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."