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Why Oh Why a Media Inquiry?

As you may well be aware, the Independent Inquiry into Media and Media Regulation chaired by Ray Finkelstein QC and supported by Doctor Matthew Ricketson begins hearings tomorrow in Melbourne. The inquiry will chiefly look into the issue of ownership and privacy, in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal in the United Kingdom. However, there is also the scope for the inquiry to look into the issue of content, particularly as it applies in relation to the regulations of the Australian Press Council. The question becomes: Is all this inquiry necessary in Australia?Approximately 70% of the Australian print media is said to be controlled by one media outlet, News Limited, owned by Rupert Murdoch, for some raising the question: Should there be more balanced ownership of the media in Australia?

The answer to this question is quite simple and lies embedded in the ideology of choice. In other words, any company, large or small are welcome to seek capital and enter the newspaper market. There are no stumbling blocks to entry in the market for print media, nor should there be. Any individual or company should and must have the opportunity and choice in a free society to print a newspaper.

In response to this fact about ownership percentage, a quota must not and should never be the answer. Freedom of speech and opinion and free market ideology should prevail when it comes to the ‘Fourth Estate’. A quota would mean an artificial cut-back in already existing business for existing outlets. The market should have the ability to decide what share any individual outlet has. A quota would in some way stifle the individual’s right to what he or she produces and/or reads.

There is also in Australia a contest between what should be labelled ‘news’ and ‘opinion’ from all media outlets, print and otherwise. It would be ideal if ‘news’ and ‘opinion’ were made more distinct in any individual newspaper. This is perhaps the only area of media in which stronger regulation is required, as long as it does not put the media on the ‘slippery slope’ where newspapers do not feel able have an opinion of their own. Surely there is nothing wrong with different op-ed’s in a free press stating a clearly distinguished from fact and opinion?

The next thing to say is that newspapers follow public opinion in regards to the opinions they express in their writing. Media outlets like all businesses are appealing to a specific market which has been pre-identified. It really is that simple, if there was not a market for a certain angle in opinion pieces then respective leadership levels would not exist.

The media inquiry will begin in earnest tomorrow with public hearings commencing in Melbourne and it will be interesting to see as the inquiry begins to progress and then goes beyond recommendations, just how much the media landscape will evolve. At the moment it looks as if we may be headed towards broader and greater regulation of our reporting institutions. The answer to my initial question is self-evident, much of what I argue can be achieved without the need for a media inquiry as it requires little or no government action, but the blinkers are on.

The Report on Bolt and Its Implications

Yesterday, as you should be aware, Andrew Bolt of the Herald Sun was found guilty of racially vilifying a group of indigenous Australians in the newspaper. The articles argued that the complainants used their aboriginality to gain employment. The case has been controversial not just for what was said, but also the potential implications of the guilty verdict, for the media and perhaps even for the broader public.

First of all I would like to say that I do not agree with what Andrew Bolt said in the article in relation to the identified group. I think it was incredibly stupid and perhaps misinformed at best. There is a perfectly good reason for what is called ‘positive discrimination’ at times in society, particularly when such striking disadvantage exists between indigenous Australia and the rest of the population. At the same time I do believe that merit is the most important feature in employment and as long as educational opportunities exist for all, then a culture largely based on merit should prevail.

Second, I must point out that freedom of speech is not a right enshrined into our Constitution or our laws. It is however, implied through our common law, but this perhaps is not strong enough in the face of the court result yesterday.

It is quite ironic, that a Bill of Rights, which Andrew Bolt spoke against, could have possibly saved him from losing this case. A Bill of Rights would do no more than provide for the most basic and fundamental of human rights, including freedom of speech to be enshrined in law more forcefully. Yes it could be changed by an Act of Parliament and if put to Constitutional referendum would likely result in failure.

I cast no aspersions on the court for the decision that was made. It was obviously made with due regard to existing legislation and common law. What the decision, in my opinion does is to make it harder for people to voice an opinion on racial based issues, in print, on the airwaves and online. Furthermore, I am concerned as to the implications it has for private citizens, if any (I am not a lawyer).

Whether or not you agree with what Andrew Bolt said, if you believe in free speech you should accept his ability to voice an opinion that is not hateful. A Bill of Rights should now be discussed more openly and as a matter of priority, not to usurp anyone, but to guarantee the fundamental human rights of all. Allow opinions to be be aired and leave it to bodies such as ACMA and the Press Council to decide whether or not it is based on fact or not. As Voltaire said ‘I do not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it’. I hold this to be true insofar as the speech involved is not hateful, inflammatory or discriminatory.

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