Making Australian media acountable : the Finkelstein report 6

Australian media are not as accountable as a democracy might expect.

That’s the view of the Australian government’s Independent Inquiry into Media and Media Regulations, conducted by a retired judge, Ray Finkelstein.

Australia has a very narrow mainstream media ownership by democratic standards. One foreign media group dominates the newspapers, while the taxpayer funded ABC generates the bulk of electronic media news and current affairs.

Finkelstein as seen by the Sydney Morning Herald

In his report,  Finkelstein found that:

  • Of the existing self-regulation measures, only one or two newspapers have appointed an ombudsman or readers’ representative.
  • Online news publications are not covered.
  • The most important institution, the Australian Press Council, suffers from serious structural constraints. It does not have the necessary powers or the required funds to carry out its designated functions. Publishers can withdraw when they wish and alter their funding as they see fit.
  • Australian Communications and Media Authority’s processes are cumbersome and slow.
  • If legal proceedings against the media are called for, they are protracted, expensive and adversarial, and offer redress only for legal wrongs, not for the more frequent complaints about inaccuracy or unfairness.

Australia was the genesis of the News Corporation global empire. News began with one major Australian newspaper, the Adelaide News, which Rupert Murdoch inherited at the age of 23 from his father. Today, News Corporation, a US based company, controls most of Australia’s major newspapers. If the Murdoch family’s testimonies before the British press scandal inquiry are to believed, News journalists aren’t really accountable to anyone. British News journalists might be accused of bugging phones, intimidating politicians and bribing police, but News management , like Sergeant Shultze from the iconic TV comedy, Hogan’s Heroes, knew nothing.

Meanwhile, the ABC, the major Australian alternative  news source to News Limited/International/Corporation , is a government funded institution, much derided in News free market editorials. In a typically hostile editorial, the News Limited flagship, the Australian dismissed the national broadcaster as “an egregious example of middle class welfare”. It called on the ABC’s Chief Executive Mark Scott to stop “indulging the tastes of a privileged few at the expense of the rest of the community”.

The ABC reports to parliament, has a detailed charter of practice and a formal complaints procedure. News Limited does not.

Finkelstein recommended the establishment of a News Media Council, comprised of community, industry and professional representatives  and funded by the Australian government.

An important change to the status quo is that, in appropriate cases, the News Media Council should have power to require a news media outlet to publish an apology, correction or retraction, or afford a person a right to reply. This is in line with the ideals contained in existing ethical codes but in practice often difficult to obtain.

Some initial hyperventilated responses might be seen as predictable. The journalists union, the MEAA, said the report ignored the growing crisis in journalism. Bloggers, who have until now been free to write what they imagine, saw new regulations as a bureaucratic intrusion. News Limited columnist, Andrew Bolt, who recently found himself in court over inaccurate and offensive reports, saw it as a call for a “government-funded policeman” to “murder” free speech.

It remains to be seen whether the government, which initiated the inquiry, will have the political courage to implement it.

6 comments

  1. Using the word “courage” in the last paragraph of your comment gives something away. I immediately thought of Sir Humphrey Appleby in Yes Minister. Does a government on a knife edge want to annoy the News establishment in the long run-up to a federal election?

  2. I will be on a panel at the Broadcast Education Association conference in Las Vegas, discussing the end of the fairness doctrine in America some 25 years ago. Forcing radio and television to be fair in terms of giving opportunity for opposing sides of issues to be heard and forcing opportunities to defend personal attacks was seen as contrary to the U.S. constitution’s guarantee of freedom of speech. Now, our media often ignores fairness, foregoes accuracy and many work within a focused agenda–actions contrary to every tenet of journalism. Yes, some media outlets here still do outstanding work. But there is also plentiful partisan nonsense.

  3. Thank you for this balanced and informative summary of the Finkelstein Inquiry. It’s been difficult to find a non-hysterical response from the mainstream media. Out of curiosity, though, Prof Knight, how do you feel about the possibility of the APC being replaced with a government-funded body like the proposed News Media Council? (Some might argue the fact that the APC is funded by the news industry means it, too, is inherently biased, and it cannot be denied that its current penalties system- where the only enforceable result of adjudication is that the organisation in question print a duly prominent copy of the adjudication- lacks any real ability to keep our media in line.) (Also, please come back to QUT! Or at least guest lecture for us in the Online Journalism course :) )

    • A government funded body might work. The state funds the judiciary who see themselves as independent of government control. However, we have seen the Australian Communications and Media Authority repeatedly fail to deal with Kyle Sandilands ratings driven slanders and vilifications. You would need a new body to have both teeth and courage. Given the highly polarised state of contemporary Australian politics, its hard to imagine the major political parties co-operating in the national interest.
      This doesn’t mean that we, as citizens, should surrender to cynicism and despair. Quite the contrary.

  4. Pingback: Regulate News? « Online Journalism

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