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 This was partly because the big media owners can and have withdrawn support and participation from the APC at different stages in its history.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.

Role for government in protecting independent journalism ?

I was asked to submit 400 words to the Sydney Morning Herald as part of regular feature which puts the same question to four people. I was the ‘academic”,

The question was: Should governments protect independent journalism?

Here is my reply.

AUSTRALIAN governments need to do more to protect independent journalism. If they had done more in the past, the task would not be so urgent now.

Independent journalism will not flourish without diversity of ownership. Governments can pass laws designed to protect that. Our failure to set up adequate rules has led to the most concentrated media in the developed world, with News Ltd and Fairfax Media (the publisher of the Herald) controlling 86 per cent of circulation.

Gina Rinehart, who wants more influence at Fairfax, has so far failed to recognise the right of journalists to report independently. News Ltd already has a more compliant journalistic culture. These two big companies, one controlled overseas, are in a battle for survival. This calamity has been delivered by market forces.

Over the past 30 years, various inquiries have warned that concentration could lead to the abuse of private media power, just as grave a threat as government interference. Governments failed to act because they were wary of media companies who scream ”censorship” as soon as intervention is mentioned. It needs to be understood that the interests of the public and independent journalists are not the same as the interests of media owners.

As companies seek to bolster profits by restructuring and cutting operations, the diversity, quality and quantity of independent journalism are further threatened. Faced with this crisis, governments should consider using tax-payer funds to support a more diverse public interest journalism, as is done with the arts.

The Greens suggest that charters of editorial independence could be statutorily entrenched. Again, instead of shoving the idea aside, we need to finally take the task of providing a framework for independent journalism and democratic media seriously.

The Finkelstein report outlines ways in which diversity and public interest journalism have been protected by subsidies elsewhere. Academics, including myself, submitted an idea for tax deductibility on donations for non-profit investigative journalism. Such journalism could be published in partnership with major companies as well as to support smaller independent media. Some people warn that such schemes could be politically influenced by decision makers. But if schemes have worked elsewhere, they should be considered here.

In submissions to Finkelstein the big media owners all rejected any role for government intervention. But their interests are different from those of journalists and the public. Governments should play a role in supporting journalists in producing diverse and independent journalism.

Wendy Bacon is a professor of journalism at the University of Technology, Sydney.

You can find the other three replies here.