Kicking at the cornerstone of democracy The State of Press Freedom in Australia 2012
Finkelstein Report published The report of the Finkelstein Inquiry was handed to Minister Conroy on February 28, and was released publicly on March 2. Its findings were as follows: • A free press plays an essential part in democracy and no regulation should endanger that role • A free press is powerful and can affect the political process and can also do harm, sometimes unwarranted to organisations and individuals, so has a responsibility to be fair and accurate and should be publicly accountable for its conduct • Journalists and media organisations should be guided by codes of ethics regarding fairness, impartiality and independence • There is no consensus on how accountability should be enforced and the existing framework of regulation and legislation (such as defamation and contempt) are “not sufficient to achieve the degree of accountability desirable in a democracy”. The report recommends the following measures: • The formation of a new body, the News Media Council, to set journalistic standards for the news media in consultation with the industry, and handle complaints made by the public when those standards are breached • The council would be wholly government funded, membership would be compulsory for any newspaper, broadcaster or website receiving more than 15,000 “hits” per year • Beyond a statutory role in setting up the council and providing funding, government should have no role • The council would have the power to require a news media outlet to publish an apology, correction or retraction, or afford a person a right to reply. Despite evidence that in some comparable markets, especially the United States, the democratic role of the news media is endangered by the disruption to the business model that has traditionally underpinned journalism, there was insufficient evidence of this in Australia to justify recommending government support. However Finkelstein recommended that one of the functions of the News Media Council would be to chart trends in the industry to see whether there was a serious decline in the production and delivery of quality journalism and “within two years or so” the Productivity Commission be issued with a reference to conduct an inquiry into the health of the news industry and make recommendations on whether there is a need for government support. The report was roundly criticised by both publishers and the Media Alliance. The Media Alliance issued a statement on March 2 greeting the report as “a huge disappointment which not only fails to understand the way Australia’s news media operates but also fails to fully appreciate the severity of the crisis facing journalism”5.
Convergence Review As this report went to print, articles in The Australian newspaper speculated that the report of the Convergence Review panel would recommend the establishment of a new regulatory body, funded by government and with “power to impose fines and other sanctions on news outlets”. The new body would be a referral panel, sitting alongside the Australian Press Council and headed by a retired judge, which would hear matters involving “grave or consistent” breaches of Press Council standards. The body would be able to apply sanctions against media outlets, whether members of the Press Council or not. The proposals, if correctly reported, would be similar to a scheme proposed by the Press Council in its submission to the Finkelstein Inquiry, which calls for “referral of exceptionally grave or persistent breaches of its Standards to a special panel which is appointed by the Council, headed by a retired judge, and able to impose fines up to a specified level “. In 2010 a UK parliamentary committee considered the introduction of fines for serious breaches but concluded that the “case … has not been made”, adding that: “A body that was able to impose fines would bear little resemblance to today’s PCC [Press Complaints Commisison]. Its work would be slowed down by the involvement of lawyers on all sides and it would find that newspapers would be less likely to admit mistakes and offer ways of resolving complaints.” The Media Alliance thanks Ray Finkelstein QC for the opportunity to express our views both in a submission to the Independent Media Inquiry and at the hearings themselves. Unfortunately, the report of the inquiry, while comprehensive in its scope, is unsatisfactory in its conclusions. The establishment of a News Media Council, as proposed, would risk giving a government funded and appointed body control over media content. The Alliance further believes that the introduction of fines would be a retrograde step which would introduce delays, increase costs and would impact unevenly on different organisations.