The fallout from the phone hacking scandal engulfing the UK arm of the Murdoch News empire is travelling the globe. Calls for more laws regulating journalism can be heard in many places, including Australia. In this context the silence about the logical starting point for debate and discussion — extensive reform of the media ethics self-regulation system — is remarkable. It’s also extraordinary that an industry that demands ethical behaviour, accountability and openness from the public figures and institutions it scrutinises is so opaque and unaccountable.
Now is the time to have a serious and thorough discussion about reforming the system.
Norway had such a discussion during the early 1990s. A number of high profile breaches of the code of ethics lead to threats of legislation from the government if the media did not clean up its act. The Norwegian media and journalism players took this threat seriously and this resulted in a one-stop shop committee for ethical complaints against media in all formats (print, online, radio and TV).
Pressens Faglige Utvalg (PFU) or Press Industry Committee have heard breaches against their code of ethics in all media formats since 1996. The code covers the conduct of journalists and editors and the use of advertorials, or ads dressed up as journalism.
The PFU has four industry members, two journalists, two editors, and three members from the public. The experience can be summarised as a success in rebuilding the public’s trust in journalism and injecting more ethical considerations into Norwegian journalism.
Before the reforms in Norway their system was similar to the one we have at present in Australia: fragmented, weak, complicated, largely toothless and very unsatisfactory viewed from the public’s perspective.
If you feel mistreated in terms of ethical transgressions by media in Australia you need wide ranging knowledge of the system to know where to lodge your complaint. Currently you can choose from the following: the Australian Press Council (APC), the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA), the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA)’s Ethics Panel, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) — or directly to the public broadcasters.
If you manage to lodge your complaint with the right body the outcomes are more than often unsatisfactory. The APC do at times rule in favour of complainants and its members have undertaken to publish the adjudications. Unfortunately in most cases these publications are not done in an equivalent spot to where the original damage was done. This does little to build trust with the public and can be seen as way to avoid accountability.
ACMA has showed time and again that it is uncomfortable in its role overseeing and ruling on breaches of the commercial broadcasting codes. When it has used its quite extensive statutory powers its rulings have been very timid indeed.
The most embarrassing of the entire Australian media self-regulatory ethics system is the MEAA’s Ethics Panel. The public hardly knows of its existence. It hears a few cases per year and rarely upholds complaints. And when it does we don’t know about it.
According to Mark Pearson’s guide to media law, defamation threats make publication of the panel’s findings and recommendations difficult. Furthermore, Pearson notes that of 67 complaints filed between 2000 and 2006, 34 couldn’t be dealt with by the committee because they did not concern MEAA members.
Furthermore, the panel is set to rule on members of the union who joined in the first place to be represented and not judged on their ethical behaviour. The panel’s conflict of interest puts it in an impossible situation.
The only agency that has showed some clout is the ACCC which has made a number of rulings regarding media ownership and competition as well as advertorials. But the agency is hampered by Australia’s relaxed cross-media ownership laws.
If journalism and the media industry in Australia are serious about rebuilding their absolutely disastrous standing, the work starts with reforming the self-regulation media ethics system.
So, why not legislate? This must always be the last resort. The balance between freedom of expression and legislation is very, very hard to strike. The temptation will always be there for legislators to use the law to silence uncomfortable questions and scrutiny. Regulating media ethics using laws also provides the corporate sector with a tool to hamper legitimate scrutiny by journalists.
This said, a media that continues to refuse accountability and that is at times less transparent than those that they scrutinise risks depleting our democracy rather than adding to it. This is why the reform of the media ethics self-regulation system is so urgent.
Rebuilding the public’s trust in the media and journalism is not rocket science. If we can design a media ethics system that is easy for the public to use, that is seen to hand down fair rulings and that those rulings are respected by the industry and published in a spot equivalent to where the original publication was made the currently broken contract of trust between the public and media could be mended.
The former and current chairmen of the Australian Press Council have indicated that the time for reform is nigh. The one-stop shop Norwegian model is one option that should be seriously considered.
More than 200 years ago Benjamin Franklin realised that journalism on behalf of the people sold copy — and, indirectly, more advertising. Like most really good ideas it was beautiful in its simplicity. The readers bought the paper because they trusted the articles to be independent from the business side of the publication.
It is time for media owners to understand that their businesses exist on a mandate issued by the public. Misuse this mandate enough and your business model crumbles. This is what News International is experiencing in the UK.
Let us hope Australian media, across the board, learn from this and come together to fix their broken contract of trust with the Australian public.
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