The recommendation by Ray Finkelstein that the Gillard government establish a news media regulatory body is not only the most serious assault yet proposed on press freedom in this country—“a blueprint for enforced media regulation never before seen in Australia,” according to Paul Kelly of the Australian—it would elevate to a position of power the one group of people most jealous of and hostile towards the news media: university academics in media studies and journalism.
Finkelstein proposes a News Media Council chaired by a retired judge or eminent lawyer, with twenty part-time members. He says the council should be both independent from government and seen to be independent. On the critical question of who gets to appoint the chair and the members, without the government of the day stacking it with supporters, he proposes another committee to do the job. This appointments committee should comprise three academics from tertiary institutions appointed by the Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee, the Commonwealth Ombudsman and the Commonwealth Solicitor-General.
This recommendation is a bad joke. It is virtually impossible to find three academics in this field who are genuinely independent. Indeed, it is almost impossible to find three who are not firmly committed to the Left side of politics. For at least the past twenty-five years, appointments committees in media studies at almost all Australian universities have been captured by the Left. Consequently, the academic literature in the field is essentially a political critique designed to show the news media is at fault whenever it fails to support the Left’s own jaundiced view of the world. If academics from this field ever gained the positions Finkelstein envisages, they would ensure his council was composed of people exactly like themselves.
One of the major flaws of Finkelstein’s report is that he bases his case for media regulation on an uncritical acceptance of a number of case studies written by media academics. He should have been more sceptical. Let me offer two other examples here of the shoddy quality of academic research that now passes muster in university media studies. The authors are Robert Manne, Professor of Politics at La Trobe University, and David McKnight, Associate Professor of Journalism at the University of New South Wales. In both cases, their targets for analysis are the News Ltd newspaper the Australian. Both academics were sought out by the Finkelstein inquiry, which wrote to them asking for input. Manne gave verbal evidence at the inquiry’s Melbourne hearings and McKnight made a written submission.
I hope readers will forgive me for focusing on their analysis of newspaper coverage about me, but this is one area where I know all the relevant evidence well. In his recent Quarterly Essay, Bad News, Manne presented the Australian’s coverage of my book The Fabrication of Aboriginal History as his first proof that News Ltd had become a dangerous case of power without responsibility. “Because of the decision taken by the Australian to host the Windschuttle debate the character of the nation was subtly but significantly changed.” McKnight takes a similar line. In his new book Rupert Murdoch: An Investigation of Political Power, McKnight says the Australian initiated the nation’s “culture wars” by launching “a public onslaught” on the story of the “stolen generations” and by its promotion of The Fabrication of Aboriginal History. McKnight says the Australian put my book on the national political agenda “with a sympathetic profile of its author, several news stories and eager support from its conservative columnists and contributors. Unsurprisingly, the Australian was Windschuttle’s outlet of choice for responding to his critics.”
In both these cases, the authors’ content analysis is substandard and deceptive. It is true that in the course of this debate I wrote several articles in the Australian in response to my critics. But here is a list of other publications which also accepted my opinion pieces: the Sydney Morning Herald, Age, Australian Financial Review, Herald Sun, Courier-Mail, Adelaide Advertiser, Hobart Mercury and West Australian. Despite McKnight’s assertion that the Australian carried “a sympathetic profile” about me, I can’t find one fitting that description in my files. However, there were two profiles in the Fairfax press’s Sydney Morning Herald and Age, one by Andrew Stevenson and one by Jane Cadzow.
ABC radio and television also gave me good coverage. Tony Jones on Lateline hosted two separate debates about my work, one with Henry Reynolds, the other with Stuart Macintyre. I went on Phillip Adams’s Late Night Live and was interviewed by Michael Duffy on Counterpoint. To my delight, I also scored the hour-long morning interview on ABC Classic FM where, as well as talking about my work with Jana Wendt, I got to choose and introduce five favourite pieces of classical music. When I debated Henry Reynolds at the National Press Club, the ABC televised the entire proceedings of one hour.
In other words, rather than some right-wing conspiracy by the Australian to engage in a culture war to change the national character, the media coverage of my writings on Aborigines, in which I accused Australian historians of exaggeration, invention and corruption, was a response to a newsworthy story that virtually all major Australian media outlets took seriously. Academics like Manne and McKnight, who use selective quotation and calculated omission in order to spin this into some dark plot to manipulate public opinion, cannot be trusted to tell the truth.
Yet Ray Finkelstein has constructed his proposed media regulation regime on the faith that the academic colleagues of these two authors are honest brokers. Sadly, it is not so. In fact, if it came to a contest between the reliability of media academics and the journalists who produce our daily newspapers and news broadcasts, the latter would win by the length of the straight.
Finkelstein recommends that publishers who distribute more than 3000 copies of print per issue, or news internet sites with a minimum of 15,000 hits per year, would be subject to the dictates of his News Media Council. Quadrant falls well within this range. We currently print 8500 copies of the magazine per edition and in the past twelve months Quadrant Online had no less than 1.4 million page views (with more than 5 million hits) from 613,483 visits by 276,179 unique visitors.
So we come well within Finkelstein’s scope. If his oppressive scheme is ever implemented, we would feel compelled to defend the long tradition of press freedom by engaging in civil disobedience. While ever I am editor, Quadrant would not recognise the News Media Council’s authority, we would not observe its restrictions, and we would not obey its instructions, whatever the price. We hope other publishers will take a similar stand.
The Gillard government is barely legitimate. Indeed, it has one of the flimsiest grips on power of any government since Federation. At the last election it won neither a majority of votes nor a majority of seats. It was only able to form government by forming a de facto coalition with the ultra-left Greens and because two independents betrayed the conservative majorities in their electorates to switch their allegiance. Gillard sure has a lot of gall. Instead of a modest program befitting her limited popular support, her government has become one of the most, if not the most, constitutionally adventurist in Australian history. At the moment, it has two proposals for constitutional change that it wants to put to referendum.
One has had a lot of publicity, the other very little. The proposal to recognise Aboriginal people claims the Constitution was founded as, and continues to be, a racist document that must be changed. Even though the High Court has found more than once that the Constitution has never been used for any racist purpose and some of its judges have argued it never could be used for such a purpose, the Gillard government’s panel on the issue has declared that if the electorate fails to approve their proposals “the loss would brand Australians to the world as racists, and self-consciously and deliberately so”. If its proponents are unprincipled enough to resort to this kind of blackmail, they deserve to be widely opposed.
The other proposal has received very little public attention. It is to recognise local government as an independent entity, as this country’s “third tier of government”, in order to allow the Commonwealth to make direct grants to it, rather than go through the states. In this edition we have two articles on this subject. One is by the jurist James Spigelman (newly appointed chair of the ABC) who headed the panel that reported to Gillard last December recommending the amendment. In his piece, Spigelman reflects on his proposal and also comments on the constitutional recognition of Aboriginal people.
Our second contribution is by former Tasmanian barrister David Mitchell, who strongly opposes the referendum on local government on the grounds that it contravenes the federalist basis of the Constitution and, ultimately would be used by politicians—especially the Greens, who strongly urged Gillard to go down this track—to undermine the authority and budgets of state governments.
It is well known that constitutional referendums can only be passed when endorsed by both major political parties. If these two amendments are brought to parliament, they are likely to attract support from at least some members of the Coalition. Although similar proposals in the past have been thoroughly rejected by the electorate, the possibility of bipartisan support means there remains some risk that one or both could get up. Both deserve more discussion than they have had so far, and it is in this spirit that we offer our two articles in this edition. I hope future editions will offer more contributions on both topics.