Don’t panic – there are plenty of media jobs

If being a journalist meant working in a traditional newsroom, the next generation would have reason to be concerned. But it doesn’t and they don’t, writes Margaret Simons.

Rachel Buchanan’s new book Stop Press is a valuable contribution to thinking about journalism today. However, I couldn’t disagree more with the section that was extracted in The Age last week in which she claimed that journalism educators are committing a kind of fraud because of the many redundancies in the industry.

There are a number of reasons why I disagree. The most powerful is simply that graduates of journalism degrees are finding jobs

It is true, as Buchanan catalogues, that few of these jobs are in the large newsrooms. In fact, most of the jobs my own students have taken up did not exist five years ago.

Several are working for online publications playing to specialist audiences. They are working for new media entrepreneurs, including those who have broken through to commercial success. Some are managing the social media presence of media outlets and other organisations operating in new media. Some are getting jobs in regional and suburban media. A couple are working as assistants to freelance journalists with international markets and book contracts.

The skills they need to hold these jobs are a mixture of old and new. Clear writing and thorough research are as important as ever, but the new generation of journalism workers also needs to understand online publication, and be social media savvy and multimedia skilled. Often, these journalists need to be able to operate as self-sufficient publishers, as well as part of an organisation.

There are a number of reasons why such students are finding jobs, even as older journalists are made redundant.

First, the barriers to entry to the media business have dropped away. There is a new start-up every week. Most do not survive for long, but a substantial number become small sustainable businesses, each employing a modest staff. Think Crikey, Business Spectator (now owned by News Corporation), Mumbrella, RenewEconomy and many, many others. The majority of journalistic jobs in Australia are now in small operations employing fewer than half a dozen people. These operations fly beneath the radar of “old school” journalists.

Another reason there are plenty of jobs is that in the modern world, most large organisations are in some sense media outlets, because they have websites. Some are self-consciously engaging in journalistic practice, and they need skilled recruits.

We can argue about the blurring line between PR and journalism. That is an important debate, now as ever. But the people working for outlets as various as the AFL, The Conversation, Human Rights Watch and a host of others are surely doing journalistic work, even if the motivation of their employers includes a species of brand management.

In this fast changing world we need to move beyond old divisions, and try to think clearly about what matters in journalism as it has been practiced, and how to preserve and evolve reporting of integrity. Part of this involves an acceptance that journalism is being done in many places that are not traditional media organisations.

In my experience, old style journalists tend to conflate two questions that are actually quite separate.

First, there is the question of how to preserve and evolve the kind of quality investigative journalism traditionally done in large newsrooms. There are no easy answers – though academic journalism departments should, through their research, be part of finding the way forward.

But the question of whether there are jobs in journalism is a quite separate issue with a much easier answer. There are plenty of jobs, but they are not where they used to be. It is a rare week in which I don’t take a call from an organisation or individual seeking to recruit our students.

But even leaving all this aside, there are other reasons why journalism educators can be proud of their work.

Many of those who sign up for undergraduate journalism degrees don’t necessarily plan to be journalists. Postgraduate journalism students, as befits their age and greater life experience, tend to be more vocationally focused – but the numbers are smaller in these classes.

And I’ll let you in to a secret. The majority of law graduates never practice law. The majority of graduates from Masters of Business Administration never administer a business. Many accountancy graduates do not become accountants. Many psychology graduates never become clinical psychologists. Yet nobody suggests that because of this, their teachers are frauds or the degrees worthless.

Some analyses by old school reporters suggest that universities, in this field but apparently no other, should ignore the burgeoning demand for these degrees and turn away the many students seeking these skills and qualifications. That universities should pretend that we know better than the smart young people seeking our services.

What a strange idea, particularly as universities are being encouraged to think in a more business-like fashion. Should universities also turn away applicants to enter degrees in the performing arts, because few will make it on to stage and screen? Or close down creative writing degrees, because few will become authors?

It is an odd kind of journalistic self obsession to believe that only one vocational outcome legitimizes the study of the practice.

A good degree in journalism or media and communications provides a useful set of skills and understandings. It has even been suggested that in our increasingly media-enabled world, it is the modern equivalent of an old fashioned classics degree – essential to a full understanding of modern culture.

There is some evidence that journalism graduates do better in the general job market than graduates from generic Bachelor of Arts degrees. We shouldn’t be surprised. A moment’s reflection tells us the value of skills in clear communication and fast research from primary sources.

At the same time, as mainstream media takes fewer trainees, tertiary journalism courses not only teach skills but also pass on and evolve the ethical and professional norms as the practice of journalism fragments and spreads.

For all these reasons and more, a quality journalism degree is fine thing to have, and a good thing to teach.

A change for the future…

We have decided to make a small but significant change to the Centre’s name. From 2013, we will be the Centre for Advancing Journalism. The name better reflects what we strive to do – to take journalism forward, through our teaching, research and engagement.

My Letter to the Editor of The Australian

Some followers of this Blog will have noticed that thousands of words have been published about me in The Australian newspaper this week. Yesterday I wrote a letter to the editor to attempt to correct innacurate and distorted reporting. It was published today, but cut in half. The full text appears below.

Sir,

There have been significant distortions and inaccuracies in the last few day’s reporting by The Australian.
The account of what happened in the Walkley judging of Best Print News Report in 2009 was inaccurate in some respects and distorted in others.

The confidentiality of the judging process prevents me from fully correcting the record, but suffice to say it is not the case that, as alleged in Cameron Stewart’s article today,  I “tried to disqualify” his story from the awards.  Indeed, his story was on my personal “long shortlist” going in to the judging meeting.

Nor did I use my judging role to discredit the story, as asserted  in the headline to Nick Leys and John Ferguson’s report on Wednesday of this week. The decision of the judging panel, which had the task of providing a shortlist of three finalists, was unanimous. My fellow judges were David Penberthy, a senior executive with News Limited, and Michael McKinnon, formerly The Australian’s correspondent on FoI matters and since then with Channel Seven. I would also point out that of the three finalists we chose, two were from The Australian, and one went on to win the Gold Walkley. Stewart’s report was a finalist in another category of the awards, Best Scoop, which I did not judge, but did not win that category either.

At the time of the judging  I had not written about Stewart and the Operation Neath scoop. Like most people, all I knew was on the public record – the controversy over the fact that newspapers carrying the story were available in Melbourne before the raids took place, and that The Australian had been criticized for this by Police Commissioner Simon Overland.  I knew nothing about the Office of Police Integrity investigation, Stewart’s sources, or anything else.

I started to report the circumstances surrounding the story months later in 2010, as a result of Chris Mitchell’s threat to the Office of Police Integrity  that The Australian would “use every journalistic and legal measure available to pursue what can only be described as an outrageous fabrication…should our concerns not be addressed.” This threat was initially reported in The Age. This, together with The Australian taking court action to suppress a report by the Office of Police Integrity, was what drew my interest, together with the fact that The Australian had indeed begun to run a string of stories highly critical of Overland and the OPI.

My Walkley judging role, which had concluded months before, was therefore not part of me “getting up a head of steam” as Stewart alleges.

Finally, and perhaps most seriously, Stewart asserts that the Office of Police Integrity leaked me information about his interview with them. As I have said several times, this is simply not true, and The Australian does us all a disservice by continuing to report this false allegation. The fact that Stewart was the principal source of evidence against his source emerged in open court during the Federal Court hearing initiated by The Australian. I was in court. The OPI did not leak anything to me about their investigation into this matter.

When the fact that the source had signed a release emerged, I reported that, together with the MEAA statement on these events.

All I have said since then is that this case will be the subject of ethical discussion for years to come among journalists and journalism students.

Yours,

Margaret Simons

 

 

A Summary of What Leveson Says

Often, when big contentious reports are released, the simple facts of what the report says are lost in all the commentary and controversy.

For this reason, Centre for Advanced Journalism Research Fellow Dr Denis Muller has written a straight summary of what the Leveson Report says about regulating news media. It appears below.

Don’t forget that Leveson will be visiting us here at the Centre for Advanced Journalism the week after next. His public lecture on the 12th is booked out, but will be live streamed from this page.

By DENIS MULLER

Lord Justice Leveson has recommended the establishment of a new independent regulator of the British press, grounded in law but separate from government.

The law would set out the basic characteristics of the new body and the incentives to join it, but it would be established and run independent of government and of the newspaper industry. It would not be a statutory authority, which is answerable to government, but an independent body answerable to the public.

In essence it is similar to the proposal from Australia’s Convergence Review – a law-based regulator independent of government and the industry – and different from the proposal from Australia’s Finkelstein Inquiry, which recommended a statutory authority.

In its detail, however, the Leveson model echoes several of the features proposed by the Australian inquiries.

Governance

Leveson proposes that the new regulator should be governed by a board independent of government and press whose members would be appointed by an independent appointment panel. This panel in turn would consist largely of people with no connection to the press or government, although it would include at least one person with current understanding and experience of the press. Finkelstein proposed a similar mechanism for his News Media Council.

Leveson’s board would consist of a majority of people who were independent of the press, but include some with experience of the industry. Two groups would not be eligible: serving newspaper editors and anyone from Parliament or government. Finkelstein’s board would consist half and half of independent and industry members but with a fulltime independent chair.

Funding

Leveson’s regulator would be funded entirely by the newspaper industry, based on five-year funding cycles. The amount would be negotiated and would take into account “commercial pressures” on the industry. Finkelstein’s regulator, as a statutory authority, would be funded entirely by the Government. The Convergence Review’s regulator would be funded largely by the industry but with the option of obtaining government funding to cover shortfalls or special projects.

Functions

Like Finkelstein and the Convergence Review, Leveson recommends the following core functions:

  • Creation of a standards code which, in effect, would be similar to existing newspaper codes of ethics, with particular attention to the issues of privacy, accuracy, and ethical conduct in the gathering of material;
  • Creation of a mechanism to deal speedily with complaints against the press. The exact details of how the complaints system would operate are left in all cases to the new regulator to determine.

Powers and sanctions

Leveson, like Finkelstein, recommends that the regulator have the power to order the publication of corrections and apologies, and to direct the nature, extent and placement of apologies. The Convergence Review was vague on these points, saying only that the regulator should have a “flexible and effective” range of remedies, which would include the mandatory and prominent publication of its findings.

Common to all is the power to order publication of remedial material, however.

Leveson, like Finkelstein, recommends that the regulator have the power to initiate investigations without waiting for a complaint.

Leveson, unlike either of the Australian inquiries, recommends that the regulator have the power to fine newspapers up to 1% of turnover or one million pounds for serious or systematic breaches of the standards code or governance requirements.

Leveson, like Finkelstein, recommends that the regulator keep reliable and comprehensive data on complaints and their outcomes, and publish those data to the public in a way that makes the process transparent.

Membership

Leveson recommends that “all significant news publishers” should subscribe to the new regulator and thereby come under its jurisdiction. It does not define the term “significant news publishers” but recommends that subscribership should be open to all publishers on fair terms, including potentially different terms for different publishers. This might encourage relatively small publishers in the new media environment to sign up.

By contrast, Finkelstein set the bar for compulsory membership very low, including online publishers with a minimum of 15,000 hits per annum. The Convergence Review recommended compulsory membership for what it called “content service enterprises”, which in effect meant the big broadcasters and newspaper houses.

Under Leveson, membership would be voluntary, unlike either Finkelstein or the Convergence Review, and he recommends a number of incentives to join. Among the most important is access to an arbitration service, to be provided by the new regulator as a means of quickly and cheaply settling civil law claims against publishers rather than the much more expensive process of going through the courts.

Moreover, he proposes that the law underpinning the new regime should require the courts to change the rules governing civil litigation so that a litigant who had declined an opportunity to use the arbitration service would risk being unable to recover costs, even if he won the ensuing court action.

As a last resort, Leveson suggests the possibility that the UK’s statutory regulator, the Office of Communications (Ofcom) be a backstop regulator for newspapers who fail to sign up to the self-regulatory body. However, he stops short of recommending this.

Finkelstein and the Convergence Review recommended compulsory membership, seeing voluntary membership as one of the key weaknesses in the existing Australian Press Council arrangements.

Leveson and Finkelstein identified a remarkably similar set of weaknesses in the existing accountability arrangements – that they were toothless, ineffectual, lacked independence from the newspaper industry, and lacked transparency of process.

Their recommended remedies, while containing significant differences in approach, all are based on the same premise: that enabling legislation is required because the press have been unwilling or unable to do it themselves.

Their overarching objective is also the same: to make the press properly accountable in the same way that the press holds others in power to account.

Declaration: Dr Denis Muller worked as a consultant to the Federal Government’s Independent Media Inquiry, headed by Ray Finkelstein.

How do we defend editorial integrity in the post industrial age?

The situation of Fairfax Media at present, with three editors standing down in one day and Gina Rinehart circling with her intentions largely undeclared, make this a good time to think carefully about what journalists mean by editorial independence. In fact, it is past time this thinking was done.

The best time to review and update core documents, such as the Fairfax Charter of Editorial Independence, is when they are not under attack or stress. It is understandable that in the current context, those who care about the integrity of journalism are not keen to acknowledge that the Charter may not be the ideal rallying document for the cause. But it isn’t. And in an ideal world, the hard thinking about what independence actually means and how it might best be defended would have been done periodically over the 25 years since the Charter was written.

A declaration: I was involved in the drafting of what was then The Age charter of editorial independence back in 1988, in the context of a possible takeover bid by Robert Maxwell – the big scarey rich person and would be media proprietor of his time.

I remember being handed a suggested draft by an editor with the words that it codified “how things work here”. In other words, it laid down the existing relationship between the proprietor, the management, the editor and the journalists.

The Fairfax Charter, as it became, is in other words a document that relates to its times. It defines editorial independence as a commitment by the proprietors, encapsulated in the person of the editor. Under the charter, the editor can be hired and fired by the management, which answers to the board, but is otherwise to be left alone to manage the newsroom and direct journalists.

Importantly, there is no defence against a craven or toady editor.

Is this document still the best definition of what editorial independence means? Editors have been losing power at Fairfax, with resources and talent increasingly travelling upstream to national structures.

The tensions that have been caused by this shift of power away from individual mastheads are part of the context for today’s resignations. (See here for something I wrote late last year on this). What role is left for a masthead editor when key decisions about allocation of reporters and the content of platforms are made by national “topic editors” or “geographic editors” answerable to a national management?

Exactly the same trend is visible at News Limited, with CEO Kim Williams also moving to a “networked” structure, and withdrawing from localism.

It makes sense if you are trying to cover the same things – the affairs of the nation – with fewer resources. Both organisations are trying to stabilise the news media business at a sustainable level. The problem is that nobody really knows what sustainability looks like. It is a grand experiment. Were these not big industrial organisations, it might be possible for them to move in exactly the opposite direction, towards increased localism and niche interests. But that would mean only modest profits and little or no growth – not an easy message  to sell to a board representing institutional investors legally obliged to consider the bottom line.

We will shortly see more restructuring announcements at Fairfax, with power further removed from masthead editors. Tragic for the individuals concerned, but there are also issues that should concern all audience members.

Namely, what happens to editorial independence in the absence of a powerful editor?  Or to ask the question a different way, how would one write a charter of editorial independence to suit today’s media landscape?

The thinking needs to be done, and not only because of what is happening in the big industrial legacy media enterprises.

In the future, much of what we might want to call journalism will be the product of small to medium enterprises, not all of which will emerge from the same culture that produced the traditional newsroom.

In fact all organisations with websites are in some sense media organisations, and many put out news. Whether we would want to describe it as journalism is a different matter, because the word “journalism” implies standards of verification and integrity.

Some news content will be done by NGOs, with their own agendas. And some will be done by big organisations, such as the AFL, with the important question being whether this is PR, strategic marketing or journalism.

And some will be done on a not for profit basis by organisations backed by various kinds of philanthropy – and  philanthropists have their own predilections and priorities.

So what does the word independence mean in this context?

It is not only to do with funding. All media is funded one way or another, through some mix of subscriptions, advertising or proprietorial patronage. Throughout history, some editorial decisions have been influenced by the money. Would there be so many property journalists were it not for real estate ads? Would the travel pages devote so much copy to luxury cruises were it not for advertising? Would local papers even exist, without local government  and real estate ads?

Independence in this context means a preparedness for the funder/s to tolerate journalism that does not serve their interests. It depends on Chinese curtains between the revenue earning and the news media work. The arrangements laid down in the Fairfax Charter are one such “Chinese curtain”. But for most of the history of news media, such arrangements have not existed or have been under challenge and strain or honoured in the breach.

I think in the new world “integrity” might be a more useful concept than “independence” – which begs so many questions about business models and proprietors.

Integrity means, to my mind, the freedom for journalists to follow the evidence and relay the results of inquiries and investigations to the audience in a way not determined by commercial, political and personal interests. It allows for collaborations between journalists and  interest groups – such as we saw on Four Corners last year, when the Indonesian abattoir story resulted from content provided by an animal rights group – verified and expanded by the journalists. The role of the journalist in such collaborations is to ensure the content has integrity.

Journalistic method is a product of the enlightenment. It means searching for truth, heeding evidence and disseminating the results. If journalists are not able to do those things, then the product is not journalism, but something else.

So in this new, smaller, post industrial media age, what management arrangements best ensure that integrity is safeguarded?

When the editor is effectively removed from the equation, the relationship between management and journalist becomes more direct. That means that there is an increased need for integrity in the individual journalists. That’s a tall order, when jobs are under threat.

All charters and such like documents depend, inevitably, on the willingness of the proprietor to back journalistic integrity. If a proprietor wishes to intervene, there is little that can stop them.

Journalists need support, if there is no editor who can be relied upon to provide it.

And this, in my view, is where today’s announcements intersect with the earlier news this year in media – the recommendations of the Finkelstein Report and the Convergence Review. Both recommend different models for policing media standards, including truth, accuracy, balance and fairness.

Such external oversight becomes even more important now. A modern charter of editorial integrity would, I think, place much less emphasis on the editor, but would instead ensure that there were sources of peer support and advice available to individual journalists, and stronger external watchdogs with powers to inquire and report.

Proprietors who interfere to warp the news are free to do so, just as we all have freedom of speech. But they should be accountable for their actions. Their conduct should be on public display, and there should be a press council like body which sees such exposure as part of its role.

Most of all, we need a public that believes journalism matters. Ultimately it is the audience, not the journalists, proprietors or the editors, that will determine whether we get news content with integrity. That means that journalists need to earn the public’s trust. And that lands us back in the same place – some reliable and robust method of policing news media standards. In the long term, such a system is a better guarantee than any individual editor.

The Bottom Line – News or Profitability

This article, by Dr Margaret Simons, appeared first  in today’s Crikey.

There is a respectable point of view among those who analyze media businesses that the smart thing to do for serious news journalism is move to the political right.

Why? Because most of those with the willingness and capacity to pay for news content are comparatively wealthy individuals in business – business news being one of the things they are willing to pay for.

Also, that these are the individuals premium advertisers most wish to reach.

Among this school of analysts are those who see The Australian’s conservative bent as being not only about the personal views of the proprietor and editor, but also about business good sense. It follows from this that Fairfax Media, with its more liberal leanings, is not being so smart.

Which brings us to Gina Rinehart, and the views expressed earlier this week by Hungry Jacks founder,  Ten Network board member and Rinehart adviser Jack Cowin, who is quoted as saying that the Fairfax Board should have the power to change the editorial direction of the company. He said newspapers were a business and that ”the purpose of the newspaper … is probably to portray the facts in a manner that is going to attract readership”.

He also said: ”The purpose of a company is to try to make a profits and if the editorial policy … is not optimising the opportunity then it’s the role of the directors to try to change the direction.”

All of which raises that old chestnut of whether journalism is just a business, like any other, or whether it is a public trust.

Read More »

My Response to The Australian

Over the last week, I have been subjected to a sustained and defamatory attack on my reputation in the pages of The Australian. Thousands of words have been written, and pages of newsprint devoted to this attack over three days. The central allegation against me is that I did not declare a supposed conflict of interest, when I should have.

I did not declare it because there was nothing to declare. It’s a non story, as I have written previously.

Here is what happened. In October last year, before I was on staff at the Centre for Advanced Journalism but after my forthcoming appointment had been announced, I took a call from the Finkelstein inquiry secretariat asking for recommendations of people to conduct research, including on press councils worldwide. They were ringing a number of people for such recommendations. I was one among several.

There was nothing unusual about this. I take an average of about four calls a month from government departments, companies and individuals seeking my recommendations of people to conduct research or writing jobs, or in some cases media training.

As the emails released show,  I suggested that this research could be conducted on contract through the Centre. Nothing unusual there either. It is commonplace for university academics to conduct research on contract, and indeed the Centre did some research (unrelated to these matters) on contract for a state government department  long before I was on staff.

I recommended a number of names, including that of Dr Denis Muller, who as anyone in the field knows is a leading Australian expert on media standards and regulation. The subject of Muller’s Phd thesis was bang on topic for Finkelstein. He was the obvious person to recommend.

It was not clear whether the inquiry was looking merely for a short and simple literature review, or something more substantial. I therefore recommended three people, from Muller as a leading person in the field to another researcher with some expertise in the field , to a good freelance researcher with no particular expertise in the area.

That was the end of my role. Without further consultation with me, the inquiry picked up the suggestion of Muller. After some to-ing and fro-ing with the administrative staff of the Centre, about which I was informed but not directly involved, (there was no director in place at the time) the inquiry contracted Muller privately. The Centre, and I, had no further role.

Now, if things had been done differently and the research had been done through the Centre, I would indeed have been in a position where I would have had to consider whether this disqualified me from commentary on the inquiry and its work. At the very least, it would have been appropriate for me to declare the fact of the contract in my journalism on the Finkelstein inquiry. And I would have added this declaration to the several  others I made in my submission to the inquiry.

But I had no conflict. I had no pecuniary or professional interest. I had nothing to declare.

To briefly address some of the other smears in The Australian on Saturday:

  • Chris Kenny revives a 12 year old beef over my book The Meeting of the Waters, concerning the Hindmarsh Island affair in which he was a key player as a reporter for Channel Ten. Kenny’s account of our interactions, and of the book, is inaccurate and self serving. The book is out of print. Sections closely concern Kenny, which is why, more than a decade later, he is still keen to attempt to discredit me. One passage concerns his interview with Ngarrindjeri man Doug Milera – a matter that also came to the attention of the ABC’s Media Watch. My account in the book of Kenny’s conduct is based on documents, including a complete transcript of the interview, which are still in the South Australian state archives, should anyone wish to check the facts. My conclusion, on page 330, reads:

“Milera had stated three times that he believed in secret women’s business. He had also compared the stories to fairytales – part of the past, but not relevant to the present day. He had talked about the business being ‘remembered’ …only once had he made a clear statement that women’s business was fabricated. The next day, 6 June 1995, Channel Ten broadcast the new scoop. It led the evening news nationwide. Milera looked drunk. His words were slurred, his head was on one side….The announcer began with the words: “More stunning admissions today on the Hindmarsh Island bridge scandal. A senior Aboriginal man has admitted helping make up the so called secret women’s business.”

To put it mildly, this was not a fair summary of the interview, and nor were the excerpts Kenny used a fair selection of a long and rambling encounter during most of which Milera made no sense. Yet this news story helped trigger the calling of a Royal Commission.

For a disinterested assessment of The Meeting of the Waters, which won one major literary award and was shortlisted for several others, including one prize for thorough research, Kerry Goldsworthy’s review, published in Australian Book Review in 2003, can be read here.

  • The repeated claims by Gerard Henderson that the award-winning book I wrote with Malcolm Fraser is “littered with factual errors” get yet another run as part of The Australian’s campaign against me. There were five factual errors in the 750 pages of text, not including footnotes and index, in  the first edition of the book.  Four were spotted by Henderson. Yes, he missed one!  The other things Henderson claims as errors are differences in interpretation, hair splitting and pedantry, and in one case (what John Kerr did on the morning of the Dismissal) Henderson’s refusal to believe the weight of the evidence.

This is a campaign by The Australian to smear one of its critics. Its record of doing this kind of thing is now so well established that nobody should be surprised. For the few who are interested, it is quite clear what is occurring. The rest of the paper’s readers must be  bemused by its news values.

Behind the smoke and mirrors, there are two substantive issues, neither about me.

Issue Number One: What is the best and most appropriate means of news media regulation or self regulation in Australia? This is a subject on which people of good will sincerely disagree. Some of what I have written about this is on the public record here and here.

At no point have I advocated government control over journalism, or additional restrictions on freedom of speech.

The only item of genuine news on this issue last week was Professor Matthew Ricketson’s speech at the Centre for Advanced Journalism last Thursday, (read the text here and listen to the podcast here ) in which he described the Convergence Review’s recommendations for a beefed up self regulatory body as not a realistic solution, and the media’s role in reporting the Finkelstein Report as reprehensible.

Now, for  a member of a government inquiry to condemn the recommendation of another government inquiry on the same matter – even when expressing a personal view – is news. Not front page, but worth a story on an inside page.

But The Australian failed to report what Ricketson said, despite its media reporter being present. Instead  The Australian led with a second front page story about me that contained no fresh facts.

The editor in chief of The Australian, Chris Mitchell, likes handing out marks for journalism. This is apparently his idea of a high scoring effort.

Issue Number Two is the irresponsible and dangerous fashion in which The Australian in particular has allowed itself to be used by, or has itself used, the anti reform forces in the Victoria police to play dirty police politics. This, and other media meddling, has left Victoria in the truly frightening position of an honest Police Commissioner’s position becoming untenable, and at the same time the government being unable to find anyone to head its flawed planned anti corruption body. Who would be crazy enough to take the post, after all, with the media so ready to take the drip from dubious sources, and the government far from staunch on the side of the angels?

This is a really worrying situation – perhaps the most important issue of all. I expressed my concerns about The Australian’s role in this in my submission to the Finkelstein inquiry and in journalism for Crikey over the last two years.

The work I have done on this is, I believe, the main reason for The Australian’s attempt to destroy my reputation.

Since I do not intend to fall silent on this matter, I suspect I am in for more attacks, and they will probably get worse. You read it here first.

On 13 June, the ABC Managing Director, Mark Scott, will launch at the Centre an academic book, edited by Matthew Ricketson and containing chapters by me, Denis Muller, Rod Tiffen (who also did work for the Finkelstein inquiry) and Andrew Dodd, who worked with me at Swinburne University, also writes for Crikey and has also been attacked by The Australian. Academics writing a book! Knowing each other! You can almost write the copy for The Australian right now. Then again, the Herald and Weekly Times’ respected head of editorial training, Nick Richardson and the Herald and Weekly Times’ Corporate Communications Manager Aileen Berry have also contributed, which won’t quite fit Chris Mitchell’s preferred (and contradictory) narratives of:

1. an out of touch club of ineffectual ivory tower academics who know nothing about journalism AND

2. A dangerous conspiracy by these same academics to threaten News Limited and thus end freedom of speech

It really is that silly.

Professor Matthew Ricketson’s Address to the Centre for Advanced Journalism

(This is an edited version of the address. The full audio will be available from the Centre’s website early next week)

You wouldn’t read about it:

Everything you wanted to know about media accountability

and the Finkelstein inquiry.

Presentation by Professor Matthew Ricketson, University of Canberra.

Centre for Advanced Journalism, Melbourne University, Thursday 17 May 2012.

The most recent and persuasive case study showing why there is an urgent need to reform regulation of the news media has been provided by the news media itself. And it’s been provided in the way they have reported on the Independent Media Inquiry.

What they have done is to under-report a lot of what was presented to the Independent Media Inquiry late last year, and to either misreport the inquiry’s findings or to ignore large parts of the report altogether.

Anyone who relied on the mainstream news media for their knowledge of the media inquiry’s report could be forgiven for thinking that we had recommended the federal government take a leaf out of Alan Jones’ book and stuff freedom of the press into a sack and dump it out at sea.

What I would like to do this evening is to clear away some of the thickets of misinformation and walk you through some of the material that was actually presented to the inquiry and show you how Mr Ray Finkelstein QC and I and those hired to assist us reached the conclusions we did and arrived at the recommendations we made. I would also like to tell you about some of the material in the report that has not been discussed at all in the mainstream news media.

I’m going to use the phrase mainstream news media tonight because I will be focussing on the metropolitan daily newspapers, their websites and on radio and television. Smaller independent news websites such as Crikey and New Matilda and some individual blogs covered the inquiry in detail and with a good deal of care.

I’m happy to acknowledge that at 468 pages the inquiry’s report could double as a door-stopper and that befitting a report to government it is nobody’s idea of a racy read. There are, by my reckoning, two jokes in the entire report and in one of these the humour is decidedly mordant.

(That was when David Simon, a former crime reporter and creator of the television series The Wire, told a senate hearing that was looking at the changing business model’s impact on investigative journalism: “It is going to be one of the great times to be a corrupt politician” (Report, p. 323).

The inquiry received around 10,600 submissions, the vast majority of which were facilitated by advocacy groups Avaaz and NewsStand through the use of online forms. It is worth noting, though, that 762 of these submissions expressed dissatisfaction with the performance of the news media and only four expressed satisfaction. In addition, while the terms of reference did not specifically ask the inquiry to consider the issue of concentration of media ownership, 444 submissions expressed concern about its effect and 115 submissions called for a fit and proper person test to be part of media ownership arrangements (Report, p 349-51).

Alongside these the inquiry received a further 132 written submissions. It also heard from 41 people and organisations over eight days of public hearings in three cities.

Here are three things that were either under-reported during the inquiry or not reported at all.

On the very first day of public hearings, in Melbourne on 8 November, Mr Finkelstein categorically ruled out any return to a licensing regime for the print media when the idea was floated by Stephen Mayne, the journalist and shareholder activist. He said that licensing meant the government decreeing who is able to publish news, which, he said, “is as close as going back to the Dark Ages as you could find” as it represents “probably as extreme an encroachment on news dissemination as you could get” (Transcript, 8 November, p 99-100).  This is relevant in the light of the dire extrapolations made about the inquiry report’s recommendations.

Dennis Pearce was chair of the Press Council between 1998 and 2000 and apart from being an emeritus professor of law at ANU he has also been Commonwealth ombudsman. In his presentation he described as “disgraceful” a decision by The Australian to refuse to publish an adjudication by the council about a complaint and in fact to withdraw from the council for several months (Transcript, 9 November, p 191).

Mr Greg Hywood, the chief executive of Fairfax Media, was unable to explain why news media companies could satisfactorily put in place Chinese walls between their editorial and their advertising departments to ensure that governments, which are major advertisers with newspapers, could not influence editorial policy, but that a regulatory body with even partial government funding would be inevitably and irretrievably compromised.

On the first arrangement he said, “Yes, certainly the government is a major client of Fairfax…..So it is absolutely core to our business model that we separate editorial from commercial. We have done that and we will continue to do that”.

On the second arrangement he said, “The government funding a body like that [the Press Council] would have the right to make judgements about what we do and we just don’t see that as acceptable” (Transcript, 16 November, pp 95-96).

The report was delivered to the Communications minister, Senator Stephen Conroy, on Tuesday 28 February and released on Friday 2 March.

Here is a selection of the mis-reporting or overreaction to the inquiry’s report.

First, in the Herald Sun on Saturday 3 March (page 2), the headline read: “High price to pay: Inquiry wants taxpayer-funded watchdog to monitor your news”. In a breakout box headlined “What they said” Mr Finkelstein was quoted as follows:

“Many of the criticisms (of the media) are self-interested or expedient; much of the public cynicism is misdirected”.

This quotation is from paragraph 10 of the executive summary. The preceding sentence reads: “These proposals are made at a time when polls consistently reveal low levels of trust in the media, when there is declining newspaper circulation, and when there are frequent controversies about media performance”.

The succeeding sentence after the newspaper’s breakout quote reads: “Yet a news media visibly living up to its own standards and enforcing its own high ideals is likely to increase rather than undermine public confidence and acceptance”.

This kind of blatant cherry-picking of quotes is a pretty good way of undermining public confidence and trust in the media.

Second, in a panel discussion on ABC radio’s The World Today on Friday 9 March, Ashley Hall finished by asking Bob Cronin, group editor-in-chief of West Australian Newspapers, about a comment he had made that the inquiry’s recommendations represented “the most outrageous assault on our democracy in the history of the media”. Hall said: “But the notions he’s espousing of independence, balance, speedy corrections and apologies are already part of the various voluntary codes that cover journalism and media. What’s the difference, if it’s enforceable and paid for by the Government?”

To which Mr Cronin replied: “The key difference is under Mr Finkelstein’s proposals editors could be jailed for refusing to publish statements demanded by the Government-appointed regulator that the editor believed were completely untrue. Now I mean that sort of thing was common when Joe Stalin was running the Soviet Union and it is probably still very common in North Korea but I wouldn’t ever want to see a situation here where editors were jailed for standing up for their beliefs”.

It appears to have escaped Mr Cronin’s attention that under the government-appointed regulator for the broadcast media in Australia, not only has no major radio or television station ever had its license taken away but those who are routinely complained about, such as Alan Jones or John Laws or Kyle Sandilands, have suffered not much more than a slap on the wrist with a damp tissue.

Finally, John Henningham these days runs a small private educational outlet in Brisbane called J-school but two decades ago he became the first professor of journalism in Australia. His contribution to the public discourse was to liken the proposed News Media Council to the Reich Press Chamber that existed in Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany.

In an article published in The Weekend Australian on 17 March, Henningham writes that the Reich Press Chamber set up in 1933 by Hitler and his propaganda minister, Josef Goebbels, was: “The beginning of a whole new relationship between authoritarian governments and the press – not simply censoring information or jailing editors – but actively using the press as an instrument of propaganda: print this, or else”.

I don’t intend to dignify this offensive comparison with a response other than to say that whatever the Reich Press Chamber may have done after Hitler seized power, what happened beforehand is more instructive, according to Ron Rosenbaum’s book Explaining Hitler. Hitler and his SA Brownshirts murdered a number of their political opponents in the 1920s and early 1930s, each of which was reported in the Munich Post. The Brownshirts destroyed the newspaper’s office twice and as soon as Hitler came to power they came and dragged its journalists away to prison. The problem was not media regulation; the problem was Hitler’s criminality.

I cite Henningham’s remarks as perhaps the most extreme example of the hostile coverage of the inquiry’s report. It is not surprising, though, that it appeared in The Australian which in the three weeks after the report’s release published not one but three editorials criticising it and at least 12 negative opinion pieces. In the same period the newspaper published one opinion piece that was reasonably balanced and two that approved of the report’s recommendations.

Let us look at what is actually recommended and the reasons for it.

It is relatively common ground, even among some commentators in the press, that the regulation of the news media in Australia is inconsistent, fragmented and ineffective.

There is one body for regulating news and current affairs on radio and television and another for regulating newspapers and, to an extent magazines and online. Is there any good reason for this? Not really. Or, if there were sound historical reasons for the print media to campaign against the strictures of being licensed by the government, the prospect of a government licensing the press has been a dead issue for many, many years.

Regulation was imposed on radio and then television at least partly because the airwaves were a public resource and a scarce one at that. But that was not the only or perhaps even the primary reason broadcast media were regulated. The Broadcasting Services Act of 1992, which remains the act in force, expressly says a reason for regulating broadcast media, especially television, is because of its power to influence society.

The broadcast media has been regulated for decades by a succession of government created and funded bodies – the Australian Broadcasting Control Board, the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal and, most recently, the Australian Communications and Media Authority – and whatever grumbles and complaints those in the industry might have had they have not generally extended to denying these bodies the right to exist.

Newspapers are regulated by the Australian Press Council and have been since 1976.

Three of its past chairmen as well as the current chair gave written and verbal presentations to the inquiry and all but one said that despite their best efforts the council does not work satisfactorily.

The key problems are:

The industry can come and go from the council as it pleases without suffering any penalty. The council relies on the industry for its funding and there is evidence the industry has used that or the threat of reducing funding to control the council. The current chair of the Press Council told the inquiry he needed double the level of funding to fulfil the council’s charter properly.

The requirement that Press Council adjudications be published prominently in newspapers is honoured in the breach. Most adjudications are published but they’re buried; a few are not published at all. Rarely are the adjudications written in the clear, far less the vigorous prose, that characterises good journalism and almost all are topped by a vanilla plain headline along the lines of “Press Council ruling”. It seems safe to observe that no sub-editor has ever entered, let alone won, a Walkley award for their wittiest complaint adjudication headline.

While most Press Council chairs lamented the problems they faced, all three of the major print media companies – News Limited, Fairfax Media and West Australian Newspapers – flatly said there was little if anything to worry about. Funding was adequate and it wasn’t a problem that companies could withdraw if they wanted to.

Their attitude towards the reforms the current council chair Professor Julian Disney has been advocating ranged from bland indifference to outright hostility.

At the same time the inquiry analysed public views about the news media – its trustworthiness, its influence, ethics, intrusiveness, responsiveness to complaints and so on. The inquiry did a good deal more than pluck out the annual Roy Morgan survey of attitudes towards various professions. It examined 21 separate surveys taken over 45 years between 1966 and 2011.

These polls revealed deep-seated and strongly held concerns about the performance of the news media in this country.

Even more alarming was the way this material was blithely dismissed by various commentators in the media, either as, first, views based on ignorance (even though Dr Denis Muller, on behalf of the inquiry, had sifted out polls whose method was questionable or which asked for opinions about which ordinary people could not be expected to know much), second, as what everyone knows people think about the media (as if that somehow erased its validity) and, third, as clearly the product of a media studies wank. I am not making this up. Mark Day, The Australian’s media writer, described the inquiry’s report as an “academic wank” in the opening paragraph of a feature piece he wrote on 1 May about the Convergence Review Committee’s report.

Instead, the newspaper media companies told the inquiry the most reliable barometer of their performance was their readers. If a newspaper was printing rubbish, people would stop reading it. As simple as that.

Not so much. If it was really this simple we would conclude newspapers are printing a lot more rubbish now as overall circulation per head of population has been steadily declining for decades now. There is actually a myriad of reasons why sales of newspapers rise and fall, of why individual readers start the newspaper reading habit and why they stop it, of why they read particular sections of newspapers to the exclusion of others and so on.

And notice I have been talking here about newspapers. The rise of online media throws up a whole range of other variables.

All these are good reasons why individual readers’ decisions about whether to stop buying a newspaper don’t carry a lot of weight. But there is another, compelling reason, and it was contributed by Dr Franco Papandrea, who brought to the inquiry expertise in the economics of the media which he has published in, among other places, the journal of the free market think tank the Institute of Public Affairs.

Chapter three of the inquiry’s report shows the sources of revenue for newspaper companies. Circulation, that is, revenue earned from the sale of newspapers to readers, accounts in most cases for significantly less than half of total revenue. The great bulk comes from advertising, whether classified or display.

The point is this: keeping advertisers happy is more important to newspaper executives than keeping readers happy. It has to be or they go out of business. This doesn’t mean good editors and good journalists are indifferent to their readers but when you hear newspaper executives mouthing the mantra that you don’t need to worry too much about media regulation because it is their readers who provide true accountability, you are being the fed a line that is similar to the tobacco industry’s decades-long denial of the damaging effects of second hand smoking.

To sum up the picture confronting the inquiry, the Press Council is deeply concerned it cannot do its job properly, and everyday customers of the media have a host of concerns about it but the news media industry thinks things are ticking over nicely and we should all be focussing our gaze not on them but on every other organisation in society.

Where the news media may be content with pointing to others’ failings, Mr Finkelstein and I were charged with not only analysing the problem but offering solutions.

The problem is summed up thus: “How to accommodate the increasing and legitimate demand for press accountability, but to do so in a way that does not increase state power or inhibit the vigorous democratic role the press should play or undermine the key rationales for free speech and a free press” (Report, p. 53).

The report recommends that where complaints about media practice are upheld the news media outlet will need to publish an apology, a correction or a retraction. A successful complainant will have a legally enforceable right of reply. I am not quite sure how this suppresses freedom of speech. Isn’t its main effect to add to the amount of speech in society?

The news media outlet may chafe against being made to publish a reply but remember that they had the first word in the matter and that if there is no adequate means for ordinary people to have their complaints taken seriously then the news media can behave pretty much as a law unto themselves.

As Professor Rod Tiffen, a political scientist who also worked on the inquiry, wrote in an opinion piece in The Financial Review on 20 March: “Some publishers have said it is unreasonable that they should have to publish adjudications they consider to be wrong. But they already commit to do this under the Press Council. This objection is an assertion of their right to exercise censorship, to restrict, not increase, information available to the public.

“They are arguing for their right to withhold from readers the news that their paper has been criticised”.

“They are arguing for their right to withhold from readers the news that their paper has been criticised”.

As I said earlier the response of the mainstream news media to this recommendation was near universal hostility but why?

Electronic news media are already regulated by a government funded agency. The standards of journalistic practice that are being discussed would be drawn from the standards and the codes of ethics that all major news organisations have in place and that they say they believe in and uphold. The inquiry needed to ensure any regulatory body had adequate and secure funding and the news media industry had shown clearly that it wouldn’t guarantee that.

The inquiry could have recommended a mechanism be set up to impose a levy on the industry but the advice we had was that the costs of administering the levy could well be higher than the levy itself. However, that is certainly another method of securing funding that the government could consider.

The inquiry’s report explicitly acknowledged that concerns about potential government interference in regulating the news media are legitimate. It showed the relationship between executive government and the news media is fraught with tension and conflicts of interest. To meet these concerns, the proposed News Media Council was recommended with a number of steps and safeguards in mind.

That sounds like a long way from Stalinist Russia to me.

The inquiry offers one solution, then, and implicit in its discussion is recognition that there are others that could be offered and debated.

Unfortunately, in my view, the report of the Convergence Review Committee, released by government at the start of this month, is not really an alternative solution even though it is presented as such. The CRC report says that a government funded News Media Council should be set up only in the last resort, and places its faith in a continuation of an industry-based self-regulatory body.

The committee then says this body will need appropriate funding and that any shortfall in funding from industry could be made up by government. It says members of the news media industry will be compelled to join and to provide it with adequate funding, but the committee is silent on how you can compel people to join a self-regulatory body, and on how to overcome the opposition of the industry towards government funding.

In other words, they seem to arrive at pretty much the same conclusion as Mr Finkelstein but choose not to take the step that the logic of his position requires. The recent decision by West Australian Newspapers to withdraw from the Press Council at precisely the moment Professor Disney had succeeded in persuading News Limited and Fairfax Media to increase both the amount and certainty of funding for the council underscores a core weakness of voluntary self-regulation for the news media.

The CRC report’s sidestepping of this thorny issue points, I think, to one possible reason for the hostility of the news media industry’s response to the inquiry’s report. It is well documented that the industry reacted strongly to what it perceived as politicians taking advantage of the public disquiet over the News of the World scandal to put pressure on News Corporation’s Australian arm. It also seems clear that journalists and editors react tribally to any suggestion of government interference in press freedom.

These are not bad reasons but to take these positions and stick with them no matter what means closing your mind to the substantive issues of failure of media performance and lack of genuine accountability, which is what too many people in the industry have been doing for too long.

And that is another reason why in my view the recommendations of the inquiry angered many in the industry: the pattern by and large with inquiries into the news media both here and overseas is that they find self-regulation is failing and they exhort industry to lift its game to which the industry solemnly nods but then does next to nothing. Several years later, usually after a particular media atrocity, another inquiry is established, and the cycle begins again.

The sub-text of the report is to call this for what it is – a charade. It says to the industry:  you have sound standards of journalistic practice that you say you believe in and you have had 35 years to make a success of the self-regulatory system for dealing with complaints about these standards and you haven’t – and you seem to be content with that situation. So, you’ve had your chance. If you won’t do it you have left us with little choice but to recommend some means of making it work and in your absence that someone will have to be government.

But, really guys, it shouldn’t be too big a deal: all we are recommending is that you adhere to your own standards and that when you fall short of them there is a prompt means of righting that wrong.

That sounds beguilingly simple and probably it isn’t. (And I’m happy to discuss the complexities further during questions).

The pattern of recommendations from media inquiries being ignored either by industry or by the governments that commissioned such inquiries points to a key shift in the balance of power. When the great struggles for freedom of the press were being fought hundreds of years ago the press, as it was always referred to then, was made up mainly of “lonely pamphleteers” and small printeries standing up to the might of an autocratic monarch. Today there are media empires that reach well beyond the boundaries of nation states.

The Australian and the Non-Story

A few weeks ago, we at the Centre were advised that a Freedom of Information request had been received by the Federal Government’s Independent Media Inquiry, seeking documents to do with the appointment of staff and researchers to assist Mr Ray Finkelstein QC.

A few pieces of email correspondence between me and the inquiry secretariat were caught up in that request, and I was consulted about whether I objected to their release. I had no objection, other than to a small item of information about a commitment  I had on the day of my dealings with the secretariat. So the correspondence was duly released, with my consent.

It emerges that the person behind the request was The Australian newspaper’s Christian Kerr. Yesterday, The Australian ran a story about correspondence from the Minister’s office regarding the appointment of Professor Matthew Ricketson to assist Finkelstein. Ricketson has posted all the details of his dealings with Conroy’s office, and his full reply to Kerr’s questions on his Facebook page, here. It’s a non-story, so far as I can see. The headline perhaps should have read “Media Journalist Known to Minister”. Well, shock horror.

Yesterday evening I took a call from The Australian about the fact that I had had a role in finding research assistance for the inquiry.

The resulting story is in the paper today – front page news, would you believe.

It’s another non-story, but in the interests of total transparency, the complete email correspondence (without the small detail regarding my appointment, and the name of a researcher who does not with to be identified) is published below.

The background to the correspondence is that the secretariat rang me in October, after I had been appointed to the Centre, but before I had begun work. They were looking for help with a literature review. I suggested Muller’s name, along with two others. The inquiry followed up on Muller.

The inquiry had also invited me, and a number of other academics, to make a submission to the inquiry, and later asked me to appear at the public hearings. I did both these things, and part of what I had to say was a repetition and expansion of criticisms I had made of  The Australian’s conduct in reporting matters surrounding the Victoria Police. All that history is on the public record and available to anyone who wants to Google it. I stand by the criticisms I made.

This history explains why The Australian thinks the unremarkable consultation in the emails is newsworthy.

After this correspondence I had no further dealings over Denis Muller’s appointment, who ended up doing the work for the inquiry not through the Centre, but as a private consultant. Nor did I have any input into his work with the inquiry. Nor, as the public record shows (but The Australian does not report) did I agree with the inquiry’s central recommendation.

The criticisms I made of the mainstream media’s coverage of the inquiry stand on their merits, and I was certainly not the only one who made such criticisms.

Hey ho. On with the show.

For the curious, here’s the correspondence – in reverse chronological order. Doubtless in time it will also appear on the Department’s disclosure log. Read More »

Reporting Burma – How Journalists Find Things Out.

We are nearing the end of the first semester of the Master of Journalism here at the Centre, and its been an exhilarating and very rewarding journey – at least for the teachers!

Most of the assignments in the first subject – Reporting and Writing Stories – have been intensely practical. Students have now filed a total of six news stories, including one parliamentary report, and are currently working on their first feature. They have been given intensive feedback, and two have succeeded in getting their work published. More publications are on the way as we work with them to hone their portfolios to a professional standard.

The students have had guest lecturers from Jon Faine from the ABC, Nick McKenzie and Richard Baker from The Age and former Premier John Brumby. This week they will meet the deputy editor of the Herald Sun, Jill Baker.

We have also been on excursions to The Age, Crikey and Channel Nine – where Peter Hitchener allowed everyone to have a go behind the newsreader’s desk.

But a few weeks ago, we set a more theoretical assignment – a standard academic essay encouraging students to analyse and reflect on an element of journalistic practice, or a recent industry controversy. Students were given a choice of three questions. The best of the essays were so good, that I thought it was worth sharing them here.

One of the questions began with the timeless observation in Sally White’s classic textbook Reporting in Australia. White wrote:

“How do reporters find news? Mostly people tell them. It is as simple – and as complicated – as that.”

The students were asked to analyse the truth of this observation with reference to the reporting of a current issue or event.

Squirrel Main chose to analyse the Australian media’s reporting of the Burmese elections. Here is the result. (Unfortunately her figures haven’t come out.)

Read More »