Interview with Steve Gibbons MP - ABC's Capital Hill with Lyndal Curtis 27 June 2012 - http://bit.ly/LjXSZk
An independent news media plays an essential role in maintaining the individual freedoms we enjoy in a democratic society.
But participatory democracy only works if the people are given sufficient, accurate information about an issue for them to make up their own minds what they think about it.
That means it is essential that news media are fair and impartial in their reporting of events.
If something is reported unfairly or inaccurately, not only does it potentially harm those mentioned in the story, but it also misleads every reader, viewer or listener of that story.
Unfortunately, the contemporary news media are failing to perform this vital role in a way that is acceptable to the community at large. Over the past couple of decades the evidence increasingly suggests the community has lost faith that the news media can be trusted to run their businesses in an ethical and socially acceptable manner.
And it only takes a few examples of unethical or irresponsible behaviour to destroy public trust in an industry.
For example, I think the public have – rightly – become appalled at the some of the news gathering practices of the media world-wide such as:
• The hounding of the Princess of Wales by paparazzi that was a major factor in her death in a car accident.
• The current phone hacking and police bribery scandals in the UK.
• The relentless intrusion into the private lives of people just because they happen to be good at sport or have been otherwise caught up in newsworthy events.
• The insidious practice of cheque-book journalism – if you wave a cheque for $50 or $60,000 under some people’s noses of course they’ll say anything you want them to.
On the question of political bias, I can see nothing wrong with a media owner or journalist expressing their views and opinions on issues, providing such views are clearly identified as such and separated from news reporting.
With the current conflation of news reporting and opinion, it is almost impossible for readers to distinguish between impartial information they can trust and biased commentary about which they might be more sceptical.
I also suggest that the vast majority of the public are thoroughly fed-up with so-called political commentary that degenerates into vicious and hurtful personal attacks. Commercial radio shock-jocks are notable offenders in this area.
It’s no surprise, therefore, that Australian journalists are consistently ranked among the least honest and ethical professions in the annual Roy Morgan reputation survey.
Nor is it any surprise that newspaper circulation has been falling for years, and those who think this is just due to the internet are kidding themselves.
The plain fact is that fewer and fewer people want to buy what newspapers are currently selling. Increasing sensationalism provides nothing more than a short-term boost to circulation or audience numbers and the need for continual sensationalism leads to the unacceptable newsgathering practices I’ve already mentioned.
Surely it is no accident that in countries that have strong public-sector broadcasters with clearly stated standards of impartiality and balance, such as the UK and Australia, those organisations are far more trusted as sources of news than private-sector newspapers?
In the private sector, self-regulation in the form of codes of ethics and industry appointed bodies such as the Australian Press Council – has clearly not delivered standards of journalistic integrity that the public has a right to – and does – expect.
I support many of the recommendations in the Finkelstein Report that the Government is currently considering, in particular its conclusion that the current regulatory mechanisms are “…not sufficient to achieve the degree of accountability desirable in a democracy.”
Although I agree with the recommendation to replace the Australian Media and Communication Authority and the Australian Press Council with a new News Media Council, I believe stricter rules are required for Council membership to ensure the required degree of independence.
To start, no-one who has held elected political office or political party membership, should be eligible for appointment.
While it is important that the Council has knowledge of the media industry through Council members with media experience, the majority of members should comprise appointees with legal, regulatory and community experience.
Members with media experience should not be currently employed in the industry. The Council must not only be non-partisan, but should be seen to be non-partisan if the community is to have full confidence in its operation.
I also don’t think the report goes far enough when it comes to sanctions for inaccurate reporting.
Prominently publishing or broadcasting apologies, corrections or retractions are all very well and I agree with the recommendations about strengthening these processes, but there are far more serious consequences for democracy if a news story deliberately or inadvertently misleads the public.
As a society, we seem to have no difficulty legislating for socially acceptable standards and behaviour in most walks of life. In particular, our legislators, regulators and the legal system have no difficulty defining and regulating misleading advertising and I fail to see why it should not be possible to do the same for misleading news reporting.
The media’s pleading that it is a special case is becoming increasingly hollow as its behaviour and failure to effectively self-regulate continue to erode public trust in the industry.
I think penalties of a commercially significant nature do lead to improved behaviour and in recent days we have seen Apple fined $2¼ million for misleading consumers about its iPad and internet service provider TPG fined $2 million over its misleading advertisements.
Fines such as these, or temporary suspensions of the right to publish or broadcast, for false or misleading news reporting would lead to a major change in the accuracy and fairness of news reporting.
Recent announcements by Australia’s two largest media organisations appear to indicate that we are heading for even greater concentration of news media ownership in this country. This represents a great potential risk to our democracy if changes are not made – sooner rather than later – to rectify the manifest deficiencies in our current media regulation arrangements.