The doleful Jeremiahs who fear this month’s silly fracas between The Australian and the Press Council may unwittingly end in a restriction on our media freedoms need to have a cup of tea and a nice lie down. Anyone who’s spent much time trying to understand the feeble mechanics of media accountability in this country knows that for most of its 38-year history the Australian Press Council has been not much more than window dressing.
It’s not without reason that founding Media Watch host Stuart Littlemore QC always insisted on calling it the “Press Proprietors’ Council”. The APC was established by the owners of our print media, and they set its rules, help choose the chairman and councilors, and provide the funding. That arrangement is rather like the mafia running the Chicago Police Department.
Not surprisingly, the proprietors gave their self-regulatory body no independent investigative powers and no real authority to discipline or punish newspapers who’d breached the APC’s meek “standards”. So, also not surprisingly, editors and journalists treated the council and its tortuous, mealy-mouthed findings with contempt. For most journalists, being asked to appear at an APC hearing was an excuse to take the afternoon off (with a convivial pit stop at the pub along the way).
Julian Disney, the current and soon-to-depart chair of the council, has tried to change all that. For his trouble, and in response to a handful of APC decisions that went against News Corp papers, Rupert’s stormtroopers have been merciless. The Australian, in particular, has pulled on its heaviest hob-nailed boots to play the man rather than the ball.
Disney has copped a daily savaging of extraordinary ferocity. The usual Holt Street bully boys and Murdoch uber-loyalists have been conscripted to take a kick at the APC chair. Anonymous editorial writers piled in over the top. During the past fortnight in the Oz he’s been accused of everything from personal bias and undeclared conflicts of interest to not defending the freedom of the press with sufficient enthusiasm. What’s next?
Disney and the council can defend themselves, and they have tried to do so through a succession of pained media releases and letters to the editor. Most of that returned fire has been tit-for-tat bush-lawyer pedantics over trivial matters of process. No great principles or abuses of authority are at stake, however much The Australian might protest that they are.
Indeed, this war of words is entirely phoney — full of sound and fury, but signifying nothing.
Why? Because despite all its bleating about threats to free speech and democracy, The Australian has nothing to lose. Disney and the APC could make a hundred adverse findings against News Corp papers and it would make no difference to the way the company goes about reporting daily events or the type of opinions it publishes. The council has no real power other than to require a complained-about newspaper to print its findings — for or against. Many public complaints to the APC are dismissed without a full hearing. Others are mediated. Just a few are upheld or “partly upheld”, often with such an overburden of timid qualifications as to be meaningless.
So why has The Australian chosen to attack the council and go for Disney’s throat?
Under the control of editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell the paper has become notorious for its bull-baiting, beat-up campaigns aimed at destroying individuals who’ve been brave enough to take positions contrary to the prevailing News Corp company line.
This avenging style borders on a journalistic form of obsessive compulsive disorder. After 50 years, the newspaper has still not achieved the maturity to ignore its critics. Instead, The Australian‘s warmongers apparently don’t feel satisfied unless they’re ripping someone to shreds and gloating about their triumphs in an editorial the following day. It seems not to have occurred to them, in this current frenzy, that the APC is News Corp’s own creation. Saturn is devouring one of his sons.
Nothing is really at stake here. There is no threat to freedom of the press. No secret Stalinist/Green/Labor collective is plotting to impose political censorship on our media. The Australian is inventing straw man enemies to smite while painting itself as the defender of our democratic rights. It’s all vindictive, self-serving tosh.
Meanwhile, and despite the recent changes to the conditions of Press Council membership, News Corp won’t hesitate to simply walk away if it cannot stomach any more of the APC’s rulings. There is no legal way to stop Murdoch taking his bat and ball home. The “four years’ notice to quit” rule isn’t practically enforceable (like all APC rules), which is, of course, the central weakness of the whole self-regulation model.
No federal government in the foreseeable future would fill the breach with a more substantial regime of ethical compliance if the Press Council were to collapse. The political fight they would be buying with the press is unwinnable. News Corp knows that, so they flail away at their imagined foes with impunity. What more proof do we need that the policy of media self-regulation in Australia is little more than a charade?