Rupert Murdoch’s toxic News of the World legacy has the potential to undermine press freedom in his country of birth — Australia — where the national government is considering recommendations for the regulation of all news content … including low-traffic blogs.

What started with a phone-hacking scandal in the U.K. rolled into a debate about media freedom, regulation and ownership in Australia, as a long history of tensions over News Limited’s (Murdoch’s Australian subsidiary) power and influence erupted into something resembling a mainstream media flame war.

Murdoch’s most influential Australian titles declared war on the minority Labor government and other perceived ideological enemies after the 2010 election. In the following months, the sharp drop in public confidence in professional journalism became so evident, that even some journalism professors declared media self-regulation a failure.

Murdoch domination

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Media ownership concentration undermines media plurality, and it is a major cause of disaffection with Australian journalism. Murdoch owns nearly 70 percent of all print media in Australia, including the only national broadsheet The Australian, and he’s making a move to dominate the pay TV market.

But while Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, backed by the Greens, insisted that News Limited had questions to answer in the aftermath of the U.K. phone-hacking scandal, the government balked at re-examining media ownership laws.

Instead, it hastily established the Independent Media Inquiry to examine ethics and regulation, with an emphasis on print media.

Retired Judge Ray Finkelstein oversaw the inquiry, established in September 2011, with the assistance of journalism professor Matthew Ricketson. (Disclosure: Ricketson is a colleague of mine at the University of Canberra.)

After taking public submissions and hearing from invited participants (mostly senior editors, publishers and academics), the Finkelstein Inquiry (as it became known) reported back to government in February.

Recommended: regulation of all Australian news media

The key recommendation was for the establishment of an “independent” government-funded, cross-platform regulator covering all content defined as news and/or news commentary, to be called the News Media Council (NMC).

The NMC would replace the Australian Press Council (the self-regulatory body for print media) and subsume some functions of the broadcast and online government regulator, Australian Communications Media Authority (ACMA). It would capture traditional news media across all platforms, independent blogs, commentary websites, and foreign online publishers with “more than a tenuous connection to Australia.”

Small-time bloggers caught in regulation net

The threshold for print publications would be 3,000 copies per issue. But websites with a paltry 15,000 “hits” per year (and by hits, they mean total page views, not unique visitors), including social media sites, would fall within the NMC’s jurisdiction.

Aside from the implications for press freedom, there are concerns about the prospect of a statutory body being tasked with assessing complaints against tens of thousands of Twitter feeds, Facebook pages and blogs — a bureaucratic nightmare.

As respected business journalist Alan Kohler wrote, “This (15,000 ‘hits’) is a very silly number and suggests that Finkelstein and Ricketson didn’t do enough work on understanding online publishing. Even a tiny news blog would get that many page views in a week, or even a day.”

Journalism wars

Finkelstein’s recommendation for a News Media Council had an immediately polarizing impact, with much of the mainstream media coverage rich in hyperbole and insults directed at the report’s authors and supporters.

In fact, in the wake of the report, Murdoch’s flagship newspaper, The Australian, appeared to declare a culture war on the journalism academy in response to the public championing of the Finkelstein recommendations by several journalism academics.

Rather than facilitating much-needed intelligent national debate on media standards and ethics, the effect of this coverage was the re-entrenchment of divides between journalists and audiences, and an anti-intellectual backlash against journalism professors and communications scholars.

In The Australian, the report’s findings were compared with media regulation in Nazi Germany and North Korea, something Ricketson found repugnant:

“The problem was not media regulation, the problem was Hitler’s criminality,” he wrote, going on to declare media self-regulation a failure in Australia.

The problem with Ricketson’s argument, however, is that it depends on unassailable confidence that Australia will never become beholden to a criminal government, nor a despotic leader.

Jailing journos

The proposed News Media Council would be composed of 50 percent civil society representatives and 50 percent industry/academic representation. It would have the power to frame and compel apologies, corrections, right of reply and retractions, as well as being able (theoretically) to dictate the placement of apologies within a publication.

There would be no right of appeal against an NMC judgment, unless the case was referred to a higher court for the enforcement of adjudications, which could ultimately result in the jailing of journalists, editors and even small-time bloggers for contempt.

To fully appreciate the potential gravity of the recommendation for the creation of the Council, it’s important to note that Australia is the only Western democracy without a Bill of Rights or constitutionally enshrined rights to freedom of expression and/or media freedom.

Australia’s leading journalism law expert, professor Mark Pearson, has expressed concern about the prospect of the introduction of an NMC as recommended, particularly in the absence of media freedom protections.

“This means politicians and judges can pass laws censoring the media without constitutional challenge, except in the very limited area of political free speech. Any mechanism thus needs to be self-regulatory until there is such a firm backdrop like they have in the U.S., the U.K., Canada and New Zealand,” Pearson said.

Convergence and regulation

The Finkelstein inquiry was conducted in parallel with the less hastily convened and better-resourced Convergence Review, also commissioned by the Australian government, which delivered its recommendations after the Finkelstein report was released.

The Convergence Review rejected Finkelstein and Ricketson’s recommendation for government-funded, statutory regulation of all media via a News Media Council. Instead, it called for increased support for self-regulation of news media, via an industry-led body requiring compulsory membership, which would oversee journalistic standards in news and commentary across all platforms.

Alongside this body would sit a new cross-platform statutory regulator for large content producers. As a result, the licensing of broadcasters would be scrapped. And news and news commentary would be exempt from statutory regulation on all platforms.

These recommendations recognize the anachronistic legal silos that continue to separate Australian print, broadcasting and online media regulation, while acknowledging the mainstreaming of media convergence and cross-platform publication by most content producers.

According to the Convergence Report’s recommendations to government, a content provider/creator which has more than half a million Australian users a month, and $50 million Australian dollars ($52 million) of revenue per year from Australian-sourced professional content, would be subject to regulation. But the news and commentary they produce would be exempt from regulation.

While the main traditional media outfits would be captured under this regime, it could be extended to telecommunications corporations and Internet companies like Google. In a converged media world, it’s not just platforms that are melding, but media company identities that are changing too.

Against this backdrop, the Gillard government is considering a new privacy tort applicable to journalism. Labor politicians who’ve been stung by campaigning News Limited journalists, and salacious media coverage more broadly, turned up the volume on calls for media regulation as the government contemplated its formal response to the dual Convergence and Finkelstein recommendations.

Bad News

It is important to note News Limited’s campaign against the minority Labor government and the Greens as a factor relevant to understanding both the impact of over-concentrated media ownership, and significant support among journalism professors for an NMC, in spite of the threat it poses to media freedom.

The perceived influence of News Limited on Australian election outcomes and policy formulation is well-documented. And the News Limited brand has been increasingly scrutinized and challenged by academics including this one in the past two years.

The company’s apparent penchant for “vendetta journalism,” which is most evident within the pages of The Australian, has also made it a thorn in the side of any grassroots campaign to protect Australian media freedom, especially as The Australian has been accused by some of Australia’s leading academics and public intellectuals of having a damaging effect on Australian democracy.

Falling public trust in Australian professional journalism, magnified by the UK phone-hacking scandal that revealed an ethically corrupt and cover-up prone culture within Murdoch’s News International, is a problem that needs addressing in the interests of democracy. And I am convinced that convergence necessitates a review of traditional media regulation structures. Similarly, I believe news publishers and individual journalists need to be more accountable to audiences through an active commitment to more robust self-regulatory processes, transparent practice, community engagement, and established codes of ethics and professional journalistic conduct.

But even as one who has felt the sting of defamatory, inaccurate, apparently vendetta-driven journalism penned by Murdoch attack dogs, I am not willing to support a recommendation for a government-funded, all-platform Australian News Media Council that might have the power to compel ethical compliance. The risk to media freedom is simply too great. And, should Australia head down the path of a statutory, government-funded News Media Council, the signal that would be sent to despots and media freedom opponents the globe over would be far too high a price to pay for increased media accountability.

But while the upheaval in the Australian news business continues to make headlines, there has been no news from the federal government about the controversial Finkelstein recommendations for a News Media Council, beyond hints of a softening stance towards News Limited. However, as the 2013 national election marches closer, dragging the chain indefinitely on this vexed issue isn’t an option for the Gillard government.

Julie Posetti is an award-winning journalist and journalism academic who lectures in radio and television reporting at the University of Canberra, Australia. She’s been a national political correspondent, a news editor, a TV documentary reporter and presenter on radio and television with the Australian national broadcaster, the ABC. Her academic research centers on journalism and social media, on talk radio, public broadcasting, political reporting and broadcast coverage of Muslims post-9/11. She’s currently writing her PhD dissertion on ‘The Twitterisation of Journalism’ at the University of Wollongong. She blogs at Twitter.

Note: This post is an edited version of an article that will appear in the Rhodes Journalism Review of South Africa this month.

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