The Independent Media Inquiry report delivers

The Finkelstein report is a very comprehensive, powerful and important document – required reading for all first year journalism students and, indeed, all citizens that want to engage with the democratic process.

It’s impressive how the report lays a very firm foundation outlining the importance of freedom of speech/press and then moves onto to declaring very strong support for how the media overtime has come to represent and safe guard this very most fundamental trait of a healthy democracy.

My interpretation is that the report is an advocate for media freedom. The critique it levels against some publications is out of concern for the media system – that poor practice and low accountability undermines it.

Overall I’m supportive of the Finkelstein report and the suggested News Media Council. My only reservation is the recommendation that the council should be statutory based.

In my submission to the inquiry I (and several others) argued for the need of a media ethics body covering all media regardless of format pointing to the Norwegian Press Complaints Commission as one very successful model. I suggested the Australian media industry should be given one more go at making self/co-regulation work before we considered any statutory actions. However, after I read the media industry submissions to the inquiry that argued for the current weak, fragmented and unsatisfactory system, I’m inclined to agree with Guardian journalist Nick Davies’ observation at the UK Leveson inquiry that the media industry may already have disqualified itself from the privilege of self-regulation.

The Australian media industry had an opportunity to prove it was up to the task of self-regulation in the submissions to the inquiry. Instead most of the submissions (I’m currently conducting a content analysis of the submissions) argue for status quo and some of them are outright arrogant and sometimes flippant and do not address the trust gulf between them and the public that is so evident.

Chapter four in the report covering standards and public trust is a devastating read. Many have of course been aware of research into public trust in media – but here it’s synthesised in a way that makes it absolutely clear that Australian media (and this can be extended globally) is faced with a trust emergency. This is very serious for an industry whose business model is built on trust, integrity and independence.

So, perhaps the Finkelstein report has got it right in skipping straight to a statutory based media ethics body. However, I need further convincing of precisely how the government will be kept at triple arms length from the News Media Council. For the moment I interpret the suggested system as being similar to the current co-regulation system covering the Australian broadcasters. This is statutory based and it has not brought government censorship to TV and radio.

It is disappointing that the report does not recommend tax breaks for non-profit public interest publications. Clearly the inquiry did not get the message on the dire need for this.

What we need now is an open and constructive discussion with all stakeholders, including the public, of how we safe guard journalistic standards in Australia. This is a task vital to the health of our democracy. I’m not convinced it’s a good idea to keep the editors and media owners outside the News Media Council. They directly affect daily journalistic decisions via staffing and resource allocation. On the other hand, if the council has enough teeth it will indirectly hold the media owners to account for not allocating enough resources to uphold journalistic standards.

What is least of all needed is a media industry crying foul on government censorship moves as soon as the s(tatutory) word is mentioned and refusing to engage in discussion.

The last piece in the media regulation jigsaw is the Convergence Review report due by the end of March. The UK Leveson report will also play into the final outcome.

We as journalism educators and researchers need to find the balance between supporting the industry and at the same time engaging them in constructive and serious discussion about the strong connection between the trust issues and accountability. If the industry is to truly come of age (in the eyes of society as a whole) the trust and accountability issues are at the core. To dismiss the Finkelstein report as a government censorship move would be a grave mistake indeed and again play into the hands of those that want to describe journalism as an immature trade and not a democratically essential and accountable profession.

Of the media industry submissions, Eric Beecher’s (Crikey, etc) stood out. He concluded thus:

‘Unless the media puts its own house in order, transparently and aggressively, there is every chance over the next few years that governments and courts, under pressure from the disillusioned consumers of journalism, will do it for us.’

If more of his colleagues shared this understanding, the task ahead would be easier.