You cannot sell a used car without having a licence and proving some guarantees about the cars you sell. Similarly with real-estate agents. Most states and territories require sex workers to have health checks. Even politicians have to disclose donations and interests.
But journalists and the print media are utterly unvetted for quality control. Broadcast media is so lightly regulated that its practitioners can laugh in the regulator’s face and carry on malpractice behind the microphone.
Consumers of food, medicine, new and old cars, buildings and medical and legal services are protected (albeit not always perfectly) by standards of product and conduct.
Virtually everywhere you turn, society has quite reasonably imposed some quality control. But not on journalists and the media. Journalists and the media are somehow different.
Last week the Independent Media Inquiry recommended that a News Media Council be set up to regulate the news media. It would be able to order corrections and rights of reply. But it would not be able to impose fines or damages. It backed its recommendations with some solid evidence and argument in more than 400 pages of report.
It was greeted with howls of self-interested derision and affronted rage from nearly all of the media.
It would cost too much, the $12-billion-a-year industry yelped. It would destroy free speech, the industry that so often denies right of reply protested. We already self-regulate effectively, whimpered the industry whose corrections, apologies and rights of reply are rare and buried.
When did you last see or hear a correction or apology in the broadcast media? The present print self-regulation and statutory broadcast complaints edifices are concrete without the reinforcing. Internet news has no regulation.
Those very few news organisations which do correct, apologise and give reasonable rights of reply, would have nothing to fear. As for the others, the inquiry’s recommendation would merely give structure, power and money to enforce what they say they already do. The only loser here would be hypocrisy.
A News Media Council would merely do what is common in most other professions and areas of industry. Why should news consumers alone be denied reasonable and objective quality control?
Hitherto, journalists have not been regulated sbecause of the importance of freedom of speech. How would one draw the line between a practising journalist and anyone else exercising freedom of speech? Moreover, to suspend or strike off a journalist would require a fundamental curtailing of a basic human right: the right to free speech.
But the redress of correction and right of reply would not deny future free expression.
Print media has been relatively unregulated so far because of constitutional questions. It was thought that the federal parliament had no power over print media. But that all changed with the Work Choices case. That case said the corporations power supported the Commonwealth regulation of employment by corporations and by logical extension the regulation of virtually anything else a corporation does – including the publishing of news.
So the Commonwealth has power to set up a News Media Council to regulate any print publication put out by a company (virtually all of them) and to regulate anything broadcast or on the internet through the Constitution’s posts and telegraph power.
Unfortunately, even though the power is there, political will often fears to tread on media interests. Big media companies can make politicians’ lives hell. It takes a gusty Keating to take them on.
The irony is that we need a media watchdog precisely because media can abuse its power by influencing electoral outcomes and swaying policy debate through biased and badly weighted reporting. Give enough prominence and repetition to every tiny negative story about one side or other and a distorted and unfair picture will emerge, however accurate each individual story might be.
Worse, when there is no effective avenue for redress, media outlets can engage in outright lies and beat-up, as Fox “News” does regularly in the US. That media outlet is merely a propaganda machine for the Republican Party, and the far right of the Republican Party at that.
Fortunately, things have not gone that far in Australia. Nonetheless, those who argue that market forces make regulation unnecessary and that government is always bad have been getting a stronger voice, even as the catastrophic results of their policies mount around us.
In the US the anti-regulation, tiny-government proponents are getting as destructively lunatic on the right as ardent Marxists were on the left were last century.
We need a bit of balance here. Yes, competition and market forces are productive of prosperity, but if unfettered can be destructive. Yes, rules and regulation help protect the gullible and vulnerable, but too much bureaucracy can cost too much and can stifle innovation and entrepreneurial effort.
The economists’ assumption that people are rational and if left to make free choices will do what is best for them has been proved mistaken time and again by psychologists and behavioural economists. In is no sensible base for a society.
In the case of the media in Australia, present regulation is too light. A cumbersome defamation law only provides redress for the rich and only some of the time. The Australian Press Council is not universal and its findings get poor coverage. The broadcasting statute-based self-regulatory codes have little effect on foot-in-door journalism.
The Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance code of ethics has poor enforcement mechanisms and does not bind any proprietors, news executives, contributors and a significant slice of paid journalists.
Despite media squeals against a single standards regulator, the media would be better off with one. It would build greater consumer confidence in the media. Journalists would gain more respect. And costly defamation suits might be avoided if a simpler, speedier complaints mechanism were put in place.
To misquote Oscar Wilde, there is something worse than getting what you don’t want, and that’s not getting it.
Doctors, dentists, pharmacists and lawyers are not allowed lose on the public without meeting enforced professional standards. Why should it be different for journalists?
This article first appeared in The Canberra Times on 10 March 2012.