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Biased critics can't regulate

THE recommendation by Ray Finkelstein that the Gillard government establish a news media regulatory body is not only the most serious assault yet proposed on press freedom in this country.

It would elevate to a position of power the one group of people most jealous of and hostile towards the news media: academics in media studies and journalism.

Finkelstein proposes a News Media Council chaired by a retired judge or eminent lawyer, with 20 part-time members. He says the council should both be, and be seen to be independent from government. On the critical question of who gets to appoint the chair and the members, without the government of the day stacking it with supporters, he proposes a committee of three academics appointed by the Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee, the Commonwealth Ombudsman and the Commonwealth Solicitor-General.

This recommendation is a bad joke. It is virtually impossible to find three academics who are not firmly committed to the Left. For the past 25 years, appointments in media studies at almost all Australian universities have been captured by the Left. Consequently, the academic literature is essentially a political critique designed to show the news media is at fault whenever it fails to support the Left's own jaundiced view of the world. If academics from this field ever gained the positions Finkelstein envisages, they would ensure his council was composed of people exactly like themselves.

One of the major flaws of Finkelstein's report is that he bases his case for media regulation on an uncritical acceptance of a number of case studies written by media academics. He should have been more sceptical. Let me offer two examples which I believe show the shoddy quality of academic research that now passes muster in university media studies. The authors are Robert Manne, professor of politics at La Trobe University, and David McKnight, associate professor of journalism at the University of NSW. In both cases, their targets for analysis are the The Australian. Both academics were sought out by the Finkelstein inquiry, which wrote to them asking for input. Manne gave oral evidence at the inquiry's Melbourne hearings and McKnight made a written submission.

In his recent Quarterly Essay, Bad News, Manne presented The Australian's coverage of my book The Fabrication of Aboriginal History as his first proof that News Limited had become a dangerous case of power without responsibility. "Because of the decision taken by The Australian to host the Windschuttle debate, the character of the nation was subtly but significantly changed." McKnight takes a similar line. In his new book Rupert Murdoch: An Investigation of Political Power, McKnight says The Australian initiated the nation's "culture wars" by launching "a public onslaught" on the story of the "Stolen Generations" and by its promotion of The Fabrication of Aboriginal History. McKnight says The Australian put my book on the national political agenda "with a sympathetic profile of its author, several news stories and eager support from its conservative columnists and contributors. Unsurprisingly, The Australian was Windschuttle's outlet of choice for responding to his critics."

In both these cases, the authors' content analysis is substandard and deceptive. It is true that in the course of this debate I wrote several articles in The Australian in response to my critics. But here is a list of other publications which also accepted my opinion pieces: The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, The Australian Financial Review, Herald Sun, Courier-Mail, Adelaide Advertiser, Hobart's The Mercury and West Australian. Despite McKnight's assertion that The Australian carried "a sympathetic profile" about me, I can't find one fitting that description in my files. However, there were two profiles in Fairfax's SMH and The Age, one by Andrew Stevenson and one by Jane Cadzow.

ABC radio and television also gave me good coverage. Tony Jones on Lateline hosted two separate debates about my work, one with Henry Reynolds, the other with Stuart Macintyre. I went on Phillip Adams's Late Night Live and was interviewed by Michael Duffy on Counterpoint. To my delight, I also scored the hour-long morning interview on ABC Classic FM where, as well as talking about my work with Jana Wendt, I got to choose and introduce five favourite pieces of classical music. When I debated Henry Reynolds at the National Press Club, the ABC televised the entire proceedings of one hour.

In other words, rather than some right-wing conspiracy by The Australian to engage in a culture war to change the national character, the media coverage of my writings on Aborigines, in which I accused Australian historians of exaggeration, invention and corruption, was a response to a newsworthy story that virtually all major Australian media outlets took seriously. Academics such as Manne and McKnight, who use selective quotation and calculated omission in order to spin this into some dark plot to manipulate public opinion, cannot be trusted to tell the truth.

Yet Finkelstein has constructed his proposed media regulation regime on the faith that the academic colleagues of these two authors are honest brokers. Sadly, it is not so. In fact, if it came to a contest between the reliability of media academics and the journalists who produce our newspapers and news broadcasts, the latter would win by the length of the straight.

Finkelstein recommends that publishers who distribute more than 3000 copies of print per issue, or news internet sites with a minimum of 15,000 hits per year, would be subject to the dictates of his News Media Council. Quadrant falls well within this range.

If Finkelstein's oppressive scheme is implemented, we would feel compelled to defend the long tradition of press freedom by engaging in civil disobedience. While I am editor, Quadrant would not recognise the News Media Council's authority, observe its restrictions, or obey its instructions, whatever the price. We hope other publishers take a similar stand. This is an edited extract of an editorial that appeared in the April issue of Quadrant.

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