One can understand Matthew Ricketson’s despair over the criticism levelled at the report of the media inquiry of which he was part; after all, one never likes to see one’s work, especially when it is so high-profile, being regarded as the output of a government toady.
(Ricketson, a journalism academic, assisted a retired judge, Ray Finkelstein, in conducting an inquiry into the media in Australia recently.)
But then, Ricketson has only himself to blame. If he thought that news organisations would take kindly to the idea of oversight by the government, then his connection with journalism in the field is obviously rather tenuous.
As an aside, it is curious that though Ricketson expressed a wish to see the media industry reporting on itself without spin, the good professor himself was rather reluctant to tell readers that he was paid, and handsomely too, for his labours alongside Justice Finkelstein. A day before his outpouring which is linked to in the first paragraph of this piece, there were reports that he had received $2500 per day, or a total of $175,000, for assisting Justice Finkelstein. That’s much more than a year’s salary for most journalists who work in the newsrooms of the bigger newspapers in this country.
After receiving wages like these – Justice Finkelstein received $308,000 or $4400 per day – if the public were to judge the recipient as wanting to please, even a little, his paymaster, then that public would surely have to be forgiven. As with all humans, the tendency to avoid biting the hand that feeds us exists within our beings. It is part of human nature.
Consultants, analysts, call them what one wishes, always make sure to avoid annoying those who provide them with handsome commissions – else the danger of missing out when the next chance arises is very real.
No reflection on Ricketson or the good judge – they are human too. Thus, if either of them were to say they were not influenced by the commissioning authority, one would have to take that with a pinch of salt. Not to say that this happened consciously; it happens subconsciously to all members of the human race. We avoid conflict whenever possible.
It is surprising that someone who has been a journalist can ever condone a solution to a media problem which involves the government. Perhaps, apart from the influence of the commissioning authority, one can put that down to the individual never having lived in a country where government has more than a passing involvement in running the media.
From a personal point of view, I find the suggestion of a government-funded overseer abhorrent. My thinking may well be influenced by having witnessed government excesses towards the media during the 26-month emergency promulgated by the late Indira Gandhi in India between 1975 and 1977 – at a time when I was still in university – and also having actually felt the clammy hand of the government censor when I was chief sub-editor of the Khaleej Times in Dubai in the 1990s, at a time when that august publication was the biggest English-language daily in the Middle East.
The obvious argument put forward by those pushing for government funding of a regulatory body is that a situation such as those described above could never eventuate in Australia. Given the extent to which the government already tries to twist its version of truth before it reaches the media here, and the extent to which politicians try to influence what appears in print or is broadcast, by fair means or foul, I would much rather err on the side of caution.
The Australian Press Council may be a poor alternative but, after some beefing up, it is a much better solution than giving the government the ability to twist arms. The powers-that-be are already trying to scare the hell out of people as much as possible by bringing in more and more oppressive laws, the latest being the proposed two-year data retention legislation.
To actually hand the power of regulation of the one entity that can bring the government to heel to that same government would be rather foolish, to put it mildly. Do we really want to put the cat in charge of looking after the canaries?