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.