Media regulation’s not the real threat to democracy

Following the phone hacking scandal that engulfed News International’s News of the World, politicians around the world were spurred by public outrage to act on a perceived lack of regulation in the media. In Australia, this led the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Senator Stephen Conroy, to announce the Independent Media Inquiry that, in contrast to the previously announced Convergence Review, had a greater focus on newspapers and websites.

Widely known as The Finkelstein Report after its key contributor, Ray Finkelstein, it received scathing criticism from the mainstream media when it was released on the 28th of February, 2012. The Institute of Public Affairs’ James Patterson echoed the sentiments of many conservatives in the press, writing at the time that “the Finkelstein Report into Media and Media Regulation is not just a massive threat to freedom of the press. It’s also a blatant attack on free speech” (2012, p. 1).

It’s of little surprise then, that when Senator Conroy announced the government’s policy for media reform on the 12th of March, 2013, a much greater storm erupted, even despite the policy being somewhat watered down. The Daily Telegraph’s controversial front page, which had Conroy pictured next to some of the most heinous despots in history with the headline Conroy Joins Them, captured the public and media’s attention and came to dominate coverage across mediums. In essence, the front page and newspaper boss’ reaction became the story and this media reporting on the media scenario played into the hands of those who wished to frame the debate in this way.

Without going into the minutiae of what occurred politically, or glossing over the government’s serious shortcomings throughout the saga, the bill was dropped after a concerted media campaign. While not wholly to blame, how corporate-owned outlets across mediums covered the issue raises some very serious questions around the trustworthiness and accountability of media organisations, values which are at the very heart of the Independent Media Inquiry Report. By analysing a 7 News report and an article by Crikey’s Bernard Keane from the 13th of March, it will be argued that the mainstream media have lost sight of their social responsibilities and that conflicts of interest are destroying the ideas of professionalism, independence and ethicality that are inherent in quality journalism.

While the press have maintained that Codes of Ethics, the concepts of professional journalism, existentialism and social responsibility, as well as regulatory bodies like the newspaper-funded Australian Press Council — who, it should be said, have refused complaints regarding The Daily Telegraph’s front page — are sufficient media regulations, public perceptions of trust and accountability are a key part of a journalist’s social contract. Without trust, the media lose relevance in a democratic society, and such perceptions can only be “nurtured by those with an existential commitment to social responsibility” (Singer, 2006, p. 15). There is a strong view, exemplified by this issue, that rank and file journalists have lost their autonomy in the mainstream media environment. Even Clifford Christians and Kaarle Nordenstreng, themselves supporters of self-regulation, submit that “it is particularly important that Codes of Ethics are used to stimulate debates on media philosophies and to sensitize media professionals about their own dependencies” (2004, p. 20). Such discussions are clearly not taking place if 7 News’ coverage is anything to go by, allowing mutual interests to control debate.

It would be unfair to say that the individual journalists in the 7 News segment are reporting unethically, however they are unintentionally allowing the network to frame the issues in a particular way. Gadi Wolfsfeld writes that:

Agenda setting provides another example of why the most important media effects are unintentional and unnoticed. They are unlikely to think about how this will influence people’s political priorities. These effects are also unnoticed because most members of the audience are naïve and take for granted the idea that if the news media are making a big deal out of something, it must be important (Wolfsfeld, 2011, p. 106).

Worth examining is 7 West Media Chairman, Kerry Stokes’, opposition to the proposals. While the segment duly notes 7 West ownership and statements on the matter, whether this would make a naïve public more sceptical of narrative bias is hard to gauge. Regardless, the 7 News journalists would have been guided as to what angle to take, as “management encourages journalists to think of themselves as company team players, as content providers meeting consumer demand and corporate priorities, rather than as independent professionals pursuing public truths”(Hackett: 2006, p. 3). Robert Hackett also believes that this kind of structural bias means the media have unparalleled influence in politics and that “when the stakes are high enough (as in government policy towards the media themselves), there is often little to stop them” (2006, p. 5). In a policy area where 7 West has a clear stake because of its print publications, it’s extremely difficult for the public to trust a journalist’s autonomy.

As previously noted, the 7 News coverage from journalists Rebecca Madden and Mia Greeves is not entirely unethical, as there’s a degree of balance with a quote from Senator Conroy. Despite this, more than half of the report was spent talking about the media’s outrage and showing various headlines, as well as quotes from News Limited’s CEO Kim Williams and Shadow Communications Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, thoroughly trashing the policy. Robert McChesney notes from a Pew Centre for the People study that, in spite of media proliferation, the majority of news stories across mediums were repeated or repackaged from newspaper articles (2012, p. 617). It should be questioned just how objective 7 News’ representation of the events is, particularly given the slights on Conroy’s reputation and even more so because the segment shows The Daily Telegraph front page, among others. Furthermore, Greeves says that Williams was furious that “he had not been consulted” (2013), which is almost laughable considering vitriolic reactions to The Finkelstein Report. By framing the debate around the newspapers’ reaction and not giving time to other media regulation supporters or academics, Conroy is almost made out to be the only advocate for reform.

In contrast to the mainstream media, Crikey’s Bernard Keane supports media regulation, and clarifies the dispute in an article cheekily titled The Stalinist Nightmare of the Media Regulating Itself. Keane is perhaps the most prolific journalist to cover the topic of media regulation in the recent past and, while he has criticised the government policy for being too soft, here he argues that it’s a good compromise for the media. Keane explains that “Conroy’s proposal is purely self-regulatory, and not even administered by a government-appointed body like ACMA, but by a bipartisan appointee” (2013). Broadcasting regulator, the Australian Media and Communications Authority, itself has an extremely poor reputation for meaningful action on complaints, particularly against individual journalists (Muller, 2012, p. 95) and that 7 News failed to mention that television stations are subject to more regulation than proposed says a lot about how the narrative was constructed.

While it can be contested that Crikey is a partisan, left-wing publication and that Kean takes this approach in his criticism of Williams, the article is objective overall, particularly given Keane’s known opinions on the matter. He doesn’t support the government’s policy for entirely different reasons to the mainstream media, and it should be noted that he often takes a much less partisan tone than fellow Crikey reporters such as Guy Rundle. Jane Singer explains that “this is the essence of existential responsibility for the journalist, and it is vital if the journalist is to be able to serve the public as his or her professional role shifts from a gatekeeper of information to a trustworthy interpreter of it (2006, p. 11). This shift from gatekeeper to interpreter role is part of the new media environment, and while Crikey isn’t exactly a blog, it does have conversational approach and allows for wider discussion in the comment section. With this in mind, Keane truly exemplifies an existentialist approach to ethical journalism, taking note of his social responsibility of interpreting the facts in a way that compromises his own ideology with those of media moguls. Crikey claims complete independence form ownership and advertisers, and while it does at times contain partisan opinion, this autonomous environment has allowed Keane to produce quality journalism.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s coverage should also be noted. Not only did the public broadcaster give Keane air-time on Radio National, Leigh Sales’ interview on 7.30 with News Limited’s Editorial Director, Campbell Reid, questioned the ethicality of The Daily Telegraph’s front page and whether such coverage is a reason why media reform is required. Rodney Tiffen notes “it should be remembered that the ABC consistently ranks as the most trusted media organisation in the country” (2012, p. 39).

In submissions from media bosses to the Independent Media Inquiry in 2011, Johan Lidberg writes that “most submissions failed to get past the regulatory issues and engage with the aim of media regulation – accountability and public trust in journalistic practice” (2012, p. 69). This shows how much of the media how completely missed the point of media reform. The art of journalism is under threat in a new media environment where funding for serious reporting is limited, and is becoming increasingly partisan and sensationalist to make a profit. This makes for inherently unethical journalism, and while freedom of the press is a key part of a strong democracy, public perceptions that the media are untrustworthy and unaccountable is more of a threat to quality journalism than the policies the media so bemoan. ACMA is already perceived as a weak institution in providing justice, let alone the ‘toothless tiger’, as the Australian Press Council is known. Quality journalism can only be achieved through a concerted effort to allow for greater autonomy in the media industry, not from government regulation, but media corporations themselves.