The situation of Fairfax Media, with three editors standing down in one day and Gina Rinehart circling with her intentions largely undeclared, make this a good time to think carefully about what journalists mean by editorial independence. In fact, it is past time this thinking was done.

The best time to review and update core documents, such as the Fairfax charter of editorial independence, is when they are not under attack or stress. It is understandable that in the current context, those who care about the integrity of journalism are not keen to acknowledge that the charter may not be the ideal rallying document for the cause. But it isn’t. And in an ideal world, the hard thinking about what independence actually means and how it might best be defended would have been done periodically over the 25 years since the charter was written.

A declaration: I was involved in the drafting of what was then The Age charter of editorial independence in 1988, in the context of a possible takeover bid by Robert Maxwell — the big, scary rich person and would-be media proprietor of his time.

I remember being handed a suggested draft by an editor with the words that it codified “how things work here”. In other words, it laid down the existing relationship between the proprietor, the management, the editor and the journalists.

The Fairfax charter, as it became, is in other words a document that relates to its times. It defines editorial independence as a commitment by the proprietors, encapsulated in the person of the editor. Under the charter, the editor can be hired and fired by the management, which answers to the board, but is otherwise to be left alone to manage the newsroom and direct journalists.

Importantly, there is no defence against a craven or toady editor.

Is this document still the best definition of what editorial independence means? Editors have been losing power at Fairfax, with resources and talent increasingly travelling upstream to national structures.

The tensions that have been caused by this shift of power away from individual mastheads are part of the context for yesterday’s resignations. What role is left for a masthead editor when key decisions about allocation of reporters and the content of platforms are made by national “topic editors” or “geographic editors” answerable to a national management?

Exactly the same trend is visible at News Limited, with CEO Kim Williams also moving to a “networked” structure, and withdrawing from localism.

It makes sense if you are trying to cover the same things — the affairs of the nation — with fewer resources. Both organisations are trying to stabilise the news media business at a sustainable level. The problem is that nobody really knows what sustainability looks like. It is a grand experiment. Were these not big industrial organisations, it might be possible for them to move in exactly the opposite direction, towards increased localism and niche interests. But that would mean only modest profits and little or no growth — not an easy message  to sell to a board representing institutional investors legally obliged to consider the bottom line.

We will soon see more restructuring announcements at Fairfax, with power further removed from masthead editors. Tragic for the individuals concerned, but there are also issues that should concern all audience members.

Namely, what happens to editorial independence in the absence of a powerful editor?  Or to ask the question a different way, how would one write a charter of editorial independence to suit today’s media landscape?

The thinking needs to be done, and not only because of what is happening in the big industrial legacy media enterprises.

In the future, much of what we might want to call journalism will be the product of small to medium enterprises, not all of which will emerge from the same culture that produced the traditional newsroom.

In fact, all organisations with websites are in some sense media organisations, and many put out news. Whether we would want to describe it as journalism is a different matter, because the word “journalism” implies standards of verification and integrity.

Some news content will be done by NGOs, with their own agendas. And some will be done by big organisations, such as the AFL, with the important question being whether this is PR, strategic marketing or journalism.

And some will be done on a not-for-profit basis by organisations backed by various kinds of philanthropy — and  philanthropists have their own predilections and priorities.

So what does the word independence mean in this context?

It is not only to do with funding. All media is funded one way or another, through some mix of subscriptions, advertising or proprietorial patronage. Throughout history, some editorial decisions have been influenced by the money. Would there be so many property journalists were it not for real-estate ads? Would the travel pages devote so much copy to luxury cruises were it not for advertising? Would local papers even exist, without local government  and real-estate ads?

Independence in this context means a preparedness for the funder/s to tolerate journalism that does not serve their interests. It depends on Chinese curtains between the revenue earning and the news media work. The arrangements laid down in the Fairfax charter are one such Chinese curtain. But for most of the history of news media, such arrangements have not existed or have been under challenge and strain or honoured in the breach.

I think in the new world, “integrity” might be a more useful concept than “independence” — which raises so many questions about business models and proprietors.Integrity means, to my mind, the freedom for journalists to follow the evidence and relay the results of inquiries and investigations to the audience in a way not determined by commercial, political and personal interests. It allows for collaborations between journalists and  interest groups — such as we saw on Four Corners last year, when the Indonesian abattoir story resulted from content provided by an animal rights group — verified and expanded by the journalists. The role of the journalist in such collaborations is to ensure the content has integrity.

Journalistic method is a product of the enlightenment. It means searching for truth, heeding evidence and disseminating the results. If journalists are not able to do those things, then the product is not journalism, but something else.

So in this new, smaller, post-industrial media age, what management arrangements best ensure that integrity is safeguarded?

When the editor is effectively removed from the equation, the relationship between management and journalist becomes more direct. That means that there is an increased need for integrity in the individual journalists. That’s a tall order, when jobs are under threat.

All charters and such like documents depend, inevitably, on the willingness of the proprietor to back journalistic integrity. If a proprietor wishes to intervene, there is little that can stop them.

Journalists need support, if there is no editor who can be relied upon to provide it.

And this, in my view, is where yesterday’s announcements intersect with the earlier news this year in media — the recommendations of the Finkelstein report and the Convergence Review. Both recommend different models for policing media standards, including truth, accuracy, balance and fairness.

Such external oversight becomes even more important now. A modern charter of editorial integrity would, I think, place much less emphasis on the editor, but would instead ensure that there were sources of peer support and advice available to individual journalists, and stronger external watchdogs with powers to inquire and report.

Proprietors who interfere to warp the news are free to do so, just as we all have freedom of speech. But they should be accountable for their actions. Their conduct should be on public display, and there should be a press council-like body that sees such exposure as part of its role.

Most of all, we need a public that believes journalism matters. Ultimately, it is the audience, not the journalists, proprietors or the editors, that will determine whether we get news content with integrity. That means that journalists need to earn the public’s trust. And that lands us back in the same place — some reliable and robust method of policing news media standards. In the long term, such a system is a better guarantee than any individual editor.

*This article was originally published at Conversations with the Centre for Advanced Journalism