Finkelstein's 'monster' not so big and scary
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.
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