Labor’s straitjacket for a free media

First there was Fightback! Then the pale imitation of Jobsback! And now the damp squib of Payback! For surely there has rarely been expended so many words on an attempted campaign of fear and intimidation than the Finkelstein shot across the bows of News Limited. Three hundred plus pages of walking softly while carrying a very large bludgeon. It remains anybody’s guess as to how the Gillard administration will play this little adventure but the track record of the incumbent and previous Labor administration demonstrates an unhealthy penchant for pulverising peanuts with piledrivers. For sure, there is writing on the wall.

It is essential to appreciate the background to establishment of this inquiry to contextualise the implicit intent of the instigator and any apprehended bias on the part of its instrument. The most notable icons are the protagonist: the Gillard minority government under constant threat since inception, and the antagonist: The Australian newspaper which has implemented a determined campaign to hold our national political system to account. Partisan elements will find fault on either side of this divide and few will apportion their prejudices evenly.

That said, bias is the quintessential element of this initiative. Regardless of any putative bias by the key players, the fundamental freedom of democracy is that bias is not only permissible, it is protected. Defence to the death is the lauded standard of protection for holding contrary views. It is not a law, just an ideal. But it has served us well. Many would accept a practical rider that the exercise of any such bias should not damage another person. Yet the very value of democracy is that its governing system – the particular political process which lies at the heart of any democratic jurisdiction – is subject to a far more robust exchange of views for its participants than the general populace. Indeed, it is fair to say that protection is more frequently honoured in the breach than resorted to as a defence mechanism.

 

Even so, sensitivities abound and The Australian (though certainly not it alone) has, in the eyes of federal Labor, suffused itself with the spirit of Tomas de Torquemada and relished tossing burning brands onto pyres featuring many a Labor luminary tied to a stake. Indigenous Australians got an apology from the ALP but don’t count on any similar contrition for what is likely to befall that merry little band known as Murdoch and the Shock Jocks. In this context it is interesting to note the instigator of the Finkelstein fandangle felt it necessary to label the inquiry as ‘independent’. Nothing like a little spin at the outset just to get things humming along nicely.

 

In a move reminiscent of Goebbels, this interrogation of the media was given an overt focus on new technology and online digital media. Surprising, if not spurious, given the bulk of reaction since announcement of the inquiry has suggested the actions of the technologically-ageing print media was the prime focus of attention.

Seemingly as an afterthought, codes of practice and the notion of redress was appended to the initial terms of reference. And scant was the scrutiny redress received: just twenty pages out of 331. Yet existing legal remedies for poor or seriously inaccurate journalism/commentary – the laws of defamation and libel – have served society for centuries. Interestingly, The United Nations Commission on Human Rights ruled just this year that the criminalisation of libel violates freedom of expression.  Regardless, Finkelstein reports that he has concluded these measures are not sufficient to achieve a desirable degree of accountability in a democracy. His right to call it that way should be respected but the manner in which he proposes to ‘rectify’ his assessment causes concern.

Finkelstein’s utopia is governed by a News Media Council which would have the power “to set journalistic standards for the news media”. Disconcertingly, Finkelstein says the new standards “will likely be substantially the same as those that presently apply and which all profess to embrace”. Which surely begs the question: if it ain’t broke why bother to fix it? Unless, of course, that which the government sees as being “broke” is not journalistic standards at all but simply a powerful stream of criticism.

Another very serious concern is Finkelstein’s approach to his News Media Council’s powers. He professes that “apart from secure funding from government and its decisions made binding” government should have no role. But, in the same breath, he proposes that this is not about increasing the power of government or about imposing some form of censorship. Some might like to agree with Finkelstein but for a QC he is rather loose in the terminology of his recommendations. So loose, in fact, you have to wonder if it was not intentional. How, for instance, is anyone to prevent the government from imposing restrictive guidelines on the operation of this News Media Council? And since censorship is the suppression of elements deemed objectionable how else can one view a News Media Council that inherently seeks to suppress that which it finds objectionable? The price of our future freedom (or the loss of it) may well be measured in the fees paid to Finkelstein.

Regrettably, it is impossible to shake-off the disconcerting sense of a Big Brother regime in the statement: “There will be a single, properly-funded regulator with the power to enforce news standards across all news media outlets.” Especially so when Finkelstein tells us we have nothing to fear.

To this end, Finkelstein should address this concern: if, as he argues, his proposals are made at a time when polls consistently reveal low levels of trust in the media why does the government ignore the exact same conclusion about politicians in those very same polls? And what the hell are we to make of a bolstering argument that contends the outcomes of this review have been driven, in part, by polls?

There are some illuminating insights into how Finkelstein approached his brief. For instance, Section 11 of the report entitled Reform seeks to answer the question: “Is there a problem?” Hey presto, the answer appears on the next line which asks: “What are the social costs of the problem and who bears them?” Nothing like an open mind to begin with!

There are a few items of curious terminology. Finkelstein offers readers a section entitled: Some key terms. It is as illuminating as a black hole, offering just two items. “News media” which advises us that the report does not purport to deal with other forms of media though attempts at various distinctions could have been fascinating. The second is “press” which we are told is used as a generic descriptor for the news media in certain contexts, including broadcasting, online and print. The omissions are glaring, given that one of the terms of reference he was charged with investigating was “the level of investment in quality journalism”. Quality journalism! How can one reasonably explore this concept if the term itself is not even defined? Similarly, for “independent journalism”. Is, say, The Drum reflective of independent journalism? Whatever way the question might be answered is irrelevant compared to what arguments might be propounded for either affirmative or negative. But Finkelstein doesn’t dare. Similarly, another term of reference was to determine whether the media operate in the “public interest”. Gee, we could have had another 300 pages just to cover that one but sadly it, too, suffered scant elaboration.

What does leave one with a queasy feeling is that the government of a free-market democracy decides it must question “the traditional business model for media organisations”. In the best of circumstances this would be of real concern. When promulgated by those who brought us the flammable ceiling batts debacle and the profligate school hall debacle and a resources rent tax debacle and a Treasurer who reverts to socialist attacks on the wealthy, you have to wonder. No, you can’t spot an agenda in there anywhere. Until it is expressed in the oxymoronic question posed by Gillard et al: “Is there a need for additional support to assist independent journalism”? Well, if it is to be editorially independent, should it not it be financially independent?

Similarly, Finkelstein was tasked with investigating the removal of obstacles that may hinder small-scale publications as well as promoting ease of entry to the media market. Here is another reversion to socialist principles of picking and choosing winners and losers in a supposedly free market. Bad enough in any customary area of economic activity but when it impinges on the free flow of information and the influencing of opinion then, no, we do not want such interference in our democratic way of life.

Interesting that Finkelstein himself has thus far refused to be interviewed about his approach and the conclusions of his report. Scoffers who scurrilously suggest he fears a biased reception have been put in their place by his avowedly pious proposal that it is, rather, a desire not to pre-empt discussion of the report. But it is passing strange that he then says he did “not think it fair to speak to individual members of the media lest it be thought I am showing preference to some over others”. So we are left to contemplate that the man charged with assessing potential bias in the nation’s media feels so inadequate to avoid perceptions of personal bias that he must shun the very industry he has been probing. The only thing stranger than that would be Julia Gillard praising Kevin Rudd at the launch of Anna Bligh’s Queensland re-election campaign launch. True story, no bias.

Sadly, the standard of commentary on the Finkelstein report reaches a nadir (in The Australian of all places) when Tom Morton, director, Australian Centre for Independent Journalism at UTS  claims, inter alia, the impetus for establishing the inquiry came not from a desire by governments to muzzle the press but from profound public revulsion at the revelation that News of The World journalists had hacked into Milly Dowler’s voicemail. Anyone reckon an umprompted cold canvass of Australians would achieve even a 1% recognition factor for Milly Dowler? Hmm . . .

The comment certainly illuminates the relevant but peripheral issue of just what Australian universities are teaching in their journalism courses these days. Maybe an incoming federal administration could instigate an independent inquiry into the postmodern proclivities of teachers rather than doers who delve into the depths of digital doggerel? Just a thought.

However, this all plays out, it is nearly a certainty that Finkelstein is just an appetiser and that fevered brows in Labor’s labyrinths are cooking-up a main course that may well feature stuffed Oz with shock jock courgettes.