The Finkelstein (and Ricketson) Independent Media Inquiry report released yesterday is a substantial and well researched document with a dangerously flawed core recommendation.
An impressive distillation of legal, philosophical and media scholarship (compulsory reading for journalism students) and worthy recommendations for simpler codes and more sensitivity to the needs of the vulnerable are overshadowed by the proposal that an 'independent' News Media Council be established, bankrolled by at least $2 million of government funding annually.
This Council would have the 'power' to order corrections and apologies – but not to fine or jail journalists. That would be left to a higher court if a media outlet did not comply.
Several academics and small publishers have given it their approval. Even the Greens have applauded it, having demanded such an inquiry in the midst of theNews of the World scandal in the UK and continued adverse coverage in News Limited publications locally.
The politicised circumstances of the inquiry's birth fuelled a cry of 'something must be done' about the news media – for once and for all.
Criticism of the recommendations by the larger media groups on free expression grounds have been dismissed as a defence of their vested interests. It should surprise nobody that News Limited chief executive Kim Williams holds such a view, but such pigeon-holing of Finkelstein's serious critics is a great shame. History is littered with examples of politicians withdrawing citizens' rights to free expression because they did not like what they had been saying about them at a particular moment in history.
Scratch the surface of this proposal and you will find a harsh new regime which stands to damage Australia's reputation as a democracy and might well come back to bite the politicians, academics and publishers who are supporting it today.
The key problems are with independence, enforcement and duplication.
The report details a process whereby the Council would be funded by the government, yet kept at arms length from it via an 'independent' board headed by an appointed 'independent' chair.
Only the chronically naïve would believe true independence could be established and maintained through such an appointment process in a relatively small government-funded instrumentality. It would, after all, be the government selecting the initial appointments committee.
Even the appointment process to the High Court suffers criticism from time to time, and the independence of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's chair and board has been questioned in recent history by the same academics and politicians applauding this new 'independent' body.
Those very people argue that News Corporation editors do not need explicit directions from Rupert Murdoch – that their very appointment implies they will toe the line. That may well be the case, so why would it be different here?
Mark Pearson is Professor of Journalism at Bond University and is Australian correspondent for Reporters Without Borders. He is co-author of The Journalists Guide to Media Law and author of Blogging and Tweeting Without Getting Sued, due for release by Allen and Unwin in February 2012. Mark blogs at journlaw.com.