Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Public Interest - a crucial discussion

The Public Interest is NOT what the public is interested in!

What is The Public Interest?

During the heated discussions about media regulation and a proposed Public interest Advocate in Australia over the weeks of March 12 - 21, 2013, the point has been made that there should not be a public interest test for Australian media, in part because no one knows what the public interest is.

The conservative Liberal Party shadow minister for communication Malcolm Turnbull made statements to that effect, while claiming to be a lawyer.

 What is the public interest? (Minister) Conroy couldn’t even tell us what the criteria for public interest was. (ABC Radio Interview)

One would have to suggest that Malcolm Turnbull is not a very good lawyer because the law is driven by the concept of the public interest. All media regulation is driven by the concept that there is a public interest, and it needs to be defended by legally sanctioned institutions lest the excesses of the market be teh only game in town. No one really wants the market to only act in its own self interest.

Here is what Turnbull said in a different place:

... Every single person will have a different view about what is in the public interest. Everyone’s got a different view. Having media mergers dependent on such a subjective, highly political view is really bad law, it’s bad practice and when it’s produced by this Government who’s commitment to media freedom is very very questionable to say the least, it obviously has to be seen for what it is. It is an attempt to regulate the media because they don’t like what you’ve been saying and writing about them.
Is this a basic philosophical issue for you Mr Turnbull and does that mean that if this does get through in the next fortnight that a Coalition government would repeal it?
Well I have no doubt that we would seek to repeal any sort of public interest test on media takeovers. I think this is a bad idea at every level. It’s a bad idea from the point of view of freedom of speech. It’s a bad idea from the point of view of keeping governments out of regulating the media. We want the media to be as free as possible and I can say as a former lawyer who used to practice in the area of broadcasting law these sort of generally worded tests, whether you call it public interest or fit and proper person, are impossible to define. And all they do is end up creating very handsome incomes for the legal profession. So it doesn’t tick any box and it is a classic Stephen Conroy thought bubble. (emphasis added)

To argue this case is to enter the world of the knowingly ignorant. As Malcolm Turnbull surely knows, the public interest is the basis not only for the law, it is also the basis for the entire regulatory apparatus of the state in liberal/social democracies. If it is not the basis for regulation the public interest is purely a theoretical smoke screen that does nothing. If that was to be the case, systems of law and regulation, including policing and justice in general would be inoperable. It is a dangerous game to suggest the public interest cannot be defined and that regulation should be denied because it might inhibit business, or "media freedom."

The Public Interest is not what the public is interested in. Unregulated media in a country such as Australia would give even more of this latter category of what the public is interested in- more socially irrelevant "news", more titillation, more opinion pretending to be news, less reporting...

Everyone benefits from a discussion of The Public Interest. To pretend it is too difficult, undefinable, irrelevant, is to leave everyday life to the cowboys, the criminals and the corrupt.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Define The Public Interest - Australian hysteric

Blandishments, blather and bombast emanates from conservative politicians in Australia and their megaphone media organisation News Corporation.

As noted in my blog 13 March 2013:  "The evidence is clear from this coverage why a Public Interest Test is needed in Australia. Surely the coverage by the News Corporation press proves how the public interest is rejected in favour of the status quo."

The opposition to The Public Interest Test proves the need for the test. There is every reason to believe that News Corporation wants to kill off the concept of the public interest. Maybe their extreme opposition arises from the knowledge that in their heart of hearts they know they are manifestly wrong, that they do not serve the public and as such fail to meet some of the standards that journalism seeks to uphold.

The Australian newspaper and the CEO of News Corporation (Australia) Kim Williams have proved themselves to be unregulated libertarian protagonists. They are seeking to maximise neo-classical economic essentialism: the market resolves everything, seems to be their mantra. They refuse to be held accountable. They should think about where this libertarianism got the News of the World, not to mention the unregulated mavens in the UK who are now facing criminal charges for hacking cell phones, allegedly paying off the police and pretending that they could behave without reference to professional standards of journalism,  Oh and News International closed down the newspaper!

What happened to  principles like accountability, public trust and responsibility in media ownership? Jettisoned by a self-serving over reaching colonial media pack, who operate in an uncompetitive marketplace, where there are entire Australian cities with only News Corporation newspapers (Brisbane for example) or in cities dominated by News Corporation (Adelaide).

The argument has been made by News Corporation and conservative politicians that there is a lot of media diversity due to the Internet where the public is served. So why have a Public Interest Test? This is a nice yet flawed legal manoeuvre. Because of its size and influence News Corporation sets the agenda for a considerable amount of discourse in Australia.

Then there is the former columnist Robert Mann's accusations that The Australian newspaper has a : "malign influence" and practices "intellectual dishonesty."  Mann vs The Australian - nice summation  

"First of all I would like to say how sorry I am...it's a matter of great regret to everyone these actions do not live up to the standards that our company aspires to everywhere around the world and it is our determination to both put things right, make sure these things don't happen again... and to be the company that I know we've always aspired to be... I have no knowledge... " James Murdoch. "The most humble day of my life." Rupert Murdoch. Both appearing before the Levenson Inquiry in the UK. Murdoch's answers

Watching the Murdoch evidence it becomes clear that he was not aware of what happens in some of his papers. It seems clear he believes his media organs are well run and ethically run...

The fight by News Corporation against the proposed Public Interest Test is undignified, More importantly it may indicate that the News Corporation neophytes in Australia are overcompensating for their anxiety about pleasing the boss. They are so totally opposed to the Public Interest test that I am embarrassed for them.

I have seen this before by high level media executives in Australia. It happened during the  Prices Surveillance Authority (PSA)  inquiry into the prices of sound recordings in 1990-1991. I saw and heard executives in public meetings screaming, hurling tirades of abuse at the chairperson the the PSA Inquiry, Professor Alan Fells, all part of a performance that reflected what their far-away superiors wanted them to say.Talk about extreme - some of these guys give new meaning to the phrase "corporate shill."

(A full exploration of the PSA Inquiry is available in my book: Rock Dogs: Politics and the Australian Music IndustryRock Dogs).

The conservative political establishment in Australia is also railing against the Public Interest Test. News and conservative politician seem to be egging each other on. Who wants\the public interest when  you can have the free market?

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Australian Media Regulation - Public Interest Test

On March 12, 2013 the Federal Government of Australia launched a new policy proposal for regulating the media. It is the official response to the two media inquiries covered previously on this blog: The Convergence Review and the Frankenstein Inquiry. (This mirrors some of the activities and debates now playing out in the UK, following the Levenson Inquiry).

Communications Minister Stephen Conroy put the proposals forward in a press conference, that to my mind at least, did not convey the level of intensity that is required for governments to launch major policy initiatives, especially ones centred around public interest theory.

Indeed, the biggest news in the policy proposal is the idea for a public interest media advocate. Here are some of the points highlighted in the Ministers Press Release:

These reforms include:
  • A press standards model which ensures strong self-regulation of the print and online news media.
  • The introduction of a Public Interest Test to ensure diversity considerations are taken into account for nationally significant media mergers and acquisitions.
  • Modernising the ABC and SBS charters to reflect their online and digital activities.
  • Supporting community television services following digital switchover by providing them a permanent allocation of a portion of Channel A.
  • Making permanent the 50% reduction in the licence fees paid by commercial television broadcasters, conditional on the broadcast of an additional 1460 hours of Australian content by 2015(Minister Conroy Press Release)

The micro-politics are of some interest because the current Australian parliament has seven members who are independent of the ruling Australian Labor Party (ALP) or the conservative Liberal-National Party coalition. If they support the ALP the legislation will succeed. (The Age coverage)The success of the policy initiative will result in more extreme "journalism" - what must surely be characterised as News Corporation executives embarrassing the profession with ideological tirades against an elected government.

As for News Corporation, what can one say? Sydney's Telegraph, a tabloid, and another News Corp publication, ran its report under the headline, "Julia Gillard's henchman attacks freedom of the press." Then the photo of Conroy dressed in what is generally regarded as the military clothing of Joseph Stalin.

The evidence is clear from this coverage why a Public Interest Test is needed in Australia. Surely the coverage by the News Corporation press proves how the public interest is rejected in favour of the status quo.

This is not to say the Fairfax press has been any better. The Age (Melbourne) and The Sydney Morning Herald are also opposed.