March 17th 2012

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: Two Melbourne academics want infanticide legalised

QUEENSLAND: Election outcome could derail same-sex marriage push

MEDIA: Journalists scandalised by family lobby's tactics

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Abbott's pre-election commitments come under scrutiny

EDITORIAL: Bob Carr's appointment will destabilise Labor

MEDIA INQUIRY: Finkelstein's Monster: a media horror story

POLITICS: Is GetUp! a democratic organisation?

POLITICS: Daniel Hannan: future prime minister of Britain?

IRAN: Iranian opposition pleas unheeded by Obama

INTERNATIONAL TRADE: The case against floating exchange rates

PARENTING: Caring for terminally-ill unborn babies

SCHOOLS: Gonski report penalises non-government schools

OPINION: Russia and the West reverse roles on Christianity


CINEMA: Marilyn's mystique mesmerises still: My Week with Marilyn (rated M)

BOOK REVIEW From Vinegar Hill to the mountains of Afghanistan

BOOK REVIEW Excommunicable heresies

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Finkelstein's Monster: a media horror story

by Damian Wyld

News Weekly, March 17, 2012

At 474 pages, the Finkelstein report on media regulation in Australia is a heavy tome to digest properly. However, even a cursory glance shows its recommendations could be very harmful to freedom of expression in Australia. It has some of the disquieting ingredients of a horror flick.

The “independent inquiry into the media and media regulation” was established last year at a time when, much like now, the federal Labor Government was on the receiving end of extensive negative media coverage of its political bungling.

In a similar way, Labor’s allies, the radical Greens, were finally attracting some long-overdue public scrutiny, prompting their leader Senator Bob Brown to lash out at the media, particularly News Ltd, which he denounced as “the Murdoch hate press”.

Cynics would also note how Labor and the Greens’ sudden interest in media matters was preceded by the uproar in the United Kingdom last year over the News of the World phone-hacking scandals — incidents which, to date, seem to have no correlation in News Ltd’s Australian division. The UK scandals nonetheless served as a convenient pretext for Julia Gillard’s Labor/Greens government to launch an inquiry into the Australian media.

Since that time, Western Australian businesswoman Gina Rinehart’s investments in Network Ten and Fairfax have also sent the Left into fits of rage. No sooner had shares changed hands than Mrs Rinehart was under attack for allegedly seeking to control and manipulate the media. That Fairfax needed protecting from a willing investor is scarcely credible given its $390 million loss for the 2010/11 financial year. But why let facts ruin good propaganda?

Fast forward to February 28 and the release of the Finkelstein Report. The Hon. Raymond Finkelstein, QC, has produced a read of epic proportions, particularly given the subject matter.

Granted, there are many valid criticisms to be made of the media, especially given the shortcomings of media self-regulation and of complaint procedures. Quite often, for example, complaints made by viewers about television programs or advertisements only come to some sort of resolution (usually unsatisfactory) long after the offending item has left the screens.

But the public should be rightly hesitant — even fearful — when the proposed cure is far, far worse than the disease.

Finkelstein’s recommendations include:

• The establishment of a publicly-funded statutory body, the News Media Council (NMC), to set journalistic standards and handle complaints from the public.

• That the NMC absorb functions currently undertaken by other bodies, including the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) and the industry’s voluntary Australian Press Council (APC).

• Online journalism (including news, opinion and current-affairs blogs with annual hits in excess of 15,000 — a ridiculously low threshold) should fall under the NMC’s scope.

• That the NMC should exercise the power to mandate apologies, corrections, retractions or afford the right of reply.

The report also discusses the decline of the printed newspaper in the face of a vast array of internet-based news sources. It reaches the astonishing conclusion that “within the next two years or so the Productivity Commission [should] be issued with a reference to conduct an inquiry into the health of the news industry and make recommendations on whether there is a need for government support to sustain that role. It should also consider the policy principles by which any government support should be given to ensure effectiveness, as well as eliminating any chance of political patronage or censorship.”

Taxpayer-funded newspapers? Surely, the Left will be apoplectic! If Mrs Rinehart cannot be trusted as a mere shareholder in Fairfax, the Federal Government can scarcely be trusted to prop up the entire industry. But, then again, the Left’s hypocrisy knows no bounds.

On the matter of government-imposed censorship, the Finkelstein report is at pains to deny such a possibility occurring via the NMC. It says that, beyond funding, the “government should have no role”. It goes on: “The establishment of a council is not about increasing the power of government or about imposing some form of censorship. It is about making the news media more accountable to those covered in the news, and to the public generally.”

But have the public been clamouring for Mr Finkelstein to conduct such an inquiry? Hardly. The inquiry has published fewer than 80 submissions received, the majority of which are from various media, academics and other concerned stakeholders.

Only a handful of submissions actually called for the thumbscrews to be applied to the media, and these came from familiar quarters such as Greens leader Senator Brown (the only politician who felt it necessary to have his two bob’s worth) and “campaigning organisation” Avaaz.

Avaaz neglects to point out in its submission that its founders include radical activist groups GetUp! (Australia) and MoveOn (US). The latter of these is funded in turn by billionaire left-wing activist George Soros. Quite a pedigree — and quite an omission by Avaaz given that its submission criticises media cross-ownership.

The Finkelstein report, despite its protestations to the contrary, has opened the door to a frightening, Orwellian future of government regulation and censorship of Australia’s media.

Finkelstein’s Monster has indeed lurched into life.

Damian Wyld is South Australian state president of the National Civic Council. 

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