I’ve just finished reading Bruce Guthrie’s hugely enjoyable autobiography Man Bites Murdoch. Guthrie was the editor of Australia’s biggest selling daily, the Melbourne Herald-Sun when he was sacked in 2008. Guthrie successfully sued for wrongful dismissal and he gleefully turned News Corp’s courtroom embarrassment into a fine read. Guthrie was a hugely experienced editor who had two stints with News Ltd and also work for Fairfax and Time Magazines. In his recounting of his career in the book, the thing that most stands out is the constant dysfunctional management he had to deal with at every newspaper and magazine he worked for. Only in the early days of his stay at Time did Guthrie ever feel that management were on the same wavelength as the editor and even that was short-lived after the disastrous corporate merger with AOL.
I was thinking about this as I read Justice Ray Finkelstein’s opening remarks in his long-awaited Australian media inquiry. “There is common ground among all those who think seriously about the role of the news media and about journalistic ethics,” began his Lordship, before proceeding to list the steps along this “common ground”. These were journalism’s “essential role” in democracy, its need to be “fair and accurate”, its powerful effect on the political system, its ability to cause harm, its accountability, and its code of ethics.
This supposed consensus mixes up concepts of media with concepts of journalism, a mistake rarely made by news proprietors, managing directors and senior editors. All of these actors do not necessarily share Finkelstein’s assumptions though they do think seriously about the news media (less so about journalist ethics). Finkelstein leaves out one crucial fact in his “common ground”: that is, the need for news media to make a profit to thrive. Independent media like Crikey and New Matilda would be the closest in Australia that adhere to Finkelstein’s model but neither are big money-spinning ventures that must bow to corporate pressures. By contrast, the large daily metropolitan mastheads are huge commercial operations with profit and circulation imperatives, while chasing audiences fleeing from the heavy-duty but fading world of print into the more uncertain terrain of online media.
For owners and managing directors, the primary goals of these brands are to make money and add shareholder value. As Guthrie found out time after time in his career, Finkelstein's editorial assumptions ran a distant second. Issues such as the media’s effect on democracy, fairness and accuracy, accountability or a code of ethics were of little concern to senior management desperate to make profits and cut costs. In Guthrie's time (and probably the same today), the Herald-Sun was just another brand to advertising managers who sought to form partnerships with other organisations and who took a dim view of editorial staff failing to give these partners preferential status.
Let's look at Finkelstein's assumptions. Firstly, where is the proof of journalism’s essential role in Australian society? If there were no journalists, or if say they were under state control (such as Xinhua in China), would Australia be any worse off? As a journalist I’d like to say no, but given political journalism is mostly an "inside the beltway" game between the two key players, it is hard to say how useful it is. You could say, as I did to Julia Gillard when she came to Roma during the floods, that journos and pollies have a symbiotic relationship (she agreed with me). But as we head towards a social media age (and John Howard understood this aspect of talkback radio) journalists will become less necessary to the dissemination of the political message.
What too of journalism’s need to be fair and accurate? Fairness is notoriously difficult to judge. One man’s fair is another woman’s bias. Was former Howard Communications Minister Richard Alston seeking fairness or wasting public money on frivolous challenges with his 68 accusations of ABC bias in 2004? Who knows, but only 2 out of 68 held up. As for accuracy, a viewing of the Kurosawa film Rashomon should be enough to disabuse anyone of the notion of some universally established truth. Accuracy is at best a function of how many person-hours you can throw at a problem, an informed guess based on the observations of journalists and the estimate of the truth of observers they talk to.
No one would deny Finkelstein’s comment the media is powerful and affects the political system in “dramatic ways”. But so what of that drama? Was it as Robert Manne said, the overt campaign of the Australian that destroyed Kevin Rudd’s prime ministership or was it ruthless backroom boys (and there were no girls involved, apart from the winner) who obsessed over secret polling and focus groups that told them Rudd was haemorrhaging support from the party? The media are a channel and as they are finding out rapidly, they are not the only channel.
Finkelstein’s next assumption was about the harm the media can cause. Again, so what? If the definition of news is something someone somewhere doesn’t want published, then that person will be harmed by its publishing. Should the media “means test” its harm, before it publishes something that someone will be offended by?
Finkelstein then states “a free press should be publicly accountable for its performance”. That already happens. It is called a shareholder meeting. The only accountability the public can have for the publication is not to buy it, and that is all they need.
The last of Finkelstein’s “common ground” commandments is a code of ethics regarding accuracy, fairness, impartiality, integrity and independence. This he said, “should guide journalists and news organisations.” Journalists already have a code of ethics - a code that is followed, for the most part. But the problem is there is no such thing as an organisational code of ethics and no way of forcing them to set one up.
Ray Finkelstein’s report is well meaning and the fact Big Media doesn't like it must mean it is useful. But his set of assumptions completely neglects the business side of the industry and that is its greatest failing. Saving Australian media is not about getting new technology onto the Press Council or giving it teeth to address journalist failings (though neither are bad things). It is about somehow persuading an industry its long-term profitability depends on getting back its core level of trust with its audience. That means moving away from the assumptions that drive corporate behaviour. This ground is not as common as Justice Finkelstein thinks.