The press coverage of the inquiry into Australian media exemplified what was wrong, Julian Disney, the Chair of the Australian Press Council said tonight. “It was very one sided,” he said.
Professor Disney was speaking at a forum organised in Sydney by the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism to discuss the Finkelstein report. The inquiry recommended a government funded institution to require press accountability.
There was insufficient information in the press about what was actually in the report, Disney said. “You had to go online to get a half way decent description of what was in it”. There was “no significant attempt” by most news papers to get the views of ordinary people.
Even the Press Council found itself ignored. A survey of four major Melbourne newspapers in the first week showed “two sentences in total” quoting the Press Council.
That was a manifestation of the problem. It was quite frankly unedifying coverage. It really showed why we need to get online into the mainstream. There were a number of very thoughtful comments which, whether you agreed with them or not, looked at the proposals and discussed the details instead of an exchange of bumper sticker slogans, of which we had too much in the print media.
The Press Council was hampered by a lack of resources and was operating “with half of what we need”, Disney said. It required eight staff, instead of “three and a half”. He hoped that the publishers who funded the Australian Press Council would now help it to act as an independent arbiter.
Freedom of the press was a great privilege, he said. “but that goes with great responsibilities”. “Usually we don’t rely on the people with the privileges to decide what the responsibilities are” Disney said.
The panel, chaired by the ACIJ’s Tom Morton, also included the Editor at Large at the Australian, Paul Kelly, the President of the Journalism Education Association, Anne Dunn, the publisher of the Sydney Morning Herald, Peter Fray and lawyer and broadcaster, Philip Clark.
Clark described much of the mainstream media response to the report as “hysteria”. However, he agreed that a public funded regulator may not be a solution. Anne Dunn said that there was a strong sense in the public that the press lacked accountability.
Fray and Kelly emphatically rejected the Finkelstein proposal for a government funded regulatory body, claiming it would be controlled by the government. “If journalists get things willfully wrong, they should be sacked”, Fray said. That was real accountability. Kelly said that the inquiry resulted from government dis-satisfaction with reporting of its affairs, using the News International scandal in Britain as an excuse. “We need to be careful that the medicine is not worse than the disease”, Kelly said.
A twitterer, watching the streamed program, asked the editors that since the government funded the judiciary, would they then say that the government controlled the judges. The audience laughed.