Inquiry annoys big media, but could hurt alternative media

March 9, 2012

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.”


There's something amiss and either Bob Brown is unclear about it or aware? It will affect all media and even as regulation of big media may be needed, the independant news media is a vital compnent of democracy and vox populi. Also, whose to say the governments would not abuse their powers when they have regulatory powers over news media. I am not saying it's not worth a look at however, thoughtful and all people's creative input is needed, not just Bob Browns and the governements associated with this idea. Thanks Carl
I like this article, and it makes sense to question if this is the answer to sharing the 'cake' more in news media.
In our Murdochcracy no one opposes his interests, really. Regulation will only apply to stifle small independent media organisations, whilst the corporate propagandists and their fascist owners run riot over anybody and anything that stands in the way of their commercial and advertising interests. This is why Australians are some of the most uninformed and misinformed people in the world (and therefore ignorant) - and will continue to be so.
Murdoch and his empire do monoplise the news media and yes the article about a whitwash' rings true to me. "Outfoxed" was it the movie was informative. Have I got the right title, I'm inundated with papers here, We can't push away the puppeteers, and that big M news and other media bends and distorts the news so people too many Australians are, in either confusion and go with the flow, or plain uninformed. I think the changes to media law would also have no effect except on the alternative news media, and that's not on. yet look at how many people are not complaining, yet. I'm so unsure why Bob Brown and Stephen Conroy want this to happen, is it power and influence at it's worst with them on this matter? With all the very best to alternative media and the people being informed not misinformed. Thanks Abi(gail)
Totally understand what Anon wrote 12th March 2.39. Totally understand how Australia has news media that is skewered and distorted to serve the neocons. And of course people often follow blindly as it;s less painful than truth, more palatable and parochial. Australian governments who have allowed poverty and disadvantage to become almost the norm for soo many in a collectively rich nation, abominable. Totally think Bob Brown and Stephen Conroy should think more about what they are doing and if they already have, start looking in the mirror to see what is obvious to many informed people in Australia. Stephen Conroy the privacy invader who delves into the lives of everyday people as well as others who he perceives as threats, via means that are despicable, as well as Bob Brown who wants to be in control of the one and only party in Australia the Greens. This is not a progressive move to regulate news media in Australia as it's true it will only disempower all the alternative news media outlets, not Murdochracy. What are the people of Australia who do care going to do about this yet another 'Broadband' type government takeover? Outfoxed it is Abi(gail) and it says it all. Would a regulation body ordained by the government stop that mogul fearmongering, distorting truths and continuing his agenda of neocon anmtics, no.
Will these new independant body 'Media Watchdog' serviced by government bureaucrats improve our democracy? If it doesn't then why go there. How can it? A new super regulator along with all the regulators Stephen Conroy has already brought into being such as Broadband etc. is senseless. We all understand the war machine medias and don't like what they do, and they;re being invetsigated now for phone tapping and other such privacy abuses, the Murdoch news media that is. Why not leave it at that, and wait and see. Stop being reactionary Stephen Conroy and Bob Brown. The people are not really that 'ignornat' who ever said that.

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.