28 July 2011

On why the media should embrace more regulation. Part 2

 In our first part, we heavily criticised News Corp for just being a bad news organisation.  By that, I mean that as a news organisation, they are bad.  Incredibly bad.  (I didn’t mean that they just produce bad news, oh heavens to Betsy, no)

It should be pointed out, though, once again, that I was only singling out News as the worst of what appears to be a very bad bunch.  I listed a whole bunch of crimes committed by the media in part 1, some of which were also committed by other media sources as well.

A really good example of disgraceful media practice that is committed across the board, is the tendency of the financial media to regurgitate media releases from companies, without any sort of objective research.  Media Watch appears to have strangely left financial journalists alone to date, but will pursue other journalists who regurgitate press releases.

Another is celebrity stories – I once tuned to the Seven News one Sunday night to find that after the first news item, the rest was utter drivel about celebrities.  Until the sport part of the news, that is.  I actually think that there’s a market for a news agency to set up a news program with the slogan, “No celebrity stories!”  It would just about have me in a heartbeat.

So I think that I can say that I’ve covered the non-News media, now.  Can I move on?  Can I get away with answering my own rhetorical questions?  Can I even get away with asking them and not looking like a dickhead?

On to regulation.  We’re seeing a strangely quick grab by the government for regulation as we speak at getting media privacy laws on to the agenda.  This is suspicious, actually, because the government seems to have had something ready to go.  And funnily enough, the rhetoric is being ramped up by the government on this as we speak, although the smell of other items on the agenda is starting to waft through – check out Stephen Conroy’s rant of a week ago against the bias of News Corp, in particular, News Corp's own shrill coverage.

But privacy is an issue.  I maintain that with some decently drafted privacy rules, we’ll see less stupid ‘Celebrity buys carton of milk!’ stories, less Milly Dowler infringements and less barefaced disregard to the presumption of innocence.

Bias is a completely different topic. 

I did discuss this only briefly in the first part.  It should be noted that where News publications seem to be getting so far out to the right that they are probably around Fiji at the moment, there is bias in the stables of the ABC, SBS and Fairfax.  The Fairfax double act of The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald as well as SBS would rightly be categorised as centre-left and the ABC is very much centre-right, these days.  Some would say, well at least these are close to centrist, although I maintain that it would be better if they actually were centrist.  I think that getting the politics balanced is another step in the right direction.

But these agencies seem to be batting a lone game.  Yes, there are very minor publications that play way out in left field, such as the Green-Left Weekly, but no one pays any attention to these seriously.  Yet where we know that the Green-Left Weekly is an amazingly unbalanced piece of claptrap, News has done a wonderful job of marketing papers like the Tele and the Oz as “mainstream”.

Folks, the Oz is much further to the right than the Green-Left Weekly is to the left.  People need to wake up to themselves: These are not the mainstream even less than the GLW is not the mainstream.

Some of you are probably wondering why I categorise the ABC as “centre-right”.  Way back in the late nineties or early noughties, John Howard, the then Prime Minister, bemoaned the left-leaning national broadcaster, with the immortal line about how it needed right-wing versions of Phillip Adams there to balance out the supposed left bias.  I agreed with some of the sentiment of this, but where Howard was advocating voices on the right to balance the voices on the left, I disagreed with adding the rightist voices and questioned the need to have Phillip Adams at all.

Disregarding the utter boringness of Adams, would it not have been better to eliminate the leftist (and rightist) voices and replace them all, left or right, with centrist ones?

Howard’s idea won, and significant efforts were made to balance out the supposed left-lean of the national broadcaster.  But where the majority of the left-leaning voices were only situated marginally left of centre, Adams notwithstanding, voices on the right now seem to come from the mostly lunar right.

I will never forget the morning I woke up and flicked on Insiders to find Barrie Cassidy sharing the studio with Andrew Bolt (who isn’t as funny outside of print), Gerard Henderson and Janet Albrechtsen.  It was that point that I realised that as far as the ABC went, the rooster had been put in charge of the henhouse.

It seems to be hammered home whenever I tune into ABC News Breakfast and see people reading the news headlines like Tim Wilson of the Institute of Public Affairs, a seriously right-wing bunch of fruitcakes with an ultra-libertarian bent, or that guy who used to be the mayor of Stonnington Council.  You know, the bloke who comes across as a caffeine and Asperger’s-driven boy scout who knows the Liberal Party’s policy book line by line.

Of course, I'm now just bagging the ABC.  How about the Nine Network, known by some as the "propaganda arm of the Liberal Party"?  Radio stations like 2GB and 3AW?

Recently, John Howard was dismissive of accusations of bias in News' papers.  'Suck it up,' he's reported to have said, having been greatly critical of the ABC during his time as Prime Minister, yet he was given an enormous free kick his whole career from channel Nine, as well as from people like Alan Jones on 2GB.  Hypocrisy is huge.

It’s fair to say that bias is a major problem, just like privacy.

It’s clearly a lost cause expecting that market forces will take care of this, so it’s time to regulate, as the late Nate Dogg said to his homey Warren G.

So what kind of regulation should we be looking at?  Just the word ‘regulation’ itself is going to get the media all frothy with disapproval, but it’s fair to say that the media have had more than enough time to show us that they can do their jobs properly.  They have obviously failed to do this.

I propose that the best place to start is to look at the regulation which applies in the most similar profession to journalism: Accountancy.

No, you are reading this correctly.  Just like in journalism, the accounting profession reports.  Journalists report news.  Accountants report financial news.  I don’t think that it’s too difficult to argue that financial reporting is any less important than any other type of reporting, yet no one argues for ‘freedom of the accounting profession’.

Just like journalists, accountants report to a variety of end users.  Management, directors, shareholders, regulators, auditors, financial journalists, etc.  Financial journalists, eh?  How much fun would it be to be a financial journalist if accounting was unregulated?

Accountants are regulated by a number of enforceable rules.  There are rules on reporting contained in the Corporations Act.  There are rules on reporting contained in ASX listing rules.  But the best fit for journalists would be a layer of regulation that accountants are subject to in the form of accounting standards, issued by the Australian Accounting Standards Board (AASB).  Standards issued by the AASB are fully enforceable.  The AASB issues the standards, however enforcement is undertaken by the corporate regulator in Australia, the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC).

It’s worth keeping the example of accountancy in the back of one’s mind.  Worth it, because the more you compare journalists to accountants, the more that you see that what passes for regulation in the media is almost completely idiotic.  The newspapers like to say that they’re regulated by the Australian Press Council.  This would be like an accountant saying that they’re regulated by their professional association – which would, of course, be ludicrous.

At least with news that is broadcast, there is a broadcast regulator, the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA), however ACMA does not have any say over what is news, and what isn’t.

Self-regulation works in some industries.  Usually, these are industries that are closed shops, where the industry is regulated by an entity that also acts as a licensing authority.  Yet the media is not a closed shop and it would be a joke to rely on self-regulation any longer.

I think I’m going to have to go to a part 3.  Stay tuned.

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