From “hate media” to another fine mess: How media reform got derailed

March 13, 2013

Don Pedro of Aragon: “Officers, what offence have these men done?”

Dogberry: “Marry, sir, they have committed false report; moreover, they have spoken untruths; secondarily, they are slanders; sixth and lastly, they have belied a lady; thirdly, they have verified unjust things; and, to conclude, they are lying knaves.”

William Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing Act 5:Scene 1

May 19, 2011: On a mild mid-autumn day in Canberra, Greens leader Bob Brown held a fairly standard media conference to discuss climate change, emissions trading schemes and the carbon tax. During the Q&A session Brown mentioned The Australian and questioned why it was editorially opposed to making the big polluters pay. The following exchange took place:

Brown:The Australian has a position of opposing such action. My question to you is ‘Why is that?’”

Reporter: “As they said the other day, when you’re on this side, you ask the questions.”

Brown: “No. I’m just wondering why the hate media, it’s got a negative front page from top to bottom today; why it can’t be more responsible and constructive.” [Interjection]

Brown: “Let me finish. I’m just asking why you can’t be more constructive.”

Actually, that’s a fair question. The Australian would rather parade the ill-thought opinions of buffoons like Lord Monkton that get to grips with climate science. The science doesn’t suit the business interests of The Australian’s real clients.

On that now fateful May day Bob Brown made the point that the maturity of the climate change debate in Australia is questionable:

Brown: “The Murdoch media has a great deal of responsibility to take for debasing that maturity which is informed by scientific opinion from right around the world.”

Brown’s comments were reasonable, but challenging the collective wisdom of the Murdoch press is never a good idea; it is at its most effective, ferocious, vicious and unforgiving when it is under attack.

Pack instincts kick in and that is what Bob Brown was facing that day on the lawns of the parliamentary courtyard. He was having a go at the coverage of climate change in the press and argued that The Australian’s reporting was “not balanced”, it was “opinionated” and “it’s not news”.

This was inflammatory stuff; several reporters snarled and barked back. Brown responded with a comment that really goes to the heart of this whole matter:

Brown: “You don’t like it when we take you on. Don’t be so tetchy, just measure up to your own rules.”

Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, it was the “hate media” grab – shorn of context – that made the headlines and the first (extremely rough) draft of history.

This was the genesis of calls for a public inquiry into media standards in Australia, but it was only the beginning.

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Media Inquiry? Inconvenient facts go down the memory hole (part 2)

July 28, 2012

Do you remember the Independent Media Inquiry?

You might vaguely recall the Finkelstein inquiry…yes, rings a faint bell?

It’s OK, I wouldn’t be surprised if you’d forgotten most of the details.

What do you remember?

Oh yes. Finkelstein, isn’t he the guy who wants to throw the champions of the fourth estate in jail for telling the truth about the nasty and unloved Ju-Liar government?

That’s right, that’s exactly right. Here’s a free online subscription to the Heart of the Nation.

According to many ‘exclusive’ stories in The Australian newspaper, the sole aim of the Independent Media Inquiry was to impose heavy sanctions on the news media because the Gillard government doesn’t handle criticism very well.

Take this story from media commentator Mark Day on 26 April 2012. It is so important it got top of page 1 treatment;

A new regulatory body, funded by government and with powers to impose fines and sanctions on news outlets is a key proposal of the long-awaited Convergence Review of the emedia sector.

Unfortunately, this story was wrong, wrong wrong.

The Convergence Review rejected any idea that there should be any such government-funded organisation with anything like the powers suggested in this breathless lead par.

However, since this story was published it has become standard operating procedure to continue the lie.

It is only possible to conclude one of four things:

a) the budget is so tight at News Limited that as many words as possible have to be recycled on a daily basis which means that key phrases are used over and over again to save money

b) the koolaid in the LimitedNews bunkers is real tasty and no one’s yet cottoned on that it is the source of the medicine that results in obligatory groupthink

c) there is a deliberate mis-information campaign going on designed to fool Australians into demanding Stephen Conroy’s head on a platter.

d) we are being fed a bowl of chump bait with fear-causing additives so we don’t see what’s really going on.

It’s probably a combination of all four.

If we’re stirred up about bloody attacks on ‘our’ freedom of speech and we can be made to think that only The Australian and the Institute of Public Affairs stands between us and a Stalino-Fascist dictatorship of ‘befuddled’ Greens from the ‘tofu belt’ aided and abetted by the ‘soft-Left media’ then maybe we’ll be goaded into action.

Seriously, you couldn’t make this stuff up even if you called yourself Chris Mitchell and spent your days dreaming of a world in which you could wield the absolute power that corrupts absolutely.

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Down the memory hole part 1: Repeat a lie long enough someone will believe it

July 25, 2012

The Armstrong Delusion

I’m not sure if you’ve noticed because they’ve been quite subtle, but whoever writes editorials for The Australian doesn’t like the idea that there should be some responsibility and accountability in the news media — particularly when it comes to News Limited papers.

I have collected more than a dozen editorials from The Australian that relate to media regulation, the Finkelstein and Convergence Review recommendations and the war on free speech that is currently crushing the news media. I have a pile of op-ed pieces 20 centimetres high and I’m slowly piecing together the story of the memory hole and the big lie.

It is impossible to include everything in one post because it is necessary to constantly check the facts. Big lies work through repetition and by relying on the assumption that no one will check the history and correct the record.

But I am working on a book about journalism ethics at the moment and a second one on freedom of speech so this is a research exercise. I am happy to share as I go along.

The memory hole is the device used in Orwell’s 1984. Winston Smith is obliged to correct (redact and edit) editions of The Times on behalf of the Inner Party. Whenever he corrects a piece of copy — usually because of some previous lie that now needs to be altered — the old story and all his working notes are sent to a furnace in the vast apparatus of the state. The offending materials are dispatched down the memory hole.

In the walls of the cubicle there were three orifices. To the right of the speakwrite, a small pneumatic tube for written messages, to the left, a larger one for newspapers; and in the side wall, within easy reach of Winston’s arm, a large oblong slit protected by a wire grating. This last was for the disposal of waste paper. Similar slits existed in thousands or tens of thousands throughout the building, not only in every room but at short intervals in every corridor. For some reason they were nicknamed memory holes. When one knew that any document was due for destruction, or even when one saw a scrap of waste paper lying about, it was an automatic action to lift the flap of the nearest memory hole and drop it in, whereupon it would be whirled away on a current of warm air to the enormous furnaces which were hidden somewhere in the recesses of the building.

George Orwell, 1984

The Australian and its free speech absolutist supporters are relying on the memory hole to erase any idea that there might be some value in media accountability and light touch regulation.

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An acceptable Press Council: We decide, you shut the f#ck up

July 11, 2012

The Australian Press Council has just announced five appointments to an advisory board that will help it review the APC standards and bring them up to speed with the digital reality of news publishing today.

Normally you might think this was good news, but not, it seems if you work for Chris Mitchell over at LimitedNews.

The panellists are all eminent in their respective fields, not folk I’d have round for a Gibson, but in their way decent, reliable and not prone to scaring the cats.

  • Hon. John Doyle AC (recently retired as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of South Australia)
  • Dr Ken Henry AC (formerly Secretary to the Australian Treasury; currently Executive Chair, ANU Institute of Public Policy)
  • Hon. Robert Hill AC (formerly Minister for Defence and Ambassador to the UN; currently Chancellor, University of Adelaide)
  • Mr Andrew Murray (formerly Australian Democrat Senator for WA; currently Chair, WA Regional Development Trust)
  • Ms Heather Ridout (formerly CEO, AiGroup; currently Board member, Reserve Bank of Australia).

Despite the credentialling and the vetting and the secret handshakes of these upstanding doyens of the establishment, The Australian‘s found sixty ways to Christmas to condemn, belittle and bemoan their appointment.

You may have trouble jumping over the firewall, though I understand their are ways around, under or through it (I pay for mine), so let me paraphrase and use a judicious amount of quotes – all of course legitimate in critical review and scholarship.

First a piece by Media diarist Nick @leysie Leys and the headline says it all in a loud, blaring voice:

Panellists have no editorial practice

A FORMER judge, a businesswoman, a former Treasury secretary and two former senators will be called on to advise the Australian Press Council on standards for journalists, despite none of them having any editorial experience.

Of the five appointments to the panel, none has any journalism experience and several have been on the receiving end of media scrutiny during their careers.

Well, there are not many people in public life who haven’t been subject to media scrutiny. But writing “on the receiving end of” makes it sound like they’ve repeatedly had some foreign object rammed up their bums — a bit like life in the Australian military it seems.

It taints them, subtle tarring and feathering – they must have done something wrong to be on the ‘receiving end’.

And of course, if you’ve ever been on the ‘receiving end’ of a late night call from a LimitedNews journalist with no agenda except to skewer the living beejesus out of you, then you would know how how it feels.

In fact, it could be argued that despite their lack of time in a functional newsroom (like many current LimitedNews hacks), their public lives and interactions with the media might make the famous five ideal and independent consultants for the important project of updating the Press Council’s standards, assessing their relevance and their relationship to the public interest.

In fact, nothing really remarkable as a media release from the Press Council points out:

Panel members’ advice will be provided on an informal basis.

The National Advisory Panel will be complemented by strengthening the Council’s other consultative processes. These include individual meetings with editors, regular Round Tables around Australia with media representatives and community leaders, and analysis of views expressed in the broader community. A number of senior journalists are also being invited to be general consultants to the Standards Project on an ongoing basis.

APC Update 9 July 2012

What sort of signal is that?

So you see, there will be input into the process from plenty of people with newsroom experience, no doubt some of them might even work for LimitedNews.

However, this reasonably balanced and low-key approach didn’t stop the increasingly erratic and unreadable Chris Merritt* from weighing in with another opinion piece.

There’s one thing you can say in favour of the senior headline writers at The Australian, they don’t fuck about; you’re never left guessing what the paper thinks:

They should stand aside if they want to help

Right, that’s clear then. So what did the great legal mind of one C Merritt make of this.

THE only way of making sense of the latest move by Julian Disney’s Press Council is to assume that its primary goal is political.

It looks like another move to distance his organisation from the media so it can be vested with coercive power.

Right now, the federal government is trying to decide whether the Press Council or some other body should be given statutory power over the media.

If the Press Council sees itself in that role, there is much to be gained by injecting more distance between the press and itself.

This helps explain why none of the five people who will have a role in reviewing the standards enforced by the council could be described as media authorities.

What?

“The only way of making sense…is to assume”

“It looks like…coercive powers”

Someone’s overdosing on the office kool aid.

What sort of signal does this send? If the rewritten standards bear the imprint of the panel’s advice, the enforcement of those standards could never be described as self-regulation.

The panel’s members must all be assumed to be people of good will. But if they really want to help, they should stand aside.

Their involvement, while well-intended, is presumptuous and counterproductive.

Recruiting such a panel for high-level policy advice on press standards makes as much sense as recruiting former newspaper editors to provide policy advice to federal Treasury.

What sort of signal does this send?

Well, let’s just assume that it’s loud and clear and follows the pattern established in a dozen editorials and countless op-ed pieces in The Australian over the last few months.

The signal is not too subtle and the signalers are wearing big dirty boots.

Just in case you can’t read the tea leaves, just assume I’m right. It goes like this:

Any attempt to impose any form of control, regulation, licencing, or pressure to behave in a nicer way to anyone who is in the way must be resisted at all costs and without fear or favour.

Opinion to the contrary must be stamped out, ignored, ridiculed and stamped out again.

We will not tolerate any opposition

Whatever you say will be taken down and used against you

Signals from the LimitedNews bunker are that not one foot-soldier will be spared in the war on media regulation.

It seems that Chris Merritt surrendered his sanity to the cause long ago.

There are plenty of news hacks who’s daily bread is predicated on giving advice to the federal Treasury on carbon pricing, which they consistently describe as a ‘tax’, on wages, which are consistently too high and on a myriad of other issues on which economics writers and newspaper editors feel qualified to have opinions.

So, quick corolary, why should lack of newsroom experience deny someone a say in the future shape of Press Council standards. Some might say it would actually be a good thing.

But will it satisfy Rupert?

As the leading figure in the Australian news media – the one with the most to lose – perhaps he should choose who gets to advise the news watchdog.

Seems only fair, so let’s help him decide.

Post your entries as a comment or email
ethicalmartiniATgmail.com

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More bad news for the Murdochs? Maybe Avaaz

May 18, 2012

Web activists Avaaz put Lachlan Murdoch’s media interests under the spotlight

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Lachlan Murdoch’s familial and professional links with News Corporation – as well as Channel 10 and radio network DMG – are cause for concern for internet activists Avaaz.
AAP

The worldwide online activist group Avaaz, which claims over 14 million members and operations in 193 countries, has this week launched an Australian campaign against Lachlan Murdoch.

The group has written to the chair of the Australian Communication and Media Authority (ACMA), Chris Chapman, seeking an inquiry into Lachlan Murdoch’s links with News Limited, Channel 10 and radio networks DMG and Nova.

In an one-line email response to The Conversation, an ACMA spokesperson indicated that normal practice is not to comment on complaints.

According to Avaaz’s letter to ACMA, the group is alleging that Lachlan Murdoch could be in breach of the Broadcasting Services Act because he might be in a position of influence and control over three media companies that operate in the Sydney radio licence area.

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Rupert is safe from Australian regulators…for now

May 7, 2012
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Australian media regulators would take an active interest in attempts by News Limited to increase its stake in Foxtel.
AAP

Problems facing media moguls Rupert and James Murdoch in the United Kingdom and the United States have yet to have an impact in Australia.

But if recent speculation is true that News Limited might be a buyer for James Packer’s 25% Foxtel stake, Murdoch could find himself in a forest of acronyms as various regulatory agencies – the Australian Consumer and Competition commission (ACCC), the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) and the Foreign Investment Review Board (FIRB) – take an active interest.

The continuing storm over the handling of the UK phone hacking scandal has seen a British parliamentary committee find Murdoch senior is not a fit and proper person to run a multinational media company.

The phone-hacking and police bribery scandal has led to more than 40 arrests in Britain and to a Sky news reporter admitting to hacking emails in pursuit of a story.

These revelations have also led to low-level investigations of News operations in the United States. In July last year, the FBI was reportedly opening an investigation of allegations that News reporters may have hacked the phones of victims of the 9/11 terrorist attack in New York and Washington DC.

There is no recent information to confirm that any investigation is on-going in the US. However, American politicians – always on the look out for a media opportunity – have signaled they are taking a keen interest in the British parliamentary report and the Leveson inquiry. A Washington DC ethics lobby group has also written to the US Federal Communications Commission seeking an inquiry into Murdoch’s control of the Fox network.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) want the FCC to revoke Foxtel’s broadcasting licences. A US senator has also written to the chair of the Leveson inquiry seeking any information that might suggest American laws have been broken by News journalists.

Even is there is no illegality, Murdoch does face some problems in the US. Under American law, the finding that he is not a fit and proper person to run a business in the UK can be used to trigger an inquiry in the USA.

These ongoing worries are more than an embarrassment to the octogenarian patriarch; they are a debilitating overhang that could ultimately affect the fate of News Corporation – the parent company that manages the family’s global media business interests, including News Limited in Australia and News International in the UK. For example, BSkyB shares took a hit on UK markets after the email hacking story came to light. Read the rest of this entry »


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