In November, I wrote that I had declined an invitation to express an interest in participating in the public hearings of the independent inquiry into the media headed by Ray Finkelstein, QC, with assistance from Matthew Ricketson.
My reasons were many and varied. Principally, I did not see any valid reason for the expenditure of taxpayers’ money on an inquiry into the private sector print media, including online publications. I was also sceptical about inquiries into the present that make recommendations about the future and are run by lawyers who have no first-hand experience of the subject of their investigations. Finkelstein worked as a solicitor, a barrister and a public servant before being appointed to the Federal Court of Australia. He has never worked in the media.
And then there was the question of how lawyers tend to see solutions to life’s problems – namely, by suggesting more legislation, regulation and the like. The media in Australia, and elsewhere, face significant challenges – especially in responding to the challenges of the internet. But it is not clear how these problems can be addressed by more regulation.
Last Wednesday, Finkelstein forwarded his report to Senator Stephen Conroy (Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy) and it was released on Friday. The core recommendation of the Finkelstein inquiry is the creation of a new government-funded body to be called the News Media Council, which would “be established 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”. According to Finkelstein, journalistic standards should be set by a government-funded body.
The proposed council is to consist of a full-time independent chairman and 20 part-time members. And who would be the chairman of this body? Well, retired judge and eminent lawyer Finkelstein has recommended that this prestigious role should go to, wait for it, “a retired judge or other eminent lawyer”. Fancy that.
According to Finkelstein, members of the council should be appointed by a committee headed by “three senior academics”. Why not butchers, or bakers or candlestick makers? Finkelstein does not say. However, a hint to his thinking is contained in the report’s introduction. It points out that, since much work had to be done in a short time, it was “necessary to appoint a team to assist with aspects of the report”. It turns out that Finkelstein’s team consisted mainly of left-wing academics and some barristers along with two Monash University law students. Enough said.
In his introduction, Finkelstein explains the origins of his inquiry. It all started “following revelations that journalists at News of the World, a London newspaper owned by News International, the English subsidiary of News Corporation, had engaged in phone hacking …” This, in turn, “provoked calls in Australia for the establishment of a wide-ranging investigation into the media”.
Finkelstein acknowledges that “it was not suggested that News Limited, the Australian subsidiary of News Corp, had engaged in similar practices”. Moreover, the only person named as calling for a general inquiry into the media was the Greens leader, Bob Brown. Nevertheless, the media inquiry was called and Finkelstein reports that “concern was expressed by several politicians and others that The Australian and The Daily Telegraph were biased in their reporting” on such issues as climate change and the national broadband network. In fact, as we know from last week, the strongest (private) critics of the Rudd Labor government were Wayne Swan, Julia Gillard, Stephen Conroy and Nicola Roxon.
This is the background to the Finkelstein inquiry, which has recommended that its new council set journalistic standards with respect to “news and current affairs coverage on all platforms … print, online, radio and television”. This would cover media with “more than 3000 copies of print per issue or a news internet site that has a minimum of 15,000 hits per annum”. In other words, Finkelstein wants the proposed News Media Council to oversee a huge number of online sites.
When academics and public servants get to work on a government report, there is invariably a host of material supplied – some of it important, some useful and some worthless. The Finkelstein report contains much of each category. Among the worthless material is the observation that “regulation theory is a well-developed area, but its application to concrete problems is not always easy”. How about that?
However, the core of the Finkelstein report is very thin indeed. He does not say how much the proposed council would cost or how many staff it would employ or where it would be located. There is a hint that the cost might be $2 million a year, but this is a mere guess.
Finkelstein is correct in expressing concern about the importance of corrections in the media – a task he wishes to be handed to the News Media Council. However, this overlooks the fact that, as a rule, the media has never been more willing to acknowledge errors and make clarifications. The task has been made easier by the growth of online sites, where permanent corrections or clarifications can be made.
The Finkelstein inquiry’s recommendations, if implemented, would restrict free expression and increase government regulation. It is this kind of regulatory encroachment that Bob Carr, the foreign minister-designate, has been attempting to thwart by his long-standing opposition to a bill of rights. He should take a keen interest in Finkelstein’s recommendations when, and if, they get to cabinet.
Gerard Henderson is executive director of The Sydney Institute.