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Friday, April 05, 2013

Responsible journalism, "what's the problem?"

Richard Ackland in the Sydney Morning Herald writes of flaws in whistleblower protection and defamation laws, advocating recognition here of a "responsible journalism" defence of the kind accepted in the UK since the House of Lords 1999 decision in Reynolds v. Times Newspapers , and given a fillip in Flood ten years later, and more recently adopted by the courts in Canada

I agree, and with the point Ackland makes that instances of bad journalism hold back the cause. 

But so do the media bosses who quizzically repeated "what's the problem" during the recent furore over proposed media reforms, insisting that everything to do with media standards and the self regulatory system is working wonderfully well, thank you very much.

Leaving it to Professor Julian Disney Chairman of the Australian Press Council to volunteer "There is a whole stack—at least 50 or 60 that we know of—of statutory or non-statutory privileges for journalists or media organisations." 

Some would argue that these "privileges" are essential to enable the media to do its job, and there should be more, for example the "responsible journalism" protection, and better, for example shield laws. 

But they are privileges none the less and should see the bosses in the lead on commensurate responsibility, and in adopting and enforcing high standards. Even if they have managed to see off the government's ham fisted attempt to push them along in this direction.

There is plenty of responsible journalism but everything isn't rosy. As Professor Disney explained to a Senate committee but media bosses didn't, there are plenty of problems with the current self regulatory system. Others outside the tent might add to the professor's impressive list, including the adequacy of some standards particularly respect for privacy (and a lot of haziness and lack of guidance regarding the public interest)
Professor Disney:
"There are substantial problems with media standards in Australia. A number of them we have in common with other countries. What I am going to say now is based on the experience of the complaints that we receive. We get about 600 now. The numbers increased by about 50 per cent over the last year or so, probably because our profile is so much higher than it was before, with our existence and our role being advertised in virtually all issues of every member publication...

The problems include distortion and suppression of key facts and opinions; confusion of fact and opinion; errors of fact, especially online due to excessive haste in posting material and inadequate corrections of those errors; invasion of privacy, particularly through the use of photographs taken from a distance. Some problems, of course, in any profession or industry, are inevitable. I do not think it should be a surprise that there are some. The level is higher than it should be and I think it is a significant problem that needs to be addressed.
Having said that, there is a substantial problem that needs to be addressed. I might say that it has an adverse impact, amongst other things, on freedom of expression. If people are to have freedom of expression, they need access to reliable information. If they are fed false information, then the views that they form and they might want to express will not be the views that they would form and express if they were well informed. Access to unreliable, distorted information is an attack on freedom of expression. 

Similarly, if they are unable to get their voice heard reasonably, because particular outlets have perhaps a general tendency to be more willing to publish views from one part of a perspective on a particular issue rather than another, that infringes on the freedom of expression of those people who do not come from the part that is going to be more generously covered. If they are given an occasional example to express their views but that is overwhelmed by a very extensive coverage of the other view, then again their freedom of expression suffers. Freedom of expression needs to be for all people, not just for those who are wealthy or for those who have special access to the most widely read media. Of course, it is a huge infringement on freedom of expression if people are intimidated by vitriol or by other forms of excessive abuse. That, again, even if it comes from active proponents of freedom of speech, it is in fact an attack on freedom of expression. So media standards, good media standards, are an essential element, for a number of reasons...

Quite a lot of progress has been made but we are still moving too slowly in our handling of complaints. We are suffering from sustained misrepresentation of our adjudications and other comments from some quarters, sometimes from proponents of freedom of speech, who are alleging quite forcefully that some of our adjudications have inhibited freedom of speech. By falsely presenting what we have said and implying that we have put inhibitions on freedom of speech, they themselves are inhibiting freedom of speech. We are still suffering from not a high enough level of cooperation from publishers in some areas and we need to keep working on that. We are making progress.

I want to finish with two important strengthenings that we need to achieve and then comment very briefly on the bill. The first strengthening is—as Mr Finkelstein asked of me at the inquiry, but at the time I said perhaps we should do it another way—we now definitely need to be able to institute our own investigations without waiting for a complaint. There are far too many instances...

I have seen some very bad abuses in the last few weeks where we have had no complaint and yet I know, in fact, the people were concerned about it but thought it would just make it worse if they complained."

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