Friday, June 22, 2012

Should the media be 'fair and balanced' or 'free and transparent'?

Wayne Swan appeared to be speaking like a statesman when he recently said:
‘Nothing could be more important to the quality of our political debate and our national conversation than having fair and balanced reporting.
And to have fair and balanced reporting you do need a degree of independence at the editorial level to make sure that it is not unduly influenced by commercial considerations.’

Swan was discussing whether Gina Rinehart, now a substantial shareholder of Fairfax, should be required to sign a charter of editorial independence as a condition for representation on the Fairfax board of directors. He was fuelling concerns that Rinehart might seek to trash the reputation of the big city dailies – perhaps the Sydney Moaning Herald could become the Sydney Mining Herald – or to close down these loss-making ventures. It seems more reasonable to speculate that Rinehart’s objective is simply to profit directly from her media investment while, at the same time, redressing what she would perceive as editorial bias. 

However, the question that needs to be considered is whether there is some kind of public policy issue involved here, as Swan seems to imply. Alternatively, should politicians view this as a matter for resolution between Rinehart and representatives of other shareholders, taking into account the possible impact of their actions on the reputation of their papers and the views of the journalists’ collectives only to the extent that they consider such matters are relevant?

I think John Roskam, executive director of the IPA, clarified the issues masterfully in the Financial Review (the best masthead owned by Fairfax) this morning:
‘Swan is wrong. Dead wrong. There is something more important than fair and balanced reporting – and that’s free reporting. Let’s be absolutely clear.
Swan’s “fair and balanced” reporting has never existed, doesn’t exist and never will exist. Fairness is entirely in the eye of the beholder. It’s a travesty of the historical record to claim that democracy needs a fair and balanced media’.

A free media involves freedom of ownership, freedom of owners to run their business, freedom of conscience for editors and journalists, and freedom of speech. Everyone should have the freedom to buy and sell shares in media outlets as they wish. The owners of media should have the freedom to dictate editorial policy (or to leave editorial policy to the editors they appoint) irrespective of the wealth of the wealth of the owners or the interests that they represent. Editors and journalists should have the freedom to seek employment with media owners whose views are compatible with their own, or to set up their own media outlets. Owners of different publications should have the freedom to criticize the outputs of other publications.

It is remarkable that some of these freedoms are already restricted in Australia and others are being threatened by the current government.

If there ever was a case that particular media outlets have market power that enables them to exert undue influence on public opinion it has surely evaporated with the internet now providing access to multiple sources of information and opinion. In particular, the influence of media moguls with particular industry or political interests is moderated by the scrutiny of other media players looking for evidence that editorial opinion could be biased. In my view that is a much healthier situation than exists with respect to publicly owned media such as the ABC, where ruling class groupthink thrives despite obvious efforts to promote the appearance of fairness and balance. Media freedom promotes transparency; media regulation promotes opacity.

I wonder whether Wayne Swan would be expressing a similar opinion about the importance of editorial independence for the quality of political debate if the AWU, or some other trade union, attempted to take a controlling interest in Fairfax or some other media company. 

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