Aside from Crikey publisher Eric Beecher and media writer Margaret Simons, there have been few media professionals who have strongly endorsed Ray Finkelstein’s recommendations for a government funded News Media Council.

Even the journalists’ union, the MEAA, declared it to be a “huge disappointment” while claiming unethical British practices only flourished because Rupert Murdoch de-unionised his Wapping operation.

As we’ve all come to expect in Australian public debate, the reaction from vested interests has been way over the top.

The big newspaper publishers have gone into propaganda overdrive, effectively proving many of the points that Finkelstein made about inaccurate or distorted coverage.

Media Watch presenter Jonathan Holmes brought a practical middle-of-the-road perspective to the debate on Monday. He reckons the News Media Council is politically doomed and we’ll end up with a beefed-up Australian Press Council. I’m not so sure about that because the logic of having one complaints body across all news mediums is so strong.

For all the hyperbole about the dead hand of government regulation and attacks on freedom of speech, how is it that Australia radio and television news gets by perfectly well with a government regulator?

We currently have separate regulators for print and electronic news and the Fink is simply suggesting their news complaints operations be merged, while formally adding the online component that both industries are heavily involved in. This is a complete a no-brainer and the debate should simply be about the operating model.

Media Watch’s spoof example of a News Media Council page one correction in The Australian illustrated the biggest problem with Finkelstein’s recommendations: you just can’t have a government body with legal power to dictate what goes on page one.

All newspaper professionals know that page dull is a dumping ground for dull but worthy stories, so page two should be the designated place for News Media Council decisions to appear.

And, critically, there should be a precise limit on the length of any decision or right of reply that the NMC can force to be published. For mine that would be 300 words on page two. Anything longer and it would have to appear on the media company’s website. Similarly, the News Media Council should be able to order a paper to print a right of reply, through a letter to the editor, of no more than 200 words.

Another key criteria of the council would be the need for a dedicated section on each publisher or broadcaster’s website, complete with a button on the home page, which carried all News Media Council decisions.

You then get the tricky question of selecting panel members. In order to avoid political bias, it should require a two thirds majority of both houses of Parliament, effectively giving either major party a veto over partisan candidates.

Rather than going with ordinary punters, a la juries, it would be better to appoint media experts, be they former journalists, spin doctors, academics or even politicians and lawyers who have extensively dealt with the media throughout their careers.

However, anyone currently on the payroll of a major media company should be banned. That means we get Fairfax CEO Greg Hywood chairing the News Media Council, like Murdoch loyalist Les Hinton did for seven year at Britain’s Press Complaints Commission.

Another critical issue goes to the question of compulsion and sanctions. I’m dead against potential fines, jailings or contempt of court findings for those who refuse to comply with a News Media Council decision. Members should be required to publicly argue their case for non-compliance, along the lines of the successful “if not, why not” regime that works with ASX-listed companies on corporate governance matters.

For those who serially refuse to apply, the pressure should come done from the major advertisers, especially Google. If Google signs up to a regime where it will only sell ads for media companies that have an ethical framework and agree to comply with the News Media Council principles, it would have a powerful and immediate effect. This would also quickly work its magic with small but controversial bloggers.

In terms of the minimum traffic for a blogger to be covered, I’d prefer to see a starting point of 10,000 page views a month, but this really starts to get messy because such a regime would also need to cover those with a certain number of Twitter follows and Facebook friends. You’ve also got jurisdiction complications for those who are based offshore.

No one is seriously suggesting the News Media Council could force Rupert Murdoch to post a tweet on behalf of Julia Gillard responding to his claim that she is captured by the greenies.

The regime would also need to have a carve-out for anyone who doesn’t believe they are in the “news and opinion” space. For instance, Shane Warne should not be covered, even though he is a prolific Australian-based tweeter with almost 700,000 followers who occasionally sounds off on current affairs issues such as the behaviour of cyclists.

Peter Fray

Get your first 12 weeks of Crikey for $12.

Without subscribers, Crikey can’t do what it does. Fortunately, our support base is growing.

Every day, Crikey aims to bring new and challenging insights into politics, business, national affairs, media and society. We lift up the rocks that other news media largely ignore. Without your support, more of those rocks – and the secrets beneath them — will remain lodged in the dirt.

Join today and get your first 12 weeks of Crikey for just $12.


Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey