rupert

FREEDOM VS. REGULATION

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

Waiting for the Smoke to Clear

Asylum Seekers. The Success of Survival

Quick Facts: Tasers

Sex Offender Sites. The Facts.

 

*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.

 

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23 Comments

  • Reply December 3, 2012

    billie

    I think Finkelsteins report needs to be adopted, we are not well served by our current newspapers and radio and TV.

    An example is the events that occurred in Parliament on 29 th November. When we compare the press coverage of the Abbott vs the Prime Minister stoush in Question Time against the absolute lack of reporting or analysis on the bills passed for NDIS, changes to Medicare for Dental Funding, Murray Darling Basin.

    Despite it’s breathless reporting of the Prime Minister’s alleged perfidy there has been no scrutiny of the accusers slush funds and spouse’s illegal behaviour unless we read blogs.

    What else are we not hearing about?

  • Reply December 3, 2012

    Heather

    We are at the end of our tether with the current main stream media. Implement the Finkelstein findings as soon as possible please.

  • Reply December 3, 2012

    jonah stiffhausen

    One again we have the example of women being unable to understand the implications of statism. If you hobble the press, you deserve and will get tyranny. Might be time for you girls with too much time on your hands, to bone up on your Thomas Jefferson for starters.
    If you find the press/media offensive, ignore it. Pretty simple really.

  • Reply December 3, 2012

    Caroline B

    Great article Monica! I note that the Murdoch press has already flagged that it will fight the Finkelstein recommendations tooth & nail & has already started a fear campaign about ‘govt intervention’ in ‘freedom of the press’ & our ‘Right To Know.’

    I’m all for serious investigative reporting that roots out & exposes serious corruption etc – I’d consider this to be IN the public interest – a public good & an essential component of quality journalism.

    But accessing private phone messages & using those to publish a story on a celebrity’s fight with his girlfriend etc may well be OF public interest & help sell papers/ get clicks, but it’s clearly unethical, no business of mine or anyone else’s.

    Do I have a Right To Know about political corruption? Yes. Do I have a right to read a transcript of a voice mail of a celebrity who hasn’t broken the law, or to see pictures of them topless on private property taken from someone snooping on them 2km away? No.

    Yes, there’s an in-between (say a politician campaigning on being an upright family man having an affair on the side) & I suppose that’s where it gets tricky but with press freedom comes responsibility & accountability.

    In the digital era, it no longer makes sense to separate print & broadcast – media ethics are broadly same across all platforms. Finkelsteins’ recommendations to bring it all under a single statutory body & give it some teeth seem pretty sensible to me.

    I’d say bring it on & while there may be a need for fine-tuning after implementation, definitely the direction we need to be going.

  • Reply December 3, 2012

    Sandra

    Well written Monica!!
    Loved you on Media watch then and love you here on the Hoopla.
    I reckon that all thinking people here in Australia are battling with the lack of credibility of the MSM and the concentration of media ownership in this country.
    For those who may be interested the blog site Cafe Whispers has just had this topic of conversation running now for ages.
    We need to have a body of control that has some teeth, that is independent and can carry some weight.

  • Reply December 3, 2012

    Doc

    Great article Monica and agree with the comments above. So over the current media facade that somehow manages to pass as ‘news’ , are you listening too Canberra press gallery?
    Bring it on indeed, it is hard to imagine an ‘independent’ body and moreso where the funds would come from outside someone who didn’t wish for an agenda filled, but we desperately need it. Independent blogs like cafe whispers (thanks Sandra, I’ll be reading more there) are insightful, but hard to find, although I do find more good info and diversity of views than in MSM, that is for sure.

  • Reply December 3, 2012

    jonah stiffhausen

    Bring on government regulation of the press? You people are barking mad.

    • Reply December 3, 2012

      Lucille

      Pffffftt!

  • Reply December 3, 2012

    Carole/m

    The non reporting of the “accusers” claim to be of Superior Character received no coverage in the frenzy to defame the PM.

    Tony Abbott who preaches Virginity to women never held himself to such a standard , his 19 yr old girlfriend gave birth to a son which Abbott believed to be his , it seems that he took no responsibility for this son when the relationship ended. ( 20 yrs + later it was found that the child was not his).

    Then there is Barbara Ramjan who had his fist punch the wall either side of her head when she had the gall to defeat him in university union elections . While he did not hit her, this is a crimal act called I believe Common Law Assault.

    He also set up a slush fund whose purpose was to get One Nation . This resulted in a political opponent being sent to jail on trumped up charges. He then lied about monies he paid to a certain person involved in this sham. He LIED in a famous interview by Kerry O’Brien on ABC Television but more importantly he LIED to the Australian Electoral Commission re this fund.
    This is a crime under Australian Law.

    Since being defeated by Julia Gillard at the last election he seems to be seething with anger and
    seems desperate to not just defeat her at the next election but to demean her in any way possible . The latest to smear and accuse her of criminal behavior but with no proof.

    Does he only target women????

    With his past record how can he arrogantly claim
    Superior Character?????

    Why weren’t these things raised in MSM
    if there is supposed to be fairness in reporting?????

    Does anyone still trust the MSM??????

    • Reply December 3, 2012

      anne louise

      Not me.

  • Reply December 3, 2012

    ro.watson

    Thanks Monica. What is MSM? Acronyms annoy me! Surely the issue is not freedom v.regulation. Our freedoms are already regulated and limited by the rule of law eg defamation,vilification etc….in the field of freedom of expression.

    .

  • Reply December 3, 2012

    Lindy

    I like Tony Windsor’s comment re the Australian that his family still uses sorbent. I have so many examples of rubbish that is reported by the so called media, where to start.. The local ABC radio station has often stated that there is a problem with the internet because the same rigorous rules that the ABC has to abide by aren’t applied to the internet . The ABC news headlines [first at 6 am on news24] stated that AWU slush funds were used to purchase a house that the PM lived in, not so, she may have had sleep overs but didn’t live there. No one corrected this, even though a reporter lost his job previously over this claim, this is just one small example of the checking and re checking that our local ABC assures us that they have to do to make sure of the facts. What rubbish words and context are so important but our media have scant regard for facts or the truth.

  • Reply December 3, 2012

    ro.watson

    ….About toilet paper~ I don’t like it perfumed~ I go for the hypoallergenic stuff,and I will not be using any newspaper if the supermarket runs out….stock up….

    As I understand it, very few complaints have been upheld by the Press Council in Australia? Does anyone one know percentages?

    There is also a strange bridge to cross about journalists protecting their sources, which as I understand it,is not protected by all Australian states in court proceedings~but is journalist code~and the lack of effective regulation of the Press etc.. around protecting peoples’ privacy when there is no “public interest” element?

  • Reply December 3, 2012

    Wendy Green

    I would simply like to see the collective media report on legitimate news stories not gossipy hearsay that has no basis in fact. When I watch the news I want to see THE NEWS not insult slinging and false accusations! I stopped buying newspapers years ago when I couldn’t find any decent reporting therein.

  • Reply December 3, 2012

    ro.watson

    “anyone one” ?! Whoops. So much easier to spot other peoples’ errors than my own…..

  • Reply December 3, 2012

    Carole/m

    I too stopped buying newspapers years ago for similar reasons to Wendy.
    The Media stranglehold of Murdoch has destroyed everything. TV News is a joke.
    Celebrity commentators mostly have a Sydney right wing view of everything. Even Michelle Grattan ( who’s opinion I used to respect), felt the need about 6 months ago to join the mindless sheep and claim that Labor can’t win.
    She should have held her tongue a bit longer.

    Ro Watson. ….MSM …Main Stream Media.

  • Reply December 3, 2012

    Carole/m

    Have also become more and more disenchanted with the ABC . Tony Jones ….Bleh!!!!!

    Bring back Kerry O’Brien , best interviewer of all if you wanted to get to the truth.

  • Reply December 3, 2012

    ro.watson

    Thanks Carole. Acronyms are “a form of social control”(Stanley Cohen). I still imagine there is some significant diversity among journalists’ contributions to mainstream media,even if the front page roars one way or another… I buy weekend paper for what is on telly,and arts guide. I no longer buy the Weekend Australian because there is no longer a Victoria Roberts’ cartoon.

  • Reply December 3, 2012

    jonah stiffhausen

    Here is the news, post Leveson, if you blockheads get your way.

    http://www.thecommentator.com/article/2192/a_post_leveson_future_this_week_s_news_#.UL2kG8Ue3N0.twitter

  • Reply December 4, 2012

    Tony W

    “Rupert Murdoch owns some 70% of Australia’s print media.”

    It seems to me that any political bias in Murdoch print media here is locally generated. In the case of The Australian for example, co-founder Rodney Lever recently described it as having become “the idiotic plaything of rogue amateur journalism and an owner who rarely reads it and does nothing to change it.”

    I supect that applies to all Murdoch papers, they’ve simply fallen into the hands of hack journalists like those at The Australian, who in Lever’s words have “shredded the once proud standards of Australian journalism.”

    Personally I doubt whether Finkelstein or Leveson hold the answer to lousy journalism. What’s needed here IMO is to break up Murdoch’s near monopoly to allow more competition. I believe that would find much more favour amongst the public than increased regulation.

    Unfortunately at present we’re heading in the opposite direction, ie. wholesale sacking of journalists and everything syndicated nationally. That can only lead to further deterioration in journalistic standards, and further concentration of the power of the Fourth Estate. I wouldn’t expect too many news items on police corruption, there’ll be no decent investigative journalists to uncover it, and any flatfoots that do happen to stumble upon it will soon be in league with the Filth themselves – as per UK experience.

  • Reply December 4, 2012

    Miranda Muer

    Rupert Orwell’s Rules of Publication

    1.Whatever goes upon two legs and criticises my papers is an enemy and shall be gagged.
    2. Whatever goes upon four legs, or has wings, is a friend as they have no course for reply.
    3. No animal shall wear clothes and criticise my newspapers.
    4.No animal shall sleep in a bed unless reading my newspapers.
    5. No animal shall preside over the News Media Council (ie.Press Council in disguise) without first taking the oath in favour of my newspapers.
    6.No animal shall kill any other animal unless it shall not be reported in my newspapers.
    7. All animals are equal except me. I am Gog. And i rule. and…….i’m lonely up here. and is there anyone left i can trust?…….and why…..why does everyone hate me?

  • Reply December 4, 2012

    monica attard

    Very funny Miranda.

  • Reply December 4, 2012

    carole/m

    Good news. Barbara Ramjan ( the woman who Abbotts fist flew past before hitting the wall), is sueing The Australian and Old Liberal Party Hack, Michael Kroger for calling or inferring that she is a liar. Her husband is an ex judge and now big time NSW Lawyer. Should be interesting .

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