I happened to look at the front page of The Australian today, something I don’t do very often. Of five front-page stories, one was a brief teaser for a business story about Channel 9. The other four were hit pieces on the Federal government. Even a piece on increasing inequality was presented as an attack on Wayne Swan. One (on asylum seekers) was accompanied by an “opinion” piece by Greg Sheridan, notable for the fact that it was more sober and balance than the “news” story on which Sheridan was commenting.
As I’ve said before, I don’t see this as a problem requiring a regulatory solution, as suggested by the Finkelstein Report. Rather, we simply need to recognise that 20th century assumptions about “the press” have ceased to be applicable. The Australian looks like a 20th century newspaper, just as Fox resembles a 20th century US TV network, but both are far more like political blogs in terms of their content and operating procedures.
An obvious implication is that, while Murdoch should be free to publish whatever he likes, his employees should not be accorded any of the special privileges that were routinely accorded to journalists in the 20th century, such as press passes, access to press conferences, special privileges shielding sources and so on. These should either be made available to everyone, or restricted to media organizations willing to commit to factual reporting, fair treatment of the issues in news stories and so on.
The most important asset of the traditional media is not a formal privilege but the assumption that journalists, unlike you and me, have a right to ask questions of perfect strangers on matters of all kinds, and to expect an answer. In a context where the answer is bound to be used dishonestly, this makes no sense.
If I were advising the government at this point, I would suggest a routine policy of “no comment” in response to any question from an employee of News Limited. Obama tried this with Fox News early on, but other news organizations threatened to boycott his press conferences in solidarity and he backed down. That was, I think, a mistake.