Governments should keep their mitts off the media, according to Laurie Oakes. Oakes, arguably Australian’s most eminent political correspondent, told the annual Press Freedom Day dinner in Sydney the Australian government had not produced compelling reasons for legislating new media controls.
There are good reasons for keeping the government’s mitts well away from the media. We have, after all, a Prime Minister who revealed in her comments on Julian Assange that she regards a key part of what we do—publishing leaked information—as an illegal act.
Oakes said that the responses to the Finkelstein recommendations were fierce, “even a bit over the top”. ” They were variously described as “totalitarian”, an outrageous assault on democracy, a plot that would relegate Australia to the category of authoritarian regimes, [and] “step one to Fascism”,” he said. The inquiries followed the investigations of News International operations in Britain.
A beleaguered and somewhat paranoid Australian government couldn’t resist exploiting the British media scandals, particularly in the rhetoric directed at News Limited. That ensured the atmosphere was toxic from the start.
Former IBM chief Glen Boreham and fellow members of his Convergence Review Committee, produced a less provocative blueprint than Finkelstein. Boreham had received a more favourable reception, Oakes said.
But I want to inject a note of caution. There IS a principle here, and it’s in danger of being lost in much of the current commentary. Any way you cut it, Government intervention and involvement in the running of a free press is a contradiction in terms.
Oakes said that the logic behind Boreham was that since broadcasters were already regulated, ” in new rules for a converging media world, where it’s getting hard to tell the difference—everybody had better be regulated.”
But does anyone really suggest regulation has produced a situation where there is better journalism and commentary in television and radio than in newspapers? There is, of course, good and bad in both.Boreham talks the deregulation talk, but he and the Fink are really a kind of good cop, bad cop act.
Oakes said that Boreham recommended a government appointed super regulator and a news and commentary standards body run by industry. Under the proposal the former would review the latter within three years. The super regulator could then recommend the replacement of the industry body with a statutory body “a la Finkelstein”.
My point is that there are plenty of reasons to be wary of any government role in press regulation, even the softer, fluffier version proposed by Boreham.
Journalists should meanwhile take action to reassure the public and rebuild trust. ” There is pressure on us—justifiable pressure— to meet the kind of standards we expect of other parts of society,” Oakes said.
We have to accept our responsibility to produce accurate, well-researched journalism and to strive for higher standards. That is the best card we have to play.
- Media Alliance warns of press freedom promises slipping away (mumbrella.com.au)
- World Press Freedom Day (travelbetweenthepages.com)