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Saturday, March 03, 2012

Reaction to the Finkelstein report as reported, or not, by the media

Most journalists particularly those sub-editors responsible for headlines aren't in any doubt: it's all gloom and doom. But the Chair of the Australian Press Council Professor Julian Disney thinks Finkelstein (here with Professor Ricketson) has put his finger on the problem, media standards, but would still like the media itself to have first crack at doing something serious about it. You wouldn't know from the reporting that even News Limited CEO Kim Williams is prepared to talk about this around the Press Council table next week. Or that a number of academics who work in this field generally welcome what Finkelstein proposes. (Admission: I haven't managed to read the 477 page report as yet. And of course it feeds into the Convergence review so it has a long way to run before any government action). But back to the media reporting, all based on reading all that fine print I'm sure..
(Update: Monday and I have read most of it as the discovery of this blooper confirms.l But Margaret Simons in Crikey was the one to selflessly sacrifice her weekend to produce this guide  to what's actually in the report-a sterling effort.)

 These lead in paragraphs this morning are typical:
"The Finkelstein report into Australia's media industry has stirred howls of protest about over-regulation of the media with its push for a statutory body to oversee standards for all news media.... Sydney Morning Herald)
"The government seems set on a collision course with the media if it accepts proposals for a new regulatory body to oversee all news and current affairs media in Australia. Newspaper publishers have reacted with alarm at the prospect of a government-funded statutory body to regulate news organisations and, if necessary, use the courts to bring them into line ...(Sydney Morning  Herald)
You don't need more than the headline to get the gist from News publications:
"Media fears for freedom as watchdog unleashed" in The Australian
"Watchdog a 'threat to free press'" in The Australian
"Put simply, mooted muzzle would not work" in The Australian
"Bringing the media to heel" editorial in The Australian
"Media union to fight government control" in the Herald Sun

There is of course some straight reporting. But not a great deal drawing attention to the statements by Chair of the Australian Press Council Professor Julian Disney-two sentences well into a report headlined "Greens welcome media report in The Australian was better than average.

It's not all gloom and doom apparently. As Professor Disney indicated on ABC Lateline last night, Finkelstein has done us all including the media a favour in drawing attention to the problem of standards. Perhaps this will shame media bosses into doing something significant to improve their own system - in the nick of time before government is tempted to go further:
JULIAN DISNEY, AUSTRALIAN PRESS COUNCIL: .. I think one of the most important things about Mr Finkelstein's report is the clinical and forthright way in which he brings home, I think, the reality of the problems of media standards here. There are significant problems and of the problem of public attitudes and lack of trust in the media.
We favour a two-phase approach. We favoured it before he reported, and we favour it now. Strengthen the Press Council first for three to four years, get the print and online regulation working well, and then transform into a new council that goes across all media.
AMY BAINBRIDGE: Julian Disney admits the council has been too slow to respond to complaints and has struggled to raise its profile. The Press Council has four full-time employees, and it says it needs at least double that to do its job properly.
JULIAN DISNEY: I think that's really the key thing of the Finkelstein report now, is that it's laid down a very clear challenge to the publishers - if they want to avoid a body which as Mr Finkelstein proposes is Government created and fully Government funded, then they must strongly improve the resources of the Press Council and the security of those resources.
This would require media organisations coming up with serious money to enable the council to do the job properly. As Professor Disney elaborated in this media release:
"Mr Finkelstein has rightly emphasised the need to strengthen media standards and the relevant regulatory systems. Many weaknesses he mentions, including in the Press Council's past performance, were identified in the Council's submission to him. He acknowledges, however, that the Council has achieved significant improvements in recent times. Mr Finkelstein considered two main options for reform – strengthening the Press Council or replacing it with a new body. Clearly he preferred the latter option because some publishers told him they were not willing to help strengthen the Council's resources. But he also spelt out ways in which the Council could be strengthened if sufficient resources were provided. The report has laid down a clear challenge for the publishers. If they wish to avoid regulation by the new body he proposes – which would be created by government and fully funded by it – they would need to guarantee substantially improved financial support for the Press Council. They also would need to accept measures aimed at providing the Council with due independence from them and to cooperate with strengthening its powers to remedy media mistakes.
The Press Council's submission proposed, in effect, a combination of Mr Finkelstein's two reform options. Its proposal involved strengthening the Council in the print and online area over the next 3-4 years and then transforming it into a body which covers news and comment in all media. This new body was designed to avoid the risks of excessive government influence and legalism which apply to the body proposed by Mr Finkelstein. The Council's phased approach would allow complex questions of implementation to be worked through during the transition process rather than risking a protracted period of paralysis or confusion while the new body was being debated, established and then becoming fully operative.”
Key publishers are meeting next week with the Council to consider whether they are now willing to support it with substantially increased, secure funding and firmer powers.
News Limited CEO Kim Williams  is prepared to have a chat about all this but his statement to this effect below was reported under a more pointed headline in The Australian  News Limited trashes statutory regulation.

It is an ambitious document, and when we have had the time to consider it in full we will comment in more detail. But the spectre of a government funded overseer of a free press in an open and forward-looking democracy like ours cannot be justified.
News Limited supports strong independent self-regulation of the print and online media and has led work to achieve this with The Australian Press Council. If print and online media are to continue to be able to robustly question, challenge and keep governments in check, they must remain self-regulated entirely independent of government. 
There is no role for government to be involved in regulation that adjudicates on whether or not reporting is fair and balanced. There is too much at stake for politicians to be able to stay impartial and independent when it comes to deciding how the media reports on them.
A strong Australian Press Council should oversee the standards and complaints process for Australian print and online media. The Council is meeting with publishers next week to continue discussing steps to further strengthen the Council. I am hopeful that will result in a constructive outcome which defends independence underpinned by public accountability with appropriate measures for transparent independent complaint, review and public commentary.
Finally, courtesy of The Conversation there are some views out there from experts without vested interest who think Finkelstein is on the right track-none of this has been picked up in any mainstream media yet as far as I can see.

Andrea Carson, Lecturer in Media, Politics and Society, University of Melbourne
..I’m cautiously optimistic about what the Finkelstein report has found. And pleasantly surprised to see that the inquiry recommends replacing the Australian Press Council (APC), which has been dogged with the toothless tiger moniker for most of its 36 years, with a new body which also encompasses all platforms of media, to be called the News Media Council (NMC). It’s a start in the right direction to get some sort of universal standards for the Australian media.

Brian McNair, Professor of Journalism, Media and Communication, Queensland University of Technology
The report says very clearly the government will have no role, apart from the funding role. If the government has no role in terms of appointments to that council, then you can see the scope for undue political influence would be limited. But that’s the risk of having any kind of statutory regulation of media. But it’s not a pre-censorship body, it’s not stepping in before publication, it’s saying it will be available to people after publication as a way of getting redress on inaccuracy, on unfairness and other kinds of issues like that. At the moment Australian Communications and Media Authority and the Australian Press Council are supposed to be doing that, but they aren’t effective. So summing up, the report says because the current regulation is not effective, we need this new council. There will be no government involvement beyond the funding and the funding is necessary to get the independence from the industry.

Johan Lidberg, Senior Lecturer in Journalism, Monash University
 My immediate response is very positive..... having read the inquiry’s rationale for going straight to a statutory body, I must say I do cautiously support that, providing that the new body is completely independent from government. And the way they’ve constructed it, it has a good chance of being quite independent. But the report is putting forward a concrete model that needs to be discussed, of course – but it is clearly doable. They also point out in their report that pretty much all the media company submissions to the inquiry recommended the status quo. I read some of them. They were quite flippant, quite arrogant. Now that’s just not on, I’m very disappointed in the Australian media for not seriously engaging with this inquiry. To keep claiming that nothing needs to be done when we have low trust in Australian media at the moment is frankly irresponsible.
Clearly, the Australian media wields the power that needs greater accountability, the current system we have is fragmented, weak and unsatisfactory in terms of handling complaints. In that light the Finkelstein report will be a great contribution and thus far I’m quite happy with it.

Alexandra Wake, Lecturer in Media and Communication, RMIT University
I think the News Media Council is a good idea and something that really needs to be done. I’m pleased that it’s going to be government funded – that is important....I also worry that the council won’t go far enough. A quick search of the report for the words “spin” and “public relations” shows that they are mentioned less than a dozen times. I’m really concerned about a small number of people who have an inappropriate amount of influence in the media. What is not widely appreciated is the role of PR people and lobbyists – the people who are controlling the news agenda. Finkelstein needed to say that this is the opportunity – with this council – of binding public relations people as well to a code of conduct that makes them honest and accountable and truthful. Most news outlets do not say where people’s interests lie, or where these news stories are coming from. I’m pretty confident that the recommendations will get taken up. I think [Communications Minister Stephen] Conroy wouldn’t have put the report out there unless he was actually planning to go through with this.


  1. I have not read the report either, Peter, but I can see no working hacks in the comments above, so I am putting my two bob in.

    One step in the right direction that is "do-able" right now(as opposed to one day, when eventually some recommendations might be implemented), is for all journalists to have to be registered - at the moment journalists do not need to be registered or qualified, that means that they don't need to comply with present AJA regulations and most unqualified and unregistered journos don't even know them.

    The second thing that needs to happen, and most outlets don't comply with this a lot, commenters, or opinion columnists are not journalists - it isn't journalism, just not news...if copy is really opinion or an advert it needs to be clear to the public.

    Another thing that is very important, is that where there is a conflict of interest due to shareholder interests, or personal conflicts for anyone who touches any piece of copy(like editors or subs), they need to declare an interest.

    I wrote mining copy for a major newspaper only to find the journalist I was meant to write with stepped on the story - I only recently found she had left to become the head spin doctor for that same mining company.

    Which leads me to my next point - the PR section and the journalists' section of the MEAA need to be run separately, and this becomes absolutely vital where regulation is involved, because they operate completely in opposition to each other. Journalists uncover info whereas spin doctors control the flow of info and journalism regulators with a background in PR are going to have a clear and direct conflict of interest that will, inevitably, as sure as there was cash for comment, stifle the honest and integral reporting that the inquiry seeks to support and empower.

  2. Anonymous2:09 pm

    none of these actions would have been necessary had the publishers
    editors and media owners behaved in a decent manner; i feel the
    australian public have had enough and need some type of protection
    from these vultures.
    regards peter