Federal Politics


Media should heed Leveson

Lord Justice Leveson has suggested that the media in Britain be prepared to submit to governance by, and accountability to, the people, in effecting saying that the alternative is governance by, and accountability to, the organs of the state. The latter would amount to state licensing and a real threat of censorship. As Britain's politicians on both sides know, the public will not wear the third possible alternative - doing nothing to prevent real and present abuses by the media. The media should be straining for a Leveson let-out. And the Australian media should be preparing to offer up something similar.

The Australian media environment is considerably different from the British one, a point that Australian media operators and commentators have been very keen to stress. The manifest ethical sins of the Murdoch's newspaper operations in Britain - involving illegal telephone tapping, bribery of police, systematic invasion of privacy, and the use of concentrated media power to intimidate politicians and public officials and to obtain the exercise of discretions in their favour - simply could not occur in Australia, everyone has been told. It may well be that the approximate equivalent of Britain's celebrity culture - in which starlets, sports people and socialites of no particular importance in public life, public institutions or the exercise of public power - is found here rather more in magazines and television entertainment. For all of the differences, however, many of the problems revealed ring true as threats in Australia, with a good many people seriously concerned both about the needs for checks and balances on a very powerful media industry, about the imbalances of power between media organisations and ordinary members of the public, and about the relationships between powerful media players and politicians.

One particular limb of the problem involves the way in which new technology, and perhaps a new aggression by some media players, has fundamentally altered old concepts of personal privacy, and the personal zone within which all citizens, even the rich and famous, had about themselves. On the other is a fear that the need for close and professional scrutiny of those who exercise power is greater than ever - and that the duties and responsibilities of a ''good'' media to do this should not be too casually circumscribed so as to prevent misbehaviour in a completely different area.

Behind it all too, of course, is enormous technological change having an enormous effect on all media, including their profitability and capacity to supply information of the type they have always provided. Newspaper companies are becoming general information providers operating in all mediums, including social media and the internet, and increasingly drawing most of their income from new rather than old sources. Some technological changes have made any sort of regulation tending to operate as censorship simply impossible.

Almost every player in the system, even those in favour of closer regularity and greater public accountability by the media, agree there is no role for the state in a regulation system. Yet almost every person engaged in the debate tends to make great use of the phrase ''the public interest'' and the need for media organisations to justify conduct as being in the public interest. The public interest is a particularly important concept in discussion of the repercussions when intense public debate on some issues leads some to make statements that are false, damaging or prejudiced, even if they are the honest beliefs or opinions of the holder. Defamation laws have for centuries allowed a leeway for honest error or genuine opinion in arguments, reasoning that if there were to be absolute requirements for any participant to have to be able to prove everything said, then proper debate and politics would be impossible. In recent times courts have tended to want to expand the freedom with which citizens can discuss and debate matters that affect the public generally, while becoming increasing concerned with the licence that some have taken to intrude unreasonably into the lives and affairs of others, even when it has no possible bearing on the resolution of important social and political questions.

The public most certainly does not want censorship personally managed by the British equivalent of a Senator Stephen Conroy, or arranged through a committee composed of his relations and cronies. But it most assuredly does want higher standards, and exemplary punishment for breaches of those standards. Leveson's choice is clever and cunning. This is an opportunity the media should take up, if only for fear of a clumsy alternative that undermines their capacity to carry out their real functions.