Ray Finkelstein’s report on media regulation was received by the Opposition without immediate rancour last week, and with a positive – if non-committal – response from the Government.
What a contrast to emotion-charged allegations that it was a political witch hunt when the inquiry was initiated last year. Although the Opposition later moved to oppose the central idea of a new regulatory model encompassing print, there was a distinct – and refreshing – sense of moderation all round in Canberra.
Of course, there were still hysterical efforts by some sections of the media, including the ridiculous headline in the usually sober Financial Review, declaring “Labor’s Bid to Control Media”. But these served simply to prove Finkelstein’s point that there was a lack of credibility in media claims that they could be trusted to take care of their own ethical standards.
Generally speaking, his proposal that a single regulatory agency, funded by the Government, be tasked with ensuring that inaccurate media reporting be corrected quickly was deemed a sensible and measured idea.
Yet the proposal represents a seismic shift in regulatory philosophy.
As CPR noted when the report was initiated, there is an important difference between the print and electronic media.
Television and radio have been broadcast over valuable public spectrum. As part of the licence to use that resource, proprietors are required to submit to oversight of their business activities by the Australian Communications and Media Authority.
Newspapers and magazines require no such public asset and have therefore been subject only to a self-regulation regime, alongside defamation law. A regime, Finkelstein argues, that has clearly failed the public.
But the notion that private capital invested in a media outlet that asks no favors of Government should still be required to be subject to oversight from a publicly funded agency does raise a question about some fundamental assumptions. Regulation is usually imposed where there is a national economic welfare interest (protection of markets from monopoly, for example) or a risk to safety (OHS or national security).
Finkelstein’s recommendation is based on the premise that there is a public interest in the activities of the print media, and, more importantly, that this interest is being failed. The report details instances of behaviour where individuals have had their lives adversely and unjustifiably affected, and where democracy itself has suffered because of poor, biased or unethical reporting.
Although few could argue with the examples Finkelstein cites and the analysis he conducts, there is a legitimate debate to be had before taking the probably irreversible step to public regulation.
Unfortunately, we are unlikely to have such a debate, for two reasons.
Firstly, the media that Finkelstein so meticulously describes appears incapable of conducting a sensible, two-handed debate on anything, least of all on itself. More likely, we will see a grand exercise in sloganeering about attacks on the sanctity of free speech.
Which leads to the second reason for pessimism – the UK example.
Watching the unfolding proceedings of the inquiry into the media in the UK, headed by Lord Justice Leveson, has been like a glimpse into a special form of hell where innocent people are mentally tortured for titillation, public institutions and officials are systematically corrupted, and invisible and unaccountable power is exercised for its own sake.
Ahead of the commencement of the second phase of the Leveson inquiry, some sections of the media sought to seize the initiative with the same protests of innocence and righteous outrage that greeted Finkelstein’s report. The next day, and every working day since, Leveson had laid out before him the allegations that the police, politicians and defence forces had been systematically corrupted by those same self-styled guardians of the public interest in the media.
The UK shows us how bad things can get. It also shows how thin the arguments in defence of undiluted media independence are when they come from a media that has shown no internal discipline.
It is unlikely that any Australian policy maker has missed the story.
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