F ollowing explosive revelations regarding widespread press intrusion in the lives of private citizens, the British government has commissioned a report to recommend what they should do about it. In all likelihood the report will advise that an independent, government funded regulatory body be set up as a replacement for self regulation, a system that has proved to be a toothless tiger. Australia's government has done likewise with its Finkelstein Report which recommends precisely that. Of course the media, especially commentators with News Corp publications, are screaming from the hilltops that this will spell the end of press freedom as we know it and will intrude on freedom of speech in general.
The standards of the world's free press compared with what they could be is poor by any measure. Particularly in the English speaking world, gross tabloid invasion of privacy, broadsheet political bias and poor journalistic ethics is a real problem. However, while some problems like bribery, phone tapping, and coersion are basically police matters, the line between press freedom and regulations that include a proper code of journalistic ethics is not so easy to delineate. It is this greyness that gives opponents of a truly independent media regulatory body room to manouvre. Their line of attack is a populist but powerful one: that governments of the day will hold a gun to the head of a not-so-free press.
It is a misleading representation of what the Australian government proposes; at the same time it avoids the core concerns of the Finkelstein Report. At the heart of the issue is not government censorship but responsible reporting. How ironic, when it is media proprietors and their editors who are involved in censorship every day by supporting one side of the political divide over the other. One look at The Australian newspaper's opinion pages shows glaring bias for all things ideologically to the Right. As British media specialist, Charlotte Harris, has observed about the Australian scene: "With one media baron dominating the landscape you are already in a state of censorship''.
The public should never be ideological fodder for the opinions of others. While media outlets and opinion makers have the right to editorialise and argue their points of view, it is unethical to propagandise in the pretence of being balanced. Only informative, properly researched and even-handed journalism should be acceptable, with counter argument opinions par for the course. It is too easy to manipulate public opinion for the media to be allowed to regulate their own code of ethics. The reality is inescapable: total self interest in maintaining political and socio-economic influence is central to the media's opposition to regulation regime change. Time for change. And the sooner the better.