There’s a sad irony to the current debate about whether media regulation in Australia should be tightened to promote diversity and hold newspapers accountable for their transgressions.
News Ltd, the principal transgressor, denies it does anything so bad as to necessitate regulation, and drives home its point by doing just the sort of things that need to be regulated.
Case in point: an article in March 17’s Sunday Telegraph, headlined “The men of TV vent free speech outrage”.
The background is that a couple of weeks ago the Tele gathered 32 of the nation’s best-known male TV presenters for a photo shoot, and then spoke to each of them about notable moments in their careers.
It was a follow-up to an earlier piece on women in journalism, and the initial piece was a light, but perfectly acceptable bit of reportage.
Later, though, the subjects were approached again, and asked their views on the debate on media laws. Eight gave quotes which were used in the follow-up story, many others said things which were not used, or declined to offer a view.
But a picture of all of them was run under the headline, giving readers the impression that all were outraged by the proposed legislation.
You can read a fuller account of this stitch-up, penned by one of the 32, the ABC’s Michael Rowland, here. Now, I know this is not a sin equivalent to, say, hacking the phone of a dead person, but it is nonetheless serious. The people involved depend on their perceived objectivity for their credibility.
So, Powerhouse contacted Rowland to ask if he had received any apology or suggestion of a forthcoming correction from News.
No. All he got when he contacted the Sunday Tele’s editor was a smart-alec jibe impugning his own objectivity and that of the ABC.
Subsequently, News Ltd’s Australian boss, Kim Williams, was asked about the matter by Rafael Epstein on 774 ABC Melbourne. Williams dismissed it as “adventurous subbing”.
Now, this may well be true. As a uni student, I worked part-time at Murdoch’s now-defunct Brisbane Sun, then run by John Hartigan and “Col Pot” Allen, and experienced firsthand the kind of “adventurous subbing” which beats stories up.
For another contemporary example of News’s egregious liberties with the facts, may we refer you to Monday night’s Media Watch program.
The fact of the matter is that much of the Murdoch media, around the world, sees freedom of the press as meaning freedom to mislead, misrepresent, and outright make things up.
Its disgraceful, illegal behaviour in Britain has just resulted in new media laws there – laws somewhat stronger, as Prime Minister Julia Gillard repeatedly pointed out, than those proposed here. This, ironically under a government led by the free-market conservatives.
There are some fine journalists working at News. The way things are at the moment, any job in journalism is a job in journalism. But it tends to be the case that promotion goes to those whom Kim Williams would call “adventurous” with the facts.
Anyway, back to the main game. The Senate inquiry into the proposed media regulation, at its second day of hearings, actually heard some sensible evidence on Tuesday.
Ray Finkelstein, QC, and Professor Matthew Ricketson, who produced the comprehensive inquiry into the media and media regulation which preceded the government’s proposed legislation, were on hand to correct a few of the misleading pronouncements made by Williams and other big media executives the previous day.
Such as, for example, the argument that there was no need to worry about media diversity because of the rise of the internet.
The fact is, big media dominates the online world, just as it dominates the hard-copy world.
Most importantly, they disputed the suggestion that legislation giving a press council (or councils) the power to insist on apologies, corrections, retractions, and maybe also a right of reply, threatened free speech.
Their evidence is worth a read; space prohibits going into it all here. You’ll find it on Hansard in due course. I suspect you won’t find it on News Ltd publications.
While they had their criticisms of the government’s proposals, Finkelstein and Ricketson saw nothing in them to justify the hysterical response of Williams and the other proprietors.
As Finkelstein said: “This bill does nothing toward ending democracy and is a relatively minor imposition on press freedom and no imposition on free speech.”
The federal opposition, of course, waxed dramatic in support of its media backers in Question Time; Opposition Leader Tony Abbott went so far as to challenge Gillard to declare the parliamentary vote on the media laws as a vote of confidence in the government. That is to say, he challenged her to tie the future of the government to the future of the legislation.
She declined to do so, and said the election would still be on September 14 and would be “a contest between a strong feisty woman and a policy-weak man, and I will win it”. Amid the ensuing chaos, she sat there looking like she believed it.
Her apparent certitude is admirable. But the odds are that on September 15, we will have an Abbott government, owing a deep debt to Murdoch and big media.
(Photo: Mike Bowers/The Global Mail)