Regulating the “fourth estate”

If it weren’t for the recent and ongoing “hackgate” scandal in the UK surrounding Rupert Murdoch’s News International, this story would be almost unbelievable:

ONE of Rupert Murdoch’s most senior editors in Australia asked a top federal policeman how many people could be killed if his newspaper published details about an impending anti-terrorism raid in Melbourne, the officer says.

It adds force to my “light touch” regulation proposal in an article a few weeks ago.  It’s a bit hyperbolic to label media the “fourth estate” but the print media especially does play an important accountability role in a liberal democratic society like Australia.  Given that one effect of the Internet and social media has been to place vastly increased pressure on the MSM to attract “eyeballs” by almost any means however extreme and unprincipled, the case for checks and balances on media behaviour is stronger than it once was despite the evident danger of empowering a potentially overbearing State which could censor opinions or facts it dislikes under the pretext of “standards”.

The solution I favour would involve bringing print media under the regulatory oversight of ACMA, but with an “opt-out” option if the industry adopts a more effective self-regulatory code.  Such a code would necessarily require media organisations to give the Press Council self-regulatory “teeth” and perhaps adopt a set of Key Performance Indicators measuring their speed and effectiveness in responding to complaints and implementing Press Council decisions/recommendations.   Part III Division 3 and Part IIIAA of the Privacy Act 1988 (Cth), which allows opting out of the National Privacy Principles by private sector bodies with approved privacy codes, provides a model for such a system.  Section 18BE contains an explicit threat of reversion to formal government regulation if self-regulation fails, a prospect which should wonderfully focus the minds of even the most gung ho Murdoch executives and ensure that the Press Council ceases to be “slow and toothless”.

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