“One sided” coverage of media inquiry : Press Council Chair 2

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.

Julian Disney

Julian Disney

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.

To hear an excerpt of the debate click here!

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2 comments

  1. I thought it was peculiar of Julian Disney to spend so long saying that the Press Council didn’t need independent funding, and that the current funding setup of the Council was working perfectly, only to then go on and say that getting the publishers (who directly fund the Council) to pay any attention to it, and to commit to the very concept.

    I’m sure that is a challenge for the Press Council, but surely it would be easier to hold the publishers to account if they didn’t directly fund the Council, and weren’t able to simply leave whenever something happened that they didn’t like.

    As for Paul Kelly, two points that I thought were important to make.

    1 – He was extremely quick to point out that the establishment of the Finkelstein inquiry was politically-motivated because Labor and the Greens feel that News Ltd. is out to get them. And yet he never for one moment acknowledged the fact that News Ltd. clearly are out to get them, and aggressively assert a conservative point of view – oftentimes by ignoring or cherry-picking facts, and very often relying on vindictive personal attacks.

    2 – The entire notion that funding=control was pathetic, and I expected more from such an obviously intelligent person. That, to me, seemed like a rehearsed line. And while I’m sure it will gain some traction in the wider community, it was rightfully ridiculed by a room full of engaged, intelligent people.

  2. As the example with the government funding the courts demonstrates, funding does not necessarily equate with manipulative control.

    But if Fray and Kelly truly believe that a regulator funded by the government would be controlled by the government, how is that worse than a regulator funded by a handful of media companies?

    At least the govt is accountable to the people at elections every few years!

    Who is Rupert Murdoch accountable to?

    And as for reporters being sacked if they get things willfully wrong, well, who’s going to sack them? The media proprietors? What if the proprietors are getting things willfully wrong, who will sack them?

    The anti-regulation arguments are just ridiculous!

    I’ve written a couple of posts on this topic on my blog http://www.amimakingsense.com, where I debunk a couple of the other common arguments put up by the anti-regulation chorus-line.

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