One of the authors of the independent Finkelstein media inquiry says the Convergence Review’s method of regulating the media won’t work because non-compliant media companies can’t be forced to join self-regulatory bodies.
Professor Matthew Ricketson, who assisted Ray Finkelstein QC on the five-month-long review of news media standards, also attacked the mainstream media for overreacting, misreporting and completely failing to cover major aspects of the inquiry.
Speaking at the University of Melbourne last night, Ricketson suggested this “tribal” coverage has undermined public confidence in the inquiry’s principal finding that greater regulation of the news media industry is required.
A recurring theme in the media’s coverage since the report was released in late February has been its attacks on Finkelstein’s call for a News Media Council to set standards and handle complaints about news reporting. Commentators have railed against the idea that the media, and especially newspapers, should be forced to comply with a government-funded statutory body.
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While this recommendation was central to Finkelstein’s report it was rejected by the recent Convergence Review, which said such a measure should be a “last resort” and that larger media outlets should be obliged to join a self-regulatory body instead.
But Ricketson’s personal view is the Convergence Review’s approach is not an alternative because it fails to explain how media outlets would be compelled to join a self-regulatory body and address the media’s antipathy about government funding.
“In other words, they [the Convergence Review committee] seem to arrive at pretty much the same conclusion as Mr Finkelstein but choose not to take the step that the logic of his position requires,” he said last night.
Ricketson cited West Australian Newspapers’ recent decision to withdraw from the Press Council as proof that forcing media companies to comply with a self-regulatory body is fraught. He also accused media critics of failing to think beyond their initial anger at being targeted for an inquiry because of the News of the World scandal in the UK.
The response from News Corporation was to “react tribally to any suggestion of government interference in press freedom”.
“To take these positions and stick with them no matter what means closing your mind to the substantive issues of failure of media performance and lack of genuine accountability, which is what too many people in the industry have been doing for too long,” Ricketson said.
The former Fairfax reporter’s most cogent criticism of the media was this:
“The sub-text of the report is to call this for what it is — a charade. It says to the industry: you have sound standards of journalistic practice that you say you believe in and you have had 35 years to make a success of the self-regulatory system for dealing with complaints about these standards and you haven’t — and you seem to be content with that situation. So, you’ve had your chance. If you won’t do it you have left us with little choice but to recommend some means of making it work and in your absence that someone will have to be government.
“But, really guys, it shouldn’t be too big a deal: all we are recommending is that you adhere to your own standards and that when you fall short of them there is a prompt means of righting that wrong.”
Ricketson listed several aspects of the report that were not covered by the media. These included the bald statement by Finkelstein on the first day of the hearings that he was not remotely interested in licensing the press because it was akin to a government decree on who is able to publish news. Finkelstein said this “is as close as going back to the Dark Ages as you could find” because it represents “probably as extreme an encroachment on news dissemination as you could get”.
Despite this clear statement of intent, commentators continued to run the line that the inquiry was determined to introduce heavy-handed regulation of the press.
“What they [the mainstream media] have done is to under-report a lot of what was presented to the independent media inquiry late last year, and to either misreport the inquiry’s findings or to ignore large parts of the report altogether,” he said.
The inquiry received around 10,600 submissions, of which 762 expressed dissatisfaction with the news media and only four expressed satisfaction — although it should be noted the vast majority of the submissions were channelled by the online advocacy groups Avaaz and NewsStand.
And what of the coverage by other media outlets? According to Ricketson the “smaller independent news websites such as Crikey and New Matilda and some individual blogs covered the inquiry in detail and with a good deal of care”.
*Disclaimer: Andrew Dodd has written a chapter in the new book Australian Journalism Today, edited by Matthew Ricketson