Can the cross bench deliver citizens accountability from newspapers?

Daily Telegraph Front Page 19 March 2013

Daily Telegraph Front Page 19 March 2013

By Margo Kingston,
March 27,  2013

What a predicament. All seven cross benchers and the Government are dissatisfied with the standards of newspapers and want citizens to be protected against their abuse of their power. Julian Disney, who heads the Press Council which administers self-regulation, believes there are ‘substantial problems with media standards in Australia’.

Yet nothing will be done.

Let’s quickly address the blame game. The area is highly dangerous for any government, which is why newspapers have escaped any regulation for so long (see the Finkelstein report on the tortured history of journalists‘ fight to get even limited self regulation).

The government has dithered due to splits in cabinet, leaks to Murdoch papers (presumably from Rudd supporters) and fears of retribution by newspapers clearly barracking for the opposition.

So Gillard and Conroy rammed through Cabinet a set of reforms they believed were weak enough to pass muster with the proprietors and sought to blackmail the cross bench into saying yes or getting nothing.

The plan blew up in their faces. Murdoch media led an overblown and vicious campaign against the reforms. The cross bench was unhappy with the detail and the minimalist nature of the blueprint and refused to meet the deadline. Gillard and Conroy said it’s over, let’s move on.

So the government does lose-lose, angering proprietors with no result. The Opposition makes it clear it will not countenance any strengthening of self-regulation, keeping it onside with the Murdoch media. The chance is lost.

The real losers are the people and good journos who need to be empowered by some accountability for bad journos. As Julian Disney said so eloquently at the Senate inquiry, ‘Absolute freedoms attack freedom’.

Newspapers get protection for journalist’s sources and exemption from the Privacy Act with no obligations in return. And evidence to the Senate inquiry showed that News Limited and Seven owner Kerry Stokes believe there is no public interest in what newspapers separate from self-interest.

Disney articulated the public interest – freedom of expression – and gave evidence that the media standards problem was so significant that newspapers actually impeded the free expression of citizens.

This occurred through distortion, suppression of key facts and opinions, factual errors and invasion of privacy. (The worst example of factual error during the media reform debate was when two senior news limited journalists doctored a quote to falsely accuse Senator Conroy of doctoring a quote.)


‘I might say that it (bad media standards) has an adverse impact, amongst other things, on freedom of expression. If people are to have freedom of expression, they need access to reliable information. If they are fed false information, then the views that they form and they might want to express will not be the views that they would form and express if they were well informed. Access to unreliable, distorted information is an attack on freedom of expression…

‘Freedom of expression needs to be for all people, not just for those who are wealthy or for those who have special access to the most widely read media. Of course, it is a huge infringement on freedom of expression if people are intimidated by vitriol or by other forms of excessive abuse. That, again, even if it comes from active proponents of freedom of speech, it is in fact an attack on freedom of expression.’

He also noted that some publishers  (read Murdoch) did not cooperate with the Council and misrepresented its findings, and some people who suffered substantial abuses would not complain for fear of intimidation and character assassination:

This is the Disney quote which I feel seals the case for holding newspapers accountable to the people, and our democracy:

‘By ‘freedom of expression’ we mean freedom of expression for the whole community as much as we can achieve, not freedom of expression for a certainly privileged group who have access to mainstream media and whose views accord with the views of mainstream media. It means freedom of expression for all of us as best we can, and that in turn means that, as with any freedom, we have to accept some limitations on it in order to provide a reasonable degree of freedom for others. This notion of absolute freedom is highly out of date and highly inaccurate as a real definition of freedom. Absolute freedoms destroy freedom. That is well known across a wide range of areas. To distort, to provide people with unreliable information, to excessively abuse and intimidate, is amongst other things an attack on freedom of expression.’

The government should not escape its duty to the people and to the health of our democracy. There is one group of elected representatives which can force it not to – the seven cross benchers. If five of the seven come to an agreed position in the next few weeks, they can force the government to agree (or negotiate) or face dishonour.  And yes, make it tougher than the Government’s weak effort, with real redress for abused citizens. The government has nothing to lose now and might even get kudos for standing up to the bullies at long last.

How might this be done?

The state of play is that two cross benchers, Adam Bandt and Peter Slipper, were prepared to vote for Labor’s bill as amended. Three of the other five need to join them.

Rob Oakeshott wrote a piece for the Australian Financial Review today detailing the longer term issues. Yes, we need a privacy law to stop the misuse of information by media and citizens. Yes we need common regulation for radio, TV and newspapers – because of convergence the ABC now runs opinion and news in text form, and newspapers now do audio and video.

However, in the time available these desirable outcomes cannot be achieved. I suggest the independents focus on an interim arrangements for improving newspaper standards and empowering citizens to obtain redress for lapses in standards until the big parties get their acts together on the bigger picture.

So, what would Rob Oakshott, Tony Windsor, Craig Thomson, Andrew Wilkie and Bob Katter accept by way of improved self-regulation, for the sake of the people of Australia?

Naturally I would love to publish their answers here to see if a consensus is possible.

If they were interested in finding consensus, I’m sure a media expert would volunteer to co-ordinate the process and liaise with the Parliamentary people who draft bills for MPs.

The cross benchers knew what they didn’t want. So what DO they want, and can five of them reach agreement on what they WOULD accept?

I feel that reaching an agreement on this one media issue would do a great service for Australians and show the true worth of independents committed to working in their interests. It would also put great pressure on the Government and the Opposition to do the same.

Any chance?

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  1. lyne fomiatti says

    Your article made more sense to me than much of what has been reported in media outlets. It articulated my feelings about the Australian media for a long time.

  2. Bring it on

  3. “Privacy” ….It’s been a running joke in Australia since Hartigan said they were in the clear.

    The “Lion” of Murdoch got transferred to Sydney to keep them close in case the hacking blew up in their faces.

    Australia should have the same media laws as England ….. with more teeth would suit me.

  4. sulphurcrested says

    Great article and proposals, Margo. Hopefully the cross benchers can rally themselves and seize this opportunity. Opportunities don’t hang around for ever and this is so vital now and for the future of Australia.
    I don’t think the government would have anything at all to lose by passing stronger and better legislation. Let Murdoch et al rage and bully and lie. They have been doing so for ages anyway and that won’t change whatever the govt does or doesn’t do.
    We will never have truth, accuracy and fairness in the MSM unless something is done.

  5. Margo,I think you are onto something here. I caught a little of your conversation on twitter with Oakshott and Thomson. Thomson said he was interested. How did it finish up with Oakshott?
    Katter, at a doorstop last week spoke in favour of reform. So it would appear that Bandt,Slipper, Katter and Thomson could be counted on to consider such a move, Oakshott, Windsor and Wilkie unknowns. Are you still talking to them about this?

  6. And in at least one case, the Courier-Mail in Brisbane was found to be wrong by the Press Council and ordered to print a retraction, which it never did. It still occasionally reprints the article, and its wrong claims, and has never suffered any penalty for doing so. Obviously the present system is working.

  7. Sandra Searle (@SandraSearle) says

    The cross benchers have made a tremendous contribution since they joined the minority government.

    I really hope that they will seize the opportunity to take media concentration in this country, something that is a real concern to our democracy, grab it by the neck and wrestle it to the ground and help make all media in this country much fairer.

    Come on you blokes, stop faffing around and deal with it.

  8. Excellent article. What an opportunity lost. I note 3 typos*** in the article, which detract from it IMHO:

    The government should NOT*** escape its duty to the people and to the health of our democracy.

    So, what would Rob Oakshott, Tony Windsor, Craig Thomson, Andrew Wilkie and Bob Katter accept by way of improved self-regulation, for the SAKE*** of the people of Australia?

    If they were interested in finding consensus, I’m sure a media expert would volunteer to DO*** co-ordinate the process and liaise with the Parliamentary people who draft bills for MPs.