Forever altered: mistrust and the Media Inquiry will change the landscape

Presentations at this year’s PANPA Forum, both from local media executives such as Fairfax CEO Greg Hywood and those from overseas, reinforced the impact of electronic communications on the shape and very future of the print industry.

Content paywalls are going up everywhere, but whether these will provide the life raft which traditional print media publishers are looking for – only time will tell.

The sudden closure of The News of the World newspaper in London in response to the phone hacking scandal has changed the face of the UK print media forever, regardless of whether News Corporation decides to launch a Sunday edition of its daily Sun.

While the focus of the phone hacking issue has concentrated on News Corp’s UK operation News International, the fallout has spread to other media organisations such as the Daily Mirror.

And it is clear that this issue has a long way to go before it is finally put to rest.

It has triggered demands by Australian politicians for a toughening of the country’s privacy laws. Whether the privacy of the individual is endangered is a moot point. The fact remains this is a very emotive issue, encased in political correctness.

While our politicians have the protection of parliament to say virtually what they like about anyone that they don’t like, they have fought long and hard to use their legislative powers on defamation to shield themselves against probing criticism from the media.

A clash between News Limited’s The Australian and Julia Gillard over a column piece which focused on aspects of her life before she became prime minister turned the spotlight on the relationship between the media and our politicians.

The day after its publication The Australian issued an apology for assertions made in the article, which it said had not been put to the Prime Minister. It also removed the article from its website. And it emerged that it was not The Australian’s practice to have opinion articles “legalled” before publication – a curious policy.

Nevertheless, this gave rise to spontaneous support from other journalistic quarters that to do so would crimp freedom of speech, particularly among bloggers and other electronic media commentators.

On the other hand, Ms Gillard made it clear that she felt that it was only because of her high position of power that she was able to gain speedy redress from the media – something that she considered was not available to the average Joe.

None of this is particularly helpful in the debate about where the media is going or should be going.

But surely the prime minister’s argument about access is shot to pieces by the existence of the Press Council, which was established to give all quarters of the community equal opportunity to air complaints about treatment by the print media.

Anyway, we are now getting another government-instigated media inquiry – this time focused on the regulation of the print media and online publications.

Despite assurances to the contrary from communications minister Stephen Conroy, history suggests that the inquiry will become a vehicle for politicians to try to beat up media publishers. For example, the government has already decided that the Press Council does not have enough enforcement powers to deal with complaints against the print media. In reaching this conclusion it should not be forgotten that these complaints come from politicians as well as members of the broader community.

And its final term of reference for the independent inquiry is open-ended, asking it to look at “any related issues pertaining to the ability of the media to operate according to regulations and codes of practice, and in the public interest”.

News Ltd boss John Hartigan hit the nail on the head when he said it was regrettable that the way in which the inquiry had been set up was a politically motivated compromise, starting out as a witch-hunt by the Greens. This had morphed into a fairly narrow look at a mixed bag of issues focused on print journalism, he added.

This is a position from which the print media industry should not retreat as the inquiry grinds on.

Malcolm Colless is a former senior executive at News Ltd and writes a column for The Australian’s media section

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