On Thursday I received an email from the Independent Inquiry into Media and Media Regulation. The organisation’s secretariat advised that Ray Finkelstein, QC, and Matthew Ricketson had asked about my availability and interest to participate in the public hearings, which will take place late next week.
I declined the kind offer. The fact is that I do not see any valid reason for the expenditure of public money on an inquiry into the private-sector print media, including online publications.
Finkelstein was appointed to the Federal Court in 1997. He was a member of the full bench of the Federal Court which found for the Maritime Union of Australia during the waterfront dispute. Finkelstein has spent virtually his entire career in the law – primarily as a barrister and then a judge. He has never held a significant role in a private sector business and has no experience in the media.
Ricketson, who is assisting Finkelstein, is an academic who has worked as a journalist for The Age.
I’m no prophet and I have no idea as to what the findings of the media inquiry might be. But it is known that lawyers tend to see the answers to life’s problems in legislation, regulation and the like.
Recently Finkelstein wrote to the editors of Australia’s main print and media outlets. He quoted with approval from the US publisher and editor Joseph Pulitzer (1847-1911) that only the highest ideals would ”save journalism from the subservience to business interests, seeking selfish ends, antagonistic to public welfare”. Finkelstein went on to ask the editors “whether, and to what extent” they subscribed to “the view that the press has social responsibilities”. He also asked “how this social responsibility is, or should be, implemented”.
The problem with such leading questions is that they assume there is such an entity as social responsibility which should be implemented. In a democratic society, which allows almost universal free speech, one person’s social responsibility may be another person’s social irresponsibility.
Democratic societies work well because they entail the existence of competing values and interests, which express themselves in the political process. It is naive to believe that governments, or public servants or retired Federal Court judges, can determine who is, and who is not, acting in a socially responsible manner. In democracies the role of authorities is to ensure that citizens act within the law. That’s all.
To those who understand the print and online media, the real challenge at hand is survival. Seldom before have so many individuals read newspapers. It’s just that they increasingly do so online where it is more difficult to make substantial profits.
The task of such entities as News Ltd and Fairfax Media in the medium term is to ensure the continued publication of printed newspapers on weekdays. Yet the left in Australia has chosen this time to launch an assault on the print media.
News Ltd publications such as The Australian and The Daily Telegraph are the principal targets but Fairfax publications would be caught up in the downside of any increase in regulation following from the media inquiry.
In his recent talk at the IQ2 debate on the media (screened by ABC TV’s Big Ideas program), the Greens leader, Bob Brown, asked the rhetorical question: “What is the difference between an Australian abattoir, an Australian brothel and an Australian newspaper?” His answer was: “You don’t need a licence for an Australian newspaper.”
This was an unprecedented call for government regulation of the media. Traditionally, governments have issued licences for radio and television because spectrum space is limited.
However, anyone can set up a print or online publication since there is no limitation beyond what the market can bear. The Greens want to bring about a situation where politicians and bureaucrats determine whether an individual can go into publishing.
Brown concluded with the following saying: “Oscar Wilde said ‘in olden days they had the rack, nowadays they have the press’. Well, the king or Crown licensed the rack. It’s time the Crown licensed the press as well.”
Wilde was a brilliant humorist whose demise was brought about by his own choices – the press was not responsible for his jailing.
Brown followed up his performance at the IQ2 debate with a submission to the media inquiry on behalf of the Greens. Complaining about the fact that News Ltd controls about 70 per cent of the capital city newspaper audience, Brown asked: “If the elected representatives are not to rein in this debasing of the ideals of the fourth estate, who should or will?”
Brown’s comments amount to the most serious attempt by an elected politician to control the print media since Arthur Calwell, when information minister in the Curtin government, tried to censor the press during World War II. The story is told dispassionately by Paul Hasluck in The Government and the People: 1942-1945.
In recent days the left-wing Labor senator Doug Cameron has called the Murdoch press ”absolutely reprehensible”. He, too, appears to want the print media constrained by regulation. Any regulation aimed at News Ltd today could be extended to Fairfax and to as-yet unborn publications in the future. It’s difficult to see how the media inquiry can make a positive contribution to the debate.
Gerard Henderson is executive director of The Sydney Institute.