The Independent Inquiry into the Media and Media Regulation (Media Inquiry), conducted by Ray Finkelstein QC, handed down its report at the end of February 2012 (Report).
The Media Inquiry was given the task of investigating:
- The impact of technological change on the media business
- Ways of strengthening the independence and effectiveness of the Australian Press Council, including the handling of complaints
- Any related issues pertaining to media regulation, codes of practice and the public interest.
The Media Inquiry is an adjunct to the wider Convergence Review, which was established in late 2010 to inform the Federal Government (Government) about regulatory and policy changes that will be required following the establishment of the National Broadband Network. Together, the Convergence Review (which is due to report later this year) and the Media Inquiry will result in one of the most comprehensive reviews of the policy and regulatory frameworks that apply to the production and distribution of content in Australia.
The most important recommendation of the Media Inquiry is the establishment of a News Media Council (NMC) to set journalistic standards for news media across all platforms (print, online, radio and television). The new body would take over the functions of both the Australian Press Council (APC) and the news and current affairs standards functions of the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA).
KEY FINDINGS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
The Report found that the multiplicity of codes (such as the journalists', publishers' and APC's codes) is unnecessarily complicated for professionals and the public. Instead, it recommends the development of two types of standards based on existing codes:
- Non-binding aspirational principles
- More detailed standards that are similar to the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance's code and the APC's standards.
The Report was concerned that existing complaint handling processes are slow and cumbersome. Accordingly, it recommends the NMC adopt complaint handling procedures that are timely, efficient and inexpensive when journalistic standards are breached. The Report states that the NMC should resolve complaints within two or three days of being received using formal or informal discussions with the relevant media outlet.
The NMC would have the power to:
- Publish its decision or determination
- Require a news media outlet to publish an apology, correction or retraction; or
- Afford a person a right to reply.
However, the NMC would not be given the power to require journalists to breach the confidentiality between themselves and their sources of information.
While the NMC would not have the power to impose fines or award compensation, noncompliance with a NMC determination could result in the NMC applying to a court for compliance or a determination.
Issues of independence
In response to a problem of underfunding for the APC and general lack of resources to enable it to properly perform its tasks, the Report recommends that funding for the NMC should be provided by the Government. However, this proposed solution has not received support from media outlets who believe that Government funding of the NMC would compromise its ability to function as a truly independent body of review.
The Report recommends that members of the NMC be drawn from the public (with no connection to the media) and the media, or those who have worked in the media, with equal male and female representation.
Another role for the NMC would be to research media conduct and trends and report declines in both the production and delivery of quality journalism.
RESPONSES TO THE MEDIA INQUIRY
While the Report states that the proposed NMC "is about making the news media more accountable to those covered in the news, and to the public generally", the response to the Report from the media generally has not been favourable. In particular, the concept of a Government-funded body with the responsibility of regulating journalistic standards for the news media across all platforms has been met with strident opposition on the grounds that it poses a potential limitation to freedom of speech.
While the Media Inquiry may have discharged its task of reviewing the effectiveness of current media codes of practice in Australia, it has not proposed solutions acceptable to media outlets. Given that Australia is due for a general election in 2013, if the Government undertakes the reform agenda proposed by the Report, it will either be brave or foolhardy. Any attempt to implement reform is likely to be met with strong opposition from the same media outlets that the Government will be looking to for support during an election year. In the final analysis, it may be that the recommendations arising from the Report will never be implemented.
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