Last week’s Canberra media conference when Senator Bob Brown turned the tables on assembled journalists by posing questions and analysing their work not only put the spotlight on coverage of the current climate change negotiations. The Greens leader’s probing also highlighted another important debate about media content and relations between journalists and politicians.
Senator Brown’s key message was that the shift in media content from news to commentary is not providing balanced reporting on the Multi-party Climate Change Committee: "it’s not balanced, it is opinionated, it’s not news in terms of having both sides of a story".
Some of these issues are covered in the Future of Journalism project commissioned by the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance. One aspect of the research for this project backs up Senator Brown’s observation on "opinionated" comment. Peter Lewis, Director of Essential Research, who worked with the Alliance on this study, reports that they found "people want the news, not the people telling them news".
So where is this debate going? Hopefully Senator Brown’s decision to publicly question how media reporting is being conducted will kickstart a wider review of media operations and ownership.
For the backers of media pluralism, as the Greens are, an inquiry into media ownership would help to sharpen this debate and possibly assist Australian journalism to enhance rather than restrict the democracy of information and ideas.
The need for such an inquiry is underlined by the Press Freedom ranking issued by Reporters Without Borders that has Australia in 18th position behind New Zealand (8th), Estonia (9th) and Finland (1st). Australia’s relatively low ranking is primarily due to the limited diversity in media ownership in this country.
While few of the recommendations from past media inquiries undertaken by both state and federal governments have been implemented, such investigations remain important as they provide the public with a means to engage in the debate about the future of the exclusive media club.
Both the 1994 Senate inquiry into foreign ownership of Australia’s media and the 2000 inquiry into media self-regulation raised concerns about our concentrated media ownership and the damaging impact it is thought to have on the public.
These two inquiries while useful, had limited terms of reference. The two major investigations that had a breadth, which makes much of their work still relevant, were the 1991-2 Print Media Inquiry undertaken by a House of Representatives Select Committee and the 1999-2000 Productivity Commission Inquiry into Broadcasting.
Not surprisingly, there was a sharp divide in the content of the submissions presented to these two inquires, with media owners arguing that existing controls and structure of the industry provided diversity of news and opinion — while their critics from the relevant unions and some independent outlets disagreed raising concerns about media concentration.
Although the media landscape has been transformed since these inquiries, the common finding of the Productivity Commission and the federal parliamentary inquiry that structural diversity serves the public interest by delivering content diversity remains relevant today.
A new media inquiry could build on this work and look at overseas initiatives that are grappling with challenges similar to what Australia is facing.
Press freedom would have to be part of such an inquiry as this issue cannot be divorced from media ownership. Australia could learn from the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative and Sweden’s Freedom of the Press Act that formally recognise the rights of journalists and media institutions as having a role in the democratic processes that bring balance to the institutions of authority.
Some of the practical initiatives being considered overseas in response to the impact of new media deserve attention here: England’s Independently Funded News Consortia, which is designed to finance and generate news content for regional television; the Netherlands’ program to foster employment and training of young journalists; and the Korean government’s direct aid package to regional, local and internet newspapers. These and other ideas are set out in the Media Alliance’s Future of Journalism report.
In their book The Death and Life of American Journalism, John Nichols and Robert McChesney have set out an action plan for the US government. Their premise is that their government has a responsibility to foster independent journalism because a free press is central to the US constitution. Their plan includes funding a "News Americorps" to work on regional and community media; US$200 "news vouchers" for citizens to spend on news media of their choice; government buyout of failing newspapers with a transition to low profit bodies with as many journalists kept on as is practical; and a tax on consumer electronics to support public media.
A public inquiry initiated by the Australian federal parliament would provide a means to explore these ideas and initiatives.
Experience of past inquiries shows that reforming media laws is difficult. Labor has shown little courage on this front since 1991, when its National Conference initiated the Print Media Inquiry to take on the media owners. These days Labor and Coalition leaders favour private audiences with powerful media owners such as Rupert Murdoch. Publicly critiquing the state of media coverage and ownership is not on their agenda.
Rather than be indignant that Senator Brown questioned their work, journalists may want to reflect that here is a politician with the courage to be critical of a major institution — the media industry — in ways that other political figures do not dare. Maybe they have more in common with this politician than the media owners, who are the biggest break on press freedom in this country.
As Senator Brown suggested: let’s keep discussing this issue.
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