Self-regulation, at least in the ethical fantasyland of News Corp, is only a worthwhile system of media accountability so long as it doesn’t inquire into the abuse of a newspaper’s power to pursue vendettas and parade its own paranoia.

On Saturday The Weekend Australian published a bizarre front-page story attacking the chair of the Australian Press Council, Professor Julian Disney, for what the Oz claims was “a potential conflict of interest” in Disney’s conduct of an APC inquiry into a complaint against The Australian.

The basis of the piece was a legal opinion, commissioned by the Oz and sent to the council, which alleges “serious error” and “bias” during the adjudication hearing. It requests that Disney remove himself from considering the matter because of a tenuously assumed connection — way back in the 1980s — to a person (now deceased) named in the original Oz story that was the subject of the complaint.

Never mind that the APC’s own rules specifically exclude legal argument from adjudications; never mind that The Australian has knowingly now breached the confidentiality rules that apply to the adjudication process; never mind that all members of the council, including News Corp, are bound by its policies and decisions. Oz editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell can clearly sense an adverse finding coming at him down the chute and has decided to launch a pre-emptive strike against the APC and its chair.

Those who may be bemused by this bizarre response from the Murdoch national daily might benefit from knowing a little media history. The substance of the original story that prompted a complaint to the APC was an allegation carried by the Oz that former Labor federal minister Arthur Gietzelt had been a secret member of the Communist Party, or at the very least was a “sympathiser”, or had communist “links”. As such, the piece argued, Gietzelt (who died in January) could have been a security risk.

This brand of McCarthyist, reds-under-the-bed smear journalism may seem preposterously old-fashioned, but it’s very much the house style for any paper edited by Mitchell. It was Mitchell, when editing The Courier-Mail, who in 1996 ran blanket coverage of assertions that historian Manning Clark had been a “Soviet agent of influence” and was secretly awarded the Order of Lenin by the USSR. A subsequent APC investigation found these allegations to be false. Their adjudication ruling said, in part:

“The newspaper had too little evidence to assert that Prof Clark was awarded the Order of Lenin — rather there is much evidence to the contrary. That being so, the Press Council finds that The Courier-Mail was not justified in publishing its key assertion and the conclusions which so strongly flowed from it. The newspaper should have taken further steps to check the accuracy of its reports.”

Despite being urged to do so by the Press Council, Mitchell and The Courier-Mail have never retracted their false allegations.

There is nothing civilised about this current dispute. The Oz — already smarting over a strong adverse APC finding last week — is now in its familiar take-no-prisoners mindset, as its editorial on Saturday demonstrated so unsubtly. The council (of which News Corp is by far the largest single funder) is dismissed as “erratic in its rulings”, “ponderous”, “ineffective” and “unmoored from its foundations”. It has “lost the plot” and “run off the rails”.

Even worse is reserved for Disney himself. In a remarkably personal attack the editorial deplored his “peculiar tastes and political predilections”, accused him of “poor stewardship”, “biases” and “ideological activism”. He was mocked as the “censor-in-chief” and “emperor of taste”. Disney has been taught a lesson (as if it were needed) on how viciously the Holt Street mafia will retaliate if anyone challenges their methods or opinions.

More importantly, this whole unpleasant episode demonstrates the hypocrisies that underpin the media self-regulation construct in Australia. In response to the perceived threats of the Finkelstein Inquiry and the Convergence Review, newspaper proprietors rushed to “strengthen” the Press Council’s authority and increase its funding.

Now we have proof that this was all window dressing. If the APC’s processes and findings don’t suit a powerful member such as News Corp, it refuses to play by the rules and trashes the chair’s reputation. Self-regulation is no regulation at all.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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