You Wouldn't Read About It


Here are three riddles.

If a large industry with significant public profile and a demonstrated recent history of legal malpractice tried to pretend that there is essentially nothing wrong with the way it does business, how would the media report that?

If a company that supplied 70 per cent of — I don’t know, let’s say telecommunications — to Australia’s capital cities had recently had several of its parent corporation’s key executives arrested in London for a series of major crimes, how would the media report that?

If the major corporate players of the coal seam gas industry were called before a government inquiry and they told that inquiry that there should be absolutely no government regulation of their industry whatsoever — none — how would the media report that?

If that company was News Limited and if that industry was the media, then the response would be to attack the very basis of the inquiry and to confidently assert, not only that nothing has gone wrong in this country, but that any regulation of the media is self-evidently a Bad Thing.

I’m talking about the government’s Media Inquiry, of course, and the quite astonishing hypocrisy that has been demonstrated by key sections of the industry it is investigating.

According to outgoing News Limited CEO John Hartigan, "the inquiry has been called by a government that is on the nose with the public and is looking for someone to blame". That sentiment has been echoed throughout the newspapers he has presided over. The Daily Telegraph, for instance, carried this piece of corporate propaganda by Vanda Carson last week, while also taking the time to cock a snook at Margaret Simons’ sandals.

Hartigan went on to attack the very basis of the inquiry, which he claimed rested on "three presumptions" — all of which were false. These are that News Limited hacks phones, that it is biased against the government, and that the Press Council is not working.

Phone hacking? Doesn’t happen in Australia. "We do not hack phones and we do not pay bribes," Jonathan Holmes reported him saying. News Limited biased against the Gillard government? Nonsense. If News Limited was really powerful, Australia would be a republic by now, as the company has always campaigned strongly for that. And what bout the Press Council — isn’t it a toothless tiger? Not in the slightest, argued Hartigan. "We don’t control what it does and we don’t have any say in its adjudications on complaints about News Ltd. Our editors publish its adjudications prominently, and absolutely hate it when the umpire finds against them."

So there you go: nothing to see here, folks.

Over at Fairfax, matters have been every bit as sanctimonious, albeit with a more high-minded tone. Fairfax boss Greg Hywood also appeared at the inquiry, apparently aggrieved that he should even have to answer to such an affront. "What problem are we solving here?" he asked the Inquiry’s head, Ray Finkelstein QC. "What’s the issue current in the media, in the way that we’re operating, that needs a solution?" Given that even a first-year cadet (if indeed Fairfax is still employing any) can look up the Inquiry’s terms of reference, it was an arrogant response.

Hywood has lately been spruiking a Panglossian perspective of news media. In his recent AN Smith Lecture on journalism at Melbourne University, he claimed that the "the future of journalism has never looked stronger," which must be news to the hundreds of journalists his own company has let go in recent years. The internet, he claimed, is just another technology, and journalism would be able to adapt to whatever format audiences wanted to consume it on.

Given the recent history of the newspaper industry — given the well-known industry gossip that The Age and Sydney Morning Herald are already money-losing propositions — it was crazy-brave stuff. I watched Andrew Rossi’s documentary Page One: Inside the New York Times this week. At least the high priests of the famous Grey Lady know their business model is threatened. Captain Hywood seems to be celebrating the sighting of icebergs as the possible savior of the Titanic.

The recent public performances of Hywood and Hartigan show that, when it comes to self-delusion and denial, few industries are as richly endowed as the media. If you to read about the Media Inquiry in the Herald Sun or Daily Telegraph, you would think it is all just a political scape-goating exercise. If you’ve followed it in the online media or the ABC, you’d probably just be confused about what it’s actually supposed to be doing. Very few reports have attempted to contextualise the Inquiry in terms of its actual terms of reference, or the existing regulatory architecture of Australia’s multi-faceted media sector. At the very least, audiences need to be given a brief primer on the dynamic changes being wrought by media convergence — such as those neatly explained by this recent ACMA paper.

Instead, the bulk of the coverage has been fulminating jeremiads against the evil of government regulation. This is disingenuous at best.

The media is an industry with huge power over the lives of ordinary citizens. It currently suffers little in the way of regulation, and yet has a demonstrable record of getting things wrong. In the case of newspapers, the industry is almost completely self-regulated, while in the case of radio and television, it is very lightly regulated. Despite — or perhaps because — of this, the media regularly trespasses on the private lives of ordinary citizens, meddles in the everyday workings of democracy, and peddles untruths, distortions and falsehoods for commercial gain. To argue that the media should be completely free of any fetters of regulation, as many in the media are so fond of, is merely a particularly self-serving form of special pleading, up there with the best efforts of the mining lobby.

I’m quite disappointed with the tenor of the Media Inquiry’s questioning, which I think has been rather too accommodating so far. There are some very serious issues that must be grappled with here: particularly the way our democracy curbs and regulates the power of those who control the means of producing symbols in our society. Convergence seems to have hardly been touched on, while the role of television current affairs shows — in Australia, some of the worst abusers of media privileges — have not yet been called to account for their standards.

A final word needs to be said about the usual arguments trotted out about "the public’s right to know". Like most cliches, this one contains a grain of truth. But the very fact that so many journalists cling to it as some kind of get-out-of-jail card to justify the worst excesses of the industry shows the impoverished standards of much of what passes for journalism in this country.

Rights, if they are anything, are a complex bundle of legal traditions, ethical standards and social norms. The "right to know", like that other cliché, "speaking truth to power", is something that can never be absolute in pluralistic democracy with a rule of law. It must be balanced against other rights, like the right to not be defamed, and to right to go about your everyday life without a media scrum shadowing your every move. More generally, even in a country that values free speech more highly than our own, such as the United States, there are curbs on the exercise of that right, and there are limits to what can count as speech itself, free or not.

Few in this country want to see Australia move to heavily regulate the media or to control what gets said about the government of the day. But just as rare are the journalists and editors who appear to be genuinely thinking hard about the role of the media in our society, and in particular, how their daily craft can advance the final phrase in the Media Inquiry’s terms of reference: "the public interest".

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Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.