Effective media accountability does not have to threaten journalists’ independence

Journalists, especially those from News Ltd, and right wing commentators promote the illusion that the Australian Gillard Labor government is threatening to ‘regulate’ the media in response to rigorous scrutiny of its performance.  It has even been suggested that the Australian Labor Party is bullying News Ltd which is by far the most powerful media owner in this country.

In making this claim journalists and commentators gloss over the findings of the recent 2011 Finkelstein Independent Media Inquiry and the Convergence review. Journalists who promote the simplistic idea that these inquires are promoting government control and censorship have either not read the reports properly or are deliberately falling into line with their employers distaste for accountability.

The Finkelstein Inquiry recommended a government funded independent complaints body across all media while the Convergence inquiry recommended a industry run self-regulatory body across all media, mostly funded by industry but with some public financial support.  Both inquiries emphasised that any such body should be ‘independent’ of government for the explicit reason that freedom from potential government interference is crucial in a democracy.  Both recommended remedies for those who successfully complained about lack of accuracy and fairness which promoted a right to speak rather than censorship, such as corrections and rights of reply. The Finkelstein inquiry did state that if orders for corrections were made and the media refused to comply with these, contempt of court orders might follow. This is not much different from the Australian Press Council’s (APC)position which is that the Council should be able to issue enforceable orders. It is hard to see how an accountability system which does not have any rights to enforceability is an accountability system at all. (For a summary of Finkelstein’s findings, read my summary on New Matilda; Politics Professor Rod Tiffen also tried to correct misleading press reporting on the Inquiry here.)

Finkelstein proposed publicly funded statutory body would consist of  media and public but no  government representatives. He reached this conclusion after ex-APC Chairs gave evidence to his inquiry that the APC did not have sufficient independence to deal with complaints effectively. This was partly because the big media owners can and have withdrawn support and participation from the APC at different stages in its history. The media owners denied that there were any deficiencies in the current system. Finkelstein explicitly found that  although self-regulation was the preferred model , this failure to acknowledge any problems with the current system led him to recommend the statutory body. His intention was to maximise not limit independence of media as well as the legitimate expectations of the public to fair and accurate coverage by journalists. He could scarcely recommend a system labelled as a failure by those responsible for running it

The Convergence Inquiry reviewed Finkelstein findings but preferred a self-regulatory body across all media. (See chapter four of the report.). This body would however received some public funding, a suggestion that had been rejected by the owners at the Finkelstein inquiry as unnecessary. The Inquiry found there should be a time -limit for industry to form such a body which would include all big news and commentary providers.

Since these Inquiries, the APC  has been encouraging the print/online industry to get its act together by improving Council handling of complaints and securing an more reliable funding base. News Ltd and Fairfax Media have come to the party but Seven West Media which as owner of West Australian newspapers and Channel Seven is the third dominant power has pulled out of the APC altogether which does not bode well for those who prefer the self-regulatory model.

It’s understandable that media owners should want to maximise their own freedom to pursue their preferred political and commercial agendas. But the interests of journalists are different. Our interest is surely to have a media which is trusted and accountable to the public. Accountability requires redress for those who are the victims of falsehoods and persistent unfairness. These do not have to be ones which encourage censorship but rather ones which give people the right to corrections and responses. An effective media accountability system would actually bolster journalists’ independence from owners. It’s worth noting that media bosses opposed both the formation of the journalists’ union code of ethics and the APC as forms of interference into their ‘freedom’ to decide what media to provide. Those same media bosses meanwhile successfully lobbied for government policies which secured their dominance.

Journalists claim they answer to the public not the government. If they don’t like either the Convergence or the Finkelstein model, what form of accountability do they have in mind, if any?

Whatever complaints mechanism we choose, the bigger structural problems of concentration of ownership and consequent abuses of media power remain.

No rules for Murdoch to break

Why does Australia have such a concentrated media and such a weak system of self-regulation for media owners? To help make sense of all this, I made a brief timeline of media regulation in Australia. You can find it here in New Matilda.
Back in the early seventies, Murdoch even opposed the foundation of an Australian Press Council ( APC) funded and controlled by the media organisations. He later joined by then withdrew after a finding of bias against one of his newspapers.  News Corporation later rejoinedfter the APC did not pubicly oppose his takeover of the Herald and Weekly Times. This was a crucial step which made him the dominant media boss in Australia. He was assisted by some political mates who were disgruntled with media company Fairfax’s investigative journalism.