Stop the Press! Long live the Press!

Comment by Barry Tucker                    8 April, 2013

The news media’s position in society as the Fourth Estate should be formalised, recognised, then sterilized and beatified — or something like it.

Apparently Edmund Burke first used the term in 1787, during a debate on allowing the Press to report on the British House of Commons. In On Heroes and Hero Worship, Thomas Carlyle wrote:

Burke said there were Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all.

And later, Oscar Wilde wrote:

In old days men had the rack. Now they have the Press. That is an improvement certainly. But still it is very bad, and wrong, and demoralising. Somebody — was it Burke? — called journalism the Fourth Estate. That was true at the time no doubt. But at the present moment it is the only estate. It has eaten up the other three. The Lords Temporal say nothing, the Lords Spiritual have nothing to say, and the House of Commons has nothing to say and says it. We are dominated by Journalism.

More recently, in the National Times (SMH online platform) on Saturday in fact, respected veteran newsman Mike Carlton wrote:

“… large slabs of the media have disgracefully abandoned a duty to … bring Abbott [Opposition Leader Tony Abbott] to account”.

And in his blog The Failed Estate on Sunday, Mr Denmore, a former financial journalist and now famous for slapping the industry, wrote: 

“Ultimately, freedom cannot exist on its own. It requires truth and justice also to prevail.” 

The last two above are railing about the behaviour — and the deterioration — of the news media, the big metropolitan dailies in particular, in the past few years.

It’s generally regarded to be an undisguised campaign for regime change. What worries me about this is the majority of the voting public probably don’t realise the extent to which they are being manipulated and moulded, or what the consequences will be if they change their government in September.

The Liberal Party of today is not the Liberal Party that was formed by Bob (later Sir Robert) Menzies in 1944. It has become the Australian branch of the USA’s Tea Party, complete with its ruinous policies, tin foil hats, lie/deny hypocrites, climate change sceptics, miners, deregulators, environmental rapists, lovers of “personal freedom” (theirs, not yours) and revivalist religious fruit cakes. Sorry for raving. The frustration of not having the means to counter this broad front for regime change gets to me occasionally.

In Australia recently the federal Labor government commissioned the Finkelstein review into news media regulation and the Convergence Review (dealing with online editions of newspapers and other online media). The monopolisation of news media ownership was also considered. Reports were produced, the academics argued over them, the news media went nuts, it all went off to the government for action — and nothing happened.

Then, suddenly, after years of the government being bashed from pillar to post by the news media for its policy stuff-ups mainly (but also because any negative comment was good for the regime change agenda), the Minister for Communications et al, Senator Stephen Conroy, tossed six Bills on the table with a “no negotiations, take it or leave it, decision by the middle of next week, all or nothing, get stuffed” attitude.

Of course, due to the Minister’s buffoonery four of the six Bills went down like a lead balloon, sunk by the Independents, the government’s vital backers, mainly due to indecent haste but also because the Bills had buggar all to do with what was obviously required: some well considered and suitably tough legislation.

Essentially, the Bills floundered due to the proposed introduction of an independent Public Interest Media Advocate (PIMA). The PIMA would oversee the news media’s submissions of Codes of Practice to existing regulatory bodies (The Australian Press Council and the Australian Communications and Media Authority). The newspaper proprietors, primarily, saw the independent PIMA as the Master Censor, a gross exaggeration, but when “Freedom of the Press Barons” is at stake any exaggeration will do. The PIMA would also be charged with overseeing and approving, or denying, future ownership and amalgamation of news media outlets. The proprietors did not refer much to this one but I think it was the thing that scared them the most.

Together, the six Bills went too far and not far enough — quite an achievement. The PIMA’s role as an overseer of Codes of Practice was unnecessary because the existing regulatory bodies already do that. The PIMA’s role as Overseer of Takeovers was unnecessary because other existing bodies already do that.

What was needed was legislation to oblige the journalists to stick to their Code of Ethics, along with very stiff penalties for breaches. Miscreant journalists should be penalised with orders to write corrections and even face suspension from the profession and/or enforceable work bans, with severe fines for those working as or hiring a banned journalist.

I know my solution is severe, but democracy is a precious thing. It’s worth protecting. The damage that rampaging journalists can do is real. The people deserve better than that which has been dished up during the past few years.

Something needs to be done to ensure that the Press Council will act on all consumer complaints, not just the big headline grabbing ones. The problem is that the newspaper proprietors fund the council and can pull out, after giving four years’ notice. The problem with ACMA, a division of Senator Conroy’s portfolio but independent of him, is that it can only act on breaches of the ABC or SBS submitted and approved Codes of Practice. ACMA cannot deal with complaints related to something that appeared on an ABC program website or Twitter account. In this case, clear breaches have occurred and have been dealt with in an inconsistent manner. This has left the ABC open to allegations of political bias. Complaints against commercial TV are handled by the Free to Air organisation.

Typical of the Labor government’s policy stuff-ups, the television stations got a huge reduction in licence fees (provided for in one Bill), the blind-sided consumers of biased news and current affairs and agonised newsmen like myself got nothing. Oh, we got shafted — I almost forgot. If the reduction in TV licence fees was a trade-off for something it didn’t work; the government got nothing but more egg on its face.

I digressed to a degree that’s exactly equal to my frustration. What to do?

The news media is a vital part of our democracy. That is readily admitted by everyone. A free Press (read: news media generally) is essential because without one it would be impossible to keep corruption in check.

Free Speech does not and should not mean freedom to slander, insult, ridicule, abuse or defame anyone. There are those who want it to mean exactly that. Freedom of the Press is not exactly the same as Free Speech. Freedom of the Press does not and should not mean freedom to lie, to distort, to dissemble, to smear anyone or to hijack the democratic process.

When the British Parliament decided to allow reporters to sit in the gallery and report on the public deliberations of those we elect to govern it opened the doors to a wider enquiry. The news media now has the unwritten right to enquire into whatever it chooses to enquire into, and that is a healthy thing.

It is a right that ought to be treated with respect. Unfortunately in Australia during the past few years in particular this has not been happening. The news media has been enquiring but the reporting has been crap. The bias has been unrelenting and unchecked, and that is NOT a healthy thing. The overwhelming view in the feedback I get is that people want newspapers and all other forms of news media, comment and opinion to report accurately, honestly and fairly so that they can make informed decisions about matters of concern.

This is why I say the rank of Fourth Estate should be formalised. The news media should be awarded the status of the medical profession, the legal profession and (this bit hurts) the religious profession. These bodies have formal university education, recognition as professionals and the right to maintain the privacy of client information — in the case of journalists, the right to protect the identity of confidential sources.

Journalists are now university trained, most of them anyhow. The quality of that training may not be perfect yet, but that is something that can be reviewed. They play and will continue to play a vital role in a healthy democracy. Their right to protect their sources of information is questionable at present, but it should be protected by law.

With this formal recognition of their status and their importance in the scheme of things should come a signed swearing of adherence to their Code of Ethics, along with suitable professional sized penalties for breaches of the code.

This is the kind of legislation that is required. The rest is all there in the journalists’ Code of Ethics. They just have to get back to sticking to it. I did it for some 46 years. The Prime Minister said it last year. After telling the Press Gallery: “Don’t write crap” she added: “It can’t be that hard.”

PS: Senator Conroy this morning (9 April) announced the four withdrawn Bills were dead and that revised proposals would be part of Labor’s September election campaign. Senator Conroy resigned after the 26 June coup that restored Kevin Rudd to the Prime Ministership.

The new “media” minister is the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Anthony Albanese. I’ll be writing to the Minister. Maybe you should too:

Parliament House, PO Box 6022, Canberra, ACT 2600

(02) 6277 7680 Fax: (02) 6273 4126

Electorate Office, and postal address:

334A Marrickville Road, Marrickville, NSW 2204

Phone: (02) 9564 3588, Fax: (02) 9564 1734