Big media takes a leaf out of big tobacco


Media bosses are doing its best to discredit the Finkelstein Report and to convince ordinary Australians that the protections it seeks are not in their best interest. The main recommendation of the Federal Government's Independent Inquiry into the Media and Media Regulation is for a publicly-funded regulatory authority to replace the Press Council, which is operated by the media companies themselves. 

Fairfax's Australian Financial Review had media industry heavyweights speak at its Future Forum on Thursday. It asserted in its editorial the next day that the 'old-school' view of the media held by the Finkelstein inquiry 'no longer exists'. 

In this new world, [Austar pay TV chief John] Porter's warning resonates: Australia should 'stop believing that paternalistic government can keep up with changes in technology and the market'.

It could be that the media bosses do have a better understanding of new technology than bureaucrats employed by the government. But if that is the case, it does not follow that they can be trusted to make and police their own rules. 

The commercial media bosses' main responsibility is to build revenue for shareholders, not to protect consumers from harm. We would not let big tobacco specify the size of health warnings on cigarette packs, so why should we allow media bosses to decide on the media that is best for us?

An editorial published in the Weekend Australian earlier this month went much further in its attempt to damn the report. The writer depicted Justice Ray Finkelstein as the victim of a left-wing ideological 'conspiracy'. This was perpetrated by academics who are 'unsuccessful' media practitioners engaged in the 'pseudo-discipline of media studies'. 

Mr Finkelstein's reliance on academics to gauge the performance of the media contaminates his report with error ... The empirical failings of these poachers-turned-gamekeepers do not appear to trouble Mr Finkelstein, who quotes at length from their submissions and 'research' to claim that the press is so biased and malevolent that it should be controlled by a government-funded body.

Dr Anne Dunn is Associate Professor in media and communications at the University of Sydney and President of the Journalism Education Association of Australia. She responds to the editorial's assertion that the claim of media studies to be vocational 'amounts to fraud'. Her explanation is that the courses are primarily designed to provide a broad education rather than practical instruction.

A university level degree with a major in journalism or media production will seldom 'claim to be vocational' ... because a university degree is widely understood to offer something more.

Among other qualities, Dunn argues that a university education fosters the ability to conduct research, use evidence and construct arguments. These, she suggests, are not evident in the Weekend Australian's editorial and other media attacks on the Finkelstein Report. 

Moreover there is an essential link between study of the humanities and a humane view of the world that is represented in the Finkelstein Report but missing from the media bosses' cries for self-regulation. These 'old-school' values are more relevant to determining the rights and wrongs of media practice than merely an understanding of new technology and markets.

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Michael Mullins, media, self-regulation, Finkelstein, John Porter, big tobacco, Anne Dunn



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Existing comments

I'm inclined to agree with [Austar boss] John Porter's statement that media bosses may well have a better understanding of new media and technological changes.

That said, media bosses are the last people I'd trust with editorial oversight.

David Arthur | 17 March 2012  

If a lie is repeated often enough it becomes true - therefore soon we may all come to accept that it is ok to allow Dracula to be in charge of the blood-bank. We already accept a 70% print-media concentration and that "big tobacco" is an altruistic and legitimate business.

Michelle Goldsmith | 17 March 2012  

Yes Michelle, and a government appointed body will be independent and not beholden to the interests of the government that appoints it.

MJ | 19 March 2012  

'Big media' have too much influence and are controlled by an un-representative section of the community and/or dictatorial owners. A notable example (exposed years later) was a forced U-turn by the highly regarded Age editor Graham Perkin insisted on by its owners. The facts are detailed in Perkin's biography. The principle that newspapers should report the facts in the news columns and express their views in editorials has long been forgotten. We accept that governments set all sorts of rules for our safety and well-being, such as speed limits on roads. Perhaps governments should also try, via a bipartisan agreement, to encourage some degree of fairness in the mass media.

Bob Corcoran | 19 March 2012  

On the weekend after the release of the Finkelstein report, the "Australian" gave a bad example of media even-handedness. The paper published several articles ALL of them hostile to the report: there wasn't a dissenting voice permitted. That seemed to me to be abuse of a quasi-monopoly press power and some vindication of the report. In any case, the media's case seems self-interested and over-stated. From the reports, it seems to me that there is no question of censorship: rather it it suggests legally mandated rules about the need for prompt and appropriately prominent CORRECTION of errors. It always strikes me as interesting than, on page 2, the "New York times" published FAR more corrections, each day, than any Australian paper [probably more than ALL of the Australian papers combined]. That COULD be because the "NYT" makes more errors; more likely, because that paper is more willing to admit its errors than is the case with the Australian press. If that latter is true, then plainly the Australian Press Council is ineffectual [pr partisan, being funded by the media]. Hence, we're back where we started -- with the need for a stronger and more reliable mechanism than exists at present and the inescapable conclusion that it needs a LEGAL basis [something which the media companies will resist with their considerable power]. Thus the ball is in the critics' court: what significant and honourable mechanism to they propose? And, therefore, Michael Mullins's point is highly relevant to the answer to that question.

John CARMODY | 19 March 2012  

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