There is a regulatory agency called the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC)1, which is an administrative tribunal that regulates and supervises broadcasting and telecommunications in the public interest. In the first decade of this century, this organisation had been considering revoking or relaxing the rule on ‘prohibited programming content’ that includes ‘broadcasting false or misleading news’. The CRTC withdrew the plan when a legislative committee determined that the rule does not run counter to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees press freedoms2. Despite the fact that the rule had never been invoked, there was some unfounded suspicion that the reason it was not revoked was because of the public outcry over the idea that Sun TV3 was going to be an eventual Canadian version of the US’s Fox News. Indeed, some wags called the Sun TV proposal ‘Fox News North’2. Canada dodged a bullet, and Sun TV went bust in 20153.
There have also been rumours for a decade or so, stating that Fox News is banned in Canada because of this truth in journalism legislation, but that is not the case. The CRTC regulations only apply to Canadian broadcasters using Canadian airwaves. The regulations do not apply to Fox News which is a non-Canadian entity transmitting via satellite and cable, and is not broadcast to the public. Murdoch was denied permission to establish Fox News Canada in 2003 due to Canadian laws regarding foreign ownership of print and broadcast media, but did allow him to include it in cable and satellite services4.
In response to the disgusting behaviour of the Murdoch media in the phone-hacking scandal in the UK, the then Gillard Labor government instituted the Independent Media Inquiry, headed by Raymond Finkelstein QC, former judge of the Federal Court. To assist in the preparation of the report, Professor of Journalism, Matthew Ricketson was appointed6. The terms of reference comprised the following:
- The effectiveness of the current media codes of practice in Australia, particularly in light of technological change that is leading to the migration of print media to digital and online platforms.
- The impact of this technological change on the business model that has supported the investment by traditional media organisations in quality journalism and the production of news, and how such activities can be supported, and diversity enhanced, in the changed media environment.
- Ways of substantially strengthening the independence and effectiveness of the Australian Press Council, including in relation to online publications, and with particular reference to the handling of complaints.
- Any related issues pertaining to the ability of the media to operate according to regulations and codes of practice, and in the public interest6.
The report recommended that a News Media Council be established to set journalistic standards for the news media in consultation with industry, and handle complaints made by the public when those standards are breached. The News Media Council should chart trends in the industry, and particularly to see whether there will be a serious decline in the production of quality journalism. The report found that an area requiring especially careful monitoring is the adequacy of news services in regional areas6.
Matthew Ricketson wrote an article for the ABC in 2012, which argued that the most persuasive argument for the need to reform regulation of the news media was in fact the reporting of the Independent Media Inquiry itself by the mainstream news media. He stated that they have under-reported much of what was presented to the Inquiry and either misreported the Inquiry’s findings or ignored larger parts of the report altogether. On the other hand, some of the smaller news sites such as Crikey and New Matilda and some bloggers reported the Inquiry accurately and in detail6.
I’ll just stick with newspapers for the purposes of the remainder of this article, otherwise it would become too long. It almost goes without saying that some of the most strident criticism of the Inquiry’s report appeared in Murdoch’s Australian, which published three editorials and 12 opinion pieces criticising it (three other opinion pieces were not critical). Unsurprisingly, one of the opinion pieces ludicrously likened the proposed News Media Council to the Reich Press Chamber in Hitler’s Germany, and Mark Day, the Australian’s media writer described the Inquiry’s report as an ‘academic wank’. The major print media companies News Limited, Fairfax and West Australian Newspapers maintained that if they were printing rubbish then people would simply stop reading. Ricketson opined that if it was that simple, then newspapers must be printing a lot more rubbish now, as overall circulation per head of population has been steadily declining for decades. In addition, the Inquiry demonstrated that the great bulk of the revenue of newspapers comes from advertising rather than circulation, so keeping advertisers happy is more important to newspaper executives than keeping their readers happy6.
Newspapers are regulated by the Australian Press Council and have been since 1976, and at the Inquiry, its then chair and two past chairs lamented that the council does not work properly. The problems were that the council relies on the industry for its funding and reducing funding has been used as a threat to control the council, and the then chair suggested that to adequately fulfil the charter, double the level of funding would be required. Press council adjudications of complaints are supposed to be published prominently in newspapers. However, while most are published, they are buried, and some are not published at all6.
While it is important for a democracy to have media which are free from state interference, it is necessary to realise that the media have a responsibility as a ‘social actor’ and need to act in a responsible fashion7. The Press Council, which is a self-regulatory mechanism, as it currently stands, does not work as it should. That is clearly demonstrated by the behaviour of News Limited media, and to a lesser extent other corporate media. News Limited have a propensity for lying, such that reports which are supposed to be news items, are often slanted to favour the Coalition government either by misleading, or simply lying, mostly by omission8,9,10,11. Misleading the public in this way should be made illegal, as it is in broadcast media in Canada. In addition, in Australia, when an article or news item is shown to be inaccurate or in error, often the apology or correction is buried several pages back in the newspaper12. To prevent newspapers getting away with doing so, corrections should be in the same font on the same page of the newspaper as the original article. This should not be optional, but should be mandatory. This would soon make journalists or others check their facts.