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National Affairs

The Australian rallies the troops

31 May 2012

The Australian has it wrong at every step in its attack on Margaret Simons and the Finkelstein inquiry, writes Rodney Tiffen

Right:

Journalists at the opening hearing of the independent media inquiry, chaired by Ray Finkelstein QC (second from left) assisted by Matthew Ricketson (second from right), last November. Dean Lewins/ AAP Image

Journalists at the opening hearing of the independent media inquiry, chaired by Ray Finkelstein QC (second from left) assisted by Matthew Ricketson (second from right), last November. Dean Lewins/ AAP Image



OVER three days from Thursday 17 May, the Australian ran two front page articles, two articles on inside pages, a comment column, a Cut and Paste column and an editorial – in sum (by Robert Manne’s count) more than 6000 words – recounting its “exclusive” story that Margaret Simons, director of Melbourne University’s Centre for Advanced Journalism, had recommended her colleague Denis Muller to work on the Finkelstein inquiry into the news media and had failed to declare this fact in any public statements. Apart from many variations on the theme of Simons’s conflict of interest in making that recommendation – and the implication that she thereby influenced the inquiry’s thinking – the Australian took the opportunity to revisit some of its favoured themes, including journalism academics’ pernicious influence on the Finkelstein report, their negative attitudes towards News Limited, and how they are endangering freedom of expression. So far, so worrying – except that every step in the newspaper’s argument is wrong.

Step 1. The Finkelstein report is anti-Murdoch. Although former News Limited chief executive John Hartigan described the report as a jihad against Murdoch’s newspapers, the fact is that News Limited is mentioned, often simply as part of a list of media companies, on just thirty of the report’s 468 pages. Given the time and resources available, the inquiry didn’t attempt an extensive examination of news coverage. Instead, it reviewed some of the public controversies to show their extent and nature. In the few pages in which this was done, News Limited does figure; but given that it owns a majority of metropolitan and national titles, the attention is not disproportionate. The inquiry’s more important task was not to decide on previous complaints or make its own judgements about overall news quality, but to find a constructive means by which future disputes might be resolved.

Step 2. The recommendations are anti-journalism or inimical to free speech. The key recommendation, which has created the greatest controversy, is that the current system of voluntary self-regulation should be replaced by a mandatory one. Its standards, functioning and composition would be very like the current Australian Press Council, but newspapers would no longer have the option of dropping out when they wish to or choosing not to publish the council’s adjudications on complaints. This element of compulsion, combined with a role for government, even though it is a strictly circumscribed one, have brought the charge that it is a threat to press freedom. In my view, the opposite is the case: the proposals are in the long term interests of journalism. A system in which complaints are handled by a transparent and professional forum, without legal or financial penalties, is surely preferable for the news media themselves than a more legalistic and expensive forum. An effective redress system, in which news organisations can show their responsiveness, will help to build public credibility. While there is scope for debate about this, much of the Australian’s commentary caricatures this key recommendation.

Step 3: “Media academics” captured the inquiry. The Australian’s reporting greatly exaggerates the role of academics involved in the inquiry. The shape and findings of the report, and particularly its central recommendation, were primarily driven by the head of the inquiry, Ray Finkelstein QC, a former Justice of the Federal Court. His legal reasoning went straight to the inherent inadequacies of the Press Council – not just to the fact that it is chronically underfunded, but also recognising that its voluntary system of membership means that it was always going to be an inadequate means of accountability. In some cases, newspapers have simply withdrawn from membership when they have been displeased by the council’s findings; indeed, since the report was published West Australian Newspapers has left the council in protest at proposed internal reforms, forcefully underlining Finkelstein’s point. There were also cases of newspapers failing to report adjudications they didn’t like, or publishing them with little prominence. News Limited cut its funding some years ago when the council undertook a research project of which it disapproved. To someone like Finkelstein, accustomed to dealing with regulatory issues in other fields, the inconsistencies and double talk by newspapers about the Press Council were starkly apparent.

Step 4: Margaret Simons was instrumental in the inquiry’s appointing Denis Muller. Simons’s role in the appointment of Denis Muller was, in fact, negligible. Muller has had a long and distinguished career in journalism, has completed a PhD on journalism ethics (which included a section on the Press Council), and has long experience in survey research. He was a perfect fit for the role he took at the inquiry. My understanding is that the key moment in the decision to hire him came when Finkelstein read Muller’s PhD thesis, and saw what value he offered.

Step 5: Simons approved of the report’s main recommendation. In fact, Simons and News Limited have been at one in opposing the report’s main recommendation. Her public disagreement with this key outcome of the inquiry undermines any notion that she had an undisclosed role in its work or that she harboured some ulterior motive in her commentary.

The conspiracy theory collapses at each point. It is therefore not surprising that no other news outlet, to my knowledge, has chosen to follow up the Australian’s “exclusive.” The cliché “storm in a tea cup” is barely adequate to capture the disproportion between the outrage and the alleged offence in this case.

At the same time as the Australian was mounting its barrage against Australian journalism educators, Roger Ailes, the head of Murdoch’s Fox News in America, proclaimed in a speech at Ohio University that “one thing that qualifies me to run a journalism organisation is that I don’t have a journalism degree.” In an earlier speech, he had advised journalism students to change their major. In Ohio, he also described New York Times reporters as “a bunch of lying scum.”

External aggression has long been a News Corp trait, but perhaps the attacks on journalism educators on two continents betray a new edge. It is a political axiom that the presence of an external enemy builds internal solidarity. In Britain, News is embroiled in the biggest media scandal in living memory, one that goes to the heart of its governance procedures and throws doubt on the future direction of all its operations. As News Corp’s internal desperation grows, it is likely that the ferocity of its attacks against its critics will escalate. •

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