NEWSPAPERS, online publishers and even bloggers could be hit with a government levy to fund the Press Council in future under a reform floated yesterday by the chairman of the media inquiry, Ray Finkelstein.
During the first day of public hearings in Melbourne, the retired Federal Court justice raised the concept of a new industry levy during a lengthy exchange with independent publisher and media entrepreneur Eric Beecher about future industry regulation.
Mr Beecher had told the hearing the Australian media needed ”parents” – firmer regulation to preserve editorial standards when commercial pressure and an atmosphere of fierce competition had contributed to an erosion of public trust in the profession.
‘Clearly self-regulation hasn’t worked as well as it could. It’s like parenting. You need some discipline,” Mr Beecher told the inquiry.
Shortly after that observation, Justice Finkelstein floated the concept of a new industry levy imposed by government to strengthen the Press Council, Australia’s newspaper watchdog. He persisted in arguing the merits of the proposal when Mr Beecher raised several practical objections, such as the cost on small players, and on ”blogs with no revenue”.
”There are ways it could be done,” Justice Finkelstein argued. The levy, he said, could be imposed across the industry on a ”proportionate and equitable basis”.
The Press Council in its submission to the inquiry has made it clear it is seeking additional resources both from the industry and from non-media sources, including governments.
Justice Finkelstein used his opening statement yesterday to make it clear he was setting his own agenda with the inquiry – not the Gillard government. In the first public comment since his appointment, he confessed to ”grappling” with a number of complex issues, rather than trying to impose a pre-determined view. The council’s chairman, Julian Disney, will appear before the inquiry in Melbourne this morning to argue his case, and face questions.
The inquiry also heard from two witnesses yesterday highly critical of News Limited’s coverage. Martin Hirst, associate professor at Deakin University’s school of communication, said he had been ”blown away” by how biased News Limited’s coverage was of the Gillard government.
Academic Robert Manne argued that no single proprietor should be able to own 70 per cent of print circulation. ”It’s not democratically viable,” Professor Manne told the hearing.
Professor Manne, however, was not a champion of heavy-handed regulation for the print media. He warned stricter regulation might seem like a good idea, ”but ideas that look very good can go awry”.
”Freedom of the press is one of the foundation stones of society,” he argued.