Media inquiry motives: accountability or revenge?

Bookmark and Share Freedom of Speech and Media, Telecommunications and IT Unit | Chris Berg
The Drum 9th November, 2011

Bob Brown's submission to the Independent Media Inquiry has an appendix of criticisms he's received in the press since calling for a media inquiry: 'totalitarian', 'self-serving', 'prejudicial and dishonourable', 'witch-hunt', 'pillory', 'fascism' and so on.

It's a strange appendix to include, considering that the substance of those critiques is how the Greens leader's support for a media inquiry is motivated by personal animus. And, further, such a motivation means the inquiry is not a benign investigation of the current media regulation, but something more sinister - politicians trying to use their powers of legislation to punish critical newspapers.

So a bit of an own-goal there.

The Government has repeatedly rejected claims that the inquiry will be focused on News Ltd. That's clearly not the way many of the inquiry's supporters see it. Brown can barely go a media appearance without talking about The Murdoch Press. Critics of the Greens say the minor party is actually the government. If so, then Brown sees Rupert Murdoch as his loyal opposition.

Labor's backbenchers are also loose-lipped on the inquiry. A furious Senator Doug Cameron said last week, "The Murdoch press are an absolute disgrace, they are a threat to democracy in this country and we should absolutely be having a look at them".

Cameron was angry about reports of leadership instability in the Daily Telegraph. Maybe the Telegraph reports were a beat up. Maybe they were not. 'Government backbencher says leadership speculation is baseless' is not a decisive rebuttal.

But regulation of the press imposed as revenge for anti-government reporting is much more a threat to democracy than any tabloid headline could be. That neither Bob Brown nor government backbenchers like Doug Cameron appear to recognise this blindingly obvious problem is worrying enough.

Governments and the press have never gotten along. The two are, and will continue to be, absolutely opposed to each other. One accumulates power. The other undermines it. Australia's first media proprietor, Robert Wardell, described the free press as a weapon to "frustrate the designs of tyranny, and restrain the arm of oppression". One 19th century Chicago Times editor said "It is a newspaper's duty to print the news, and raise hell".

This is certainly not to defend media ethics. Bad journalism deserves harsh criticism. Raising hell can bring up devils. But the choice presented is not between our current media and a noble, ethically-unimpeachable media. It is whether the Government should to try to ennoble it for us.

What constitutes ethical practices is not for governments or bureaucrats to decide, and certainly not for them to enforce. Governments are subordinate to civil society. They must not be the supervisors of their critics. This is a much more fundamental principle of democracy than the often-repeated idea that free elections require an informed citizenry. Restraining the actions of government once a parliament has been formed is surely just as important making sure people can decide who to vote for every couple of years.

Sometimes attacks on government or politicians are misinformed, simplistic, or propagandistic. Sometimes those attacks mix up facts and opinion. Wrongheaded views - even wilfully ignorant ones - are not unique to the press. They are a feature of democracy.

In his submission, Brown suggests the fact a journalist described him as "self-serving" helps strengthen his case. God knows we wouldn't want the public to think politicians can be that.

Nevertheless, Brown's submission is interesting. The Greens leader has said journalists don't tell both sides of a story accurately or reasonably. The submission builds his case at length, free of media gatekeepers.

Brown conflates two separate grievances into one. First: The journalist's Code of Ethics, administered by the media union, "has become a hollow vessel". Second: Rupert Murdoch has oligarchical control over the print media.

Are these two linked? Brown thinks they are. A core problem for the Greens leader is "Almost all the news media in Australia is owned by private corporations, outside of the ABC and SBS". In July, as the News of the World scandal hit its stride in the UK, Brown asked whether the News Ltd board meetings should be opened to public broadcast. This would impose a degree of public scrutiny on a single company that isn't even applied to federal cabinet, or, indeed, his own party conferences. Perhaps he thinks all private companies should open their boardrooms. But that's not what he said. Just News Ltd - a firm which employs his most strident critics.

The profit motive is one of the most powerful forces in our society precisely because it delivers consumers what they want. Organisations which offer people goods or services which are attractive and desirable and not prohibitively expensive succeed. Those which do not, fail. All government should do is provide a legal framework, under which laws are universally applied. For instance, to choose a law completely at random, don't hack phones.

The profit motive seems like a pretty good way to deliver journalism which people want to read, watch and listen to. But, otherwise, the Government spends a billion dollars a year on the ABC - specifically to address an assumed failure by the market to provide quality media in the absence of a public broadcaster.

Bob Brown would no doubt like the ABC budget increased. But that's not the argument he is mounting. Tellingly, the ABC barely rates a mention. His focus is on the private News Ltd, not the ability of existing institutions to achieve any democratic objective.

Brown's enthusiasm for the media inquiry seems more about fighting his party's critics than any principled position about the relationship between democracy and media.

Greens pressure led to the formation of the inquiry in the first place. So it is hard to take the Government's reassurances that the Independent Media Inquiry has nothing to do with the hostility of the press.

This was first published at The Drum on 08/11/11 and can be accessed at http://www.abc.net.au/unleashed/3652016.html.

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