Notes on Evidence Given to the Media Inquiry
Somewhat to the surprise of the head of the media inquiry, Ray Finkelstein, I had drawn only two main conclusions in my recently published study of the Australian, “Bad News”.
Firstly, the paper would only change as a consequence of courageous and persistent criticism both from outsiders – individuals and other media – and from those insiders who disapproved either of the way the ideological agenda of the newspaper distorted the way it presented news and opinion or of its penchant for character assassination.
Secondly, and far more importantly, I had suggested that the control of 70% of the state-wide and national newspaper market by a single corporation, News Limited, posed a threat to the health of democracy in Australia. Finkelstein pointed out that the figure was disputed. I told him that the figure of current circulation was based on recent research had been conducted by the redoubtable and objective Parliamentary Library.
Such a concentration of press ownership situation was not merely risible; it was unheard of in the English-speaking world and beyond. The only advanced democracy with a media ownership comparable to Australia’s was Berlusconi’s Italy. The decision to allow Murdoch this level of press ownership and to place emphasis on the regulation only of cross-media ownership, taken by the Hawke-Keating government in the mid-1980s, was a mistake. .
Finkelstein asked whether such a concentration of ownership could be called a monopoly. I suggested it could, rather, be called an unbalanced duopoly because of the presence of the Fairfax press. He asked whether monopoly was not what economists might think of as “natural”, given the declining profitability of newspapers and the shrinking newspaper market. I thought that it was precisely to avoid such monopolies that liberal economists insisted on competition.
Finkelstein asked whether I thought it mattered that newspaper editors were independent of their proprietors. I said that in the history of newspapers if it were true that fifty years ago editors were frequently independent of their proprietors, a hundred years ago they were much less likely to be. I had nothing against proprietors appointing editors to their taste. I did however object to a situation where one proprietor owned 70% of the key press in a single country.
Why did this concentration of ownership matter in an age of the kind where the greatest diversity of viewpoint and information was open to citizens through access to the internet? I argued that it was important because most citizens were not particularly interested in seeking out diverse sources of opinion or information. Their world view was, rather, in large part determined by the traditional mainstream media – newspapers, radio and television. Of these three sources for the formation of the citizens’ worldview, newspapers were particularly important because they were by far the most important source for reporting and interpreting both domestic and international politics. On a daily basis radio and television drew upon newspapers for the way they interpreted the world to their viewers and listeners.
As a matter of principle it mattered that the political interpretation was under the control of one proprietor. As a matter of fact, in addition, it mattered that that the one proprietor was Rupert Murdoch. He had a very clear and consistent political worldview, to which those who edited his newspapers were undoubtedly highly sensitive.
Moreover, Murdoch was an intensely political animal who used his media assets to wield political influence. Fox News in the United States had a very important influence within the Republican Party and thus American politics. In Australia there was no cable or commercial equivalent of Fox News. What we had here however was a situation where, both directly and indirectly, Murdoch influenced the political worldview of the editors and senior journalists of his newspapers.
Finkelstein asked whether it was not possible that if some of the Murdoch papers were sold the new owners might not have a similar or identical political point of view. I conceded that it was possible. However while contingencies of this kind could not be predicted or controlled, as a matter of principle the level of ownership could and should be.
Finkelstein expressed surprise that I had not recommended greater government regulation over the press in “Bad News”. I said that freedom of the press was one of the most fundamental cornerstones of our conception of democracy. I thought any interference with the principle ought not to be lightly entered into. Many reform initiatives in many areas of life that looked promising or commonsensical to their original sponsors developed in unforeseen and unforeseeable directions over time.
At present, Australian citizens who had been vilified had only three options. One was to take action under the laws of defamation. Except in the most extreme cases where failure to take action would be construed as guilt, defamation was a course of action few citizens could or would sensibly pursue. Most important was the fact that the costs could be borne by the media organisation but not by those who claimed to have been defamed. For one section of the society action might be taken under the Racial Discrimination Act. For most citizens however the best course of action was an appeal to the Press Council.
There was a great deal to be said in favour of this course. There is no reason in principle why the Press Council might not act with true independence even though it was funded by the newspapers. It seemed however important that it acted more speedily and that its capacity was strengthened to ensure that errors of fact or personal vilifications were corrected in the pages of the offending newspaper with sufficient prominence so that the wrong that had been done was overturned.
I did not agree that it was possible that a so-called right of reply could be mandated without some independent body like the Press Council making a judgment about the particular case. Too many would claim such a right without sufficient cause.
I also did not agree with the view expressed by US jurists, summarised by Finkelstein, that a strengthened right of reply would have a chilling effect on the willingness of editors to publish forthright or controversial material. If anything, a reply from individuals, groups or even corporations who felt wronged would mean that those reading the newspaper would become better informed. If an issue was complex, the dispute could be pursued by online publication for that part of the readership deeply interested in the issue.
On the basis of personal experience I knew that the condition of the supposed “right of reply” was far from healthy in the contemporary newspaper culture. In the past, editors seem to have internalised one of the values of the liberal society, namely that those severely criticised should have the capacity to put their case. In more recent times newspapers seemed to do whatever they thought they could get away with. In my personal experience, letters to the editor appeared not to be published in a fair manner. Even letters that were eventually published often had material that was embarrassing to the newspaper excised. Even though the Australian had published 25,000 words of criticism of “Bad News”, at first they did not give me a right of reply. The right was only granted after I had informed the Chairman of News Limited that I intended to take the matter to the Press Council.
Finally I raised as a matter for concern the question of the standards governing newspaper blogs in general and the Andrew Bolt Herald-Sun-Daily Telegraph blog in particular. Recently an email correspondent, David Barrow, had provided me with an electronic version of some blogs and comments published on the Bolt blog since 2006.
In my case there had been 188 Bolt incitements and 2043 comments from his followers which required 331 pages to print out. In the case of Tim Flannery there were 393 Bolt incitements and 7301 comments requiring 1,426 pages to print out. It was clear that virtually no moderation was at work. The blogs, and even more the comments, were frequently extremely vicious and even more frequently ill-informed. Many also seemed self-evidently defamatory. Although there might be nothing that could be done about this new form of newspaper-supported hate speech if the newspapers were unwilling to act, its appearance at this moment in our history should not pass unremarked.
Robert Manne is emeritus professor of politics and vice-chancellor’s fellow at La Trobe University. His most recent book, The Mind of the Islamic State, will be published in the US this month by Prometheus Books.