“With great power comes great responsibility,” – Stan Lee
“The price of freedom is eternal vigilance,” – Thomas Jefferson
It’s strange to see these two quotes side by side, but if you merge them they suddenly seem to make sense. With great power and the unfettered freedom to use it, we all must remain eternally vigilant that it is used responsibly.
In all the current brouhaha to Stephen Conroy’s intention to introduce legislation making the print media accountable to an independent regulatory body, it is worth remembering some history that still resonates among Labor supporters as well as some, now retired, journalists, and which underscores Conroy’s initiative.
To understand the mistrust of Murdoch’s media balance it’s useful to revisit the 1975 Federal Election campaign. A day or two after the dismissal Fairfax management issued a letter which was circulated to all staff urging “fairness, balance and professionalism” in their coverage of the forthcoming election.
At the other end of the professional spectrum the Murdoch owned ‘Australian’ behaved with such bias and was perceived as being so disgraceful that journalists went on strike in the midst of the election campaign.
‘Murdoch’s overt interference in the 1975 campaign was so bad that reporters on the Australian went on strike in protest and seventy-five of them wrote to their boss calling the newspaper ‘a propaganda sheet’ and saying it had become ‘a laughing stock’ (Wright 1995). ‘You literally could not get a favourable word about Whitlam in the paper. Copy would be cut, lines would be left out,’ one former Australian journalist told Wright’ (1995). (1)
To go on strike over wages and conditions is one thing understood by all, but for 109 journalists to go on strike during a federal election campaign is indicative of just how bad the editorial interference was.
In those days journalists covering election campaigns would spend half their time with one side and then flip, swapping to follow the other side for the remainder of their time on the campaign trail.
“Alan Yates was a third-year cadet on the Daily Mirror and recalls the dismissal ‘shocked the entire newsroom’. Yates was on the AJA House Committee and says that while Murdoch was not necessarily in the newsroom, ‘his editors and his chiefs of staff were certainly involved in day-to-day selection of editorial content’. Alan Yates has said that he felt powerless as a ‘junior reporter’, but remembered his copy being altered to favour the Liberal Party’s viewpoint:
‘When questioning the chiefs of staff and chief sub-editor about this I was clearly told that that was the editorial line, the editorial people had thought that it was a stronger angle. Therefore I was left not too many options to go.’” (2)
In the early stages of the campaign there had been criticisms from highly regarded journalists about their copy being so altered that their stories bore no resemblance to articles that had been filed. Placement was pushed back, headlines were deemed by them as scurrilous and not reflective of the content, and so the outraged allegations of not just media bias but direct editorial interference precipitated a strike of journalists.
A letter written by News Limited journalists and presented to management outlines clearly some of the concerns they had resulting in their strike action on 8th-10 December 1975, the last week of the election campaign.
“… the deliberate and careless slanting of headlines, seemingly blatant imbalance in news presentation, political censorship and, more occasionally, distortion of copy from senior specialist journalists, the political management of news and features, the stifling of dissident and even palatably impartial opinion in the papers’ columns…” (3)
The other major media proprietors of the day, Fairfax and Packer, weren’t exactly happy with Murdoch. He had , single handedly, put the role of the print media under the spotlight and in centre stage, a place where neither Fairfax nor Packer felt comfortable.
State Labor Governments were considering bringing in regulatory legislation of the print media. These moves were given added impetus by the electoral loss of Whitlam in 1975 and the perception of Murdoch’s role in Whitlam’s downfall.
The Australian Constitution gives exclusive powers to the Federal Government under s51 for telegraphic, which also now means new technology such as telephonic and digital media. The Feds were not given power to cover the print media; that power was deemed by most constitutional lawyers to be a residual power left to the State Governments.
During the latter part of 1975 and for most of 1976 constitutional lawyers and academics argued the constitutionality of both the dismissal and the possible introduction of print regulation by any of the State Governments.
There seems little argument now to suggest that the Federal Government doesn’t have the power to go ahead with print media regulation along the lines of a print ACMA. And gosh, hasn’t it been effective?!
The powers to enable the Feds to introduce print media regulation seem to result from the ceding to Canberra of the corporation’s power, a constitutional catch-all for increasing federal power in a range of matters previously the preserve of the states. As well the print media now has a digital footprint which should mean automatic coverage by S51(v) of the Australian Constitution.
Regulation of the print media is not unknown. To this day Malaysia and Singapore, those great bastions of democracy, have licences to print that I suspect are arcane leftovers from the original British licensing of the printing press.
Just as there is no right to bear arms, there is no right of the freedom of speech or the freedom of the press enshrined in our Constitution. There is an implied right of political free speech in the Constitution (Lange’s Case), but it is extremely limited in how it can be applied as, for example, in defamation cases as one of the defences of qualified privilege, (but then that is another story).
Faced with growing outrage at the Murdoch coverage of the 1975 Federal Election campaign and the distinct possibility of having papers regulated, the three main print proprietors came up with a self-regulatory proposal ensuring that fair, impartial and honest reporting of the news would be overseen by a new body, the Australian Press Council.
Since its inception in 1976 the Australian Press Council has been a ‘self-regulatory’ body with the stated aim of keeping members of the print media fair, balanced and honest by ensuring that the print media behaves ‘responsibly and ethically.’
Funded by the print proprietors themselves, their function was two-fold. The first: as an adjudication body where members of the public can complain about the activities of a paper or magazine.
The second function: as a lobbyist group for the media continually promoting the concept of the ‘freedom of speech, especially that of the press’.
The APC’s role of lobbyist has been spectacularly successful to the point where most Australians believe they are the beneficiaries of the right to free speech written somewhere in our Constitution. The APC has contributed in educational programmes, and as participants in every media inquiry that’s been held since 1976.
As an adjudicator the APC has been a spectacular failure for the ordinary Joe Citizen, but brilliantly successful for the print proprietors, and, of course, has been commonly known for years as a toothless tiger.
The whole adjudication process is voluntary. There are no enforceable penalties except to publish the decision of the APC’s adjudication committee, and even then some regional papers have long stopped bothering to so do. It’s the ‘being slapped in the face with a sodden lettuce leaf’ style of penalty; it’s an irritant rather than a penalty, and has long been regarded as a joke.
The Australian Press Council is a wonderful lesson in how to be an effective lobbyist. It is also a brilliant lesson in why self-regulation never works.
In looking at some of the mainstream media’s coverage of federal politics and in particular the somewhat vitriolic personal pursuit of the Prime Minister while ignoring any meaningful coverage of the Opposition’s problems, as well as the media’s perceived lack of real and informed analysis of policy and administrative performance, is it any wonder that the spectre of the 1975 media election coverage has reared its ugly head.?!
This time, however, I can’t see any journalist, except the odd one or two, standing up for a fair and balanced media as a fundamental principle of a healthy democracy, nor for the integrity of what it is they personally do as a profession. For journalists working in a diminishing labour market there’s just no future in it.
1) Wright Tony, ‘On the Wrong Side of Rupert’ SMH. 13.10.95
2) quoted in the Murdoch Papers, an interview with Alan Yates by Martin Hirst. 1997
3) Cryle Denis. ‘Murdoch’s Flagship. 25 years of the ‘Australian’ newspaper. MUP (2008)