Now that we have a new government, it’s time for the ALP to revisit the idea of a new pan-media regulator with teeth.
It’s now almost eleven years since the Gillard government held an inquiry into the media and its regulation, which became known as the Finkelstein Inquiry after its chairman, former federal court judge Ray Finkelstein, QC.
The Finkelstein Inquiry recommended the institution of a statutory authority with powers enforce accountability for all media across all platforms.
But with the demise of Julia Gillard, and after some soft-shoe shuffling from the industry, it was an idea consigned to history’s dustbin.
There are two bodies that currently exist that are charged with regulating Australian media: the Australian Press Council (APC) and the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA).
The APC has been derided as a joke by many in the industry. Even the late Kerry Packer called it a “toothless tiger”.
The APC, which was set up by newspapers so that they could “self-regulate”, has one sanction in its armoury: a so-called negative adjudication which should be reported by the offending publication. These reports are most often buried.
Although the great majority of adjudications listed on the APC website appear to be related to News Limited publications, the APC has had no impact on exaggerated or overtly biased reports.
The body has become so ineffectual that the journalists’ union, the MEAA, pulled out of the APC early last year.
That followed the withdrawal, in 2012, of the entire Seven West stable of publications, which decided to set up its own self-regulation body called the Independent Media Council (IMC).
Perhaps unsurprisingly, ten years later, the IMC’s website is not operational.
Similarly, the ACMA is widely mocked and derided within the industry it regulates for its lack of commitment to enforcing standards.
As for the ACMA, it turns itself inside out trying to find ways to excuse bad behaviour by broadcasters. So even though it has powers to impose licence conditions on broadcasters or suspend or cancel a licence, it seldom uses them.
— Denis Muller, journalism academic, University of Melbourne
In a recent piece for The Conversation, academic Denis Muller cited the example of the ACMA’s treatment of broadcasters who put telephone video that had been taken by the Christchurch massacre shooter to air.
The only sanction from the ACMA was to have a “productive conversation” with the offenders.
So there are myriad reasons why, in this age of diverse media platforms, a new, fit-for-purpose regulator was created.
But should it be a government body?
Some commentators criticised the Finkelstein recommendations, saying that there were implications for media freedom.
There was a good reason for rejecting the Finkelstein inquiry’s idea of a government-funded statutory authority to replace the council: self-regulation is more consistent with press freedom.
But government funding is almost certainly needed (on top of industry funding) if the council or a body like it is able to do its job properly.
— Andrew Poger, Australian National University
Whatever the case, any government that wants to improve media regulation in this country would have to take on the Murdoch and Nine behemoths.
To quote the fictional Sir Humphrey Appleby, it would be a “very brave” move, indeed.