By Margo Kingston
March 18, 2013
Kim Williams is Murdoch’s chief executive in Australia. Williams cannot define, or even explore, what ‘the public interest’ might be in relation to newspapers, because it is completely relative: ‘The public interest is as long as a piece of string… it is in the eye of the beholder.’
And his beholder is Murdoch, whose view of public interest is his commercial and political interests.
Here’s my attempt:
‘Freedom of the press is not a property right of owners. It is a right of the people. It is part of their right to free expression, inseparable from their right to inform themselves.’ (Kent Royal Commission into media ownership in Canada).
And here is my opinion of the role a journalist plays in upholding that public interest:
‘The duty of the journalist is the same as that of the historian –to seek out the truth, above all things, and to present to his readers not such things as statecraft would wish them to know but the truth as near as he can attain it.’ (London Times editor John Thadeus Delane,1852)
Big media owners are motivated by profit and power. Greens Senator Scott Ludlum asked Kerry Stokes, owner the the West Australian newspaper: ‘Are you saying you have no public interest obligations apart from just to make money for your shareholders?’
Stokes: ‘They are one and the same.’
This explains in full why Stokes censored and punished journalists in the Jill Singer scandal.
Journalists, as professionals, must comply with a professional ethics code. It is up to us to uphold the public interest. But we have no power without the support of our colleagues acting collectively and an effective accountability mechanism. These days, employed journos have no power due to ongoing staff cuts.
At Fairfax, we managed for a long time to uphold the public interest by having a code of editorial independence and strong collegiate support with the support of the Fairfax family. Now there is Gina.
The media reforms, as weak as they are, give ethical journalism a chance, both by making self-regulation meaningful and potentially preventing yet further domination by Murdoch’s media. They also give citizens the chance for protection against abuse of power by newspapers.
Our job is to restore trust in journalists. As @murphyroo wrote today in her last piece for Fairfax before joining The Guardian, The media must embrace reform to survive:
‘…the principles guiding the proposed changes? Let’s look through the static and consider them.
‘There are two: that concentration of media ownership in Australia will not get any worse than it is now. Not any better, mind you – just no worse. And that self-regulation – a principle that newspapers have rightly fought for and defended – should be made to actually work; that people who are the victims of intended or unintended abuses by media companies have their complaints properly heard.
‘The principles in this package are, in fact, the challenges the mainstream media must meet in order to survive the transition currently upon us. We in the media must renew our mandate with audiences by innovating and moving beyond the strictures of the old masthead and network models, and by being accurate and reliable.
‘We can pretend the only player here with an existential trust problem is the Gillard government, and wilfully ignore our own parallel universe: the evidence that audiences don’t trust us either.
‘We can comfort ourselves in self-delusion, and strut and fret. Or we can spend less time swaggering and railing against our enemies and more time renewing the mission of contemporary journalism. We are tellers of truths, news breakers, curators and contextualisers; and at our best and bravest, we are people who write things that someone, somewhere, does not want written.
‘The only people who can save or destroy journalism are journalists. And we will save it only if we exhibit courage and humility, not manufactured conflict.’Journalists fought hard to get a Press Council to help them in their battle to assert the public interest in newspaper reporting. We publish the history of the Press Council as set out in the Finkelstein report into media regulation below so you can see that all this big media sledgehammer stuff now is nothing new. The proprietors have always fought tooth and nail against accountability to the people, with the grand exception of The Age. Always.
Murdoch, of course, was opposed to a Press Council, saying, in words eerily similar to his henchmen’s line today: ‘The Press Council was invented as a fig-leaf by a frightened British Press establishment at a time of genuine concern. Surely we do not need such hypocrisy in Australia?
He would say that, of course. His interests, his free speech, are all that matters. Here’s a juicy morsel from former Press Council chief Ken McKinnon’s submission to the Finkelstein Inquiry:
‘An illustrative comment on the question of editorial responsibility in Australia is set out in the late Frank Devine’s account, in Frank Devine, Older and Wiser 2009, pp 10-19, published by Quadrant Books. After increasing the circulation and standing of The Australian as editor he was summarily fired in 1989 because he insisted on publishing an objective comment on the Ansett strike that did not pay enough attention to Rupert Murdoch’s commercial interest in Ansett. He was a first-class, conservative editor but the pressures he endured led him to a concluding comment that …editor is not a profession generally acknowledged to exist in the Australian media industry. In short, hopes for fair, accurate and balanced reporting are likely to be dependent on establishing standards for the commitment to quality of editors-in-chief.’
Nothing has changed in Murdoch’s media, as witnessed by his papers’ Murdoch’s ‘reporting’ of the media reforms.
But now, journalists are starting to raise their voices against the strident, take no prisoners rhetoric of Murdoch’s men, which includes fabricating stories, to demand more effective self-regulation. @albericie and @carolduncan are among them.
To win this battle, perhaps the last one before the war is lost, good journalists need the support of citizens to get these reforms passed. Please support us.