The Finkelstein Report on news media regulation
The report by Ray Finkelstein QC and Matthew Ricketson into the regulation of the news media is a substantial piece of work which says more about the calibre of its authors than the political agenda of Julia Gillard and Bob Brown which led to it being established.
It deserves careful study and community discussion. The issues that it canvasses – the regulation of the news media in a digital world, the viability of newspapers’ business models and the impact on journalism among others – are very important.
The Report makes a number of criticisms of the current regulatory model. It argues that the Australian Press Council is conflicted, being paid for and ultimately controlled by the newspaper industry. It argues that ACMA’s process are cumbersome and slow (few would argue with that). It observes that electronic, online publications are not covered by the Press Council. And it also notes that legal proceedings for defamation are slow and extremely expensive.
However his recommendation to set up a new government funded super regulator, a News Media Council, with statutory powers to take over the role of the Press Council, the media regulation role of ACMA and have jurisdiction over the online world is not one which would appeal to the Coalition, believing as we do in a free press – free in particular to hold governments to account.
It is worth noting that the segment of the media which is most criticised for bias and innacuracy is in fact commercial radio which is already subject to regulation by ACMA. Mr Finkelstein is critical of ACMA in its media regulation role, but if media outlets unregulated by Government (such as metropolitan newspapers) have a better track record for balance and accuracy than commercial radio (which is regulated), doesn’t that make an equally valid case for reducing rather than increasing the regulation of the media?
I do however welcome Mr Finkelstein’s recognition that in addition to the right of the media to free speech and the right of the individual to reputation there is also a vital right, or interest, of the public to timely, accurate information on matters of public interest. It has to be said that the legal arrangements at present do not adequately advance that interest.
As I have said on many occasions in the past we should consider how greater incentives can be given to the media to make timely apologies and corrections where errors have been made and to provide appropriate rights of reply.
One reform which is not canvassed in the Report would be to provide that where a person claims they have been defamed by a publisher and where an appropriate apology and correction is published in a timely fashion then the person defamed would have no action for general damages to reputation but would be able to recover damages for actual financial loss.
This would give an editor a real incentive to get the facts straight and quickly without having to worry that by apologising and correcting a mistake he or she would be abandoning any hope of defending a defamation suit.
This Report was born in a spiteful effort by the Gillard Government to have a crack at News Limited. While the Report is a substantial piece of work and we look forward to participating in the
discussion that follows, it must be said our instincts are to look for ways to promote and protect freedom of the press and protection of both the private and public interests in accuracy without increasing, and ideally by reducing, the influence of Government over the news media.