Saturday, 3 March 2012

Media Inquiry findings sure to cause debate

Faceless men? Ray Finkelstein sat on
the Independent Media Inquiry panel.
Along with many others who have an interest in Australia's public debate, I followed the Twitter stream running alongside Ray Finkelstein's Independent Media Inquiry, back in November, and commented on it. I found myself to the left even of such commentators as journalist and academic Maragret Simons, whose summer footwear attracted so much interest from the Murdoch tabloids, by proposing "a government-funded regulator" but "with a sunset clause". Now, the inquiry's results are in, and our newspapers are reporting on Finkelstein's plan, as well as reactions from the news media to his proposed News Media Council, which would replace the current Australian Press Council, be government-funded ("but the government would have no role in its powers"), and be followed up by an inquiry by the Productivity Commission within two years into the health of the news industry.

The reactions from the news industry are predictable, with Murdoch supremo Kim Williams threatening us with the "spectre of a government-funded overseer of a free press", editor-in-chief of West Australian Newspapers Bob Cronin saying that such a body "implies government control", and the IPA gargling impotently about an "outrageous attack on freedom of speech". Boo! In case you didn't read the link I put in at the top of this post, this is what I wrote about government funding of a regulator back then:
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 [Obamacare] "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.
The Australian has also blogged about one aspect of the Finkelstein findings, gleefully noting that the News Media Council should also regulate "newsletter publishers and bloggers" who have "a minimum of 15,000 hits per annum". Ahem. Well, I personally do not know how such a regulatory purview would affect what I do here on this blog, but I do not doubt that I would be eligible for oversight. And that's fine. But I suspect that the large number of outlets that would qualify would make this aspect of the NMC's task onerous. It would come down, in the end, to a breach being brought to the NMC's attention by an aggrieved party, and action taken at that point. If at all. However I think that scale is important. A blog that gets 15,000 hits a year is not in the same league as a website, such as the Sydney Morning Herald, which gets millions each month. And that fact would have an impact on any findings.

As to the meat of Finkelstein's matter, the clear implication from the findings is that the news media in Australia does not abide even by its own stated codes of practice. There are few internal  ombudsmen exercising oversight of what goes on indoors. There is too much "campaigning" journalism, especially on the Right. The Australian Press Council has too little power to both investigate (a problem of resources, because it's voluntarily funded by the media) and to enforce rulings (currently adverse decisions must be agreed to by the offending outlet).

Getting back to bloggers briefly before closing, I note that the Guardian's recent Three Little Pigs ad shows a blogger on-screen. At least it's what a blogger is meant to look like from the point of view of the established media. In the ad, the blogger is wearing a T-shirt, tracksuit pants, and an open dressing gown. He's got a wall covered with newspaper cuttings that he adds to regularly, a messy desk, and you can just see his unmade bed in the back of frame. I laughed when it hit me. Here's the mainstream coming to terms with the real world, but I have to admit that the first couple of times I watched the ad it didn't hit me that this guy, who looks like he sees too little sun, was meant to be a blogger. MSM #fail.

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