Have The Media Watchers Undermined Press Freedom?

It’s not hard to see where the media inquiry is headed.

The terms of reference were released last week. The inquiry will look at “the effectiveness of current media codes of practice”, “ways of substantially strengthening the independence of the Australian Press Council”, and “any related issues pertaining to the ability of the media to operate according to regulations and codes of practice”.

Private entities are welcome to develop ethical and professional codes. Indeed, they probably should. But it doesn’t follow that government should muscle in to enforce those codes – particularly if the entities in question are newspapers critical of the government. The risks to press and speech freedom are obvious.

But the path from self-regulation, to quasi-regulation, and then to black letter law is well-trodden.

Many industries have introduced self-regulation to stave off government interference. Many also discover years later that governments turn those voluntary measures into heavy-handed regulation.

In the case of the press, the story dates back nearly 40 years.

The relationship between the press and the Whitlam government was deteriorating rapidly during 1975. So much so that by August Whitlam’s minister for the media, Dr Moss Cass, was openly canvassing ways to increase political control of the print media.

Cass offered choices. He suggested licensing of newspapers. He suggested government subsidise print journalism. He suggested a Royal Commission into the Media. And he suggested a Press Council run by the newspapers.

Obviously, from perspective of the media and press freedom, a council was the lesser of many evils. The Australian Press Council was established in 1976.

As the Age editor Graham Perkin had said a few years earlier, “I have no doubt that we will have a Press Council forced on us one day by this government or the next. It would be best if we initiated this move ourselves so that the Press Council we get reflects the best ambitions and motives of the press rather than the ignorance and misunderstanding of public servants and some academics.”

But self-regulation is only ever a delaying tactic. The terms of reference to the Gillard Government’s media inquiry clearly suggest government involvement over developing and enforcing professional standards. The current chairman of the Press Council, Professor Julian Disney, is asking for government funding and statutory powers.

Last week Media Watch’s Jonathan Holmes mounted a stirring, but limited, defence of freedom of the press, writing in The Drum that “Three hundred years of history would be turned on its head” if Disney got his way.

It’s an important article, and a revealing one. Holmes’s arguments are worth dwelling upon. They’re held by many other apparent supporters of free speech. And they illustrate how heartfelt pleas for self-regulation are used to push for government interference.

Holmes argues regulation of the content of the print media is objectionable on freedom of the press grounds. Excellent.

But he undercuts that by arguing regulation of broadcast media content is justified.

A lot rides on how the distinction is drawn. Holmes describes broadcasters as “licensed semi-monopolists”. True, but only because government artificially restricts broadcast competition with radio spectrum licenses.

Rather than challenging this basic policy problem, Holmes would have bureaucrats regulate broadcast content to compensate – chasing one regulatory error with another.

(An alternative is to grant property rights in radio spectrum and get the Government out, as the Nobel-winning economist Ronald Coase suggested half a century ago.)

And on closer inspection such an argument doesn’t quite demonstrate why, say, the Herald Sun shouldn’t be made as “accountable” to government regulators as 2GB.

Yes, broadcasters are unconscionably protected from competition. But there are still many more metropolitan radio stations than newspapers. Towns that now have only one paper still have five TV channels. So if an exception to freedom of the press must be made, surely it must be made for our limited print media, not our relatively vibrant broadcasters?

Rather than defending freedom of the press, Holmes’s rickety distinction between print and broadcast undermines it – opening a huge gap that opponents of free speech can drive their regulatory desires through.

Yet there’s a more critical way in which Media Watch has been complicit in self-regulation becoming government regulation.

Media Watch takes a very legalistic approach to media criticism. Rather than simply pointing out lapses in ethics or inaccurate reporting, the program goes to lengths identifying codes of conduct or professional standards guidelines which have been breached. And, as I argued in The Drum in March, where regulators do have power, Holmes has been quick to call for legal action.

Citing the codes of conduct is a rhetorical ploy that Media Watch has used to emphasise the naughtiness of editors and journalists.

But it is a very influential program with a very powerful audience.

It should be no surprise then that, as a result, the Government has latched onto the apparent inadequacy of those codes, and want to make them legally enforceable.

Media Watch’s carefully documented collection of self-regulation botches have handed the political class an opportunity to restrain the press freedom Holmes so passionately defended in his column.

This is a dynamic we’ve seen in many other industries. Activists pressure private industries to follow voluntary standards. Lobbyists then convince governments to turn those standards into mandatory regulation. Rinse, repeat.

Which is, it seems, exactly what’s happening with the media inquiry.