A week after the release of the Convergence Review, its principal author, Glen Boreham launched into an opinion piece in The Australian with this observation:
“I did not expect quite so much misinformation.”
They were ironic words, given Boreham was the guy with the task of finding a way of regulating standards in the news media — surely not the person the media wants to misreport. Well, not if the profession is trying to convince people it’s capable of self-regulation.
But Boreham was frustrated by the mixed coverage about this most significant of media reviews. He had read countless reports, some of which had got the thrust of the findings quite wrong. On the same day May 7 — his co-author, Louise McElvogue, hinted at her disappointment too. Her piece in The Sydney Morning Herald noted that “if you understand [the review’s] content based on media coverage, you are doing better than most.”
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Their concerns sprang from a piece by Mark Day in The Australian on April 26, which contained several spectacular errors and probably spawned some of the later coverage. Day’s front-page story, based on information provided by “sources close to the review panel” claimed:
“A new regulatory body, funded by government and with powers to impose fines and sanctions on news outlets, is a key proposal of the long-awaited Convergence Review of the media sector.
“The new body would be headed by a retired judge and would be additional to the Australian Press Council, which would continue to function as a self-regulatory watchdog on print and online media …”
As Boreham noted:
“Certainly, (the review’s) case was not helped by a front page “exclusive” on our findings in The Australian days before release that got the facts wrong.”
There were at least four errors in Mark Day’s opening paragraphs, proving the old journalism maxim that there is more shame in being wrong than there is glory in being first. For his sins, Day was beaten up by Media Watch, which described his article as a “dog’s breakfast”.
But Boreham wasn’t just objecting to that article. He took exception to subsequent reports, which ran with the theme of a “super regulator” and government control over news content.
Looking back at the stories, the most curious thing is that The Australian had in fact corrected itself before the release of the report. Sally Jackson had been leaked the real inside story and published it on the morning of April 30. It seems that some media savvy person inside the review had planted the correct information in an effort to steer the subsequent coverage away from Day’s line about heavy government imposed regulation.
Jackson’s article was headlined “Fears of ‘super’ regulator overdone“. It said:
“The committee will recommend the formation of a new, platform-neutral media regulator, taking the view that changes to regulation required by the impact of technological change are so significant that an entirely fresh outlook is needed, rather than merely overhauling existing bodies or adding legislation.
“However, industry fears that this would be a third ‘super regulator’ with the power to impose fines on news outlets were unfounded, one source said.”
But the article did not steer everyone away from the fear-of-regulation line. While most of the media began the difficult task of explaining the key recommendations, News Limited’s CEO, Kim Williams, was railing about the imposition of “heavy-handed regulation”. The suggestion — although not the wording — was that News Limited felt threatened because its news content would be subject to regulation. Probably government regulation.
This suggestion took a bit of clearing up. As Boreham tried to do a few days later:
“It is inaccurate to suggest that our recommended news standards body is subject to government oversight or would allow intrusion on free speech.
“We propose an industry-led news standards body that would be separate from the statutory independent communications regulator.”
But The Australian’s coverage soon became confusing. Which bits were commentary, which bits were straight reporting and which bits were outright antipathy to the Labor government? Clearly its editorial on May 1 was an example of the latter:
“While Stephen Conroy continues as Communications Minister, the government’s forthcoming response to the review is a serious concern. The minister has marked himself as a rank opportunist, playing hard and fast with the public interest. We would be deeply sceptical about any new regulator Senator Conroy might propose to replace the Australian Communications and Media Authority or the Australian Press Council.”
Surprisingly, by week’s end other aspects of the report did get addressed in the media’s coverage. The issues included Australian content controls, cross media ownership, diversity, the disparity in regulation between big and small content generators and the rationale for not submitting the national broadcasters — the ABC and SBS — to the same rules. There was even an article canvassing the future for the community channels under the new rules.
It was a case of the media getting there ever so slowly, after a very bad start — although it is clear that there are still several aspects not really covered and that some media outlets had difficulty shaking off their own prejudice in order to report the full story.