Why News Needs Regulation

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There are two main ways of thinking about freedom of expression in the context of a democracy.

One way concentrates on freedom of the press. This tends to emphasise the importance of an unrestrained press to hold others accountable. From that point of view, the more power the press has the better.

The other way puts the emphasis on communication — access to information and a voice for all groups. This second way assumes that the media marketplace is not an even playing field and that some steps may be taken by governments to protect the rights of less powerful groups and individuals.

Not surprisingly, press owners and journalists often react negatively to any suggestion that could impinge on their freedom. Take the Weekend Australian’s vehement defence of its editorial performance and its attack on Greens leader Bob Brown’s call for a media inquiry into media ownership. The Saturday editorial accuses News Limited’s critics of wanting to swap a robust media for "a monocultural media" which is ironic as that is exactly what critics of Australia’s ownership laws say they want investigated. While failing to come to grips with critics’ key concern, which is the potential abuse of media power gained through concentrated ownership, the paper says it will debate media regulation on its merits — provided, it seems, that the underlying preference for the profit motive is accepted by us all.

Meanwhile, across in the tabloids, the Herald Sun’s Andrew Bolt announced to the readers of Australia’s biggest newspaper that Greens Leader Bob Brown’s "jihad" on freedom of speech was "totalitarian".

In fact, in a long press conference on Friday, Brown said he was in favour of free speech and had no predetermined ideas about the answer to what he sees as threats to diversity. He supports a legal right to sue for breach of privacy. (In fact this would only benefit those few with resources to take action and should have a public interest defence.)

It’s understandable that Australian News Corp journalists have mostly concentrated on explaining that they do not systematically break the law like their peers at News of the World. But few commentators have addressed the fact that the results of these unethical practices were also being served up to Australian audiences.

There are lots of advantages of being part of a global "integrated media company" as News Corporation describes itself. You might not have been a London News of the World reader but if you bought the Daily Telegraph and other news tabloids, you could still catch News of the World scoops. James Blunt stepping out with Pussycat Dolls beauty Jessica Sutta, Jude Law’s threesomes, second hand gossip from sources about Kylie Minogue’s chemotherapy, Justin Timberlake’s cheating (later proved false): these were all easy pickings for Australian News tabloids. (Jude Law is now suing both The Sun and the News of the World over hacking allegations.)

For Australian and New Zealand journalists wanting to move upwards, there are also global career paths. Take Tom Mockridge. He started at Fairfax, became an advisor to Paul Keating, moved to News Ltd — and then up through the empire until his appointment on Friday as the head of News International. Only recently, News Ltd sent their young journalist of the year, Rosie Squires, to experience newsgathering at News of the World. It was even rumoured last week that Rebekah Brooks might be headed down under — until she resigned and was arrested.

So while the daily reality is that behind the scenes the different arms of the company are increasingly intertwined, the company strategy in Australia has depended on minimising damage by emphasising how different the culture is here.

But doesn’t this sidestep the key point in this saga for Australia — that there is no competition here?

The Australian arm of News Corporation controls almost 70 per cent of the newspaper market, the only newspaper in four capital cities, a big chunk of the suburban market and key regional papers. Tabloid journalism in Australia is controlled by News Ltd, each paper having its own city market to itself. The company also has radio interests, a share of Sky TV (which is closely integrated with its international partner in the UK), Foxtel and part of the book and magazine markets. It is seeking to take over cable TV Austar and partly owns the National Rugby League. It also owns Melbourne Storm which was involved in salary cap scandal last year.

Meanwhile, the UK arm of the same company has engaged for years in entrenched criminal behavior — with the active participation of senior executives who successfully presided over a cover-up and misled the UK parliament. UK police and politicians say they were too cowed by the powerful company to act.

Understandably, the TV licences held by News in the US and UK are under review under "fit and proper" rules. In Australia, similar rules were removed by the Howard government in favour of a "suitability test" — that has not once been applied.

The Guardian reported yesterday that News Corporation now faces a global investigation of all its businesses under the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act to discover whether they engaged in similar acts of bribery to those revealed to have taken place in the UK. Such an inquiry would encompass China, Italy, India and Australia.

So, in this situation, do we want our most powerful media to be controlled by News Corporation? The answer for many Australians is probably no. Can we do anything about it? That’s another question.

Any regulation of media ethics needs to enhance professional independence — not destroy it. On this point there is common ground even among News Ltd critics with its defence of journalistic independence. But does News Ltd actually practice this?

Earlier this year, Australian Collaboration, a peak group for some of Australia’s key non government organisations including the Australian Council for Social Services, the Australian Conservation Council and others put out a paper pointing out that Australia came in a poor 41st on global ranking of media diversity. They reminded readers that the Productivity Commission and the Australian Broadcasting Authority have already investigated the influence of the interests of media owners on the editing of media:

"Both found that some editors and journalists were directly influenced by their publishers. Further, many editors and journalists felt an indirect pressure to take into account the interests (including commercial interests) of their publishers and owners, and this led to self-censorship. When publisher-owners of media are large and far reaching organisations the effect of these overt and covert influences are likely have greater impact on the reporting of news and development of opinion."

Journalists inside News constantly complain to other journalists off the record that they are used to pursue political agendas, that they are removed from covering stories if they challenge the company line and that editors tamper with stories to change their meaning without their consent. These allegations are "off the record" because if they lose their jobs at News Ltd, where else will they be employed? None of this is to say that News Ltd editors directly instruct the journalists, that the papers do not run strong journalism or that most journalists do not try to do their job within this controlling culture.

The current Chair of the Australian Press Council Julian Disney told New Matlida: "I support a principal regulator across the media although not one that is a statutory authority. Any such body would be independent of media and government with power to refer some matters to a statutory body." Criminal matters would be referred to the police. Funding for such a regulator should come from media owners, government and other sources. He warns however that in raising money from third parties, the regulator would need to be careful that funding is not tied to specific projects in which they could have an interest.

For now, News Corporation’s strategy is resolutely business as usual. So much so that they’re continuing to conduct internal audits into editorial expenditure.

There is nothing new in media companies resisting inquiry and as far as the politics go, the chances of a more diverse and democratic media in Australia are slim — but this may be the best chance we get to appeal to our politicians for better media regulation. So why stay silent?

DISCLOSURE: Wendy Bacon was involved last year in an independent study of English international broadcasting. This was commissioned by Australia Network for which Sky News, part owned by News Ltd, has recently tendered.

 

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