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Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Can the media make a good fist of self-regulation?

The Finkelstein review report released in February didn't think so. It said the media had had the opportunity regarding print, had failed, and showed no sign of interest or capacity to address shortcomings. Separately it concluded that ACMA’s co-regulatory processes for television and broadcasting were cumbersome and slow. "The problems with both the external and self-regulatory mechanisms are inherent, and cannot be easily remedied by piecemeal measures." Hence a recommendation that a new statutory authority, the News Media Council, be established to set journalistic standards and handle complaints made by the public when those standards were breached.

 End of the world headlines that followed included:
"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

So this week, the Convergence Review in its final report stepped back from the Fink, suggesting the media be given another go, this time to achieve something even more complex than previously attempted, a self-regulatory scheme for all big news professional players regardless of platform (except the public broadcasters):
The Review proposes that the government first test the effectiveness of a self-regulatory arrangement that operates across all platforms. Under this approach, content service enterprises would be required to join and adequately fund an independent self-regulatory industry body which would develop self-regulatory standards for news and commentary and adjudicate complaints. As stated, this body would be predominantly funded by industry with some government contribution. The news standards body would set clear goals to be achieved within a specified time frame. If, on review, this industry-led body was not effective, the government would have the last resort option of introducing some direct statutory measures.
The Finkelstein stick has been transformed into the threat of a statutory regulator if they don't get it right this time. As Margaret Simons in Crikey (subscription) writes:
The Convergence Review Report has effectively concluded that Ray Finkelstein got the diagnosis right but the prescription wrong when he recommended statutory regulation for news media.
Perhaps the stick is worth waving but who would predict with any degree of confidence that a government three to five years hence would ever use it, regardless of how the proposed standards body performs? 

Government money might be something of an incentive to media leaders to move along recommended lines. So too the prospect of legal privileges being linked to such arrangements, although stronger language than "could" might make the point more effectively:
Membership of the news standards body could be a condition of retaining legal privileges currently provided for news and commentary in Commonwealth legislation. In particular, it seems reasonable that only those organisations that have committed to an industry self-regulatory scheme for upholding journalistic standards of fairness and accuracy should be entitled to the exemptions from the provisions of the Competition and Consumer Act 2010 concerning misleading and deceptive statements and from the obligations of the Privacy Act 1988 that would otherwise apply to those organisations. However, there is not the same argument for applying this requirement to laws protecting journalists’ sources. These laws apply to information collected by individual journalists, who might be freelance journalists rather than employees of an organisation.
The proposed communications regulator would have a role in the scheme including oversight of the adequacy of codes and capacity to act in the case of persistent or serious breaches. Chapter 4 of the Final Report has the details.

Given media hostility to the Fink, the proposed scheme reeks of pragmatism and realpolitick, and  comes with a load of qualifications about the prospects for real improvement in media standards. But given the state of play in Canberra it's unimaginable that the tough Fink line was ever a goer regardless of how you see the merits.

Media reaction to the report is, well a shade less alarm, although there is some of that, but in some instances, positive support. Chair of the Australian Press Council Professor Julian Disney welcomed the report, and wants prompt government action. The MEAA likes what it sees but thinks the recent strengthening of the Press Council with increased funding and commitment is already a big step in the right direction. Fairfax and some other players say yes, let's talk.

No prize for guessing News Limited says no way. It is yet to agree there is a problem, let alone articulate a better way forward. Its leadership credentials have been somewhat diminished by developments elsewhere in any event but it is far and away the biggest funder of the Press Council.

Comment from academe on The Conversation suggests it's all a far cry from what is really needed to lift standards.

Martin Hirst of Deakin University:
At best this suggested change amounts to a new set of dentures for the existing publisher’s poodle. It will be able to accept sanitised government funding in ways that will not upset the old-guard in the newspaper industry who see Armageddon in every attempt at regulation by government. There is no indication in this 170+ page report that there is any real problem or issue with media accountability and standards in Australia. This is a whitewash of the highest standard.

There are some strong recommendations which deserve to be applauded, but the bottom line is, the recommendations of the Convergence Review will likely do little to solve the problems that prompted public concern in the United Kingdom and in Australia about news organisations their culture, ethics and practices..Unless forced, I doubt the new standards body will be able to agree to enforce a common media code aimed at promoting fairness, accuracy and transparency.

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