Against Finkelstein (for free media)

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The Australian Government’s Finkelstein inquiry into media regulation has found that the existing regulations of print and broadcast media have failed to achieve the “accountability desirable in a democracy”.

Lack of accountability? Surely this is a code word for something else — it is very easy to find out who the oweners, publishers and journalists are in most cases (this blog is an exception).

The solution? Justice Finkelstein recommends that the Australian Government founds a new body, to be known as the News Media Council. Unsurprisingly, J Finkelstein recommends that this council ought to chaired by a judge (perhaps he would like the job?).

As part of this change, the regulatory net will be cast as far as blogs even smaller than this one – all the way down to blogs that score 40 hits per day.

There are so many things wrong with this, I am just going to focus on the big one.

Foremost, everyone should be wary of government oversight of the fourth estate. It is always justified by the need for unbiased reporting, and it always turns out to be an Orwellian thing.

Even the ones that are initially successful in correcting bias degenerate into something less admirable in due course.

The reason? Even if folks such as J Finkelstein have fair and balanced judgement, history tells us that we cannot rely on the powers that be to always appoint fair and balanced arbiters – nor to remove previously fair arbiters should they change their spots.

The judicial system struggles with this constantly, and has built up a complex multi-layered review system to deal with the problem. That system works reasonably well, though it is very slow, and unsuited to the modern media cycle.

The ever sharp Alan Koehler has figured out what this means – protection from competition. Being the owner of an established web based media business, he best understands how much of a potential threat new media is to the established players.

Just imagine the lunches: Mr Newsowner might take out Minister Conroy and say:

say, I think that Drudge report is a bit of a worry, that so called scoop had a number of worrying inaccuracies. Would you like our legal team to send you a brief?

I think this would make media less accountable. How much clearer when the media are in open combat with competitors – on their own pages / programmes / etc.

If the government is worried about media quality, they should appoint judges such as Mr Finkelstein to the ABC board, and increase ABC funding to make sure that the voice they find acceptable has a strong presence in the market for information. Of course this is anti-competitive, as it subsidises a voice, but it at least leaves the rest of the market free from interference.

The Finkelstein proposal amounts to a plan to empower an unelected judge to silence voices that he or she deems unacceptable. Over time, such a policy would entrench the large players, and thereby reduce both the quality and accuracy of our media – and consequently reduce the quality of our democracy.


  1. I don’t care if Finkelstein J has fantastic judgment. The fact is, the question of balance and bias in the media is not there to be judged by any individual but by us as the consumers of media. Every time I think this Government can’t do any more damage than they already have, they do. There’s a lot of ruin in a national I suppose.

    1. I agree – it should be up to consumers. I was trying to make the argument that even if here was some enlightened judge, the system itself is structurally unstable.

  2. two points
    Alan’s lat name contains no e.

    seciond the example is misleading. The Minister does not make the call but the institution.

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