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Mar 5, 2012

Simons: how the Fink nailed the media inquiry

You will find it difficult to get an idea of what the Finkelstein report on news media regulation actually says, or why it has reached its controversial conclusions, from reading the mainstream media.

Start with this. You will find it difficult to get an idea of what the Finkelstein report on news media regulation actually says, or why it has reached its controversial conclusions, from reading the mainstream media.

The irony is lost on no one, judging from all the eye-rolling in the ministerial offices this morning, except perhaps those editors and reporters who will deny it is so.

On Saturday and again today, the newspapers were full of opinion, mostly from the interested parties, but harder to find was a decent summary or report of the Fink’s substance and arguments. A newspaper reader would struggle to discern that the Fink had some critical things to say about the way the media performed. Indeed, some breakout quotes used by the tabloids suggested he had been only complimentary.

For the record, the Fink’s report is not calling for direct government control of the media, nor does it contain a bid by Labor to control the media, as the headline in The Australian Financial Review claimed, over a fair and balanced article by Laura Tingle that said nothing of the sort.

So what follows is a summary of this weighty and scholarly, though admirably clearly-written, report. Whatever you think of the key recommendation this is a considerable work, particularly given short time frame the team had to do their work.

So to follow is my cheat sheet. If you want to dive into the report yourself, here’s the link. If you do dare to wade through it, I would start with the clear executive summary and recommendations. Then scan, but put aside for calmer reading and reflection, section two, with its erudite summation and history of the justification for a free press and the long struggle against licensing and regulation from Gutenberg to the present day.

Here, too, you will find a summation of the responsibility that comes with that freedom. The Fink concludes that there is a “compelling case” for a free press, but that there is also agreement that the news media wield power and profound influence, and with this comes responsibility. He writes:

“What is lacking, at least in Australia, is a robust discussion on what institutional mechanisms are necessary to ensure the press adheres to its responsibilities …  This is the situation this inquiry must address: how to accommodate the increasing and legitimate demand for press accountability, but to do so in a way that does not increase state power or inhibit the vigorous democratic role the press should play or undermine the key rationales for free speech and a free press.”

Scan, and save as a reference document for years to come, section three, which examines the news media industry with a focus on newspapers. It is the best pulling together of data on trends in Australian news media consumption and business models available. It concludes, in summary, that newspapers are still profitable, though profoundly challenged. It also makes it clear that many of those challenges have been with us since the ’50s, including declining circulation, but have been masked by rising population. The Fink doesn’t say it, but an available conclusion is that the industry has been slow to recognise the need for change.

This section also concludes that Australia’s newspaper industry is among the most concentrated in the developed world. This is important later, since it forms part of the case for increased regulation.

Section four should be read in detail, not least because it is the one you are never going to see fairly reported in the mainstream media. It tackles media standards. The Fink begins by quoting newspaper executives saying that there is no problem with the Australian media. He goes on to test the validity of these claims, starting with the words:

“Media proprietors often defend their adherence to standards by reference to their readers. So, rejecting any suggestion of bias against the government on the part of News Limited, (then News Limited CEO) Mr Hartigan said such claims were an insult to readers, who were capable of making up their own minds. Often, however, readers are not in a position to make an appropriately informed judgment. They expect news stories they read to be accurate. Usually only the authors/publishers, and the subjects of the story, know the extent to which a story lives up to that expectation. Over time, though, the public develop perceptions about the media that have an important influence on their opinion of the media.”

Thence to an analysis of public opinion data over the decades, including a detailed meta-analysis of 21 surveys. The result is devastating, and adds up to nothing short of a crisis of confidence in the news media — with the sole exception of the ABC. Says the Fink:

“Over the decades, the ABC has been consistently identified as a trusted source of news and information by between two-thirds and four-fifths of people, whereas other media organisations struggle to get even half the people to say they trust them.”

There is nothing in the submissions from the newspaper publishers to rebut these consistent findings by public opinion pollsters, other than the claim that readers make their choices every day by buying the products. But, says the Fink:

“The Australian newspaper market is far from the ideal truly competitive market which imposes considerable discipline on suppliers of products. In highly concentrated markets, and the Australian newspaper market is one such market, that discipline is dissipated and consumers have little choice and little power to influence what is supplied.”

So to the cases, and the Fink examines studies of media performance by the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism, including material published in Crikey, the recent quarterly essay by Robert Manne and other sources that have found the Australian public has lacked fair and impartial reporting on important issues of public policy, including carbon policy. He quotes findings that include News Limited tabloids were so biased that they could be said to have campaigned against the policy.

The Fink remarks that there is nothing wrong with newspapers having an opinion and advocating a position, even mounting a campaign:

“Those are the natural and generally expected functions of newspapers. Notable examples include The Australian on problems in remote indigenous communities, The Age on the Reserve Bank’s note printing companies that led to bribery charges being made and The West Australian on compensation claims by soldiers returning from the war in Afghanistan … However, to have an opinion and campaign for it is one thing; reporting is another, and in news reporting it is expected by the public, as well as by professional journalists, that the coverage will be fair and accurate.”

The Fink then mentions recent controversies and abuses, including the Tristan Weston affair referred to it by the Victorian Office of Police Integrity:

“The Herald Sun published an editorial on 28 October, the day after the OPI’s report was released, in which it argued the OPI report proved the newspaper was innocent of pursuing a vendetta against Mr Overland. It said the report showed Mr Weston had pursued the vendetta. What the editorial did not say, which is apparent from the OPI’s report, is that the Herald Sun allowed itself to be an insufficiently questioning player in the campaign by Mr Weston and others. That is, its journalistic standards, particularly on independence, fairness and accuracy, were wanting.”

The Fink also mentions the Mooroopna mother who was virtually accused by the media of murdering her sons, before it was revealed that they died in a tragic accident. The columnist who had earlier suggested the mother was a murderer then wrote in a column that the public should not be so quick to judge others. It was a truly Orwellian shift.

Also mentioned are the Pauline Hanson pictures published by News Limited Sunday papers that weren’t Hanson at all. Says the Fink:

“Essentially, in the rush to print, the journalists at The Sunday Telegraph carried out only very rudimentary verification.”

Then there is the insensitivity to victims of crime. Exhibit: The Sydney Morning Herald’s treatment of a fire at Quakers Hill, Sydney, with a front-page photograph showing an elderly man lying in his bed on the street, his mouth was agape and his eyes closed.”

And privacy? Exhibit A is the Madeleine Pulver collar-bomb case, with the television media camping outside her house for four days, and pictures published of her walking the dog, despite the fact that she was a child, a victim, and that her father had pleaded for her privacy to be respected.The news media, Finkelstein says, does a great deal of good work. Journalists and editors pursue their jobs with dedication and skill. Yet in all these cases, the media failed its own frequently proclaimed standards. People were damaged, sometimes profoundly, and in most cases had no meaningful recourse.

The proprietors and newspaper executives’ claims that there is no problem that needs addressing do not stand up to scrutiny.

Chapters five to eight deal with the way in which media is currently regulated, from the laws of the land through to the role of the Australian Communications and Media Authority and the Australian Press Council. It also deals with other self-regulation systems and comparable models overseas. If you are familiar with this material already, you can skip these chapters, though perhaps pause for a thorough reading of the history of the MEAA Code of Ethics, and the Australian Press Council, which demonstrates how at every stage the publishers were dragged kicking and screaming into self-regulation.

This material is important, because the Fink has clearly taken it into account in assessing how likely it is that the industry is capable of self-regulation. He looks at this history, together with the clear statements by publishers such as Fairfax Media CEO Greg Hywood, that they would not increase funding for the Press Council, in reaching his conclusion that more is needed, and that self-regulation without mandatory adherence will not work in addressing the problems he has identified. In the attitude of the publishers, he concludes, not much has changed, and the crisis in public confidence is simply denied.

This section also contains a review of overseas models, including the recent New Zealand Law Commission report on news media regulation (as Crikey reported), which was clearly influential on the Fink. A key quote:

“… there must be some effective means of raising standards of journalism and of making the media publicly accountable. What the media have lost sight of is that they accepted the idea of press regulation by having set up the APC to make a positive contribution to the development of journalistic standards.

“Logically it follows that that regulation should be effective. Indeed one would not expect that the media is only prepared to accept regulation that is ineffective.”

Chapter nine is an examination of remedies, including whether or not there should be an enforceable right of reply, and an enforceable right of access to the news media. Yes to the first, concludes the Fink, no to the second.

Chapter 10 is an erudite, and for public policy nerds, fascinating overview of the theory of regulation, and its public interest justifications. This locates the Fink’s recommended model on the second step up of a pyramid that has at its apex total government control, and at its bottom pure self-regulation. What the Fink is recommending is “enforced self-regulation”.

Finally, the Fink pulls all this together in the argument for reform in chapter 11. There is a problem in the news media. The costs of its failure to adhere to its own standards are born, not by the media companies themselves but by injured individuals and society at large.

He concludes that a self-regulation system such as the Australian Press Council, that can be undermined at will by withdrawing funding, and that players do not even have to sign up to, is not effective and not likely to become effective. He acknowledges recent reforms, but does not believe they overcome the fatal flaw of publisher unwillingness to get real.

He canvasses the options — from doing nothing, to licensing of news media. He rejects licensing, because it would mean government control of the media — abhorrent in a liberal democracy. He laments the ineffectiveness of the present system. He concludes:

“Ordinarily, the preferred option would be self-regulation. But in the case of newspapers, self-regulation by code of ethics and through the APC has not been effective. To do nothing in these circumstances is merely to turn a blind eye to what many see as a significant decline in media standards. Australian society has a vital interest in ensuring that media standards are maintained and that there is public trust in the media.”

The remainder of the report lays out the details of how the recommended News Media Council would work. Government funded, and with the big stick of court action in the background, but otherwise with procedures very similar to those presently followed by the Australian Press Council.

However it would be much better resourced — 20 members, with a full-time chair. Half its members would come from public, half from media but not managers directors or shareholders. The chair would be a judge or lawyer. Its funding would be on a triennial basis, and overseen by the Auditor-General to protect it from political interference. Members would be appointed through an arm’s-length committee, similar to the process now in place for the boards of the ABC and SBS.

The news media council would have jurisdiction over all news media, print as well as broadcast. This section includes the eye-popping suggestion that websites and blogs with more than 15,000 “hits” a year would be covered. It would have the power to require publication of corrections, apologies and rights of reply. If there was no compliance, it could apply for a court order, meaning that any breach of the court order would become contempt of court.

Finally, the Fink canvasses the question of whether various kinds of government support should be given to news media or start-ups. He canvasses, but does not come to conclusions, on suggestions of tax deductibility for donations to not-for-profit news media enterprises, and direct government subsidies. All this, he recommends be referred to the Productivity Commission. He also suggests part of the function of the new News Media Council should be to monitor the health of the industry.

So, that’s it. What the Fink actually said. You read it here first.

CLARIFICATION: Monday 5 March, 3.20pm: The initial version of this story referred to a “departmental cheat sheet” and linked out to the full document of Finklelstein’s recommendations. That description was incorrect — the cheat sheet consists of Margaret’s copy above and the link is to the full report. The copy has been amended to reflect this.

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58 comments

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58 thoughts on “Simons: how the Fink nailed the media inquiry

  1. Peter Ormonde

    Thanks Margaret … excellent bit of gear.

    Will be interesting to see what the Government chooses to do. Can’t really see them being too concerned about getting Rupert off-side … his empire is about as hostile as they dare to get. If we’re lucky we might actually see something happening. But it’s a long-shot.

  2. kwn

    Yes, that is what I read in the SMH and The Australian. Shorter than your piece but quite complete and accurate.

  3. Cleaver

    An “arm’s length committee” like the ones that choose the ABC and SBS boards. Well, there you go. Or perhaps like the one that chooses the MEAA ethics committee? (That other pursuer of ethical purity.) This nidea is just another way to narrow the issues and avoid the core problem. Which is that these folk are all very comfortable and arrogant (not as arrogant as the folk in London now under scrutiny, but the sentiment isn’t different.)
    You know some of us have noticed the change in culture and standards that has emerged since the 1980s, when Fairfax gobbled up The Age and other, smaller, independent publishers. Then Hawke and Keating cleared the way for Murdoch to grab virtually all the rest in one swoop.
    Both Fairfax and News have been run by powerbrokers ever since. Monopolists and oligopolists don’t usually spend a huge amount of time worrying about consumers.
    The effective answer to this is real choice, which hopefully will come when the bloated bureaucracies that sit atop Australian news reporting have a big collision with the consumer’s lack on interest in their shoddy product.
    And can you please lay off the “Fink” bit? The man has a real name.

  4. Suzanne Blake

    This report was created by Gillard / Brown and Co being uphappy with media coverage and reporting on their Government, disguised as a needed report cause of the UK phone hacking episodes.

    Its all about control of the media.

    If people don’t like what they read, they should cancel their papers, decline to buy them, watch something else or go and weave baskets. Its simple really.

    If demand drops, the new outlets will collapse or change. Its simple economocs really.

    No need for Governments to be the nanny state there as well.

    Leave media control and this to Comminist States.

  5. shepherdmarilyn

    Anything that stops whines like Katharine Murphy today claiming they got all their yarns about nothing happening wrong because it moved too quickly.

    Poor dear doesn’t seem to get that reporting what is actually happening is far better than reporting crap.

    And poor David Penberthy, he of the 5 star asylums for asylum seekers and other lies, is having apoplexy about nothing much.

  6. GeeWizz

    So this is the inquiry into nothing….

    What a waste of taxpayer dollars

  7. Michael de Angelos

    So Suzanne Blake : you don’t seem to see a problem that 70% of Australian newspapers are run by a corporation currently being investigated in the UK for a vast criminal conspiracy to pervert the course of justice, the police and public service , illegally hack defense officials politicians including the Deputy PM and ministers of the Crown and so on. Remarkable.

    What is missing from this report is the ability of ordinary citizens who are not rich to access the libel courts, an amazing oversight in our system of law that really demonstrates that the rich have greater access to justice.

    Justice Levesen in the UK has mused on the idea of a libel tribunal for libeled citizens who are at the mercy of rapacious organizations like News Corp (who needs Communism S.Blake ?)and I have no doubt that he will recommend as much. It’s a shame Justice Finklestein did not tackle this problem. Australian tabloids (including Fairfax) have demonstrated too many times that are not answerable to anyone.

  8. klewso

    “Media coverage” – it’s like a cat burying it’s “scat”.

  9. Michael de Angelos

    Cleaver : let’s leave the MEAA out of this :
    they were the ones who in 2005 went into bat for the non-union paparazzi when police said they were investigating bugging devices left outside Nicole Kidman’s house in Darling Point.

    As a union the MEAA acts like middle management. Ask any freelancer who they ignore while taking their fees.

  10. klewso

    (“The Brotherhood of the Elusive Consistency” are off their blocks early.)
    What is the comminist state – “de Nile”?

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