Some interesting news this week of a new organisation set up to represent newspaper publishers.
THE country’s four major newspaper publishers have formed a new venture, the Newspaper Works, to give the industry a united voice on a range of issues from environmental sustainability to collecting readership data.
Under the new banner, the publishers at Fairfax Media, News Ltd, Seven West Media and APN News & Media have the scope to discuss, comment and set collective policies to make the sector more efficient for advertisers and readers.
I can’t help but wonder if this is not a precursor to something else – the break-up, or perhaps the assassination – of the Australian Press Council.
In the past few weeks the Finkelstein inquiry has been getting an ear-bashing from old-school newspaper types objecting to the kite-flying proposal to give the Press Council more teeth and some government funding.
All along Ray Finkelstein has been raising this possibility as a solution to the vexed question of how to enforce greater accountability for errors and egregious attacks while maintaining the cloak of respectability (invisibility?) that comes with the pretence of full ‘independence’.
In Perth a few days ago, this hefty swing from West Australian Newspapers group editor-in-chief Bob Cronin smashed the government support delivery out of the ground:
“My concern is that in recent times, rather than dealing harshly with egregious errors, the council has become a cudgel with which zealots, bigots, academics and despotic politicians are able to beat newspapers which dare to depart from their view of the world.”
ANY attempt to force a newspaper to publish a judgment from a government-funded body would send a message that the Australian government does not believe in freedom of the press, a leading media law researcher has warned. Mark Pearson, professor of journalism at Bond University and the Australian correspondent for Reporters Sans Frontieres, was speaking at the final day of public hearings for the government’s media inquiry.
Chairman and former Federal Court judge Ray Finkelstein QC asked Professor Pearson what he thought of the notion of a levy-funded regulatory body with the power to order newspapers to publish Press Council-style judgments.
“Two out of three of the major members of the Press Council have told me they will refuse to provide any more funding,” Mr Finkelstein said. “So what do I do?”
But in a robust exchange of views Professor Pearson argued that any such body would be
viewed as an instrument of government regulation and would be at odds with any editor’s view of their role. “The notion of the fourth estate is a residual idea, it is much more than a commercial ethic. It is part of an editor’s sense of fierce independence from a government-funded body.”
Mr Finkelstein argued with Professor Pearson that a levy-funded body could be different.
“It is still a government institution,” Professor Pearson replied and said no editor or publisher would support it.
“Without freedom of expression embodied in a constitution or bill of rights, it would send a message to the international community that the Australian government wants to force its will on media organisations.”
Professor Pearson said he questioned any need for a new regulatory body when the Press Council did its job “reasonably well” and that all it lacked was community education of its process.
He also questioned the cost of the inquiry, estimating it as more than $1 million.
“So what, so what?” Mr Finkelstein said, glaring at him.
“I don’t object to government funding, but I do object to the regulatory regime,” Professor Pearson said.
Earlier, Mr Finkelstein had remarked that he was starting to understand the way editors thought: “Judges don’t like being told what to do and I have the feeling editors are like judges.”
The inquiry was also told publishers could benefit from the advice of an “integrity”authority.
I don’t agree with all of Pearson’s remarks, but in general he’s right – publishers have given a strong signal that they don’t like the idea of government ‘interference’ in their self-regulation (mutual stroking) regime.
But Mark is mistaken in his view about the links between ‘freedom of expression’ in a bill of rights type instrument and the freedom of the press being threatened by government ‘forcing its will’ on media organisations.
This idea is based on a flawed – but widely held view – that individual humans and giant media corporations are the same thing in the eyes of the law and that they have the same ‘rights’. I say this is bullshit.
Giant media corporations are legal entities (firms or companies) established for the benefit of shareholders. Their whole reason for being is to make money – profits – and to distribute this to shareholders.
Why should something – the media company in this case – which is founded on the principle of private profit be extended what is fundamentally a human right – the right of free expression.
What the legal fiction of equality before the law does in this instance is give licence to the private ownership of this right to speech.
The ‘right’ to freedom of expression should not reside with the media company; it actually belongs to the people and, as our political representatives – working to the public interest – governments technically and morally have a right to intercede on our behalf to ensure that corporations act in the public interest.
This is not going to happen, the force of the (broken) market will ensure that capital is free to exploit and expropriate and also to continue speaking with forked tongue on freedom of speech.
I am working on a major research piece that will elucidate my arguments more clearly. That will be available early in the new year.
This is my last post for 2011. I am having yet another round of hand surgery on Tuesday next – the dreaded ‘Viking disease‘ – and will be in a cast for three weeks.
I hope you have a safe and fun silly season where ever you are in the world. As a level 7 aetheist I offer a secular greeting – “cheers”.