Rupert Murdoch owns some 70% of Australia’s print media. And a fair bit in the UK too.
As the hacking scandal unfolded in the UK, there were calls here – from the government most notably – for a bit more accountability from one of our more infamous exports and the papers he owns.
Why? Because it had become abundantly clear that at least one of Murdoch’s papers in the UK were involved in industrial scale criminality which sent shudders up and down the spines of all those who see News Limited as the evil empire.
Rupert Murdoch at the Leveson Inquiry. Image via ITV.
As the Leveson Enquiry moved into gear in the UK, Australia mounted its own investigation by Ray Finkelstein QC into how media here is regulated.
And while there are differences in the two systems, what is at the heart of the discussion here and in the UK is identical – what right an individual has when they feel the media has misrepresented them, and how best to stop unethical media behaviour whilst preserving media freedom.
In Australia, print is self-regulated by the Australian Press Council, made up of industry representatives, members of the public and an independent chair. If you levy a complaint of unethical behaviour against a print publisher, the publisher is a critical part of the mechanism that gets to adjudicate your complaint.
The media gets to mark its own homework, as Lord Justice Leveson pointed out when reviewing our system. And if they don’t like the mark they get they can punish the council by withdrawing funding because funding is reliant on publishers.
And therein lies one of the problems: disagree with a finding and a publisher can retaliate where it hurts. Another is that complainants must have faith in the Press Council that is, essentially, a self-saucing pudding.
So Ray Finkelstein proposed a new super body called the News Media Council with secure government funding to police all that is written and broadcast in the media.
Ray Finkelstein QC. Image via www.theage.com.au.
The News Media Council would have done much the same work as the Press Council but gone would have been the threats to withdraw funding. As you might expect, the howls of government interference and the imposition of Stalinist-style media control have been loud and constant. Government involvement via secured funding or Canberra backed standards, frightened the horses, especially the ones stabled at Rupert Murdoch’s Sydney headquarters.
Whether the idea goes ahead is anyone’s guess. But it looks unlikely. All sorts of compromises are being considered – from giving the Communications Minister the sole power to judge the performance of the regulators (the Press Council and the Australian Communications and Media Authority) to toughening up regulations.
In the UK, Lord Justice Leveson’s 2000 page report on the “culture, practice and ethics” of the media in the UK recommended a voluntary, independent, self-organised media watchdog.
This proposed arbitration system would have inquisitorial powers and, critically, would be independent because a committee, distanced from government and media would appoint its members.
Joining the recommended system would be voluntary but any media organisation opting not to, would be up for higher damages in any civil action taken by an aggrieved person and it would have to account to Ofcom, the British communications regulator to show it should be permitted to continue to operate. Those who opt in face the prospect of big fines for unethical behaviour.
All of this was designed by Lord Justice Leveson to erode the corrupt relationships that we now know as a matter of fact existed between police and journalists.
More than a few people doubt it will erode the cosy and/or corrupt relationship between journalists and politicians. And that is a significant failing.
But as Lord Justice Leveson points out the model he wants, buttressed in law, would “enshrine, for the first time, a legal duty on the government to protect the freedom of the press”.
In the Leveson proposal the power and influence of media would come with a responsibility to act ethically. Though the system would be “voluntary”, there’s a big stick at the ready for those who think they can opt out without accepting the responsibilities that come with the licence they are given to publish and make money. In other words, if they think they can print money through gross breaches of journalistic standards, Leveson is saying, “think again”.
But like Finkelstein’s proposal, Leveson’s too, is looking doomed. Prime Minister Cameron doesn’t like the idea of any statutory underpinning for a new media regulator to stop what Leveson called a culture of reckless and outrageous journalism in the UK.
In Australia, since Council chair Julian Disney put a broom through the organisation, publishers must now give four years notice before leaving and therefore withdrawing funding. But joining remains discretionary. And there’s no stick if they opt not to.
In the end, media freedom is a wonderful thing. Everyone loves it until they are its focus or it’s misused. And though sometimes its misuse brings odorous, corrupt practices and individuals to account, there are more than a few examples where the media rounds on individuals, even governments, because it can.
The UK media culture and ours are very different but look at the archives of ABC TV’s Media Watch for proof of the problems here.
Some – like me – would prefer the protection of a watchdog with teeth, with clear standards set by balancing media freedom with individual rights and buttressed in law. And if this turns out to be politically unpalatable, then a statutory right to privacy might go some way towards curbing some but not all, unethical media behaviour.
Former High Court Judge Michael Kirby thinks the time has come for a statutory right to privacy.
“If you look at human rights principles and the universal declaration of human rights, there is always a strong statement of freedom of the press and freedom of expression,” he said.
“But there is also protection for the fundamental right of privacy. You have to reconcile the two and reconciling them is what courts have to do every day of their work.”
Letting the courts decide would have its own problems. But surely it’s better to have an independent judiciary pass judgment on unethical media behaviour that breaches privacy, than a self regulated body like the Press Council or a sluggish Australian Communication and Media Authority.
*For a quick thumbnail guide to the Leveson report, see this.
MORE ARTICLES BY MONICA ATTARD
*Monica Attard OAM, is a five-time Walkley award-winning Australian journalist – including the Gold Walkley Award for Excellence in Journalism 1991. She was the host of the ABC’s PM, the World Today and Media Watch.She spent 28 years at the ABC, leaving to start up The Global Mail where she was, until recently, the Managing Editor. In 1997, Monica published a book entitled Russia: Which Way Paradise? documenting her time there as a foreign correspondent.