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.
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.