Independent Media Inquiry

This piece originally appeared in The Age

Stuart Littlemore QC—commanding, eloquent and, in the words of one senior journalist to me, overweeningly arrogant—took his seat at the Independent Media Inquiry. “The previous woman is wrong,” he opened, referring to an AAP representative. “She mistakes error for defamation.” It had taken just seconds for his pugnacity to assert itself.

In Littlemore’s testimony could be found a snapshot of the cultural fault-line defining the Inquiry. Crudely, it divides journalists and media proprietors from those who conceived and administer it—the Labor Government and judges and lawyers (Ray Finkelstein’s deputy, Matthew Ricketson, is, however, a former journalist and current journalism academic).

It’s a fault-line defined by rival professional instincts—free speech and self-regulation on one side, and reform and regulation on the other. Jonathan Holmes, host of ABC’s Media Watch, put it to me this way: “Ray Finkelstein is contrary to the basic instincts of those appearing. I think the media are basically anti-regulatory, and the judiciary are regulatory, by nature.” Holmes also added that it would be “primeval,” for instance, to begin issuing “media licenses”.

Littlemore’s opening line about mistaking error for defamation struck at the heart of most journalist’s testimonies: that common and criminal law, combined with a cultural sense of propriety and market competition, is sufficient regulation and provides those mistreated by malicious or inaccurate stories with vindication or compensation. “The brutal reality,” Littlemore said, “is that if a case is settled, lawyers get less money. The reality is, lawyers keep cases going too long… Plaintiffs can’t afford to sue, mostly.”

It’s a difficult point to ignore: if we argue that the law provides for those injured by journalistic excess, we must also accept that there are serious hurdles to accessing said justice.

The competing professional reflexes of the media and the judiciary isn’t the only fault-line of these proceedings. A deep lack of trust is, also. I spoke to Margaret Simons—media writer for Crikey, author of Journalism at the Crossroads and a witness at the Sydney hearings, Errol Simper, the 33-year veteran media writer at The Australian, and Jonathan Holmes—and none were in any doubt as to the motivations of Minister Conroy in establishing the inquiry. “It’s clearly politically motivated,” Simons said. The rest felt the same. “Who is Ray Finkelstein?” Simper asked. “Why was he appointed? Is he mates with Conroy?”

***

Contradictions abound. The Independent Media Inquiry hasn’t piqued passions here, the way the Leveson Inquiry has in Britain, and for good reason: the industrialised corruption and sordid nexus of police, politicians and press men in the UK hasn’t been replicated here. “Not yet,” some say, as way of arguing for press regulation, while others argue that it’s absurd and offensive to preemptively compare our press with Britain’s. This is just one of many irreconcilable tensions.

Avaaz, an activist organisation which claims 250,000 Australian members, gave testimony at the Sydney hearings. I expected Jacobin zealotry, but listened instead to a young, polite and well spoken young man. Still, I gritted my teeth as I listened to his anaemic mantra: “We need more diversity.” It was put to him that the internet provides an increasing spectrum of independent news and opinion sites, but this was dismissed. “We don’t think it’s enough.” He didn’t have any suggestions, really, about how to compel this into existence.

I would have also put it to our young man that the media mogul is a phenomenon in decline, and that if he feels that not enough Australians are reading “intelligent” sources, I would remind him it is not government’s job to coral people to “approved” news sources, nor to legislate for people’s intelligence or political interest.  It’s also true to say that a concentration of ownership does not equal a concentration of opinion.

There are more thoughtful arguments, though, for press regulation.

Only yesterday did a friend say to me that you don’t hear engineers boast that if their industry wasn’t up to scratch—if a lack of professional standards meant that any building you occupied could collapse—that society, like their shoddy workmanship, would fall apart. They don’t say this—and it might be ridiculous if they did—but it is undeniably true. The same applies to doctors and nurses and so many other professions.

“Journalism,” Stuart Littlemore said, “is not a profession. There’s no accountability whatever. It may be a craft, but it is not a profession. I feel very strongly about this. There are no enforceable professional standards.”

He’s right. But does it matter? The media is arguably no more important than doctors or nurses or pilots for a safe and stable society, and, however noble the defence of free speech by journalists, it is an arrogance and a sense of exceptionalism which promotes it above all other principles. It’s an axiom, too, that free speech must be accompanied by responsibilities.

But free speech is a principle different to, say, engineering integrity, in that it’s a principle best served by an absence of regulation. This seems to me to be a reasonable philosophical basis for media exceptionalism.

The thoughtful Jay Rosen, in a recent piece for The Drum, detailed a troubling culture in News Ltd.—and one that’s been echoed to me by former News journos—but, if you read Rosen’s piece through, he could not come up with any regulatory solution—just the suggestion of more external and internal criticism. Fine.

And here’s the rub: to state that you find Today Tonight or The Australian or 2GB repugnant is not clever or useful, however deep your conviction. If there are problems, then the road to regulation is a difficult one, delicately balancing freedom of speech with protections of the individual. This requires a sobriety and a humility that’s been sorely lacking.

 

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