Reportage

An affront to democracy?

WHATEVER THEIR PARTIES or programs, prime ministers and premiers eventually get angry at the media. They complain of superficial reports, a carping tone and political bias. Privately, they complain above all of the arrogance of Australian journalism, the one major institution successfully resisting the accountability mechanisms that hold most other public and private organisations to account. In a world in which ethics in government, business, social services and universities are compulsory and legislated, in which even minor transgressions can be career-fatal, the media escape the scrutiny applied to everyone else.

Sometimes government leaders try to punish particular outlets for perceived bias. As Premier of NSW, Neville Wran cut all government advertising from The Sydney Morning Herald and refused to speak with journalists from the ABC. Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, too, questioned the objectivity of ABC reporters at media conferences. But mostly politicians know better than to criticise journalists. Any complaint just provokes an immediate and deeply stung response.

Recently an Australian government leader put the case for more systemic media accountability. Sadly, until its republication in Griffith REVIEW, you are unlikely to have read his proposal. Though short, it was not reprinted by any Australian media outlet. Rebuttals found generous newsprint space. The minor controversy over Premier Peter Beattie's argument for "truth in media" speaks eloquently about the problem.

 

ON MARCH 25, 2003, Peter Beattie rose in the Queensland parliament to criticise local newspaper The Courier-Mail. The previous week The Courier-Mail had published a story on public service bonuses the Premier believed was "completely wrong". Though the Premier had pointed out errors in the story, The Courier-Mail "did not print any sort of retraction, clarification or apology". Instead, the newspaper published letters to the editor criticising the alleged decision of the Government without acknowledging such letters were premised on an inaccurate report.

From his opening complaint – the familiar cry of all governments – Premier Beattie launched an unexpected proposal in the hope "we can start a debate about truth in the media".

In a press conference the following day, Beattie expanded his proposal for freedom of information (FOI) principles to embrace newsrooms. He now also urged an independent ombudsman within newspaper offices, a model voluntarily used extensively in the United States.

In the days that followed, media consumers would hear plenty about what was wrong with the Beattie proposal from both journalists and Opposition politicians. Unless keen readers of Hansard, they could not know precisely what the Premier had said.

The Queensland Opposition Leader, Lawrence Springborg, immediately attacked any suggestion that the media be made accountable to a "freedom-of-information regime or a press ombudsman". Indeed, he described such a concept as an attempt to "undermine one of the fundamental tenets of our democracy ... freedom of the press. Just because the Government does not like something which is being reported does not necessarily mean that it is wrong and does not necessarily mean that it should take steps against those who are reporting it." The Opposition Leader set the essential tone of the one-sided debate to follow. Though the Premier had clearly ruled out government control, the suggestion that FOI legislation might apply to the media was immediately equated with censorship.

Springborg found himself in excellent company. Sean Parnell from The Courier-Mail found the chairman of the Australian Press Council, Professor Ken McKinnon, keen to criticise the Premier for his proposal. "You can tell the Premier has been in office for quite a while now," McKinnon was quoted as saying on March 27. "He is clearly at that stage where all premiers get where they can't stand any scrutiny of their actions and believe it is all biased against them."

 

A PROPOSAL THAT the media be more accountable was rejected without discussion of its merits by the chair of the Australian Press Council. Instead, the Premier was criticised for being self-interested.

The theme that Peter Beattie was trying to censor the media featured prominently in media coverage of the speech. "At a time when Australian soldiers are defending our freedoms overseas," opined Ken Vernon in theTownsville Bulletin, also on March 27, "it is a sad indictment of our politicians that Premier Peter Beattie is pondering how to restrict them at home."

Vernon rejected any further scrutiny of his profession. Press accountability is a "hoary old chestnut". Beattie's complaints about alleged media power are "trite misconceptions" coming from a self-confessed "media tart". There are already laws holding the media to account and press freedom is constantly under attack from courts that feel they have a "monopoly on the truth" and from politicians "who feel they alone understand what the public needs to know. Both use the press as a whipping boy to further their own agendas."

The Australian reported the story and offered editorial opinion. Scott Emerson's reporting of the controversy on March 27 was the most balanced, outlining in some detail the Premier's proposals as well as the hostile responses. Editorial comment the following day in The Australian was less balanced. An accountability regime for the media was rejected as a "foolish idea, unworthy of this most media-friendly of politicians". Like McKinnon, the editorial writer attacked the messenger. The Beattie proposal "verges on petulance". It has arisen because "journalists have had the temerity to write and broadcast stories [the Premier] does not like".

The unsigned editorial rejected even the suggestion of a problem. Media power is not too concentrated, nor are too few voices heard. On the contrary, comment and analysis "have never been more vigorous and critical". Rather than protecting their own, journalists compete for stories, constrained only by Australia's "onerous libel laws". Ultimately, any bias is corrected by consumers, who are "skilled in interpreting the news and make up their own minds". It concluded, "However Mr Beattie cloaks his call for government to supervise the workings of the media, it is an attack on and affront to democracy."

Of course, had The Australian chosen to publish Beattie's 1700 or so words, the discriminating, skilled reading public could have compared the original argument with the excited interpretation offered by the editorial writer. But no doubt that would affront democracy all over again.

By March 29 The Courier-Mail felt ready to mock the Premier for his idea. A satirical column by Peter Wear outlined alleged failings in government accountability mechanisms. If the new plan were implemented, concluded Wear, citizens would be able to say "with complete confidence, that in Queensland the journalists are as honest as the politicians".

The same edition contained a long editorial rejecting the Beattie plan. The anonymous writer began by quoting some of the arguments advanced by the Premier – the only time the paper had done so, and then only so they could be firmly rejected.

The editorial argued that media could not be compared with government, which must be accountable to Parliament and the public. Media, in contrast "are mostly privately owned and are accountable to shareholders". Therefore they should not be subject to FOI laws.

An unexpected gambit followed – an attack on the Government's defamation laws, which discourage corrections and apologies by placing "inhibitions on admissions of fault". If journalists do not acknowledge mistakes that, too, is the fault of government. The nameless writer then moved into familiar territory – attacking the efficacy of various accountability mechanisms for government, as though a flawed regime for government was a reasonable reason for the media being excused similar accountability. The conclusion echoed that offered by other journalists: "Government regulation of the media would serve the Government's purposes, not the public interest."

Once The Courier-Mail had spoken, it believed the controversy was over. The matter had been settled and was not mentioned again. Premier Beattie had been appropriately admonished for an unwelcome intervention into serious matters. Democracy had been safeguarded, freedom of the media preserved.

 

YET CONSIDER, THE terms of the "debate". The Premier was criticised as acting from self-interest by journalists, editorial writers and the chair of the Australian Press Council alike. The only people given space to discuss – and inevitably reject – his proposals about newspapers were journalists, editorial writers and the chair of the Australian Press Council. No independent voices were invited to comment, no right of reply provided to the Premier. Politicians act from self-interest but journalists apparently do not. Only journalists, it appears, are competent to comment on media issues. They proved in perfect agreement when rebuffing claims of monopoly behaviour.

Consider, too, the central question raised by the Premier – whether FOI provisions should extend to the media. This was rejected without much dissection by media commentators. Yet the logic of access to information – that matters in the public interest should be open to public scrutiny – is the very principle embraced by editorial writers who call for more open government.

To avoid the embarrassing contradiction of demanding from government what it resists for itself, The Courier-Mail editorial writer asserted that media companies are private entities that should answer only to shareholders. This is, of course, not entirely accurate – company laws now require significant disclosure by media conglomerates, including the remuneration packages of senior executives. Still, the editorial writer wanted readers to accept the media as essentially private organisations reporting on public affairs and therefore immune from an accountability regime similar in intent to that opening up government.

In this argument media are in, but not of, the public domain. In his original speech, the Premier argued such a fine distinction is no longer credible. The concept of a free press makes sense only in a context of competition, an ideal no longer enjoyed in many Australian newspaper markets. The proposition that radio, television and the internet are sufficient competition is tenuous. Few radio or television stations provide the space for analysis and argument that characterise newspapers, while the internet does not support the large and professional news-gathering operations necessary for strong local coverage.

Of course, Premier Beattie may be entirely wrong in everything he said about the media. We may be living in almost the best of all possible worlds already, that could be improved only by removing the few legislative constraints remaining on freedom of the press.

There are certainly practical problems in accountability for the media not addressed by Beattie or his critics. FOI procedures assume a certain regularity to decision making that sits uncomfortably with the chaotic practice of newsrooms. Choices in government tend to be supported by documentation, while in newspapers, ideas move from an editorial conference to a writer's lead with few intervening stages. Journalists are not trained to record sources and countervailing evidence with the same precision as public servants. Nor are they required to archive supporting material in anticipation of judicial review.

Yet the "debate" about Beattie's proposal never moved beyond outright condemnation to contemplate difficulties with applying FOI law. There was also no media discussion about the suggestion of a newsroom ombudsman, despite the success of this model at the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post and other major papers. To open the topic would be to contemplate the unthinkable. Instead, the print media preferred to shield impressionable readers from the words of a Premier, while providing stories, editorials and satire to ensure no one missed how mistaken the politician had been.

Journalists arrogant? Never! Ever vigilant against those who would rob the public of its fundamental freedoms? Absolutely. If the price of freedom is a media itself free from sustained accountability, such a price is obviously worth paying.

Get the latest essay, memoir, reportage, fiction, poetry and more.

Subscribe to Griffith Review or purchase single editions here.

Griffith Review