JavaScript disabled. Please enable JavaScript to use My News, My Clippings, My Comments and user settings.

If you have trouble accessing our login form below, you can go to our login page.

If you have trouble accessing our login form below, you can go to our login page.

Finkelstein's 'monster' not so big and scary

Date

Sam North

Ray Finkelstein, QC, in his compelling report following the Independent Inquiry into the Media and Media Regulation, describes the birth of the Australian Press Council.

As usual with such things, it was a long and tortuous process from proposal in 1942 to establishment in 1976, with the publishers - The Age excepted - kicking and screaming all the way.

In 1975, a discussion paper found a press council was ''desirable and practicable'' and added five other options for debate.

Two days later, Moss Cass, the minister for the media, said: ''Events in the past 48 hours have convinced me that there is an urgent need for media reform in Australia … my proposal for an Australian Press Council has been subjected to bizarre distortion and hysterical overreaction. I can't quite believe it.''

The anecdote is apposite today.

Any industry, especially one so prone to navel-gazing as the media, benefits from being examined by an informed, unbiased outsider. Finkelstein has done just that.

As a former journalist of 35 years, including four on the Australian Press Council, I have watched with interest the ''hysterical overreaction'' to his measured report.

Brett McCarthy, the editor of The West Australian: ''I don't believe you can have a body funded by the government without that body coming under some degree of control by that government … A free press in this country would be lost.''

Kim Williams, the chief executive of News Limited: ''The spectre of a government-funded overseer of a free press in an open and forward-looking democracy cannot be tolerated.''

The chief executive Fairfax Media, publisher of the Herald, Greg Hywood, says he sees no evidence in the report of a problem to be solved - despite the low public standing of journalists. ''Making an argument that the media is unpopular is irrelevant,'' Hywood says. ''We are not here to be popular.''

Politicians facing a relentless array of media-commissioned polls will be interested to see that argument carried through.

Consider the Australian Press Council, the model the publishers initially fought against and now so passionately defend - and pay for.

Finkelstein says his proposed News Media Council ''is not about increasing the power of government or about imposing some form of censorship. It is about making the news media more accountable to those covered in the news, and to the public generally.''

''Those covered in the news'' have long wondered how they can they get a fair hearing when the body considering their complaint depends on the press for its very existence.

The proprietors have tried to influence the Press Council: News Ltd pulled out for a period in 1980 after taking umbrage over an adjudication; Fairfax didn't join until 1982; in 2009 Fairfax and News got together to substantially cut funding. Some noted the cuts forced the council to abandon its advocacy work - an activity unpopular with the two big media players.

As a member of the council, I found while most journalists took a complaint seriously, some had a remarkably cavalier attitude, probably helped by the fact that the worst the council could do was issue a negative adjudication to run at some stage and some place in their newspaper. Editors seemed to see adverse rulings as an unfortunate but necessary hazard. The Herald had a policy of publishing the adjudications in a reasonably prominent position but this was certainly not the case with many other publications.

Working with corporations since leaving journalism, I have been surprised at three things: the general acceptance that the media will get it wrong; the fear that the media will extract retribution should anyone complain; and the almost total lack of awareness of the Press Council.

Finkelstein has shown naivety in saying complaints could be finalised within days. Some benefit greatly from appearances by the complainant and the journalist, which take time. He has also erred in not allowing for an appeals process and recommending the regulator direct placement of its adjudications. For the council to agree with each publisher on a prominent page and a certain type size would be enough.

But with an image problem and falling circulation, I would have thought any measure which increases the standing of the media in the public eye would be worth consideration - even a News Media Council.

Sam North is media director at Ogilvy PR and a former managing editor at the Herald.

twitter Follow the National Times on Twitter: @NationalTimesAU

28 comments

  • The claim by Finkelstein that it is not about power or censorship is a nonsense. Does he expect us to believe that a so-called independent body fully funded by the government and with extraordinary powers is anything other than an attempt to regress freedom of the press and freedom of speech? Conroy is already making noises about expanding the scope of this body to cover more facets of communication.
    Finkelstein's Monster is nothing but a slow and insidious encroachment into the democratic freedoms of the Australian people.

    Commenter
    Alwyn
    Date and time
    March 13, 2012, 8:48AM
    • You're completely right Alwyn, what government institutes the NBN to establish a virtual broadband monopoly while working on an internet filter. The same one that wants to vet news articles and opinions it doesn't like.

      Commenter
      SteveH.
      Date and time
      March 13, 2012, 10:21AM
    • Did you even read the article?

      The 'free-speech, derp' response from the media and others is a massive overreaction. After all the report only recommends enforcing the same standards that the media set for themselves (but have failed to comply with). The recommendations are not about censorship - it's about the media having some accountabilioty after the fact for what they print. The following excerpt says it all.

      "in 2009 Fairfax and News got together to substantially cut funding. Some noted the cuts forced the council to abandon its advocacy work - an activity unpopular with the two big media players."

      Self-regulation = no regulation. This is exactly what the coalition and their supporters want as it benefits them.

      Commenter
      Think Big
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      March 13, 2012, 10:53AM
    • I see nothing to lose - apart from the freedom to promote vested interests, which really are unlikely to be affected to any great degree.

      Just what is going to be lost here?

      Commenter
      Jimhaz
      Location
      Occupy Cronyist Governments
      Date and time
      March 13, 2012, 11:36AM
    • As mentioned it does appear that some have not even read the article. This is a call for accountability not censorship. The hysterical cries of accountability being a leftist comspiracy have already been demonstrated to be baseless and not supported by any objective evidence. I am more concerned that a particular media empire with a track record of illegal activity including bribing police now dictate that police commissioners acceptable to them are appointed and that their empire also receive representation on the ABC Board.

      Commenter
      Bilbo
      Location
      Leichhardt
      Date and time
      March 13, 2012, 1:10PM
  • A Goverment-appointed Council of judges, lawyers, and ministerially-approved media representatives; that's plenty scary for a supposedly free press under the hammer from falling circulations; and why weren't the egregious current affairs shows included? That's right, they weren't criticising the carbon tax!

    Commenter
    Ulysses
    Location
    Orange
    Date and time
    March 13, 2012, 8:56AM
    • NO! No to a News Media Council funded by, and appointed by government.

      This idea is an insult to freedom of speech and freedom of the press and is utterly indefensible.

      Bleating Labor and Greens politicians that can't stand scrutiny set up this farce. The fact that the Greens have come out so strongly in support of its recommendations should be enough warning to any sensible person that it will curtail free speech and should not be tolerated.

      If only more media organisations applied greater scrutiny of government and institutions there would be far fewer surprises when things go wrong.

      Commenter
      Cam
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      March 13, 2012, 9:07AM
      • Bob Brown suggested the whole charade, didn't he? Suggest an inquiry, suggest the outcomes, and voila! Precisely the same outcomes. How convenient.

        Commenter
        Twodogs
        Location
        Sydney
        Date and time
        March 13, 2012, 10:54AM
    • Falling circulation has nothing to do with image, it has everything to do with digital technologies which are making the printed word largely redundant. It is however interesting to observe that the author believes good PR can help the media overcome a poor public perception. This exactly the same ambition that motivates those who have demanded Finkelstein's inquiry. The desire not to read 'bad news' stories and bask in the uncritical light of duly sanitised PR releases is the only thing that will make the Labor/Green alliance happy. And anything that falls short will always displease them.

      Commenter
      SteveH.
      Date and time
      March 13, 2012, 9:18AM
      • If this guy thinks that the media bleating our immensely unpopular government's line will increase their circulation, he's insane.

        Commenter
        Twodogs
        Location
        Sydney
        Date and time
        March 13, 2012, 10:52AM

    More comments

    Comments are now closed
    Featured advertisers