Coverage of phone hacking scandal – a litmus test for News Ltd

This week, Jenna Price and I published a small Australian Centre for Independent Journalism study on the coverage of the phone hacking scandal in Australia on The Conversation a new publishing venture from the Australian university and research sector.

We found that if you relied on News tabloids for your information, the phone hacking scandal would have come as a big surprise when it turned into a crisis in July, this year. That said, there was a difference between the News tabloids in the week leading up to the cancellation of the News bid for BSkyB – the Adelaide Advertiser and the Herald Sun (Melbourne) carried 16 stories, almost twice the nine stories carried by the Sydney based Daily Telegraph.

It was great to see our story taken up by ABC site, The Drum.

Questions for the CEO of News Ltd – they remain unanswered.

As the phone hacking scandal blew up in Australia where News Corporation controls 70% of the metropolitan audience in the most concentrated media in the developed world, News Ltd CEO John Hartigan assured the public that nothing so heinous as phone hacking would ever happen in Australia. There was no evidence to doubt his word, but it seemed to me that each media context was different. News corporation is a integrated global company. Some stories got by phone hacking by News International were certainly published here. There were also other questions to which it would be useful for Australia readers to have answers.

From a journalism point of view these questions are pretty straight forward and I was surprised that no one else had asked them. I wondered that the soft approach to CEO John Hartigan was the result of years of News Ltd dominance,

These are the questions I sent to John Hartigan. Instead of answering them he got back with a furious response.

1. I notice that News Ltd papers continued to report stories from News of the World well after phone hacking scandal broke — was this practice discussed by you with editors or other executives in the company? In retrospect, do you have any concerns about this? Why or why not?

2. I note that editors of at least some News Ltd publications including newspapers can give permission for payment for information or articles. Is this a matter that is being included in your editorial audit? Wh[y] or why not? How many occasions has News Ltd paid for information or stories over the last two years? Are there different rules for different publications? if so, what are they?

3. I notice from reports from Australian News Ltd journalists who have spent time working at News of the World (one of them being Rosie Squires) that payment for information and stories was endemic at News of the World. What is your opinion about this? Did you ever raise any concerns about this within wider international circles of News Ltd? Was this discussed at international News Ltd meetings?

4. Are there any circumstances in which you believe it would be acceptable for journalists or papers to hire private inquiry agents to assist with stories — what would these be?

5. Do you consider that bias by newspapers in cities where only one company owns a newspaper could ever be an issue? How do you monitor whether fair means of reporting the news are being applied across the company? What auditing or monitoring mechanisms do you apply? Are there occasions when you do take up matters of bias with editors?

6. Do you think that it would be a good idea if the Australian Press Council became an independent body with funding from both media and other sources including government?

7. Do you think it is appropriate for politicians and media owners or senior executives to meet privately? What would be the purpose of such meetings?

The Sunday Age had asked me to write an opinion piece for today’s paper.
which also appeared in the National Times. You can read it here. It also includes my reasons why I think there should be a media inquiry.

How powerful media players cry ‘censorship’ to fight off accountability

There is a long tradition of media owners in Australia invoking press freedom to trump calls for frameworks to ensure accountability and ethical behaviour, especially at News Ltd.

There are two main ways of thinking about freedom of expression in the context of a democracy.

One way concentrates on freedom of the press. This tends to emphasise the importance of an unrestrained press to hold others accountable. From that point of view, the more power the press has the better.

The other way puts the emphasis on communication — access to information and a voice for all groups. This second way assumes that the media marketplace is not an even playing field and that some steps may be taken by governments to protect the rights of less powerful groups and individuals.

Chances of better media accountability in Australia may be slim, but that’s no reason to remain silent

You can read the rest of the piece I wrote on this theme for New Matilda on July 19, 2011 here

Why News needs Regulation?

Today I published a piece on News Corporation, phone hacking and implications for Australia. I was surprised by how easily commentators and reporters in Australia were prepared to accept that the key issue for us is whether phone hacking actually happened at News Ltd  papers in Australia.

“There are lots of advantages of being part of a global “integrated media company” as News Corporation describes itself. You might not have been a London News of the World reader but if you bought the Daily Telegraph and other news tabloids, you could still catch News of the World scoops. James Blunt stepping out with Pussycat Dolls beauty Jessica Sutta, Jude Law’s threesomes, second hand gossip from sources about Kylie Minogue’s chemotherapy, Justin Timberlake’s cheating (later proved false): these were all easy pickings for Australian News tabloids. (Jude Law is now suing both The Sun and the News of the World over hacking allegations.)”

I also briefly discuss the different conceptions of free speech underlying the debate about media regulation – just about everyone support the idea of free speech. But are we talking about free speech for media owners or free speech for the community?

Read the article in New Matilda here.