News media council could muzzle debate
Posted on Sunday, 18 March 2012
As Malcolm Turnbull has observed, judge Ray Finkelstein has produced a thoughtful report with a misguided recommendation. The report of the Independent Inquiry into the Media and Media Regulation is a good exposition marred by a bad recommendation to set up a new and more powerful media regulator.
The Coalition rejects this recommendation and calls on the Labor Party to do likewise.
Let's not forget that the inquiry was set up after Julia Gillard insisted that News Limited in Australia had "questions to answer" in the wake of Britain's phone-hacking scandal.
The Prime Minister's real concern was not Fleet Street-style illegality but News Limited's coverage of her government and its various broken promises, new taxes and botched programs.
Late last year, Communications Minister Stephen Conroy accused Sydney's The Daily Telegraph of a campaign to "bring the government down". Gillard had a screaming match with former News Limited boss John Hartigan over an article about her dealings with a union official. Her allies, the Greens, were pushing for a punitive investigation into what Bob Brown has called the "hate media". Finkelstein's report has pointedly declined to join this "get News Limited" vendetta but his recommended News Media Council, if established, has the potential to muzzle political debate and thereby to protect a bad government.
Finkelstein's new regulator would "set journalistic standards for new media", "enforce news standards" and "have power to require a news media outlet to publish an apology, correction or retraction".
Finkelstein doesn't say who should appoint "community, industry and professional representatives" to the new council but inevitably the federal government that funds it would appoint the people that run it.
Last November, Senator Doug Cameron accused the "Murdoch press" of "fabricating stories in relation to the leadership of the party". Cameron turned out to be one of Kevin Rudd's numbers men. I wonder how a watchdog hand-picked by the current government would enforce standards of political reporting?
There is already a watchdog, whose members the government appoints, that has established this government's standards for fair and impartial regulation. Fair Work Australia regularly prosecutes businesses for minor breaches of award conditions, even when they believe they have followed FWA's advice, but takes more than three years to conclude investigations into the misuse of union money involving a federal MP and refuses to co-operate with investigations by state police.
Especially in the hands of the current government, any new watchdog could become a political correctness enforcement agency destined to hound from the media people whose opinions might rattle the average Q&A audience. It's easy to imagine the fate of Andrew Bolt or Alan Jones, for instance, at the hands of such thought police. Their demise, you understand, wouldn't be because the government didn't like them but because they'd persistently breached "standards".
The current government has an ingrained tendency to bully and intimidate critics. Witness this week's attack on Peter Costello for questioning the government's handling of the chairmanship of the Future Fund; this month's jihad against mining magnates for daring to question the government's investment-sapping mining tax; or last year's assault on mum-and-dad anti-carbon tax protesters in Canberra as the "convoy of no consequence" or the "convoy of incontinence".
This is not a government that argues its case. It merely attempts to howl down its critics.
A case can certainly be made for giving an existing body such as the Australian Communications and Media Authority modest additional powers to regulate social media where anonymous defamation now flourishes. More effective take-down notices, perhaps, could be available against social networking sites. The Coalition has recently set up a taskforce to investigate this.
There is no case for additional regulation of newspapers. If people don't like a newspaper, they don't have to buy it. If individuals and entities believe they have been subjected to unfair, untrue and damaging assault they can sue for defamation. But if individuals or governments think they are not getting a fair go, the remedy is to argue a better case, not to disqualify their critics.
As Turnbull has observed, tweeting can often be the most effective response to inaccurate or unfair reporting.
Politicians and political parties that cop criticism just have to wear it. It's called democracy.
SOURCE: The Australian