The controversial ACMA finding on the Four Corners two-part program, ‘Fox and the Big Lie’, has again highlighted the shortcomings of the media standards regulation processes in Australia. But what to do about it? Alumni director Alan Sunderland has spent several years considering this issue. Here’s his view.
To build trust in the news, we need a trustworthy watchdog
By Alan Sunderland / 17 February 2023
The latest furore surrounding media standards in Australia happened just before Christmas, as most of the country was sensibly focused on buying presents, hanging Christmas decorations and preparing for holidays. The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA), the regulator that oversees radio and television news, ruled that the ABC had breached its editorial standards in the way it reported on the role of Fox News and the Capitol riots in the US.*
While the Murdoch media, which control Fox, generally welcomed the finding, the ABC rejected it and many independent observers saw the finding as curious, badly argued or just plain wrong. Count me among those critics – as a journalist I found the reasoning deeply problematic.
The finding led to an obvious question: why is a government-appointed body, the majority of whose members are not journalists, making decisions about journalistic ethics? ACMA looks after everything from spectrum management, technology compliance and broadcast technology to managing spam. Does it really know and understand how journalism works?
It’s not the only question we should be asking when it comes to regulating standards in the Australian news media. The truth is, our system for ensuring that Australian journalism is fair, accurate and reliable is broken.
While some sections of the media retain the trust of their readers and subscribers, many Australians either don’t like, respect or – in increasing numbers – don’t use the news media. The latest research from the Reuters Institute shows overall trust in Australian journalism continuing to fall (from 43 per cent to 41 per cent). While those paying for online news subscriptions increased a little (up to 18 per cent), newspaper revenue continues to decline and so to do the audiences for major news programs on breakfast and prime-time television.
One major reason is that, when they have complaints, people don’t feel they are taken seriously or investigated promptly. So while journalists argue among themselves about problems with media regulators, the wider public thinks the bigger problem is with the news media itself. It would like to see more and better regulation of standards, not less.
It’s a wicked problem – parts of the media are not trusted, but neither are the systems meant to build that trust. The last attempt to fix this was more than a decade ago, and it arguably made things worse.
The Finkelstein Inquiry of 2012 was established by the then Labor government. It concluded the system was broken, but its key recommendation was for the government to fund and establish a compulsory complaints-handling body. Despite all the careful recommendations it made to ensure the body was independent of the government, it was widely condemned and never acted upon. The independence of the news media is something everyone values, and the slightest hint of government control was enough to ensure it never happened. And so the problem remained.
Since then, the journalists’ union, the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA), has given notice that it will leave the Press Council, the voluntary body that upholds standards in the print news media, as it thinks it is ineffectual. Significant numbers of newspapers are not or have never been members, including The Guardian, The West Australian and Australian Community Media, which represents more than 140 leading rural and regional newspapers and websites. The Press Council’s funding is under pressure and not enough people understand what it is and how it works. It now relies on News Corp for as much as 60 per cent of its funding, which creates real and perceived concerns of its own.
It is the news media itself that needs to step up to the plate and start seriously focusing on accountability and trust. It’s our mess and we have to fix it.
The good news is there are solutions, and they aren’t that difficult to find. Australia does not have to choose between ineffectual or incomplete self-regulation and government-imposed regulation that risks being seen as censorship. We don’t need to persevere with one system for the print media and another for radio and television, when Australians increasingly find news across a wide range of platforms and devices that too often fall between the regulatory cracks. And we don’t need to look for guidance, as we so often do, at the unsatisfactory systems in places such as the US and Britain, which are also not particularly trusted or respected.
Why don’t we start with a country like Finland? According to the latest and most respected surveys, Finland has the most trusted news media in the world. Sixty-nine per cent of Finns trust their news media compared with only 41 per cent in Australia, which ranks 20th among 46 countries. The Finns also have an enviable commitment to press freedom. They are consistently in the top five nations for press freedom (along with the rest of Scandinavia). They passed their first press freedom laws in 1766, making Finland the first country in the world to do so. They have been improving them ever since.
So how do they manage to run a complaints process that delivers some of the most trusted and free news media in the world? First, its media organises it themselves. In 1968, the major news outlets and the journalists’ union established a Council for Mass Media. It is 75 per cent funded by news companies and 25 per cent by the government, but the news industry controls it and the public funding is delivered with no strings attached.
Second, even though it is voluntary, virtually everyone is involved. About 95 per cent of all journalists working in Finland’s news media outlets are members of the council and subject to its complaints processes. This includes newspapers, websites, radio and television stations and the public broadcaster. There is no equivalent of ACMA. None of the decisions made by the council are legally binding, but their rulings are universally respected and followed.
And finally, the public is involved in a meaningful way. Of the council’s 13 members, five represent the public. Those public positions are widely advertised and chosen to ensure a good representation of the community. The remaining eight are mostly senior and respected journalists, who understand the reality of editorial standards.
So it is possible to create a widely respected and effective model of self-regulation that is partly government-funded but rigorously independent. One that results in the most trusted news media in the world, and means every news outlet (whether a newspaper, a website or a broadcaster) is held to the same high standards by the same body, with genuine and effective public involvement.
You could start by building on the existing Press Council and handing it both part of ACMA’s role and part of its funding. After all, the Press Council already has many of the features you need, including members drawn from the public. Broadening its membership would reduce some of the challenges caused by a concentration of funding from one or two major media companies.
Or you could start all over again with the creation of a new body that all news media sign up to. Either way, you would be demonstrating that, when it comes to journalism, nothing matters more than public trust.
What are we waiting for?
This article was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald.
Alan Sunderland is a former Editorial Director of the ABC. He is currently an independent member of the Australian Press Council and executive director of the international Organisation of News Ombudsmen, as well as holding other roles including as a director of ABC Alumni. These views are his own.
*For the Alumni’s view of the ACMA ruling, see ACMA Wrong on Four Corners’ Fox program and chair Jonathan Holmes’ letter to the regulator.