14 Sep 2011

Media Inquiry A Welcome Start

By Wendy Bacon
The media inquiry announced by Stephen Conroy on Wednesday falls short of expectations but is a good start, writes Wendy Bacon. Have your say on the terms of reference here
The government has at last reluctantly agreed to an inquiry into Australia's print and online media, initiated by Greens Leader Bob Brown.

The terms of reference fall short of what the Greens wanted by not directly addressing the high levels of media concentration and how that skews political debate and the provision of a broad range of news and current affairs, especially in regions where there is a single owner and very little local journalism.

It is symptomatic of the fear and power of News Ltd in Australia that the word "ownership" could not be used in the terms of reference. A poll conducted by Essential Media for independent lobby group NewsStand (of which I am a board member) found that 70 per cent of Australians believe there are too few media owners in Australia. The Gillard Government, which has copped an unrelenting hammering from News Ltd on the carbon tax, understands the problem but is still trying to negotiate a path that allows for some action without encouraging accusations that it is trying to shut down media scrutiny.

Some feared the terms of reference would simply focus on respect for privacy and strengthening of complaints procedures. In fact, the terms of inquiry are much broader than that. Once you start talking about failing business models and diversity, it's hard not to talk about the fact that one company owns 70 per cent of newspapers and a big share of the online market.

Here are some points for each terms of reference. We welcome your comments and discussion below.

A panel will be appointed to inquire on the follow issues:

a) The effectiveness of the current media codes of practice in Australia, particularly in light of technological change that is leading to the migration of print media to digital and online platforms;

If evidence is produced that codes of practice are failing to produce fair reporting on a regular basis, this suggests system failure. If so, what is causing this? Is it worse in some parts of the print and online media than others? One investigation showed that up to 65 per cent of the content of some newspapers was driven by PR, which suggests that through lack of resources and corporate pressure, codes of practice that set out principles for reporting are failing on a daily basis. Why? What can be done?

b) The impact of this technological change on the business model that has supported the investment by traditional media organisations in quality journalism and the production of news, and how such activities can be supported, and diversity enhanced, in the changed media environment;

If it can be shown that the financial fragility and cutbacks in corporate media are threatening quality reporting, this term allows for public policies to be developed that look at how diversity and public interest journalism can be supported. This is especially important in regional Australia, where some towns now get very little critical reporting on local issues.

c) Ways of substantially strengthening the independence and effectiveness of the Australian Press Council, including in relation to on-line publications, and with particular reference to the handling of complaints;

The Press Council or something to replace it needs to be across the media and be independent of both corporate and government interests. It needs to be proactive in protecting freedom of expression and independent journalism. At the moment the Press Council strenuously avoids speaking out about how concentration of ownership limits access to information and ideas. Since it is mainly funded by owners, it is scarcely surprising that It tends to favour media policies that favour media owners. Independence is needed so the Council can address abuses of private power as well as government power.

d) Any related issues pertaining to the ability of the media to operate according to regulations and codes of practice, and in the public interest.

This reference allows for any other matter to be raised which prevents the media from operating in the public interest. If one company dominates and uses their power to relentlessly campaign in favour of their preferred policies, it could well fail any reasonable view of public interest. What better evidence could you find of this than the story told in today's Australian Financial Review about how the Daily Telegraph and the Coalition cooked up some negative news on the carbon tax.

The panel will be required to provide a report to Government by 28 February 2012.

This inquiry is going to be quick and the onus will be on those who think there are structural problems to demonstrate them with empirical evidence. A lot will depend on the head of the inquiry, Ray Finkelstein QC, who is a former Justice of the Federal Court. The powers of the inquiry are very weak but Finkelstein has a reputation for independence and standing up to white collar criminals, so that would seem to be a good start.

At the end of the day, an inquiry is just that. Even if it comes up with good policies, pressure will be needed to enact or fund them. Whatever happens, we need to find ways to sustain independent quality media and back organisations that provide a watchdog on corporate media power.

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David Grayling
Posted Thursday, September 15, 2011 - 12:48

'It is symptomatic of the fear and power of News Ltd in Australia that the word "ownership" could not be used in the terms of reference,' says Wendy.

This sentence shows what a farce this inquiry will be. That Governments of either persuasion are frightened of Murdoch has been a problem in Australia for a long time, a problem that must be fixed!

When are politicians going to have the 'cojones' to stand up to this psychopathic creature who wields far too much power in Australia and many other places in the world.

Murdoch champions capitalism, imperialism and endless war to say nothing about the brutality of Israel.

Boycott the Murdoch Empire if you want peace!


Posted Thursday, September 15, 2011 - 14:52

i think it is sad that the focus regarding the media (particularly from media practitioners) is on diversity and freedom of the media. Diversity would only be important if citizens read more than newspaper to get a full picture, but if the Daily Telegraph is biased it doesn't matter if there are other voices out there if they are not listened to. Surely what we should be focussed on is limiting the freedom of the media and hold them responsible for being truthful and unbiased. There should be a three strikes and you're out rule that applies to every TV station, newspaper and shock jock on factual reporting. The model would be the finance industry who don't enjoy freedom of expression as they are held responsible for all advice given.
I realise we live in a post-modernist world that thinks that there is no truth but this patent rubbish. The three strikes rule should also apply to bias. If it can be shown that a reporter has not treated both sides of politics with the same measure, if they treated similar circumstances dissimilarly, they're out

Posted Thursday, September 15, 2011 - 14:54

There's no point getting in a tizzy because surely everyone knows (thank you, 'Yes Minister') that no sensible government sets up an inquiry unless it is sure of the outcome.

Whoops! Perhaps 'sensible' gives it away.

Posted Thursday, September 15, 2011 - 15:37

If News Ltd was as bad as people say, they wouldn't have 70% of the market. You've got to give people more credit.

Posted Thursday, September 15, 2011 - 16:18

Dear Wendy,

Great story. I've gone to the website about the terms of reference and am disappointed that there will be no scrutiny of SBS TV or the ABC.

I know of many people, namely in the Macedonian community, who in particular would be willing to make submissions to any future parliamentary or Royal Commission of enquiry/inquiry about the inadequacies of SBS TV: political interference from foreign interests, poor coverage of local issues, mismanagement etc etc.

Please keep up the good work.

Sasha Uzunov
independent film maker

Posted Thursday, September 15, 2011 - 16:48

David Grayling astounds - a post that doesn't mention the evil empire of the USofA - Murdoch must be a surrogate.

And Homer makes a valid point - News Ltd. owns around 40% of the print titles and has 70% of the circulation - how is that?

I suppose, according to the leftie critics, it is because its readers are all non-thinking, ill educated drongoes who can't help their base instincts

Posted Thursday, September 15, 2011 - 16:51

Good to see that an inquiry into the media who think they are above everyone else and the law. It's about time they were brought down a peg or two.

Posted Thursday, September 15, 2011 - 17:02

@Homerjunior Outside Australia the roundball game is the most popular football code. If there is no alternative...

Mark Day
Posted Thursday, September 15, 2011 - 17:36

This is another piece of commentary on NM today which wrongly states the degree of News Limited ownership/control of Australian newspapers. The figures are as follows - News Limited controls a 70 per cent share of the paid circulations of the five capital city markets of Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth, including The Australian. It owns 60 per cent of all newspapers sold in Australia, and 32 per cent (owned fully or partly) of newspaper titles printed at least weekly. It also receives 48 per cent of national print revenue and 61 per cent of the population aged 14 or older reads a News Limited paper each week - all according to Roy Morgan Research figures.

Posted Thursday, September 15, 2011 - 17:45

listohan, there were/are alternatives but these have faltered due to bad management and being out competed by News. Not to mention News' lobbying and political skills. This will change when Rupert retires.

David Grayling
Posted Thursday, September 15, 2011 - 19:21

<b>Redact,</b> one day, perhaps in five or ten years, you may be facing a year in jail for not hanging a Stars and Stripes flag from your residence.

You may ask yourself...what was that fellow's name...David something? You may say to yourself...he tried to warn us, he said America was the enemy of the free world.

Enjoy your year in a cage, Redact!

<b>Mark Day,</b> obviously you are a Murdoch-apologist. That 61% of humans read a Murdoch paper each week should be made a crime against intelligence!