chance are rich, famous, or BACKED BY THE MEDIA.

    My suggestion would be to populate the council (or tribunal, or whatever) with mentally-competant adults drawn from the census or electoral roll.
    Like Jury duty. Drawn randomly with a visible Lotto ball or similar.

    Joe Average will have his own biases of course, but most citizens do have a modicum of common sense they could apply, and they would hopefully have some professional advice from non-decision-making staffers to help inform their judgements.

    Give them a decent wage, keep tabs on the gifting and other possible ways of influencing them, make them unable to hold another similar position for a time after their term, and try to help them focus on the Responsibility rather than the Power.

    @ Guytaur: it would be great to see Mediawatch find itself irrelevant. That show has been doing a job the rest of the media ought to have been doing themselves for years. Now, where’s its competition? Maybe a show that reaches the audiences that refuse to watch Mediawatch (because of its obvious Aunty Leftwing-Bias(tm)?) but calls out the BS that is regularly served up in our media.
    That might be nice. It probably doesn’t sell advertising time, so it’s not worth making it. A perfect example of how the business of the media diverges from the informing public-good responsibility. News Ltd and Fairfax ought to be quite grateful there are public-funded media organisations, this allows them to concentrate on making money with “Two headed Aliens Stole my Mother for Plutonium-Fuelled Interspecies SEX ROMP!!” stories, instead of the onerous and underpaid task of actual journalism.

  2. mikeb

    @Syd Walker – no you misunderstand. I do not advocate consorship of views – no matter how ridiculous. I do however support the notion that coverage of these views should be proportionate to their merit. It’s like hosting a debate where one party argues that the sun is hot & one party argues that the sun is cold. To give equal weight to both arguments is only adding to the corruption of public intelligence.

  3. Syd Walker

    @Michael Wilbur-Ham

    I have friends still in the Greens and I wish them well. I hope they (and the Greens) can regain the respect of people who care about self-determination and who despise imperialism – positions that used to be the norm in progressive circles, at least until recently.

    It took me ten years to completely lose my faith that the Australian Greens would come good over war and peace issues. My decision to leave was not taken lightly. There is, it seems, a place for a political party in Australia that has progressive environmental views but supports the bombing and invasion of independent nations based on discredited war propaganda. However, my place is not in that party.

    I hear a lot from the Greens leadership about the issue of refugees and much of it is good. But I never once hear mention of the fact that the nations hosting by far the largest number of refugees in our world are Pakistan, Iran and Syria. All three have recently been lambasted by the Greens leadership for one reason or another; never does the HUGE role they place in harbouring the victims of NATO aggression get ANY acknowledgement. That’s just one example of what I regard as the Greens petty-minded, flawed and heavily biased foreign policy.

    You may not have time to discuss Libya and Syria and that’s understandable. No reason why you should. But unfortunately that’s also been the stock response from elected Greens over the course of the last year. Bob Brown finds time to demand the overthrow of Ghadafi and Assad – but no time to explain or justify these bombastic verbal assaults on the leadership of other nations. Of course, he doesn’t need to justify those views in the mass media; no journalists ever ask him probing questions about them. All these “insiders” play the three monkeys game. The grass roots must like it or lump it.

    @MIKEB

    There is no list of 1,600+ architects and engineers who publicly SUPPORT the official narrative of how three huge skyscrapers collapsed in their own footprint on 9/11 at close to free-fall acceleration. If, therefore, mainstream media coverage of that topic was truly proportionate to the “merit” of views as gauged by publicly-expressed expert opinion, it is the sceptics view that would predominate. Needless to say, the opposite is true.

    You dismiss 9/11 sceptics as “ridiculous”. You’re entitled to your opinion of course, but I’d rather be in the company of Drs Lynn Margulis, Richard Falk, David Ray Griffin and other such outstanding intellects than in your company, whoever you are.

    Abusive words are cheap; heterodox analysis that cuts against the mainstream view takes rather more courage. To date, the crucial issue of what truly happened on 9/11 has NEVER been publicly debated in Australian mainstream media – not for more than a decade (a decade in which a string of new wars and repressive legislative measures were rationalised on the basis of officially-endorsed notions of what did occur on that day).

    If that’s acceptable to you, fine. It is not acceptable to me and to MANY others in Australia. We are, at present, effectively disenfranchised in parliament and wholly unrepresented in the cowardly and conformist mainstream media. Now there’s ANOTHER push to harass the few places we can air these matters of great public importance. Pardon me if we resist. There is, at present, no other habitable planet to which sane people can retire, leaving the rest of you to finish off planet earth with your blinkered mendacity.

  4. mikeb

    @Syd Walker – scepticism is a good thing but when it blindly ignores inconvenient facts and accepts the most outlandish theories then it is no better than dogmatism. Nevertheless this is getting a bit off topic so apologies for any “abusive” connotations and thanks for introducing me to the rather elegant word “heterodox” (I had to look it up).

  5. Arty

    Our military personnel who risk their lives to defend us never-the-less are subject to regulations in that deadly activity.

    Our police forces that some time put their lives in jeopardy are also subject to regulations.

    Why wouldn’t the news publishers who claim to be defending our democracy also suffer some regulation?

  6. Schnappi

    Would have liked to have seen more penalties to make sure murdoch can never do here ,what he did in the UK.
    Charlotte Church got it right,in saying they said sorry,but only meant they were sorry they got caught.

    No way is any murdoch home free,what has transpired the last week has shown police and public service bribes,which if those that are proven,could result with murdoch himself charged in the USA.

  7. guytaur

    Today the Daily Terror showed yet again why regulation is needed. In their continuing campaign of the Car is King (Car related advertising forming a massive part of dwindling advertising revnue) mentality. Their headline trumpets O’Farrell clipping Lord Mayor’s wings on cycleways. Never mind that facts are all traffic proposals like cycleways go through the state government level.
    Proof right there that these reforms are indeed needed. This campaign for cars headline and article could not have happened under these proposed regulation. The factual reporting aspect would have killed it before it started.

  8. Tom McLoughlin

    It’s a stark raving mad publication.

    It will NEVER help solve the unsustainable traffic problem in Sydney. More of the same – it’s brain dead.

    They couldn’t care less that 1,000+ people a year die prematurely in Sydney alone from air pollution due to the million cars sold every year in Australia.

    They couldn’t care less that air pollution fatalities are going up every year. How pathetic of the so called editor.

    By the way the page 1 story was to sideline the bigger story of new bus lane all the way along Victoria Rd which will really cramp cars on tarmac. I know that road too well. Let’s see OFarrell reverse Gladys on that one.

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