Finkelstein Report seeks to stifle free press

Media SectionThe Finkelstein Report from the independent media inquiry is a huge disappointment which not only fails to understand the way Australia’s news media operates but also fails to fully appreciate the severity of the crisis facing journalism. Mr Finkelstein’s report was released by the minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy this afternoon. It’s a comprehensive discussion of the self-regulatory challenges facing the news industry. It recommendations will be delivered to the ongoing Convergence Review for consideration.

The recommendations made by the retired federal court judge fall into two broad categories, neither of them satisfactorily dealt with.

Mr Finkelstein has recommended the establishment of a new body to replace the Australian Press Council. The News Media Council would be a statutory body, government funded, membership of which would be compulsory for every broadcaster, newspaper and online publisher or even the smallest newsletter.

The new council would have the power to require a news media outlet to publish an apology, correction or retraction or give a right of reply. It would also be able to dictate the manner and placing of the apology.

Media Alliance federal secretary, Christopher Warren, said: “We have made no secret of our interest in reforming the Australian Press Council into a bigger body which would cover all media platforms. In an era of rapid convergence this is no more than good sense. We would also be willing to accept some degree of government funding, although the majority of funding should be provided by the members.”

“Where the Media Alliance parts company with Mr Finkelstein is this notion that a government can somehow impose self-regulation on the news industry by statute. As far as we are concerned, a government-funded body with the power to determine what newspapers should and shouldn’t publish smacks of an attempt to impose government control on a free press.”

Mr Finkelstein’s report also finds no reason for government support of the news media, despite compelling evidence that most Australian news organisations are in grave difficulties which is having a negative impact on their ability to produce a quality news and information service in the public interest.

The report acknowledges some of the ideas put to him in the Media Alliance submission, such as strengthening the news capacity of the ABC, creating incentives for private and philanthropic investment in news and subsidies for investigative and public interest journalism, but these are seen as recommendations for future action, rather than priorities.

“Mr Finkelstein talks of a reference to the Productivity Commission in two years time – will this be too late? Journalists are losing their jobs now. We saw that Fairfax Media declared a 44 per cent drop in its profits just last week. At the same time News Corporation – which owns 70 per cent of the newspapers sold in Australia – recently announced a 43 per cent drop in income for its publishing division.”

Mr Warren said that it appeared that Mr Finkelstein has allowed the furore whipped up by the News of the World phone hacking scandal in the UK to cloud his thinking.
“I’ve said this many times – what happened in the UK was a problem of law enforcement, not media regulation. Further, the newsrooms found to have lost their moral and ethical compass were those who, in the 1980s, prevented their journalists from joining their trade union – whose members are committed to upholding ethical standards in journalism.

“Here in Australia, I’m happy to say, journalists work to the Code of Ethics, which was developed by the Australian Journalists’ Association in the 1940s and is accepted by all media organisations in Australia. As a result of this, most journalists have a very clear sense of what is the right thing to do in the pursuit of their stories.”

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