Sunday, 13 November 2011

Media Inquiry should be about creating a viable commons

Last week a government inquiry into Australia's media set up shop in Melbourne headed by a former Federal Court judge, Ray Finkelstein. The inquiry moves to Sydney next. This ambulant technique respects the need for the public to be involved but it should be kept in mind that the inquiry was set up in reaction to events in the UK, where Rupert Murdoch's News of the World was revealed by competitor The Guardian to be addicted to illegally accessing the phone voice messages of persons whose private information it considered to be of interest to the public.

Most people will know the story by now and they may even have taken the time necessary to watch people associated with the NotW appear - again, in public - before a parliamentary committee in London. In Australia, these events attained prominence especially after a very public outburst by Bob Brown of the Greens, who lashed out on camera againsts what he termed the "hate media" - meaning the Murdoch press in Australia. As a result of these public events we now have another public event - journalists such as Melbourne University's Margaret Simons, a regular Crikey contributor, were able to tweet from the chamber used for the Media Inquiry - aimed at putting together recommendations that can be given to the Federal Government about the running of Australia's media.

As a starting point for my post, I want to refer readers to Simons' National Times piece, published today, in which she says the following:
After the media inquiry's first week of public hearings, a few areas of consensus were emerging. Almost nobody was arguing for licensing of newspapers or heavy-handed government regulation of journalism. Very few wanted fines or other punitive sanctions for journalists. Nobody wanted to ban campaigning journalism, even when they suspected the motivations of the campaign. I agree.
Well, I don't. Firstly, let's take a step back and consider the Australian Press Council. Simons seems to approve of this body and, in her opinion piece, says basically that the APC should be getting government funding as well as industry funding. Beef it up, in fact. Currently, it only gets funding from the industry. But I wonder if anyone can remember a recent example of APC intervention in any part of the media. No? Me neither. The ABC's Media Watch has a far higher profile and attracts a loyal following of political wonks every Monday night, when it runs for a measly 15 minutes just before Q and A. Back in the late 90s, this program exposed the "cash-for-comment" scandal that ended up severely embarrassing a number of the more offensive shock jocks operating on Australian airwaves, and changed the way that segment of the industry works. In the case of the APC, you might get a notice published in an offending newspaper some months after the relevant events have passed by, by which time everybody has forgotten about what caused the fuss in the first place. The retraction is published in silence, unnoticed, and nothing changes. The term "toothless tiger" came up in the tweetstream.

Now let's take a step sideways and look at the kind of tweets that were appearing in the #mediainquiry tweetstream on Twitter on the days the Media Inquiry sat. Noticeable for their sheer strangeness were the libertarians, who come in on the Right of the political spectrum. Their poster boy was Chris Berg from the Right-leaning Institute of Public Affairs, a Melbourne think tank. Paranoia about government involvement on the part of conservatives is highly suspect, and is redolent of the kind of nutty rumour that peppered debates surrounding the Obama healthcare reform. You had people talking - quite seriously - about "death panels" and the like. Truly weird but unquestionably dangerous because utterly untrue. It seems to me that Berg and Simons are tapping into a similar feeling of fear about government involvement in Australia's media, with the calculating spectre of some silent government censor with a big, red marker pen hiding in the shadows like an Orwellian bugbear.

Why government regulation must be, a priori, "heavy handed" is beyond me. This reminds me of the public debate that raged a year or so ago in the US when it became obvious that journalism was in terminal decline in that country. Any suggestion as to government funding was rejected, I remember, by people I was following on Twitter as somehow immoral, or at least questionable on the grounds that government should be kept out of the media at all costs. Shades of those "death panels" again! But the fact is that in Australia the most balanced and fair media organisation that we have is the ABC, which is entirely government funded. Government attempts to stifle the activities of the ABC - such as those threatened by the Howard government - always attract vocal public outcry.

And that's the way it should be. So I propose a government-funded regulator that would be established with a sunset clause. Implementing a public regulator would generate enormous amounts of discussion, and this should be the goal of the Finkelstein inquiry. Remember the Conroy internet censorship venture? When the conservative senator who wanted it in place exited the Senate and the Labor leadership changed, the plan was quietly scrapped. We haven't heard a word about it for at least six months. The public reaction to it was too intense. Nobody wanted it and it died.

Finkelstein should be trying to generate a similar intensity of discussion. Not so that the far-Right loonies can start trolling the webz, crying "Liberty!", but so that the public can get its mind around the real issue - what started this whole process in the first place - which is the unreliability of the Murdoch press. Simons doesn't think campaigning journalism is bad? Really? Murdoch owns a disproportionate quantity of the press in Australia and his editors have managed to fundamentally shift the markers defining public debate in this country. When Malcolm Fraser appears on TV he sounds like a leftie wet compared to the "feral" (thanks Laurie Oakes) guardians of the Right we now expect to see in our living rooms every day. What this inquiry should be about is giving back the commons to the public, realigning the field markers so that they more accurately reflect the actual spectrum of political beliefs held by the public.

At the moment the gargantuan Murdoch machine has too much money, too much power, and too much say in the way public debate is conducted in Australia. Simons' well-intentioned light-handedness is overly optimistic and simply inappropriate for, rather than that imagined Orwellian bugbear, we have a real 500-pound gorilla in the room. And it's not going away. Punitive sanctions for journalists? I don't think so. But senior editors and company managers can, and should, be fined for egregious flaunting of journalistic codes of practice. Institutional bias in the private sphere is far worse than government influence in the public domain.

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