A new media watchdog to regulate big media corporations — but also smaller, independent and online media operations — was the key recommendation of Ray Finkelstein’s sweeping report on Australian media released on February 28.
The Finkelstein report, a result of an inquiry initiated by Greens leader Senator Bob Brown and Labor communications minister Stephen Conroy, said Australia’s highly concentrated media ownership and commercial interests had led to “market failure”.
The inquiry was damning of the corporate media, its profit-driven bias and attack-dog mentality. But its conclusions fell short of proposing ways to break up the neoliberal, user-pays system, and instead may put diverse grassroots media alternatives at risk.
Finkelstein said the present system of “self-regulation has not been successful in dealing with irresponsible reporting”. The Australian Press Council (APC) is hardly independent because almost three-quarters of its funding came from News Limited and Fairfax.
The report said a “significant problem” is that big media companies “can even impose sanctions if dissatisfied with the [Council’s] conduct, by reducing funding or even withdrawing altogether”.
The inquiry also documented examples in which “media used its power to oppose policy on self-interested commercial grounds and unfairly pursue individuals on the basis on inaccurate information”, New Matilda said on March 5.
Finkelstein concluded that the Australian Press Council should be replaced with a single council across print, television, radio and online media — the News Media Council. He said the new council’s decisions could be enforced by a court, making non-compliance a criminal offence.
Publications with a circulation of more than 3000 or news websites with more than 15,000 hits a year could be subject to Finklestein’s new regulations. This has prompted concern that smaller, independent media and even blogs would be negatively affected.
But the News Limited and Fairfax media — which control more than three-quarters of Australia’s newspapers and have the biggest online news presence — mounted a shrill attack on the inquiry designed to drown out any meaningful criticisms of Finkelstein’s report.
News Limited’s The Australian attacked the media inquiry for its “naive hubris” and said its recommendations would “poison our democracy”.
Herald Sun lawyer Justin Quill said the inquiry was a “knee-jerk” reaction to Britain’s News of the World phone hacking scandal. He said there was “not one skerrick of evidence” that similar activities took place in Rupert Murdoch’s Australian media.
Notorious Herald Sun columnist Andrew Bolt said Finkelstein’s proposal for a “super media-cop” would “police all that’s said and written in the media”. The Age said the inquiry’s recommendations would “foster a mentality inclined to censorship”.
But journalists independent of Australia’s two big media empires were mostly supportive of the inquiry.
Wendy Bacon summarised the report’s findings for New Matilda. She said the inquiry showed “you can’t rely on the market to deliver a free press”.
“This is particularly true in Australia with its highly concentrated media [and] an examination of ways of delivering quality journalism and ethical standards can’t avoid considering the concentrated nature of the media.”
La Trobe Univeristy politics professor Robert Manne said on The Monthly’s blog that Finkelstein’s report deftly “documents the widespread public disillusionment with the ethical standards and the political bias of the commercial media in Australia”.
He said News Limited’s control over newspaper circulation meant it influenced “national political opinion” which is “unprecedented throughout the Western world”.
But smaller, independent media, including Green Left Weekly and many others struggling to provide the alternative to the pro-corporate media giants, may become more endangered if Finkelstein’s recommendations were adopted in full.
The inquiry said surveys showed Australians source 60% of local news and two-thirds of international news from the internet.
The freedom to spread news and analysis online has led to a rise in alternative news websites and blogs. Alternative media such GLW can now achieve unprecedented reach online.
But Finkelstein’s report has a negative view of the internet. His report focused on the risk of inaccurate or illegitimate information over its potential to challenge the oligopoly players and break up Australia’s media empire.
Jason Wilson said on the ABC’s The Drum on March 5 that if “very small, small and medium enterprises faced the same compliance burdens as the largest media companies” News Limited would “hire a few extra media lawyers”, whereas “the kind of independent online media outlets that currently provide alternatives to the big media outlets … would have no such option.”
At GLW, for example, there is no highly paid CEO or board of directors with huge resources and networks. It relies on the fundraising efforts of its supporters, barely gets by on a shoestring budget and relies on pro bono legal advice.
Wilson also said smaller operations “might just decide that it’s easier, more sensible, to not publish risky, challenging material” under Finkelstein’s proposed News Media Council.
The proposed scheme “could actually threaten the one, long-term solution we have to the problems of concentration and media power — the range of sustainable online alternatives. From a certain point of view, it begins to look like an impost on diversity and media freedom.”