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Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Dr Muller's 2005 media prescriptions worth another look

In the reporting and commentary over the last few days about an Australian response to the News of the World and related Murdoch developments I'm yet to see any mention of Dr Denis Muller Lecturer in Journalism at Swinburne University of Technology whose 2005 doctoral thesis "Media Accountability in a Liberal Democracy" includes the results of rare research on the awareness and observance of ethical standards among journalists in Australia, as well as some prescriptions for improving the unsatisfactory state of accountability and transparency in media organisations. Dr Muller's views, based on his own career as a journalist and on the research, are relevant to the current debate, including that those who give the orders not just journalists should be bound to standards of conduct as part of an effective media accountability system. The following are extracts from his concluding chapter.

Media ethics
Dr Muller comments that the various codes that currently guide media behaviour
all espouse honesty, integrity, fairness, accuracy, impartiality, promotion of a free press, and correction of material errors. They also exhibit substantial gaps, perhaps because they have insufficient focus on practice. The four main gaps are: no means of judging reasonableness in relation to decisions to publish; no guidance as to the standard of proof required before publication; no guidance as to the handling of material known to have been illegally obtained, and no attempt to define the concept of the public interest. There is also nothing on “chequebook journalism” or on the issue of suppression of information. The profession clearly needs a set of practice standards in addition to the codes which, in effect, are statements about values. The literature on media ethics suggests the codes are ineffectual, raising the question of how amenable journalists are to ethical constraint. While experience suggests that journalists in Australia may be amenable, strong practical and cultural factors in the media inhibit the development of an ethically oriented approach. The main practical inhibitor is that editors want results and not all are very choosey about how the results are obtained. The main cultural inhibitor is the existence of what has been called the “cinematic” sense of the journalist as the outsider, massively independent and idiosyncratic. The findings from the survey of journalists conducted for this research certainly bear that out, with an element of respondents arguing for very broad exceptions to be made to ethical constraint, based upon a highly developed – one might say over-developed -- sense of importance that they attach to the journalistic function.
Dr Muller's research covered public perceptions as well as journalists attitudes and revealed
a values clash between the profession and the society it serves that undermines the profession’s credibility and calls into question the extent to which its practices meet public expectations. It is very much in the interests of the profession and of society that this should be resolved. A stronger and more relevant ethical framework, coupled with visible and transparent mechanisms of accountability, would make a major contribution to this resolution.
Media accountability
Dr Muller described the present system of media accountability in Australia as
fragmented, Byzantine in its complexity, lacking transparency in its operations, inherently biased towards the interests of journalists and publishers, and lacking credibility. For all these reasons, it is argued that the mechanisms of media accountability are inadequate both in absolute terms and when compared with the standards of accountability demanded by the media of other institutions such as parliament, executive government and the judiciary. The fragmentation is structural, caused by historical differences between the development of printing and broadcasting, a fractious industrial history, inconsistent government policies, technological differences, and the seigneurial instincts of the old-style press proprietors. As a result, no unified system of accountability covering publishers, news executives and journalists exists in Australia. The mechanisms that do exist are fragmented along technological, industrial and proprietorial lines.
He continued:
This system simply is not good enough. What is required is a robust and unified ethics-based system of self-regulation, widely publicised, transparent in operation, privileged from retaliatory litigation except where there has been malice or manifest failure of natural justice. The foci should be on the functional performance of the media and on the ethical behaviour of journalists, including editors and editorial executives.
Dr Muller outlined the essential characteristics of such a system highlighting the importance of holding all involved to a common set of values and standards:
This is essential for two reasons: first as a matter of principle there is no reason to exempt certain members of the profession merely on grounds of status or position; second as a matter of practicality if accountability is to be achieved in respect of any one piece of work, it is likely that more than one person, each with different functions and status, is going to be called to account. This is because very often one piece of work is the product of many different hands, and accountability should weigh upon each in proportion to his or her degree of responsibility. Where exemptions exist, accountability breaks down, and so does natural justice.
He suggested some reshaping of the industry/profession landscape, advocating two new bodies:
an Institute of Media Ethics, independent of the media industry but working in co-operation with it, to develop and implement a unified code of ethics and standards of practice. These would be binding on print and electronic media journalists at all levels. Such an institute would also perform an educative function, providing professional development, developing educative materials, delivering courses, providing a ready source of practical advice to practitioners, publishing relevant literature. It would also provide a forum for public debate.
And an even bigger ask, for
a Media Responsibility and Recognition Organisation, again covering print and electronic media journalists at all levels. It would have three main functions: to arbitrate on public complaints, to recognise excellence in the media’s performance of its functions, and to administer a system of journalists’ accreditation. In its complaints-handling role it would exhibit the eleven characteristics listed above. It would draw its power from a contractually binding involvement of all media organisations similar to the contractual mechanisms that bind Australia’s banks to their ombudsman system. It would replace the existing external complaints mechanisms, but draw representation from them. In its recognition function, it would not presume to instruct media on issues concerning content, but remind the media of their obligations, publish relevant literature, provide a forum for public debate, and recognise excellence with a special award that was integrated into, but not displacing, existing award systems. In its accreditation role it would set standards for accreditation of individual journalists and have power to confer and withdraw accreditation. Accreditation would be agreed to by the signatories to the organisation as providing a threshold requirement for employment on staff, though not necessarily for contributors. Standards for accreditation would include membership, and adherence to the codes and standards of the Institute of Media Ethics. It would be a self-regulatory organisation but with a majority of public members on its board and complaints committee.
Dr Muller concluded:
A unified system of accountability can work. It requires three conditions – one political, one industrial, and one technological. The political is the abolition of the distinctions between journalist and publisher and between print and electronic media, and preparedness by the industry to accept public accountability in practice as well as in principle. The industrial is the removal from the process of trade union and of employer representatives acting in those capacities. The technological is a reliable audit system through which changes to copy can be traced. The technology exists and has existed in one form or another for generations. If anything, it is easier than ever with computerised production....
Onora O’Neill in the 2002 BBC Reith lectures addressed the question of the erosion of trust in public life, and its replacement by formal processes of accountability and transparency. At the same time she noted that “. . . some powerful institutions have escaped the revolutions in accountability and transparency. Most evidently the media, in particular the print media -- while deeply preoccupied with others’ untrustworthiness -- have escaped demands for accountability.”
It is time for the demand to be insistently renewed.

The demand has been spluttering along since 2005, but gaining new strength in 2011.

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