20 Feb 2012.
Mayne On Press Licensing.
730reportland: We return to Melbourne as, retired judge Ray Finkelstein `hosts` the Australian Media Inquiry, with his `lovely-assistant`, journalism academic, Matthew Ricketson.
Their next `guest` is Crikey Founder and a media mover and shaker. Welcome to the `show`, Stephen Mayne.
MR FINKELSTEIN: One of the issues that you`ve raised is under this heading, "A light-handed licensing regime for editors and proprietors".
There are probably not that many people who are going to assert- I`m not saying none- or suggest that there should be licensing of newspapers.
Presumably, one reason for that is that the king and the government in England licensed the press for several hundreds of years and it came to an end I think in the late 1700s or thereabouts. It was regarded as a universally good thing that it came to an end.
Therefore, it is at least unusual- I won`t say surprising- to see somebody propounding the idea that editors and proprietors ought be licensed.
730reportland: Our `host` actually high-lights another problem here. The Legal, Political and Government systems always look to the past to aid them with making decisions.
The downfall of looking so hard at the past, is it tends to make them ignore what is in front of their nose, the `present`. In the 1700s, computers, technology, management systems and Police did not exist. This is 300 years ago. Different environment.
Finkelstein is `not` comparing apples with apples here.
MR FINKELSTEIN: I want to ask you, first of all, why you propound that view. I don`t know whether you want to deal with them separately, proprietors and editors, or whether it is the same underlying issue,
but I assume that a licensing regime is to make sure that a particular class of person or a person with particular attributes or qualities,
or whatever it might be, are to be the persons who run or own news outlets. Can I start by asking you what do you regard as the essential criteria for owning or running as an editor a news outlet, and why?
MR MAYNE: Many countries have had nationality restrictions, which effectively is a licensing regime which says no foreign party will ever be licensed. We had that for many years. Keating said to Conrad Black, "I license you to 35 percent of Fairfax, you can go no more."
I think we shouldn`t be too surprised that there are regulatory regimes in place. I do think it goes to conflict of interest, vested interest.
I wouldn`t support Exxon Mobil receiving a licence to buy News Limited`s Australian operations. I wouldn`t give a licence to British American Tobacco to buy 70 percent of Australia`s newspapers.
730reportland: Yes. I agree with Mayne here.
This is `defacto` licensing.
MR MAYNE: I think you have to start from the basis that the press is the Fourth Estate and there needs to be some sort of regulation as to who can have that power and responsibility vested in them. So I think the corporate conflicts, maybe the foreign interests, may come in at that point.
730reportland: This `4th estate` stuff is Bull-Crap.
There is too much donkey data and lobbying going on to give any weight to these `type` of catch-cries. Large chunks of the embedded media, pushing propaganda, have become merely `lobbying-firms` with catch-cries.
MR MAYNE: I also think there is a basic ethical morality fit and proper test, so if Alan Bond were still in charge of The West Australian when he was convicted of fraud, he would have been in breach of his licence and he would have been required to dispose of The West Australian, because he committed the largest fraud in Australian history. I`m only thinking about it in those sorts of relatively extreme examples.
730reportland: Mayne is correct. The bleating by the embedded media against this point really shows how out of touch they are. All kinds of citizens under-go this `type` of examination every day.
Vetting of folks who join the Police, become teachers and, tradesmen needing long term access to `secure` work-sites, just to name a few. The sky is falling, cry the embedded media `chicken-littles`, when asked to join the rest of society.
MR MAYNE: I must admit I am reminded by I guess a personal experience that I`ve had working within News Limited, watching News Corp internationally, that there has been a little bit of a tendency for some rogue editors to emerge and prosper and be rewarded over the years, with some rather colourful approaches. I`ve worked under some of them.
I think that sometimes I look at the culture and think at some stage there ought to be something about you just can`t phone hack on an industrial scale, for instance. If an editor was caught up in something like that, there would be something which would kick in and say, "I don`t think you are fit and proper." I stress that it ought to be light-handed and you certainly can`t have big brother government flicking editors because of a political line or a partisan campaign. It needs to be a pretty grave situation where you intervene.
730reportland: At least Limited News `is` consistant.
MR FINKELSTEIN: What is the sort of criteria, though? The idea of licensing- I don`t want to put too fine a point on it, because a couple of submissions make points about this- but it is as close as going back to the Dark Ages as you could find if you are serious about it_
MR MAYNE: Well_
MR FINKELSTEIN:_ but the idea that a government should say who can publish the news, because if you are talking about licensing, you are talking about the government saying who can say publish the news, is probably about as extreme an encroachment on news dissemination as you could get.
730reportland: At this point in the `show` I have become fully aware our `host` is tackling the licensing topic from the wrong end.
MR MAYNE: But they do that with television and radio now.
MR FINKELSTEIN: I know that.
MR MAYNE: So it`s not the end of the world with that.
MR FINKELSTEIN: No, and there might be some arguments about whether or not television and radio is different or, as many people say, there is no difference and that kind of regulation ought to go. The fact that it exists in television and radio might tell you something about television and radio but might not tell you very much about the press.
730reportland: Unfortunately Finkelstein keeps questioning from the wrong end of the `licensing arguement`. Our `host` seems to ignore that the media is an `industry` and the press is a `segment` of the media industry.
Licensing in most other industries have raised `standards` of all kinds, quality of product or workmanship, safety, and inspection and compliance systems.
Newspapers, Radio Stations and Television Networks all post mixed content online, text, audio and video. Some better questions Finkelstein should have asked,
Excluding to write `crap`, What advantage will the newspaper segment lose if a licensing system is put in place?
Excluding spectrum, Why should/shouldn`t the newspaper segment not be licenced, when the radio segment and television segment are?
Why should/shouldn`t the Global Monster remain unlicenced, while the National Monster has to operate under `Charter` and local television and radio segments are licensed?
Why shouldn`t all segments and, all companies in the same industry operate, as near as possible, in the same licensing and penalty system?
MR MAYNE: You don`t like legal malpractice, you don`t like doctor malpractice, you won`t license snake catchers and you license brothels.
Licensing is such a common phenomenon right throughout society and professions that I cannot see why the press, in the internet era where the genie is impossible to put back in the bottle, where the idea of a totalitarian regime coming in and shutting down newspapers, it is just no longer remotely possible in a democracy like Australia.
That risk of government intervention I believe has been utterly mitigated by technology to the point now where we can have a sensible discussion in a democracy about some basic standards and ethics and fit and proper requirements that apply with most other professions and industries.
MR FINKELSTEIN: Doesn`t the same kind of argument lead you toward the conclusion that licensing might catch a couple of people and a couple of organisations, but because of the internet it`s really a practical impossibility?
In other words, you will never devise a scheme for jurisdictional or constitutional reasons, any host of reasons, just straight impracticability of trying to license everybody who puts newsprint into the airwaves, the press, the letterbox or wherever?
MR MAYNE: For start-ups and the small fry and local papers, I agree, but when you are talking about the substantial powerful, entrenched, well-known brands, I think where a licensing regime already effectively operates is if News Limited went to sell its 70 percent of the papers there would be regulatory intervention around foreign ownership, around ACCC, about who the regulators license to have responsibility for so many newspaper titles across the Australian market and democracy.
MR FINKELSTEIN: It is not quite licensing, though. You could call it licensing, but I spent a lot of my working life dealing with competition cases, and never thought of it before- and I fought against the regulator and as a judge- as a licensing scheme. It is a series of legislation that works on the theory that you abuse a monopoly position, that`s a bad thing, and there ought to be laws governing the abuse of monopoly positions or laws governing the creation of monopolies, but they are based on economic criteria and they are looking at producing economic efficiencies. I don`t care who the people are who are involved, it has nothing to do with personalities; it is to do with having efficient allocation of resources in a community or a nation state.
730reportland: Whack, as Laurie Oakes likes to say.
Finkelstein fought against the regulator. This explains why he is coming at licensing from the wrong direction.
MR FINKELSTEIN: So the fact that you might describe that as licensing, it`s true that you need permission to engage in certain types of activity, but you don`t have that in mind, I don`t think, because what you are looking at is the identity of the persons concerned, that is, who is it that`s going to apply for permission to run the press or edit a newspaper, whereas if you are looking at foreign ownership and particularly anti-trust, they don`t care who it is, they are just looking to see what is going to be the state of the market before and after. So they are market economic considerations, looking at what is best for the economic development of the nation, but this is of a different order.
MR MAYNE: I guess I`m talking about gross malpractice, and phone hacking is the context that we have here, but the discussion from this morning about a beefed-up Press Council, if you had an absolute recidivist editor who completely utterly continually refused to comply with the new regime, which might be publish corrections, et cetera, it would be a final piece of recourse to give the regulatory regime some teeth.
Of course, like all good regulatory regimes, you never want to have to utilise the full powers. It just sits there and gives some authority and gravitas to, at the moment, a thoroughly disrespected regulatory regime that is trampled all over and is a bit of a toothless tiger and personally I think that it needs to be beefed up. If you have that final recourse, authority in the back there, like it works with TV and radio, I think it would improve standards and culture within the press.
730reportland: Mayne misses the mark a little bit here. Good regulatory systems, hold to account each person at every level or rank, for their own actions and responsibilities, or lack of.
MR FINKELSTEIN: If you are looking, speaking generally, at an ideal set of cultures or cultural rules, ethical rules or standards, would it be reasonable to proceed on the basis- people say how do you put it into effect, but I regard that as a separate question- but if I were to look at a typical set of codes of conduct or standards, if I take it from broadcasting, or those that are published by the Press Council or by the union that acts on behalf of journalists, they have pretty much common themes running through them, do you see them as being, relatively speaking, a reasonable set of standards?
MR MAYNE: All the words are terrific, it`s just that they are_
MR FINKELSTEIN: Implementation.
MR MAYNE: Yes, they are often ignored. It is quite uneven in terms of the way it is disrespected. There will be certain editors at certain times. Within Fairfax or News Limited you have good and bad. It goes through periods of ups and downs.
730reportland: In the current decaying news scenario, we have our Limited News star, Andrew Bolt recently losing his `white` Aboriginal court case. This has not stopped Andrew from `Dulux Color Charting` Aboriginals though. Andrew just changed the `style` of doing the same type of crap.
Andrew has `ignored` the court ruling and now uses pictures of the `white-est` Aboriginals he can find and makes sure he includes phrases like `indigenous program` along with the picture. With the current `gummy` Press Council, that doesn`t work pro-actively, Andrew has nothing to fear or lose.
So let`s create a `Scenerio 2` in which there is a pro-active Press Council that bites. News people are licensed from top to bottom, and directors meet the `fit and proper` test.
Andrew Bolt goes to court, which attracts the attention of the `pro-active` Press Council, which immediately looks into the situation from its end. The judgement of the Press Council may be, that it too finds Bolt is pushing `racism` or `hate speech` and suspends Andrews license for 3 months.
Without his license Bolt now cannot work not just at `Limited News` chip wrappers, but no Mac-Radio, no BoltreportLand, no Ten-News, no Qanda or anything else for the 3 months. And Media companies are not permitted to pay those who get their license suspended.
Then 3 months later Bolt returns to work and willingly chooses not to `Dulux Color Chart` Aboriginals anymore. Andrew now has something that bites to fear, and misses the salary he lost.
The pre Inquiry bleating about the sacred `press freedom` doesn`t really add up, but comes across as Herd-Think and Mass-Panic.
The `News` is too important to license.
No wait, the `Press` is too important to license.
Hang on, we want to `Lobby` and pretend its news.
The reality check the embedded media need to come to is that the news is either,
Important and should be treated as important and has a serious system of rules and penalty in place for all.
Or they want to lobby, spin and bullcrap about everything in a fact free style. Then they might as well save the cash and scrap the Press Council. The other regulators should go too, along with the ABC Charter, Codes of Conduct, and let everybody take their side and lobby for all their worth.
The above is a word for word extract from Page 98 to Page 102 of this transcript, with my comments added in color. We will return to the `show` after these `messages`.