Media: Laws and claws, what are they good for?

Media: Laws and claws, what are they good for?

In H.E. Todd’s The Clever Clever Cats, illustrated by Val Biro and first published in Great Britain in 1985, Libby the library cat becomes incensed when she picks up the day’s newspaper and finds the headline on the front page:


Libby the moggy is understandably miffed; the feline species has had its name tainted by association with a detestable human who pilfers people’s homes for his own profit and gain.

“That’s not fair,” Libby she said to herself. “It gives cats a bad name!” And the more she thought about it, the more angry she became.

Australian journalists are in a similar pickle right now, the profession's name sullied by the happenings at the now defunct British tabloid News of the World, as if journalists needed another reason to defend their turf: traditionally, the profession has been right up there with car salesmen in terms of public perception.

Troubles in the industry have been compounding for quite a while now, debated on Media pages and blogs and such and generally creating an atmosphere not unlike a mutinous ship – it has always been competitive but never quite so... catty. External environmental factors, namely the web blowing in, have sent everything that was once sure adrift. It's a dog eat dog world out there.

The internet – that "frenemy" of traditional media – and its digital delivery offshoots, the smart phone and tablet, has been infringing on newspaper, radio and magazine turf for years now, with Australia laconically lagging behind, as it always does, and this has put some on the defensive back foot. Others have gone forth and conquered, though the profits are yet to reflect their willingness to jump in the digital deep end (and, hey, even Apple suffered a stockmarket blow when Steve Jobs opted out).

Fairfax last week wrote down the value of its newspapers by $650 million after reporting a full-year loss of $401 million (chicken feed when compared to the trillions the US government owes debtors).

"Fairfax Media is aggressively responding to structural changes in the media landscape while also dealing with the challenges of a prolonged cyclical downturn," chief executive Greg Hywood told Fairfax media journalist Tim Dick. "We have the right strategy and are working to build long-term shareholder value".

Today Fairfax announced the company is considering downscaling its broadsheets The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age to commuter-friendly tabloid size from Monday to Friday – clearly the uptake of the iPad app has not made up enough numbers to suggest the future is a digital only affair.

Meanwhile, News Limited is undergoing a cost-cutting review aimed at trimming margins by 5%. This follows cost-cutting and/or staff reduction announcements by Seven West Media, Fairfax, APN News & Media and the ABC and Network Ten's strategic review under the stewardship of Lachlan Murdoch resulting in 180 job cuts and cost cutting of $18 million-plus.

In the magazine market, circulation numbers are down overall, though some titles have been given new life (any signs are celebrated!), though media information company SMI has revealed magazine advertising will continue to abate as the internet takes a greater share of the cake. The pragmatic Nick Chan, head of Pacific Magazines, put it bluntly to the Financial Review:

"There are no catalysts coming along to change things. It's a really head-down, bum-up kind of market... Consumers have money, but they are being very frugal. Many magazines are viewed as a frivolous purchase that some people think they don't need to make."

The Australian Communications and Media Authority today released its analysis of the Australian media legislative landscape (a paper titled Broken Concepts – table below) with the view to restructuring the rules. This follows a dynamic couple of weeks in which the Greens called for a sweeping inquiry into Australia media ownership and practises, Prime Minister Julia Gillard's meeting with News Limited executives, and the Australian Press Council's push to regulate news and comment across all platforms, including the internet.

Source: ACMA
As print products, and paid-for digital offshoots, become a matter of discretionary spending over and above largely unregulated free online content, thereby at the mercy of consumer sentiment and the day's personal cash reserves, one must think about how media, in its multifaceted forms, might become indispensable to people...out there...the public, many of whom have been largely unconcerned about media regulation, or indeed privacy or bias issues or the idea of being a "fit and proper person" in a position of media ownership. Except for that Cash for Comment affair back in 1999. And Alan Bond's dodgy deals a decade before that. And right now.

This is why the News of the World and its wide exposure has been so very bad for the profession – people are outraged. Locally, the exposure of Nine News journalists acting unethically, has added further fuel to the flame. Any viewer of Australia's commercial current affairs shows, A Current Affair and Today Tonight, and by association ABC's sleuth-style Media Watch, might already have had an abysmal view of the role of journalism.  

The fundamental issue comes back to what journalists, and the news organisations they operate within, practise and preach. Credibility and trust – coupled with the more commercial areas of reach, availability, competitiveness and visibility – are the thrust. And that visibility must engender not just warm and fuzzy feelings, but recognition of a quality product worthy of the investment of one's attention, time and often money. Consumer confidence is not just a stockmarket issue.  

Of course, bloggers here must shoulder some blame – online media making has become an often detestable grab-and-go game. Little wonder Webdiary's Margot Kingston got out; little wonder those of us who occupy online homes have been weighing up the burden v benefit argument of the anonymous comment and the toll that comes with having one's opinion constantly aired, interpreted, rehashed, sabotaged, slandered or else ignored. When hits and dollars become a media entity's top priority, what is lost in the process?

“If rights and privileges are given to people who are journalists, then bloggers – those who take on those rights and privileges – should have to comply with the same things that traditional journalists need to comply with,” the Council’s chairman Julian Disney told The Australian.

The coverage of Sydney schoolgirl Madeline Pulver – with front-page photographs showing the teen at a weekend hockey game shot by a long lens – called into question whether the Australian press itself oversteps the line in the name of "the public interest" and copy sales. And then there’s politicians such as Craig Thomson and celebrities who might prefer to fly under the radar having their photograph taken on the street – is anyone fair game? There is no media law against human depravity.

“The News of the World stepped over the line,” says Professor Leo Bowman, associate professor in journalism for QUT. “I don’t think people have too much sympathy for film superstars, or, to a lesser extent, for royals. In a sense, they think that they pander to the media because it suits them to do so, and they get fame by way of this sort of association, so what are they complaining about when sitting on their million-dollar salaries in their cloistered surrounds? We don’t mind a bit of lurid, salacious gossip. But when it comes to the tapping of the telephone of a dead girl, people will not accept that.”

Where moral obligations are undermined by commercial imperatives, continually, without thinking twice; where vice is considered more profitable than virtue; when the tawdry details of people’s individual lives are ripe fodder for the next day’s news, it’s surely only a matter of time before the public will decide they have had enough and simply switch off, stop buying or tune out the news?

“If your attitude toward the lives of others is that of a house burglar confronted by an open window; if you consider it part of your business to fabricate conversations where none exist; and if your boss treats his employees with a derision that they, following suit, extend to the subjects of their inquiries—if those elements are already in place, then the decision to, say, hack into someone’s cell phone is almost no decision at all. It is merely the next step,” wrote Anthony Lane for The New Yorker. “All that is required is the technology. What ensues may be against the law, but it goes no more against the grain of common decency than any other tool of your trade.”

But, we must remember, Australia is not the UK, which News Limited has been keen to stress under duress as the News of the World has presented the opportunity to settle old scores, more particularly those presented in an unfavourable light in its papers. This has naturally led to arguments about media ownership and bias.

Professor Barbara McDonald of the University of Sydney Law faculty suggests that while some "serious liberation" on the recommendations of the 2008 Law Reform Commission into privacy standards (tabled in the paper For Your Information: Australian Privacy Law and Practice) is necessary, a full parliamentary inquiry is not. 
"It is a beat up in my view to say we should have an inquiry in Australia because of something that happened with the News of the World, who everyone knows has been the gutter press for years, without any evidence of it here," she says. "There have been a couple of invasions of privacy here by the press – they tend to be politicians – it’s only when is someone really vulnerable and helpless that people get worried about it. The other two issues have nothing to do with privacy. One of those is media ownership, which is much closer related to the third issue; political bias."

Still, an ideological "slant" is a commonplace commercial imperative for many media organisations, hence why diversity becomes crucial, even while the advantage is tipped in the direction of those companies who dominate the landscape through sheer volume and reach.

"I don’t think we always think of ourselves as ideological; but we know at a gut level that we’re inclined as individuals to think about life in one way or another and generally we do seek out that which supports our point of view. It makes us more comfortable," says Professor Bowman.

"Publications have a notion of who their audience is. For instance, The Daily Telegraph and The Sunday Telegraph are seen as having a large working class, lower socio-economic base, so therefore they will tend to, in their writing, reflect the sorts of things they think their readers are interested in. So that itself will lead to a perception of bias, and raises the question of, ‘Are we just writing things they want to hear?’, which probably becomes a greater danger at the end of the day."

In Journalism 101, most students become acquainted with the basic tenets of the profession, including fairness, balance, accuracy, honesty and respect for the rights of others, with the view to seeking truth. Out in the field, journalists are bound by the codes of ethics of their profession, as stipulated by the Australian Press Council and ACMA, as well as bodies such as the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance and individual news organisations. Their codes of practise are freely available to the public online.

Returning to our storybook, Libby the cat decided to be proactive about issue instead of sitting around whining. She called a meeting, inviting all the neighbourhood cats to decide the BEST way forward: to catch the Cat Burglar themselves. And they do. Two days later, even the National Press had huge headlines on the front page –


The cats were all so proud of being described as “Clever Clever Cats” that they forgave the thief for being called a ‘Cat Burglar’. After all, they had proved to be far too clever for him.

In the same vein, the website NewsStand has been set up by a bunch of Aussie media types to call for a "short, sharp public inquiry" looking at how to "promote higher standards, protect people's privacy while guaranteeing the freedom of the press, stimulate a more diverse media marketplace, and ensure that problems and complains can be handled simply, fairly and effectively."

It is the role of journalists to keep each other accountable, as they do the government, big business and anyone in a position of power and privilege, and to hold fast to the values and ethics that give the profession (the trade?) its formalised credibility and validation. But it is also important to adapt, deliver and innovate when the Old Way of Doing Things no longer rings true; to preempt public sentiment is a buffer for any business.

The Sydney Morning Herald has appointed a reader’s editor, journalist Judy Prisk, to respond to queries about editorial decisions and write a weekly column addressing reader comments and issues across print, online and digital. “I’ll be the equivalent of a quality ombudsman for our readers,” she told The Australian. It's a wise move.

But more than this, it's the everyday journalists doing a fine job on the beat whose work practises we should emulate: the redeeming journalism of Paul Lockyer (a true gentleman by all accounts), those journalists celebrated by their peers at the Walkley Awards, and the quiet achievers who sit in the background, or on the sidelines, who don't need to be cheered, are such guiding lights.

Restoring dignity to the profession isn't necessarily a matter of regulation, though it is necessary in any evolving industry, but of a culture that elevates good work and basic human decency. It is said that the media reflects the general mood of the world; but it can also direct it.

See also:
Convergence Review
Australian Media Codes of Practice
Where to from here? Laurie Oakes for The Walkleys
Four Corners: Bad News

Girl With a Satchel