Media, it’s time to heal thyself

Gina Rinehart, Australia’s richest person and the world’s wealthiest woman, is seeking three board seats following her purchase of 18.7 per cent of Fairfax which owns most papers in Australia not controlled by Rupert Murdoch’s News Ltd. There has already been considerable upheaval in two of the Fairfax papers serving Melbourne and Sydney with a 25 per cent shedding of journalists to cut costs.


It will be recalled that in 2010, prominent print and electronic journalists in India were ensnared in the so-called Radiagate affair named after the political lobbyist Niira Radia, in an influence-peddling scandal for flaunting their privileged access to politicians to commercial barons. Meanwhile the long-running Leveson inquiry in Britain continues to tarnish the institutional reputation of politicians and press alike, especially at, but not limited to, News Ltd. Across the developed world the business model under which extensive newspaper advertising (especially from classifieds) could fund high quality professional journalism is under threat.

The volatility in the media world might seem inconsequential in comparison to the protracted crisis in the eurozone and the fragile shoots of recovery from the global financial crisis. But from another perspective, it is an integral part of and in turn contributes to the corrosive crisis of legitimacy afflicting so many democracies around the world. Too many people have lost faith in the integrity of the core institutions that sustain democratic good governance. It behoves us therefore to look a little more closely at the relationship between the media and the government for nurturing and sustaining democracy.

After the purchase of the London Telegraph, someone asked Lord Beaverbrook why he bought it, given the apparently limited financial returns that could be expected. His answer was simple: “power”. He meant political power of course.

Defining and policing the boundaries between the market and democracy is a perennial problem in most modern states. Most of us value both democracy and the market — wanting politics to be run according to democratic principles (one-vote-one-value) and the market largely by market principles (‘one-dollar-one-value’). The eternal temptation is for those with dollars gained in the market to influence decisions supposed to be governed by democratic principles — from political donations to super PACs, lobbying and zoning decisions to outright bribery.

The reverse concern is that those voted into office may seek to convert political power into dollars for themselves or their parties.

In democracies, the media have a critical role in highlighting abuses in markets, of political power and in the interaction of the two. They play an essential role in public opinion formation and the democratic process. However, most media institutions face particular dilemmas because they are, simultaneously, key elements of an effective democracy and commercial entities operating in markets seeking not only substantial and growing audience share, but also revenue from them or advertisers. They benefit from favourable government decisions about media (and other) policies affecting their non-media assets. These market interests can potentially distort the role that media institutions play in the formation of public opinion and, consequentially, in our democracy.

Conversely, the privileged access that media corporations gain from politicians seeking a good press can skew decisions politicians have to make in ways that distort markets while also undermining democracy.

If Beaverbrook’s answer were deemed acceptable, it would allow those gaining wealth from the market to dominate our polity. The media would not then stand astride both markets and democracy, but would become the means by which actors in one sphere dominate the activities in the other. Democratic competition needs to be carried out on a level playing field. If most of the playing fields are owned by those barracking for one side and using their ownership to tilt the field, democracy is in peril.

In order to fulfil their critical role of speaking truth to power, media enterprises claim privileges that others do not have to protect sources, and exemption or limitation of the reputational and privacy rights of those on whom they report. If they use their powers and privileges to fulfil this role, those claims are justified. Otherwise, they are merely traders for profit in assertions about the private lives of others.

How can we ensure that the powers and privileges of the media are used for vital democratic purposes for which they are claimed rather than abused for increase in the influence and non-media wealth of major shareholders?

If a rich individual were to seek control of a private hospital with a view to influencing the diagnoses, prognoses and treatments recommended by the professional doctors employed there, we would be utterly outraged. Yet some think it perfectly OK to do the same thing with media companies employing professional journalists analysing events, predicting outcomes and identifying alternative policies for voters. We do not.

Key role

Our approach does not rely on more government regulation. Nor does it rely on the diversity of views held by plutocratic owners. Instead, it centres on strengthening the profession of journalism through “institutional integrity”, a concept that the Supreme Court of India had used to strike down the appointment of a Central Vigilance Commissioner who was himself under investigation.

“Institutional integrity” requires a set of mutually reinforcing codes for journalists, editors and media board members, plus institutional arrangements for independent interpretation, guidance and enforcement. These codes and institutions can be seen as a form of “integrity system” that promotes the key role of the media in democracy rather than the abuse of media power that undermines it.

Some of the details of such integrity systems can be found >here. They include ethical advisers outside the chain of command for journalists and editors; a Media Integrity Commissioner to assist journalists, editors and board members to develop their codes and give authoritative advice on their application; and a complaints body to adjudicate complaints and order the publication of any adverse findings as prominently as the original reports. (The media can be relied on to trumpet findings of vindication without having to be ordered to publish them.)

Media activities undertaken under these codes would enjoy enhanced versions of the protections and privileges media currently enjoy. Those that do not would be subject to normal corporate regulation and defamation laws — with the possibility of U.S.-style damages for those whose libels and privacy invasions were due to negligence, recklessness or political motivation.

This will provide a very large economic incentive for news organisations to either pursue professional journalism with appropriate integrity measures, or engage in entertainment that leaves real people alone and avoids all controversial statements because the cost of getting them wrong is too great in the absence of those integrity measures.

It would be unscrupulous for media outlets to attack reforms that would compel them to be more ethical. Unethical media organisations might well do so — offering their support to a political party in return for it opposing these reforms. This is why cross-party agreement would be critical. If all major parties agreed to refuse to modify their policies and ignored promises of favourable election-time coverage, such inducements lose their sting.

Political parties must recognise that giving in to pressure is a dangerous strategy. Each time they give something away to a media organisation for favourable coverage, they do three things:

1. Increase the effective power of the media organisation;

2. Whet its appetite;

3. Skew the media in favour of those who would do such deals against those who would not.

That is, such an approach, despite its short-term tactical attraction, damages the long-term interests of even the party engaged in it and weakens the future effectiveness of the government offices they seek to win. This is why we would like to see all major parties engage in a “virtuous conspiracy” to improve the effectiveness of the media in democracy. In doing so, they will also do a great favour to the media, business and themselves.

(Professor Charles Sampford is Director of the Institute for Ethics, Governance and Law based in Brisbane; Ramesh Thakur is Professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University and adjunct professor in IEGL.)

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