Australian Independent Media Inquiry Reports … and the implications are profound

Yesterday (Friday 2 March 2012) the Australian Independent Media Inquiry – headed by retired Federal Court Judge Ray Finkelstein – issued its report.  And what a “doozy” it is.

Here is some background, taken from the report (to access it, click here on the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy web page), which runs a full 474 pages. Announced by the Minister (Stephen Conroy) on 14 September 2011, the terms of reference were to report on:

– The effectiveness of the current media codes of practice in Australia, particularly in light of technological change that is leading to the migration of print media to digital and online platforms.

– The impact of this technological change on the business model that has supported the investment by traditional media organisations in quality journalism and the production of news, and how such activities can be supported, and diversity enhanced, in the changed media environment.

– Ways of substantially strengthening the independence and effectiveness of the Australian Press Council, including in relation to online publications, and with particular reference to the handling of complaints.

– Any related issues pertaining to the ability of the media to operate according to regulations and codes of practice, and in the public interest.

The result is a philosophical, “folksy”, easy to read and quite comprehensive snapshot of where the Australian press is today – and particularly examining the issues of freedom of the press, media business models and regulation.  It is not every report to the Minister that quotes Thomas Macaulay, John Stuart Mills’ On Liberty (1859), John Milton’s Areopagitica (1644), US Supreme Court cases from 1951, Canadian Supreme Court cases from 1957, radical thinker Cass R Sunstein’s Democracy and the Problem of Free Speech (1995), Jurgen Habermas’ The Postnational Constellation (2001) and US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart – and that’s only in part of chapter two (“The Democratic Indispensability of a Free Press”).  I was particularly interested in chapter three “Newspaper Industry Structure and Performance”, about which I will write more in detail in a later post.

I attended one day of the Sydney public hearings of the Inquiry:  Thursday 17 November 2011 at the University of Sydney, in a windowless, featureless and bland small lecture room called the Marjorie Oldfield Lecture Theatre.  I was there particularly to hear Dr Margaret Simons, who is the Chair of the Public Interest Journalism Foundation (of which I am a Board Member) and who (in December 2011) took on the position of Director for the Centre for Advanced Journalism and coordinator of the new Master of Journalism at The University of Melbourne.  Surprising to me (as the Inquiry did not publicly advertise it) were the next people to appear: John Hartigan and Campbell Reid from News Limited.  The press really showed up for that.  I sat right behind them during their “discussions” with Justice Finkelstein (and believe me, Mr Hartigan showed no pleasure at all about his being there).  Here is a photo of me from the next day’s Sydney Morning Herald, sitting behind them (in the gray shirt between Hartigan and Reid):

I have not attended very many of these Inquiry hearings, but this one struck me as rather unusual.  Finkelstein conducted all of the questioning himself and did so frequently in a very informal manner, wishing to engage his participants in philosophical debates at times, and keeping the discussion very wide-ranging (the report certainly reflects this style).  Characteristically, Finkelstein has decided with the publication of his report NOT to engage in public discussion about it (this strikes me as relatively unusual in this day and age), providing the following rationale in his media statement:

  1. While the report is lengthy there is a summary which sets out my recommendations together with a synopsis of my reasons.
  2. The report proper contains a detailed analysis of the issues I thought ought to be addressed. There is nothing I can usefully add to that analysis.
  3. Having completed my task, it is appropriate for me to await any discussion about the report’s contents, rather than to pre-empt that discussion.
  4. I do not think it fair to speak to individual members of the media lest it be thought I am showing preference to some over others.

I don’t think the media is thrilled by this, because they thrive on personalities and conflict and extravagant statements.  This Finkelstein declines to do.  Good on him – although I suspect he will continue to be in a minority in this regard.

Here is a link to the The Sydney Morning Herald article (page 3, Saturday 3 March 2012) about the inquiry’s report, which is entitled “Fears of media showdown if new watchdog wins approval”.  The greatest worry expressed in the article is that the key recommendation – to set up a government-funded “News Media Council” (replacing the voluntary industry regulation through the Australian Press Council) – “would be tantamount to government regulation”.  I am not so certain about this, partly because it seems to be universally acknowledged that the Australian Press Council is not fully functioning as it needs to (at least that was the sense in the hearing I attended).

So far, the reaction has been News Ltd, Western Australian Newspapers and the Institute of Public Affairs all do not like it, the Greens party does and Fairfax Media (publishers of the Herald) were “still digesting” the report.  I am not so worried about the “government regulation” problem, although this would necessitate some changes to the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA), the current regulator of many broadcast and advertising activities.  Let’s see how this one plays out in the coming weeks and months.

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