Inside Story

Diversity deferred, again?

Another inquiry has made recommendations to improve media diversity. All that’s lacking is action

Margaret Simons The Media 16 December 2021 2326 words

More relaxed for us, tougher for them: News Corp chief executive Robert Thomson appearing via video link at the Senate inquiry into the state of media diversity on 22 October. He is shown with committee chair Sarah Hanson-Young. Lukas Coch/AAP Image

If I had a dollar for every inquiry into the Australian media I’ve appeared before, made submissions to or written about over the past twelve years I would be precisely twenty dollars richer. A poor return for effort, you’d have to say.

Allowing for changes in the industry over time, the analyses made by these inquiries — whether they’ve been conducted by government departments, parliamentary committees, judges, bureaucrats or statutory authorities — have been remarkably similar, as have their proposed solutions. Yet there is precious little to show for all that activity.

The latest addition to the list is this year’s Senate inquiry into media diversity in Australia, whose report, released last week, frankly admits that much of what it has to say has been said many times before.

The good thing about all this inquiring is that if a future government ever works up the courage to break the mould of five decades and construct good, comprehensive media policy, the building blocks are lying around ready for use.

The latest inquiry does have a few important points of difference. It came in response to the petition launched by former prime minister Kevin Rudd and supported by former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull that called for a royal commission into Australian media. The petition was signed by more than half a million Australians — a new record for parliamentary petitions — many of whom will have been watching and waiting to see what results from their efforts.

The petition and public participation through submissions brought the inquiry a moral authority that can’t be entirely dissipated by the surrounding politics, including the fact that the committee’s two Liberal members each issued a dissenting report, with senator Andrew Bragg describing the inquiry as a “stunt” and the recommendations “reckless.”

Although the inquiry was initiated by the Greens and chaired by Sarah Hanson-Young, all the committee’s Labor members supported the majority report. Yet almost immediately after its release shadow communications minister Michelle Rowland told Sky News that the report’s central recommendation — a royal commission — was “not a Labor Party policy.”

Rowland did acknowledge “deep concern in Australian society” about the health of democracy and the fourth estate and “broad agreement” that regulation needed to be reformed, and pledged that Labor would “take on board the recommendations made under successive inquiries.” But when she was predictably asked why Labor senators didn’t issue a dissenting report if the recommendations were inconsistent with party policy, she fell into incoherence.

“As you said, this was a Greens-chaired committee and it’s incumbent on the senators to choose whether they put their names to reports or whether they choose to issue dissenting reports,” she said. “The key thing here… is this is done in confidence. The Senate in confidence undertakes these — it’s not undertaken as part of a party policy process, the Senate performs its functions, as it has just done now. I can tell you clearly that this is not Labor Party policy. But we are very keen to ensure the health of our democracy is preserved by taking appropriate actions in the media space that has simply gone missing in action over the last eight years.”

What can she mean by “in confidence”? There is nothing more public than a parliamentary inquiry. And don’t start me on the mixed metaphors in that last sentence.

The most active Labor senator on the inquiry was Kim Carr, who turned up consistently, unlike other committee members, was well briefed and asked lots of questions. Carr has faced his own factional challenges in recent times, but here the other Labor senators seemed to follow his lead rather than reflecting Rowland’s views or, for that matter, those of Anthony Albanese.

Given the lack of dissenting recommendations from Labor senators, the report might well be seen as a collaboration between the Green and Labor senators. Rowland was keen to reject any assertion that it reflected what Labor might do if it is in Greens-supported minority government. Labor, she said, would not do “any backroom deals [with the Greens] on any area of policy, including in the communications portfolio.”

But let’s back up. What does the report actually say?

It makes two recommendations, with the second having multiple parts. The first deals with media regulation and adopts the Rudd petition’s call for a royal commission or judicial inquiry “to determine whether the existing system of media regulation is fit-for-purpose and to investigate the concentration of media ownership in Australia.” It wants the possibility of a single, independent media regulator to be explored in order to “harmonise news media standards and oversee an effective process for remedying complaints.”

The second, covering government funding for media outlets, calls for “sustainable and adequate” funding for the ABC and SBS, permanent funding for independent newswire Australian Associated Press (currently limping forward on philanthropy after News Corp tried to close it down), a trust to administer grants for emerging media ventures, and an upgraded National Broadband Network, kept in public hands, “to provide crucial communications infrastructure for as broad a range of new media ventures as possible, especially those engaging in public interest journalism.”

The majority report also recommended using the tax system to support journalism, both through tax incentives for investment, similar to those already used to encourage private sector research and development, and by making philanthropic donations to journalism ventures tax-deductible.*

The seven chapters justifying these recommendations serve as a decent primer for those — probably including some of the Rudd petition’s signatories — who have only just begun paying attention to the state of the news media and how it is regulated.

The senators agree with News Corp that the digital platforms, including Facebook, Google and Twitter, should be regulated, and approvingly cite the current government’s moves in this direction. But they turn this point back onto News Corp itself in the very next chapter, making it clear that such regulation and accountability should be uniform, and include equivalent levels of responsibility for traditional media. They twice quote the stunningly frank response of News Corp’s global head, Robert Thomson, when asked about aspects of media regulation and digital platforms: “Honestly, I have conflicting views on this. I would like it to be relaxed for us and intensified for them.”

What follows is the most strongly worded criticism of News Corp I have seen in any media inquiry report. The section headings give you the drift: “The Corrosive Effects of Monopoly on Democracy”; “An Unhealthy and Dangerous Influence on Politics” (which covers anti-Labor bias) and “national security implications” which covers the spread of misinformation and the potential encouragement of political extremism, referencing the role of Fox News in the Capitol Building riot in Washington. Another section discusses “Public Health Misinformation,” and another examines the assertion that Rupert Murdoch is “not a fit person to steward a global media company.”

The report includes case studies to demonstrate the failure of the current regulatory system, with all the examples drawn from the behaviour of News Corp, which the senators suggest is now impervious to the action of regulators. News Corp was invited to respond to the case studies but declined to do so.

The dissenting Liberal senators and News Corporation have cited this focus as evidence of bias. I disagree. Other media outlets are far from perfect, but when it comes to Nine, Seven West and the ABC the problems are usually the result of cock-ups, resourcing difficulties, errors of judgement or outbreaks of stupidity.

The News Corp behaviour detailed in the report is of a different order — intense, politically charged campaigns against institutions and individuals, sometimes with inadequate respect for the facts. This report makes clear it is time to stop pretending the reality is otherwise.

It also contains the most strongly worded critique so far of the current system of regulation. The senators excoriate both the Australian Communications and Media Authority, which regulates broadcasting, and the text-based industry’s self-regulation body, the Australian Press Council.

I have some sympathy for ACMA staff, who are saddled with weak legislation, limited resources and an absence of political courage from successive ministers. Nevertheless, the responses of ACMA chair Nerida O’Loughlin to the senators’ questions have to be read to be believed. Why, for instance did ACMA not act before YouTube decided to take down Sky News videos spreading Covid misinformation?

Sarah Hanson-Young: Let’s be very clear, Ms O’Loughlin. We’re not asking you about the number of complaints. We’ve heard that. What we’re asking is whether Sky News… is abiding by their obligations.

Nerida O’Loughlin: We do not see evidence before us, through the complaints process, that they are not.

Hanson-Young: You don’t look for it, do you?

O’Loughlin: We do not have a monitoring role.

The senators clearly thought YouTube’s action to combat misinformation was a good thing, but they also pointed to the dangerous precedent — that a foreign-owned multinational accountable to nobody exercises greater power over the parameters of public debate in our country than the government regulator acting under Australian law.

When it came to the Press Council, the senators were scathing, noting that its performance was judged inadequate as far back as the 2012 report of the Convergence Review, and that this judgement had been echoed by just about every relevant inquiry since.

Two recent case studies refreshed the point. One concerned the United Firefighters Union (which is close to Senator Carr, it should be noted), which lodged a detailed complaint with the Press Council alleging egregious errors and vilification in a campaign by the Herald Sun. For the senators, the Press Council’s response — that it couldn’t deal with a complaint involving so many stories — “suggests not only that the Council does not have sufficient resources to investigate serious claims, but also that it could be perceived at times to be reluctant to investigate a publication that is the principal funder of its activities.”

The report notes that ten years ago, when the Finkelstein inquiry found the Press Council was not fit for purpose, News Limited (as it was then) was contributing 45 per cent of its funding. Today, the figure is 60 per cent.

The other case study concerned a campaign against Professor Michelle Telfer by the Australian. Telfer is a paediatrician and head of the Department of Adolescent Medicine at the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne. The Press Council found that the Australian’s coverage of her work with children experiencing gender dysphoria breached accuracy and fairness standards. Unbowed, the paper editorialised against the finding, saying it was “partisan and compromised by activists” and an example of “cancel culture tactics.”

Astonishingly, the Press Council suggested this combative editorial should be seen not as a sign of disrespect but rather as evidence that its adjudications matter to the industry. For the senators, it demonstrated “both the dubious ethical standards guiding the Australian’s editorial judgement, and the impotence of the Press Council.” Even the dissenting report by Senator Bragg describes the Press Council as a “toothless tiger” that can “only improve.” But he wants reform to be left to the industry.

Good luck with that. The Council and its industry members have been promising reform for more than ten years. If it were capable of serious reform, it would have done it by now.

Yet I share some of the Liberal senators’ concerns. The Labor and Green senators believe “it is the parliament’s responsibility to ensure that the nation’s news media are sufficiently diverse,” which places that obligation much more squarely in the laps of our political representatives than any other inquiry I can recall.

This needs careful teasing out. Media policy and regulation is the responsibility of government and parliament, but politicians should not be trusted with any power over news media. In fact, as this report itself lays out, that is an argument for rather than against a royal commission — to take regulation reform out of the hands of politicians.

When it comes to funding news media, one only has to look at the current government’s record of pork-barrelling and pressure on the ABC to be worried by the implications. A government-funded AAP, for instance, would be an extraordinary development — though not without precedent. The respected French newswire Agence France-Presse is state-owned and government-funded. But grants programs will always be vulnerable to political interference. The senators recommend an independent trust to oversee grants — but even so. Who appoints the trust? All routes lead to a minister’s office, and thence to cabinet.

Add to this that recent grant programs have seen money awarded to companies that nevertheless cut their editorial staff.

That’s a big reason why I think tax incentives for investment in public interest journalism is the best way of delivering government support at a time of collapsed media business models.*

Also helpful would be a longer cycle of funding for the ABC and SBS, with the amount tied to total government spending, or GDP, or another politically neutral indicator.

Most people now accept that government has a role in supporting news media; public interest journalism is a public good. We are left to determine the appropriate mechanisms. Despite so many inquiries, with so few results, these issues keep coming up, and the sheer number of Kevin Rudd’s signatories suggest it is now entering the mainstream of public concern. Surely the time for action that is more than piecemeal, that constitutes properly considered media policy, must be approaching. •

* Declaration: I have been involved in advancing these ideas through my work with the Public Interest Journalism Initiative, of which I was a board member until earlier this year. The PIJI made submissions to the Senate inquiry. The underpinning research reports can be read here.

The publication of this article was supported by a grant from the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.