What to do about Rupert?
There’s been a lot of discussion about the Finkelstein report on the media, nearly all of which (along with the report itself, from what I can infer, having not read it) misses the point. To start with, it’s clear that the central problem motivating the inquiry in the first place is that most Australian daily newspapers are owned by News Corporation, which routinely prints lies, uses its power to demand, and receive, politically favorable treatment and, at an international level, engages in systemic corruption including fraud, bribery of public officials, blackmail, and much more, not to mention the routine criminality of illegal spying on its targets.
It’s clear that Australia would be better in all sorts of ways if the Murdoch press was less powerful, or for that matter, if it was broken up and replaced by a genuinely competitive newspaper market, with at least some honest papers replacing the existing Murdoch rags. But there are lots of things that would make Australia better than cannot be brought about by government fiat. It would be better if we (well, most of us) didn’t engage in, and enjoy, malicious gossip, but lots of us do, and most of the time there’s no remedy except social disapproval when things get out of hand. Freedom of speech includes (within some very broad limits), freedom to talk irresponsibly and nastily, lie, spread silly rumors and so on.
The real problem not addressed (except in an incoherent way) is the concept that freedom of the press includes something more than the right to print whatever you like (again, subject to limitations like defamation and fraud) and to sell the resulting publication. That freedom should be available to everyone. And, as critics of the Finkelstein report have pointed out, thanks to the Internet it is available to everyone in quite a practical sense. This is quite unlike the conditions of the 20th century, when you needed to own a newspaper, or a chunk of tightly rationed spectrum to have any practical ability to reach a mass audience.
But News Limited and its defenders want something more than this. They want to keep a whole set of special privileges acquired in the special conditions of the 20th century, including press galleries, press clubs, press passes, special protections for officially recognised journalists and their sources and so on. They want to maintain social institutions where refusing to talk to a stranger who calls you asking questions about your business or private affairs carries a presumption that you have something to hide, as long as that stranger is an officially recognised journalist.
All of these privileges are now obsolete, and News Limited has done a lot to make them so. The 20th century privileges carried with them a set of presumptions about how media organizations should work, including a separation between news and opinion, and an even sharper separation between content and the commercial interests of proprietors and advertisers. News Limited has systematically trashed those presumptions, but is still trading on the privileges that went with them.
In the long run, it seems inevitable that we will return to something more like the situation prevailing in the early 19th century (and in many new democracies) where there was no pretense that journalists should be neutral “reporters”, and no general expectation that something printed in a newspaper should be true. In this world, everyone is a publisher, and those who want credibility need to establish it for themselves, rather than by flashing a press pass. There’s plenty of room in this world for an organization like News Limited, at least as long as it stays inside the law. Politicians who don’t like the lies such organizations tell should adopt a standard reply to their questions of the form “I don’t respond to questions from Rupert Murdoch and his employees”, and put up with the attacks these organizations dish out.
fn1. More precisely, these privileges can be dated back to the late 19th century. As CP Snow observed, nearly all ancient British traditions originated in this period.