In the Shadow of Phone Hacking: Media Accountability Inquiries in Australia

June 25, 2013
 Johan Lidberg, Monash University and Martin Hirst, Deakin University

Reproduced from the first edition of Political Economy of Communication, a new peer-reviewed journal from the Political Economy section of the International Association for Mass Communication Research (IAMCR)

Figure 1. Stalin, Mao, Castro, Conroy—media dictators Murdoch style


On July 10, 2011, Rupert Murdoch closed the News of the World, one of the biggest selling tabloids on the globe, once the newspaper had used up its store of public trust. The paper was accused of, and later admitted that a culture of illegality had engulfed its newsroom. Phones were routinely hacked and journalists paid public officials for information on celebrities and other citizens. The News of the World scandal triggered over 100 arrests of journalists, police officers, private investigators, and public officials. It also initiated a wave of inquiries into journalistic practices and standards in several countries.

This article will summarize the two inquiries into media practice and standards in Australia, and consider the impact on democratic discourse when ownership concentration of media companies reaches high levels.

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Media “reformers” drunk on Clayton’s tonic: How to be seen to be doing something while not doing much at all

March 13, 2013

Well Communications Minister Stephen Conroy has finally let the skinny, de-clawed and highly-stressed cat out of the bag. This week he has announced a raft of media reforms that will be introduced into Parliament in a series of piecemeal bills designed not to offend anyone.

Australian print and online news organisations will continue to be self-regulated through voluntary membership of a press standards body, which is likely to be the tame-cat and toothless Australian Press Council.

The announced reforms are the government’s official response to the Convergence Review and Finkelstein Inquiry into the media in Australia. But the proposals are watered down, wishy-washy and look like something the cat dragged in.

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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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Media business as usual after Convergence Review

May 4, 2012

Dull grey tone: media organisations are “Content service enterprises”, according to the Convergence Review.

The Convergence Review’s final report is remarkable for its blandness and predictability.

Despite the cries of fear and loathing from the Murdoch stable that the cold hand of government intervention was upon us, the review has explicitly rejected Ray Finkelstein’s suggestion that a statutory News Media Council should be established by legislation.

What we have in this report is an attempt to play regulation catch up with digital convergence, while preserving flexibility to adapt quickly to further change. It is a difficult balance and the report fails to meet the challenge.

The Convergence Review has opted to suggest a set of principles, rather than prescription in order for any new regulatory regime to remain nimble and effective. Unfortunately, the recommendations are weak and in some cases almost totally unworkable.

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Convergence Review Interim Report – The Conversation

December 16, 2011

Republished from The Conversation

The Federal Government’s Convergence Review has released its interim report, recommending the scrapping of existing cross-media ownership rules and that commercial operators be given “certainty” around the activities of the ABC and SBS.

The report, which says new digital media operators should face the same regulatory framework as traditional media outlets, suggests introducing a new “super-regulator”, local content quotas, and the use of a “public interest test” for media company takeovers.

Deakin University Associate Professor in Journalism Martin Hirst examines what the recommendations could mean for Australia’s rapidly changing media industry.

[published as Q&A due to my hand issues]

Do you think the report adequately responds to the challenges arising from media convergence?

I think it’s quite empty of content, to be perfectly honest. The headline in it for me is that it’s an attempt to come to terms with what I call the “techno-legal time gap” – the dissonance between what technology can do and how it is regulated.

It’s an effort to bring the regulatory regime up to speed with the technological advances in the media industry.

This is why the report emphasises platform neutrality, which is the idea that we should treat all communications technology pretty much the same way. There is no real argument anymore for maintaining any difference in the way that we regulate print and broadcast.

Convergence means the overlap between different types of media is huge, particularly online. We now see television and radio networks producing blogs and other forms of written copy. You can go to the ABC News website and read transcripts of stories from ABC radio current affairs program AM, and you can go onto a newspaper’s website and watch video content that they have made.

This is one of the key things the review was set up to look at.

Some of the proposals, such as setting up a new regulator, will take a lot of work. Is the political climate right for these changes?

The devil is really in the detail, and it’s difficult to tell just from this interim report where exactly the entire review will head.

One of the most crucial issues seems to be the time frame. We are now probably 18 months out from the next federal election, and it’s going to take much longer to get that sorted out. So it looks like the review has created a political football to be kicked around until the election comes.

The issue of setting up a replacement for the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) is quite complicated. Where does this leave the proposal put forward by head of the federal media inquiry, Ray Finkelstein QC to give more powers and money to the Press Council?

If you have one super-regulator that is at arm’s length from the government and deals with consumer complaints, then you don’t need a Press Council to deal specifically with print.

ACMA has done a good job in the past few years, particularly in reining in the worst excesses of the shock jocks. But the report is putting forward a light-touch approach to regulation here, and that is definitely what the industry wants.

The report talks about clarifying the charters of the ABC and SBS around their digital expansion. What are the implications of this?

There is a very important line in the report which is going to come back to haunt the ABC and SBS, but it is something that the Murdoch camp has been pushing for globally for some time. It says that the government must “give commercial operators certainty about the boundaries of public broadcaster activities”.

Over the past three or four years that have been various people in News Corporation, including Col Allan, John Hartigan, James Murdoch and Rupert Murdoch, attacking the ABC and BBC, saying that they’re getting in the way of commercial networks expanding.

If there is a move to put strong boundaries around the ABC and SBS, that will certainly work in favour of the commercial operators.

The review calls for a “public interest test” for media takeovers and mergers. Would this work in practice?

This relies on a flawed idea of how the market operates. If you look at the public interest test as it currently exists in the ACMA legislation, the Broadcast Services Act and at the Australian Consumer and Competition Commission, it is all about the invisible hand of the market.

What this does is set up people as consumers rather than citizens. It says that as long as we are satisfied as consumers – rather than as citizens – the public interest is being met.

The report acknowledges the concept of public interest is not very well defined.

Could the loosening of ownership rules lead to a wave of consolidation, or change the make-up of the media industry?

The elephant in the room here is what is happening to the Nine Network. No amount of tinkering with the diversity and ownership rules is going to deal with the fact that Nine is on its last legs.

In the next two to three months, it will fall into the hands of the banks or the receivers. That is the biggest problem with this review – it cannot address issues of market failure.

Five years ago Nine was competing with the ABC to be known as Australia’s national broadcaster. Now it’s a basketcase.

The reason why Nine is in such mess is partly due to previous deregulation. The only thing that could be done to keep Nine going would be to nationalise it, and that’s not going to happen.

When all its debt comes due in February, I’d be surprised if it has anything in place to keep it afloat. The banks don’t want it – it’s toxic debt.