The Finkelstein Inquiry

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The Finkelstein inquiry report came out recently. For many months I have ben annoyed by facile, superficial and often heavily biased tabloid journalism (both on TV and in the print media). Not to mention a few instances of absolutely egregious conduct in media reports.  I determined to read the report.

It runs to several hundred pages. Not a light read, but it does contain a wealth of interesting information about media development generally over the centuries.

Another trigger for my reading of it was the response to it in the media. The response has generally been one of getting all worked up by a supposed challenge in the report to freedom of expression and the independence of the press. Yet Finkelstein totally acknowledges the importance of the independence and freedom of the press.

His concerns are about ethical standards and accountability.  His concerns are exemplified by the media response of trumpeting independence and freedom issues.  Ducking the real one identified.

There are a number of journalists and publisher codes of conduct.  They speak to a need for fairness, the separation of fact and opinion, condemnation of deliberate distortion and suppression of information, the confidentiality of sources, journalists’ responsibility to guard freedom of expression, protection of rights to privacy, respecting and seeking out the truth, avoidance of discrimination and of conflicts of interest. These codes are reassuring at face value.

What the report makes clear is that these codes are all too often overwhelmed by in-house media organisation cultures, the attitudes of news producers, their role as gatekeepers and agenda setters, and judgements about what is likely to be received favourably by editors, and audiences, rather than ethical considerations.

We are seeing increasingly that the general public distrusts the media. A result of bias in the reporting of government affairs[i], obsessive attempts to influence government policy by day after day repetition of issues with little or no new information of news value, the unfair pursuit of individuals based on information which is inaccurate, and a failure to separate news from comment.

The report refers early on to another report published by the Australian Centre for independent journalism on media coverage of climate change policy in Australia:

In A Sceptical Climate, the Centre analysed 10 Australian newspapers in the period from February to July 2011. It analysed 3,971 articles, including comment pieces, editorials, features and news stories. It looked at the use of language in an article, the framing of the article and the first three sources quoted.

Its headline finding was that, overall, negative coverage of government policy outweighed positive coverage by 73 per cent to 27 per cent. Broken down by reference to major media outlets, the Centre found that negative coverage across News Limited papers (82 per cent) far outweighed positive coverage (18 per cent). For Fairfax Media papers, the ratio was 57 per cent positive coverage to 43 per cent negative coverage.

One of the conclusions reached in the report was this: The two biggest News Ltd tabloids—the Herald Sun and the Daily Telegraph—have been so biased in their coverage that it is fair to say they ‘campaigned’ against the policy rather than covered it. “

What has emerged is a growing gulf between the media’s ethical and professional standards and those of the public.  There is no longer a balance between the absolute imperative of press freedom and independence, with their accountabilities around honesty, fairness and balance.

To quote again from the report:  “This adversely affects democracy.  If everything that is worth saying is not said, satisfactorily informed debate on important political and social issues will be at risk.  The privately controlled free and open market will be impaired.  Many ideas will be killed before they are heard.  Democracy is the loser.”

We end up with what might be called “tabloid thinking” in public discourse.  Increasing numbers of ill-informed people take simplistic views that conform to whipped-up prejudices.  We create communities much more likely to vote for charismatic, right wing populist politicians than willing to examine and reflect on a wide range of information and discussion.  We end up with politicians trained to spout one-liners likely to appeal to shock jock commentators (to whom they become beholden in getting exposure). The danger is a cramped, ignorant environment in which to resolve difficult issues around migration, climate change, taxation policy and the like.

What really challenges me at present is that the core findings and discussion in the Finkelstein report is getting very little exposure in the media.  Maybe here I am being hopelessly idealistic.

There are some great journalists out there, but in my view in the newspaper world in Australia they are mostly to be found in “The Australian Financial Review”. Unfortunately the AFR is never likely to win a wide general readership.

Thank you, patient reader, for letting me get this off my chest!



[i]I am quoting selected material here from a submission by Professor McKinnon, a former Australian Press Council Chair.