Federation Chamber August 20 2012

Mr GIBBONS (Bendigo) (10:59): An independent news media plays an essential role in maintaining the individual freedoms we enjoy in a democratic society. But participatory democracy only works if citizens have sufficient and accurate information about an issue for them to make up their own minds about what they think about it. If something is reported unfairly or inaccurately, not only does it potentially harm those mentioned in the story, but it also misleads every reader, viewer or listener of that story. Unfortunately, the contemporary news media are failing to perform this vital role in a way that is acceptable to the community at large. In fact, there are journalists and many media practitioners that demand the right to deliberately mislead by stating untruths and to not be held to account, and it is no surprise that these very same media practitioners are the loudest and strongest critics of any form of effective media accountability.
Currently journalists and other media practitioners are only accountable to whoever employs them. Consequently, over the past couple of decades, there have been increasing indications that the media has lost the community’s faith. It has lost the community’s confidence that it can be trusted to run its businesses in an ethical and socially acceptable manner. It only takes a few examples of unethical or irresponsible behaviour to destroy that public confidence, to destroy the industry’s so-called social licence to operate. With little distinction these days between news reporting and opinion, it is almost impossible for readers to distinguish between the information they can trust and the information about which they should be very sceptical.
It is no surprise, therefore, that Australian journalists are consistently ranked among the least honest and ethical professions in the annual Roy Morgan reputation survey. Nor is it surprising that newspaper circulation has been falling for years, and those who think that this is just due to the internet are kidding themselves. The plain fact is that fewer and fewer people, especially among our younger citizens, want to buy what newspapers and other media outlets are currently selling.
In the private sector, self-regulation in the form of codes of ethics and industry appointed bodies such as the Australian Press Council have clearly not delivered standards of journalistic integrity that the public has a right to expect and, in fact, does expect. I support many of the recommendations in the Finkelstein report, which the government is currently considering. In particular, I agree with its conclusion that the current regulatory mechanisms are:
… not sufficient to achieve the degree of accountability desirable in a democracy.
Accountability is what this motion is all about.
I accept and fully support the concept that the media has a role, indeed a responsibility, to hold governments and oppositions to account. However, some media companies, particularly News L t d media companies—and there are others—seem extremely reluctant to hold the current federal opposition to any worthwhile form of account.
Let me be quite clear that I am not seeking to curtail anybody’s right to free speech, including those with whom I may disagree.
I also accept that everyone, including redneck extremist columnists and shock jocks like the Andrew Bolts, Alan Joneses and Piers Akermans of this world—and there are others—should be free to express whatever opinion they like. But in return for that freedom they must, in my view, meet three criteria: what they say must be within the law; when they are expressing an opinion, it must be clearly identified as an opinion and clearly distinguishable from reporting; and, whether it is opinion or reporting, it must be factually correct.
The media’s pleading that they are a special case is becoming increasingly hollow as their behaviour and their failure to be effectively accountable to their readers and the wider community continue to erode public trust in their industry—and, perhaps more importantly, contribute to the degradation of our public debate. Of course, it comes as no surprise that one of the people most responsible for the declining quality of public debate in this country, the Leader of the Opposition, should be unable to grasp the concept that freedom of speech also carries with it a responsibility to be fair and accurate.
His recent speech to the Institute of Public Affairs saw him arguing that insulting and humiliating media articles, and hurt feelings, are the price we have to pay for freedom of speech. In his criticism of Andrew Bolt’s conviction under section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, the Leader of the Opposition accepted that Mr Bolt’s articles were, ‘almost certainly not his finest’ and ‘there may have been some factual errors’.
Exactly the same could be said of the passages referring to Mr Abbott, the Leader of the Opposition, in Bob Ellis’s 1997 book Goodbye Jerusalem, but this did not prevent Mr Abbott suing Mr Ellis and his publishers because his feelings had been hurt. Obviously the Leader of the Opposition believes that the hurt feelings of a few Indigenous Australians are a price we have to pay, but his hurt feelings and those of his mates are not. And what happened to Bob Ellis’s right to freedom of speech?
We should not, perhaps, be surprised at the audacious way in which the Leader of the Opposition brushes aside the factual inaccuracies in Mr Bolt’s articles, despite the judge in the case saying that among the reasons for his findings was ‘the manner in which the articles were written, including that they contained errors of fact, distortions of the truth and inflammatory and provocative language’—after all, virtually every statement made by Mr Abbott since becoming Leader of the Opposition has been a paragon of factual errors, distortions of the truth and inflammatory and provocative language.
This is where I do not think the Finkelstein report goes far enough, when it comes to sanctions for inaccuracy in media reporting and opinion. Prominently publishing or broadcasting apologies, corrections or retractions is all very well—and I agree with the report’s recommendations about strengthening these processes—but there are far more serious consequences for democracy if a media article misleads the public.
A misinformed public cannot possibly form reasonable views about matters of national importance. As a society, we seem to have little difficulty deciding what socially acceptable behaviour in most walks of life is. For example, our legislatures, our regulators and our legal system seem to be able to determine what constitutes misleading advertising. I fail to see why it should not be possible to do the same for misleading media stories.
Penalties of commercially significant amounts do appear to lead to improved behaviour, and in recent months we have seen Apple fined $2¼ million for misleading consumers about its iPad; and internet service provider TPG fined $2 million over its misleading advertisements. In my view, fines such as these for publishing blatant untruths or misleading news reports, or temporary suspensions of the right to publish or broadcast, would lead to a major improvement in the accuracy and fairness of our media. When a media outlet, journalist or redneck shock jock deliberately broadcasts or publishes a statement that they know is factually wrong and it is subsequently proven that they knew it was factually wrong they ought to be subject to an appropriate penalty.
As far as independent oversight of the media is concerned, I agree with the Finkelstein report’s recommendation to replace the Australian Media and Communication Authority and the Australian Press Council with a new media council. However, I believe stricter rules are required for council membership to ensure the required degree of independence. To start with, no-one who has held elected political office should be eligible for appointment. And, while it is important that the council has knowledge of the media industry through members with media experience, the majority of its members should comprise appointees with legal, regulatory and community experience. And no members with media experience should be currently employed in the industry.
It is also vital that such a new regulatory body be provided with adequate resourcing to enable it to enforce statutorily-defined sanctions against today’s financially and politically powerful news media companies.
We have recently seen announcements by Australia’s two largest media organisations about major changes to the structure of their organisations and also about significant changes in share ownership of some media companies. In the light of these developments it is imperative for our democracy that federal parliament act sooner rather than later to rectify the manifest deficiencies in our current media accountability arrangements.
I repeat what I said earlier: I am not seeking to curtail anybody’s right to free speech, least of all of those with whom I may disagree. I will always strongly support the media’s role and responsibility in holding governments and oppositions to account. But I am seeking to impose greater accountability on those who claim the right to free speech and who then deliberately and constantly breach that right and the community trust that goes with it.