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.
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.
“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.
Regarding Chris Merritt, I offer this – written a couple of weeks ago.
When I read it I could not for the life of me work out what it was referring to. I just don’t get the code sometimes:
Barrage of laws slowly diluting free speech
- by: Chris Merritt
- From: The Australian
- June 29, 2012 12:00AM
WITH perfect timing, the High Court has crystallised the tenuous nature of free speech in modern Australia.
It has shown that one of the most fundamental human rights is, under Australian law, not really a right at all.
It is merely a residual concept. It is whatever is left after an ever increasing range of laws has gnawed away at what is the most fundamental of all freedoms.
The case before the High Court is symptomatic of a broader problem.
If the hollowed out “right” to fair comment cannot protect a restaurant reviewer, how could anyone expect it to protect commentary on more important subjects such as public policy formation?
The right to free speech is the great enabler: it empowers those with justifiable grievances. It focuses the minds of politicians.
When properly protected by law, it is even capable of imposing a form of discipline upon all those who run restaurants.
For other human rights, federal and state governments have built a vast legal edifice, staffed by highly-paid commissioners, with the goal of changing public behaviour in ways that are favoured by governments.
But when it comes to free speech, politicians in Canberra are heading in the other direction.
The growing attack on free speech takes many forms, some which can be traced back to Bob Brown’s successful demolition of federal Labor’s credentials on this subject.
The extent of Brown’s influence will be revealed when Labor shows its hand on two associated proposals: will it create a statutory tort of privacy – or cause of action – with the goal of encouraging people to sue each other into silence? And will Labor crack down on press freedom with a statutory regulator armed with coercive powers?
If Labor is serious about protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms, it cannot afford to protect some rights while eroding free speech.
All freedoms are precious.