The great British battle over press reform comes to a head tomorrow (March 18th) but despite all the bluster and heated debate there is very little between the main political parties. All sides agree with the notion of a Royal Charter (a peculiarly British way of legal underpinning a new press regulator) but arguments rage over matters of detail which in practice amount to a dispute over how much control the press will have over the new independent regulator.
What is significant is not the political split, but that the press is now divided in public between those ready to take their medicine and accept change and those, in defiance of the Leveson report and public opinion, who seek to maintain a firm grip on press regulation.
British politicians and editors might be advised to take a look at what’s happening on the other side of the world. In Australia a similar, but less febrile debate on similar issues is also coming to a head.
The discussion has been less dramatic than in Britain, but it was sharply ignited in 2009 when newspaper publishers abruptly cut funding to the country’s self-regulating press council.
Slashing its funding by 20 per cent they prompted a wave of protest and complaints that the press was not serious about maintaining a credible form of self-regulation.
The row came as newspapers were imposing severe cuts in newsrooms raising fears about the future of journalism. At the same time policymakers began to debate how they might regulate the new communications landscape with its unruly mix of traditional, digital and online information.
In Britain the News of the World phone hacking crisis was breaking around Australia’s most famous media son Rupert Murdoch – forever immortalised as “the Dirty Digger” by the satirical magazine Private Eye – who found himself in the crosshairs of a storm over his company’s role in the creation of a culture of corruption and malpractice in the tabloid press.
Like Britain, Australia set up an independent inquiry into media carried out by the former Justice of the Federal Court, Ray Finkelstein. In his report last year he concluded that the country’s media should be regulated by an independent body not under the control of the press.
The same conclusion was reached by Justice Brian Leveson in Britain. His 2,000-page report late last year called for an end to the system where press editors and owners police themselves.
But after months of reflection the Australian government has decided not to take this route. It proposes to stick with self-regulation and to allow the industry to remain in charge of setting standards. As a result the Australian parliament will probably avoid the divisive wrangling that is currently raising blood pressure in British parliamentary circles.
Although in Australia it looks as though the existing industry self-regulator may have the last word in defining its future role, in Britain that has all but been ruled out.
There is an established consensus on all sides, political and professional, and confirmed by Leveson that the reign of the Press Complaints Commission is over.
Where there is a major difference it comes in questions over media ownership. The Australian government plans to create a new post of Public Interest Media Advocate, who will oversee mergers and acquisitions of media. There will also be a new Public Interest Test to ensure that diversity of voices is considered when media mergers are planned.
Although media ownership was part of the Leveson brief he steered clear of any attempt to change existing ownership rules to the disappointment of many press support groups. Action to limit the overweening power of media conglomerates is needed they say pointing out that it was, after all, the hubris and undue influence of Murdoch’s global media empire which led to the standards crisis in the first place.
The Australians also plan to reward media companies that sign up to ethical standards. Communications Minister Stephen Conroy, announcing the reform plan, said that news media which sign up to the new press standards body – which may turn out to be a revamped version of the existing Australian Press Council –will be given a special exemption from certain sections of the country’s Privacy Act.
This echoes the Leveson proposal to protect media from exemplary damages in court actions over privacy and defamation if they join the new press body currently under construction in London.
The government in Canberra appears determined but nothing is certain with only a few more weeks of parliamentary time available to bring in changes. However, as the plans are not regarded as a huge departure from the model that’s currently in place they may succeed.
Nevertheless, the new post of Public Interest Media Advocate is intriguing. The detail of the powers or limitations on power this position will have or the job description for the person needed are still to be made known, but it may prove to be an interesting model that others may wish to follow.
Br ian McNair, a journalism professor at Queensland University of Technology, thinks the government may have got the balance of its reforms about right by avoiding overt state control of the media while addressing the concerns around ethics and standards that led to the Finkelstein review in the first place.
“Press standards will be policed by the industry itself,” he says, “and the existing press council can apply to be the industry’s self-regulating body under the new standards model, if it can accept those standards and command industry support.”
Meanwhile, the battle lines are drawn in Britain for a bitter end to the Leveson debate. Arguments over strategy have led to major public divisions in the industry between the conservative press, chiefly the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph, and more liberal titles, such as The Guardian, the Independent, the Daily Mirror and the Financial Times.
The more conservative media want a right to veto appointments to a new press body as well as control over the code of practice and restrictions on third-party complaints, all of which Leveson says should be taken out of the hands of the press.
The liberal papers appear ready to accept a transfer of power to a more independent body and will live with some legal underpinning of the process, even if it is a “Royal Charter fudge.” Expect more blood on the carpet before a deal is reached.