“Make the media more accountable for their sins, and worry less about new technologies and freedom of speech”.
That’s a one-line summary of Ray Finkelstein’s Independent Media Inquiry. It argues for a new system of media regulation to apply to journalists, commentators and most of the Australians who contribute to online news and opinion. It wants a government-created News Media Council to set standards for all media – broadcast, print, online. When necessary, that Council should “require a news media outlet to publish an apology, correction or retraction, or afford a person a right to reply”. And when the media outlet won’t comply? Normal contempt of court rules would apply. So eventually, an editor would spend some time in a jail cell.
The report is already copping it from the management of Australia’s major print media groups, who see themselves as its targets. I’m writing more out of interest. I’m involved in the media, as chief operating officer of the online publishing firm WorkDay Media. But WorkDay Media has always been happy to make corrections and grant prominent rights of reply; it has even tried to join the Australian Press Council. As a business manager, there’s nothing in the report that worries me.
There’s a lot to admire, too. I have done enough report-authoring to be impressed by the speed with which Finkelstein and his team (mostly lawyers) marshalled their arguments into something at once informed and understandable. It’s a good introduction to Australian media regulation issues, it appropriately handballs the issue of print media industry assistance to a Productivity Commission inquiry, and it seeks to align the jarringly different treatments of broadcast, print and online media.
But for all that, the Finkelstein report remains a flawed 468-page attempt to justify new government regulation of media. Four flaws, in particular, make it unconvincing.
1. Deploying the accountability dodge
The first question about this inquiry has always been: why now? Why should Australia introduce new media accountability regulations just when the Internet has delivered a huge new source of media competition?
Of course, one answer might be “because Bob Brown wants to restrict News Limited and the federal government at least wants to frighten it”. But you can’t make that the philosophical basis for a government inquiry. And besides, the fact that an inquiry has a political motive does not prevent it coming up with useful conclusions; all inquiries are founded with politics in mind.
So: why now? Finkelstein’s answer is first that there is an “increasing and legitimate demand for press accountability”, and second that the federal government must accommodate that demand. He has plenty of evidence for the first point, much of it drawn from public opinion research. Trust in the media is relatively low and may be declining, many voters think the media use their power irresponsibly, most people think various media outlets report inaccurately, journalists often recycle press releases, and sometimes media seem to be pursuing the agendas of vested interests (ranging from poker machines owners to the Victoria Police) or overstating things such as the likely effect of the carbon price on household budgets. The call for accountability is the report’s keystone, the piece of rock which keeps everything else from falling down.
But calling for accountability only suggests we need some rules. It does not tell you what those rules should be.
Setting down those rules is hard. Nevertheless, if you’re serious about accountability, that’s what you have to do.