I usually disagree with recently reborn RWDB blogger Professor Bunyip, and his potshots at this week’s principal witnesses in the Finkelstein Press Inquiry aren’t exceptional in that regard. But I have to confess (not for the first time) to taking a certain guilty pleasure at the Bunyip’s elegant line in toxic splenetic bias. Yesterday’s attack on Martin Hirst was a reasonable example of the genre but today’s spray at Stephen Mayne, Robert Manne, Eric Beecher and law academic Adrienne Stone is a true classic of the genre:
So they are the main voices likely to dominate the witness box – an old Trot, a short wanker, a tall wanker, a rent-seeker and an academic who supports freedom of speech except she doesn’t.
Interestingly it seems cartoonist Peter Nicholson shares a not dissimilar view, although I can’t work out whether the Fourth Horseman is meant to be Hirst or Stone. More likely the hourglass suggests it’s neither, but rather the spectre of print media doomed by time and technology irrespective of the efforts of Manne, Mayne et al. I’m not convinced he’s correct but it’s a great cartoon. I especially love the portrayal of Ray Finkelstein, who I briefed years ago in a commercial dispute and who at the time was a dead ringer for Woody Allen in both appearance and manner. Nicholson seems to think he’s acquired a rather more ecclesiastical gravitas in the meantime.
I assume that the serious point Professor Bunyip is trying to make (apart from gratuitously paying out on people he doesn’t like) is that regulation of print media is dangerous and not to be countenanced under any circumstances or to any extent. This is a view not only held by those on the hard right. The ABC’s Jonathan Holmes, for example, has a similar opinion. Personally, I acknowledge the democratic dangers but I don’t think it’s beyond our wit or wisdom to devise an appropriate solution.
It’s a little hyperbolic to label media the “fourth estate” but the print media especially does play an important accountability role in a liberal democratic society like Australia. Given that one effect of the Internet and social media has been to place vastly increased pressure on the MSM to attract “eyeballs” by almost any means however extreme and unprincipled, the case for checks and balances on media behaviour is stronger than it once was despite the evident danger of empowering a potentially overbearing State which could censor opinions or facts it dislikes under the pretext of “standards”.
The solution I favour would involve bringing print media under the regulatory oversight of the Australian Communications Media Authority, but with an “opt-out” option if the industry adopts a more effective self-regulatory code. Such a code would necessarily require media organisations to give the Press Council self-regulatory “teeth” and perhaps adopt a set of Key Performance Indicators measuring their speed and effectiveness in responding to complaints and implementing Press Council decisions/recommendations. Part III Division 3 and Part IIIAA of the Privacy Act 1988 (Cth), which allows opting out of the National Privacy Principles by private sector bodies with approved privacy codes, provides a model for such a system. Section 18BE contains an explicit threat of reversion to formal government regulation if self-regulation fails, a prospect which should wonderfully focus the minds of even the most gung ho Murdoch executives and ensure that the Press Council ceases to be “slow and toothless”.