Sunday, March 11, 2012

Finkelstein: Murdoch’s new best friend?

Jessica Brown

The Finkelstein Report into media regulation, released last Friday, has been greeted by free-speech defenders and journalists with uniform condemnation. So it seems rather redundant for the CIS to add to the chorus.

But one aspect of the Finkelstein recommendations caught my eye, and indeed, my mirth. Chapter 12 of the report, which speculates on the future of the media industry, makes for interesting reading.

News proprietors are struggling to adapt their business models to the new online world. Traditional newspapers are going the way of the dodo.

While this doesn’t warrant government intervention now, Finkelstein says, it might in the future. He wants the Productivity Commission to investigate whether there is a case for subsidizing news. Under Finkelstein’s model, media outlets could claim a subsidy for their payroll costs if they hire reporters to produce ‘investigative and public service journalism.’

So let’s get this straight. Barriers to entry for media are lower than ever. Anyone with an internet connection can start a blog. We have access to more news than at any time in the past.

Of course the rational thing to do is compensate the poor-dear media barons who haven’t figured out how to adapt.

Based on this kind of logic, we should compensate makers of six-cylinder gas guzzling sedans who conveniently ignored their customers changing preferences too. Oh, wait...

It’s ironic that in a week dominated by a government versus rent-seeker showdown (Wayne and Twiggy, I’m looking at you) we should be pondering the need to create a whole new line of subsidies for another crop of woebegone billionaires.

Gina Rinehart, Swan’s target numero uno, must be thanking her lucky stars she got in on Fairfax just in time for the largesse to start flowing.

Expect media stocks to skyrocket. If investors get so much as a whiff of potential government subsidy, they will surely be banging down every door in Canberra.

To be fair, Finkelstein acknowledges that the majority of news proprietors rejected the need for a subsidy in their submissions. But if he is determined to give one to them anyway, can you imagine any will be public spirited enough to say no?

Most incredible will be the sight of Communications Minister Stephen Conroy, self-styled tabloid slayer and defender of truth, handing a cheque over to his billionaire nemesis Rupert Murdoch.

Finkelstein is right to say that traditional media must find a way to survive in this new environment. This must happen through innovation, not bail-outs.

The above is a press release from the Centre for Independent Studies, dated 9 March. Enquiries to Snail mail: PO Box 92, St Leonards, NSW, Australia 1590.

Finkelstein report: Media's great divide

ONLY hours after the Finkelstein media inquiry report was released last week, lecturers from four of Australia's top journalism schools delivered their instant judgment on the academic website The Conversation.

Each of the four -- Brian McNair from the Queensland University of Technology, Johan Lidberg from Monash University, Alexandra Wake from RMIT University and Andrea Carson from the University of Melbourne -- enthusiastically embraced Ray Finkelstein's central recommendation for a new government-funded regulatory body to sit in judgment of news reporting.

They variously described the proposed News Media Council, a body that would have the legally enforceable power to adjudicate on journalistic fairness and make the media answerable to the courts, as a "brave", "effective" and "good" new idea that "really needs to be done".

Inside the country's newspaper offices there was a polar opposite reaction.

Publishers Fairfax Media, News Limited (publisher of The Weekend Australian), APN News and Media and West Australian Newspapers came out in fierce opposition to the proposed NMC, warning it would pose a threat to press freedom and free speech.

The contrasting view on Finkelstein's findings between the teachers of tomorrow's journalists and today's working journalists could not have been more pronounced.

It highlights a widening rift in Australia between those who practise journalism and those who teach it.

It is a rift being fuelled by politics, ideology and a growing disdain among some journalism academics for the mass media.

The issue is not merely, so to speak, academic. It appears that media academics played a central role in driving the findings of the Finkelstein report. What's more, if many of today's journalism teachers are supporting moves to legally regulate the Australian media to deal with the way it covers the news, then these views will be imbued in their students, the journalists of tomorrow. It invites a generational clash within the media industry about the limits that should be placed on press freedom in Australia.

John Henningham, a former newspaper and broadcast journalist who founded Brisbane's Jschool of journalism, says a growing number of Australia's media academics appear to be turning against the industry they once sought to nurture.

He says this partially reflects a political drift within journalism schools from "Centre Right to Centre Left" during the past decade, leading to more strident criticism of "big media" and in particular the country's largest media player, News Limited. This criticism has intensified in the wake of Britain's phone hacking and bribery scandals.

"I am certain that if this proposal (for a statutory regulation of the media) had been made a generation ago, the journalistic educators at universities would have manned the barricades to defend the freedom of the press," Henningham tells Inquirer. "They would have been deeply suspicious of any hint of government intervention in the press. But a generation ago, there were far more journalists teaching journalism and these people were steeped in the values of that industry. Now the field of journalism studies has become much more academic and teachers are more distant from the concerns of working journalists."

Chris Mitchell, editor-in-chief of The Australian, believes the problem is both cultural and political. "The media studies academic class is far removed from the concerns of viewers and readers and is engaged in a sociological project to change the world in its image. That is, to infect people with progressive left ideology," he says.

"Journalists are interested in reporting what is actually happening. It is hilarious so many media academics who fought John Howard on the grounds he was 'stifling dissent' are now at the forefront of shutting down free speech. They only support free speech they agree with.

"Like many on the Left they love scrutiny of conservative governments but completely reject scrutiny of the Greens and the Green-Labor coalition."

The Finkelstein inquiry has given media academics a rare opportunity to air their grievances in public.

In submissions and testimony, many of the 49 academics invited by Finkelstein to give their views were deeply critical of the state of the media industry.

It was, some said, too concentrated in ownership, biased, vindictive, sloppy and at times unethical in its coverage of people and events. Although all conceded there was no evidence in Australia of the law-breaking, cowboy antics seen in British journalism, the clear tone of the evidence provided to the inquiry by journalism academics was that the Australian media needed to be kept on a tighter leash.

Many sought to redefine the traditional notion of press freedom, saying it should be watered down because large media players in Australia could not be trusted to exercise it responsibly.

"The attacks on News Limited seem to be driven by a deep anxiety about corporations which borders on paranoia," says Nick Cater, editor of The Weekend Australian. "It seems to me these stories gain currency in academia, however, because they support the prevailing narrative: that corporations are malevolent institutions that present a biggerthreat to liberty than governments."

Wendy Bacon [The Bacons are an old Communist family], who heads the journalism school at the University of Technology, Sydney, told the inquiry: "Concentration of media power is itself a threat to free speech, particularly when that power is closely aligned to other economic and political interests. Free speech is not a unified idea around which all should mobilise in defence of the status quo and existing media companies."

There seems little doubt that the overwhelmingly negative views media academics have about the media industry played a central role in Finkelstein's call for its formal regulation.

The inquiry's final report was written with the direct assistance of journalism academics, led by Matthew Ricketson from the University of Canberra as well as Rodney Tiffen from the University of Sydney and Dennis Muller from Melbourne University.

Michael Gawenda, a former editor-in-chief of The Age and until recently head of the Centre for Advanced Journalism at Melbourne University, says the report reads like a media thesis, full of elitist theory but out of touch with mainstream Australia. "It is the voice of someone who does not watch Today Tonight and who does not read the Herald Sun."

Says Mitchell: "Interestingly, the Finkelstein report did not really get its critical anecdotes on alleged problems in political reporting right, as (Media Watch host) Jonathan Holmes pointed out on The Drum during the week. Most senior working journalists know (academics) Margaret Simons, Wendy Bacon and others have been factually wrong on many of these issues. The media studies class is so infected with postmodernism, facts no longer matter to it.

"I urge readers to Google the political backgrounds of the academics in the Finkelstein report. It will be an eye-opener for many readers and for many young journalists."

Sources have told Inquirer the key authors of the report, including Finkelstein, were predisposed against the idea of a formal regulator until they were persuaded otherwise by the critical testimony given to the inquiry, much of which was provided by media academics.

Tiffen says the findings of the report have been gravely misrepresented by the mainstream media, which has an obvious self-interest in the outcome.

He denies the proposed statutory body, which can force newspapers to print corrections if it judges they have been unfair, will erode press freedom. He therefore disputes any suggestion that media academics are seeking to water down such freedoms.

"The findings have been misrepresented," he says. "It does not restrict freedom of speech, it keeps all existing standards and codes; the only way it does (affect freedom of speech) is that media companies have to print something (mandatory corrections) through gritted teeth that they otherwise don't want to print. But this enlarges the amount of information and exchange rather than restricts it."

Media academics do not speak with one voice and there are many who oppose Finkelstein's call for formal regulation of the industry.

One of these is Monash University's Bill Birnbauer, who until three years ago was a practising award-winning journalist of 30 years' standing.

"I don't agree with (those who support calls for a media regulator) and I am surprised by their views," he says. "I spent six years on the news desk at The Age and for some years my job was to write "We Were Wrong" for the paper.

"I had to assess whether people's complaints about the coverage and whether the journalism was accurate or otherwise. In doing that I found a lot of shades of grey. I found that people were motivated by all sorts of agendas.

"The notion of a panel of lawyers and academics, as suggested by the Finkelstein report, undertaking the same process without being imbued with the journalistic free speech culture worries me immensely."

The study of journalism is one of the most popular and fastest growing academic disciplines in Australia, sprouting from only a handful of courses a decade ago to more than 27 across the country today. Such is the popularity of the courses that the scores needed to obtain entry can sometimes rival those required to get into blue-chip courses such as law.

Yet Australia's tertiary institutions are perpetrating a fundamental fraud on their students by accepting larger numbers of them into journalism courses when the industry is shrinking. At best, one in 10 journalism students will find employment in the mainstream media.

What's more, few journalism teachers have recent experience in the profession. Some are career academics who have never spent time in a working newsroom. These non-journalists have little understanding of, or sympathy for, the daily chaos that unfolds as reporters and editors race against the clock to try to cobble together coherent and accurate stories.

The result is that many of today's journalism courses lean more heavily than they once did on media theory, including critical assessment of the media's role in society, than they do on the nuts and bolts of reporting, such as how to gather information, structure stories and break news. The discipline appears divided about whether its role is to act as a watchdog on the industry or to train new journalists.

Gawenda says there is an inherent friction within journalism schools between former journalists and academics.

"There is this tension between former journalists who are involved in teaching journalism and media academics who were never journalists and who have been critics of journalism," he says.

Peter Fray, editor-in-chief of The Sydney Morning Herald, says there is an understandable divide between media academe and the industry. "Academics are paid to think and critique, to delve deep and bring their own and different tools to a legitimate field of study, the media," he says.

"I have met many, many academics who are -- or have been -- skilled practitioners of the craft of journalism. Many academics have a true passion for what we do: they don't want to sit on the sidelines and throw rocks; they have valid contributions to make.

"I have also met some academics who have little or no interest in the practical aspects of journalism and, yes, can see the industry as some sort of specimen under a bell jar. There is room for both academic extremes, and many variances between."

There are relatively few senior journalists teaching journalism in Australia because many of the best journalists do not have the higher degrees required to win senior jobs at universities and then progress through the academic system.

By contrast in the US, where higher degree restrictions do not apply, many journalism courses are run by high-profile journalists.

Jschool's Henningham says when the Journalism Education Association of Australia was formed in the mid-1970s, it was unheard of for a journalism lecturer not to have been a journalist.

"Now there is a real stress on qualifications and higher degrees," he says, "so people who have built up a reputation in journalism have to go into a corner and do a PhD for three years, while other non-journalists leap-frog over them."

Inquirer understands when Melbourne University was searching for a new head for its Centre for Advanced Journalism recently, it was recommended the name of one of the country's most senior and best-credentialled journalists and editors. But that candidate did not have a PhD. Instead, it chose a less-credentialled journalist turned academic in Margaret Simons, whose public profile relies largely on a strident disdain for News Limited. As such, this fledgling journalism college of only three years' standing now labours under the perception that its work will be tainted by the overt bias of its director against the country's largest media company.

These sorts of decisions have the effect of further distancing the industry from the discipline of journalism studies. The industry has a preference for journalism schools to focus on the practical rather than the theoretical.

"My view is that theory can be useful, it offers would-be journalists a different set of tools, a different way to think, but it is no substitute for hands-on experience," the SMH's Fray says. "A few semesters of semiotics is probably not a good or useful prep for police rounds. I have yet to meet a cop who was overly impressed by my knowledge of Noam Chomsky."

Many editors still prefer to look outside journalism schools for their recruits, placing more emphasis on life experience and personality than on qualifications.

Jschool founder Henningham says he does not want tomorrow's generation of journalists to have a jaundiced view about the media industry and their chosen career.

"Too often journalism graduates come out thinking only negative things about the media, its faults and flaws," he says, "without equal emphasis on the heroism of journalism: those who go to their deaths or to jail in defence of journalism."

When Henningham spoke with his new students at orientation day this year, he discussed the courage of Marie Colvin, the Sunday Times journalist who was killed last month while trying to tell the world what was really happening inside the besieged Syrian city of Homs.

"We didn't talk about News of the World, we talked about Marie Colvin," he says. "We need to get journalism students to see the positive side of society and be proud of the role which journalists play in our democracy."


School's in for more four-year-olds, but experts argue that's too young

It should depend on the kid's mental age, not his chronological age

WHEN Eleni Savva had to decide if she would enrol her son in school as a four-year-old, she worried he might struggle. Alexander started prep at Keilor Primary School this year and is smaller than many of his classmates.

But Ms Savva felt Alexander was ready to start school, based on the advice of his kindergarten teachers. By late last year she could see he had developed the independence and social skills that would help him get by in the classroom. "Alexander is a very confident, assertive boy," she said. "He feels confident enough to stand up for himself."

Alexander turns five this month and belongs to a mini-boom of children who have reached school age, according to The Saturday Age Lateral Economics index of wellbeing. It means more parents are facing tough decisions about whether their children are ready to start school. Keilor Primary School enrolled 81 children in prep this year, compared with 65 last year.

Alexander started school a year after his sister Katerina who is seven. Ms Savva and her husband Nick decided their daughter should do a third year of kindergarten so she could better prepare "socially and emotionally" for school.

"From what I could see in her development, she needed at least another eight months of pre-school before she was ready for school." Keilor Primary School principal Sue Seneviratne said kindergarten teachers were best placed to judge when a child was ready to start school. "If the kindergarten is saying they're ready, rarely do they get that wrong," she said. Children should be independent and resilient when they begin prep.

Monash University senior education lecturer David Zyngier said Australian children are too young when they start school. He said seven was a better starting age. "Children are just not ready for regimented schooling. They should be playing and socialising," he said.

Children in countries such as Finland start school at seven and achieve better results, he said. "But they have free, available and professionally staffed childcare."

Ms Savva said starting children in school when they are older would help them become better students in later years. "Our system in Australia doesn't really allow for that, but I think it's a great idea," she said.


Criminal record no problem to Queensland Health

QUEENSLAND Health has hired hundreds of people with criminal convictions, including fraud, armed robbery, assault, rape and murder, in the past five years.

The beleaguered agency grapples with being fleeced of millions of dollars every year through staff scams - the worst of which was the theft of $11 million in one go by convicted fraudster and fake Tahitian prince Joel Morehu-Barlow.

The department has previously pleaded ignorance of Mr Barlow's criminal past because his crimes occurred in New Zealand, an admission that prompted Premier Anna Bligh to announce criminal checks between the two countries in future.

Documents obtained by The Courier-Mail under Right to Information laws show hundreds of people with convictions, mostly for fraud or other serious crimes, had been given jobs in Queensland Health since criminal checks first started in 2006.

They also show staff have been investigated for abusing and supplying drugs, sexual assaults and violence against patients.

Allegations included a punch to a patient's mouth, a patient's face smashed into the ground and another bashed in a shower.

Staff have also been investigated for stealing money and patients' belongings including a gold watch and two diamond rings, and for stealing cab vouchers and medical supplies, such as pregnancy tests and contraceptives.

The Courier-Mail revealed yesterday there were potentially 6000 cases of fraud alone, 141 of drug allegations, most of which related to theft, and $9.4 million owing in false hardship claims.

Queensland Health notoriously also employed the state's most wanted man, convicted killer Luke Andrew Hunter, who had escaped prison and was on the run for 15 years, at Herberton Hospital in the far north.

Premier Anna Bligh yesterday washed her hands of ongoing failures by the department, saying it was "frankly dysfunctional" and blamed former auditor-general Len Scanlan, who is now calculating the costing of LNP leader Campbell Newman's election promises.

"The report that recommended some of these controls is a report that in my view should have been considered and should have been dealt with by the audit committee," she said.

The Courier-Mail also revealed yesterday that a draft Ernst & Young report showed the department was warned more than five months before the "Tahitian prince" debacle that it was open to systemic fraud of the highest level.

Deputy Opposition Leader Tim Nicholls said Ms Bligh's attack on Mr Scanlan was an act of desperation and it was the minister, not Mr Scanlan who failed to act.


George Negus loses $25,000 Telstra hosting gig after The Circle furore

THE fallout from the furore surrounding Channel 10's program The Circle continues with Telstra dumping George Negus from a plum corporate hosting gig.

The veteran reporter was booked to compere a private Telstra conference for senior management in Melbourne but has been informed his services, believed to be worth around $25,000, are no longer needed.

The move by Telstra to drop Negus from the lucrative hosting role follows intense public outcry sparked when he and Circle host Yumi Stynes mocked Australian Victoria Cross recipient Corporal Ben Roberts-Smith.

The conference, on March 26 and 27, will bring together local and international guests, including former Prime Minister Paul Keating.

Telstra spokesman James Howe said given the company's range of community activities, it did not believe it was appropriate for Negus to host the event.

"Based on our strong links to Legacy and our work with troops overseas, Telstra believes it would not be appropriate in light of recent comments to have George Negus MC our event," Mr Howe said.

Negus, who is in China, was unavailable for comment.

Negus and Stynes sparked a ferocious social media-led backlash after they made inappropriate comments on live television about footage of a shirtless Corporal Roberts-Smith in a swimming pool.

A string of sponsors including Swisse Vitamins, BIG4 Holiday Parks and coffee chain Jamaica Blue have since pulled their advertising from The Circle.


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