The media inquiry by Ray Finkelstein QC has recommended that a News Media Council be established to set journalistic standards, in consultation with the industry, and handle complaints when those standards are breached. The recommended News Media Council would be a government-funded (rather than industry-funded) statutory body, and would extend beyond regulating just print, into radio, TV and for the first time, online news media. Its decisions would be binding. If Finkelstein’s model is adopted it will have far reaching effects for the radio industry, as well as all other media.
Finkelstein considered internet media regulation to be logical:“In an era of media convergence, where many organisations transmit the same story on more than one platform, it is logical that there be consistent regulation affecting them all.”
In advocating reform, the report addressed what it identified as two key problems for Australian media: concentration of media ownership and a lack of public trust.
“Market failure…arises from the concentration of ownership of the mainstream news services…This adversely affects democracy…
“The trust in newspapers’ coverage of political views is low: many believe the news is not reported accurately, fairness and diversity of opinion is lacking, and there is a general belief that newspapers have too much power.”
Editorials in major newspapers disputed this view, arguing there was no market failure and that extra controls are not necessary.
The report was commissioned in the wake of widespread anger over the conduct of now-defunct Murdoch newspaper News of the World in Britain. After months of hearings, Finkelstein QC has released his findings, with his main recommendation to establish the council.
Finkelstein noted that the standards are likely to be ”substantially the same as those that presently apply and which all profess to embrace”.
The council would take away responsibility for news and current affairs from the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA), which looks after broadcasting, and it would also take away responsibility from the voluntary Australian Press Council.
If the inquiry’s recommendation is adopted it would mean that responsibility for radio and tv codes of practice could be split between two bodies, the Media Council handling news codes, and the ACMA retaining responsibility for the many other codes. This would create a significant degree of duplication and extra bureaucracy, splitting accountability between two regulators.
The report found the Press Council is conflicted, being paid for and somewhat controlled by the newspaper industry, and that ACMA’s complaints-handling processes were “cumbersome and slow”.
In handing public complaints, the News Media Council will have the power to require a news media outlet to publish an apology, correction or retraction, or afford a person a right to reply.
Another finding in the report was that only ”one or two” newspapers had appointed an Ombudsman or readers’ representatives.
Finkelstein also expressed concern that defamation proceedings against the media tended to be expensive, protracted and did not give complainants the opportunity to seek redress for inaccuracy or unfairness.
The report recommended that the Productivity Commission investigate the health of the news industry within two years, and that the government should investigate the health of regional media ”as a matter of some urgency”.
The inquiry also advocated government-funded quality journalism education. “In a financially-embattled industry, there is often less investment in career development than in one which is booming,” Finkelstein writes in his report.
“There is a strong public interest in quality journalism, so government might examine ways in which it can provide education funding for journalists.”
He suggests a publicly funded “centre for investigative journalism” at one or more tertiary institutions.”
The report also recommends that blogs with 15,000 hits per year (43 per day) would be regulated.
In a statement issued after the report, Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull expressed scepticism regarding the findings.
“[Finkelstein’s key recommendations] are not [ones] which would appeal to the Coalition, believing as we do in a free press – free in particular to hold governments to account.”
Turnbull expressed specific concern over the prospect of a ‘super regulator’, and its power to regulate the internet, which he believed to be unnecessary.
“It is worth noting that the segment of the media which is most criticised for bias and innacuracy is in fact commercial radio which is already subject to regulation by ACMA. Mr Finkelstein is critical of ACMA in its media regulation role, but if media outlets unregulated by Government (such as metropolitan newspapers) have a better track record for balance and accuracy than commercial radio (which is regulated), doesn’t that make an equally valid case for reducing rather than increasing the regulation of the media?”
Greens leader Bob Brown played an integral role pushing for the inquiry.
“What [Justice Finkelstein is] looking at here is not punitive action on the media in terms of fines or imprisonment, but rather remedy of inaccuracies or falsehoods or slander if that occurs to people and they’re hurt by it,” Senator Brown said.
“And I think the public will be right behind that. The best way to do that is to require news outlets where they’ve made a mistake to remedy it.
“I think that we have an inadequate system of serving the public interest and truth, which are the two first things mentioned in the journalist code of ethics in this country at the moment, and I think this is a big step towards fulfilling the journalists’ code of ethics and making sure that quality journalism is supported.”
Press Council chairman Professor Julian Disney told that ABC that its future is now in the hands of publishers.
“I think the problem that Mr Finkelstein faced is that he understandably felt that at least some of the publishers were not willing to provide the extra resources and other support that we need to be able to perform effectively,” he said.
“I think it’s clear from the report that is really the main reason why he then went for another approach.”
Christopher Warren, the federal secretary of the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance, said government regulation of the media should be resisted.
“As far as we are concerned, a government-funded body with the power to determine what newspapers should and shouldn’t publish smacks of an attempt to impose government control on a free press.”