Why Finkelstein is not Judge Dredd

Leaving aside the more absurd aspects of the Finkelstein report, it doesn’t seem an outrageous idea that complaints about media mistreatment should be taken seriously and redressed.

The Australian media will now crank their huffing and puffing machinery into gear to resist the imposition of Dread Regulation, but they probably won’t discuss the real reason for the dread.

In their report issued on Friday, Justice Finkelstein and his colleague Matthew Ricketson's key recommendation is that a government-funded statutory complaints handling body be established, called the News Media Council.

The reason publishers’ and editors’ stomachs would have lurched at the thought of this is that all the nutters might have to be taken seriously. At the moment crackpot complaints may be summarily binned (along with a few that look like they might be uncomfortably justified).

Anyone with experience of the ABC’s terrifying complaints process knows that having to take them all seriously is a fate worse than death, like being caught in bureaucratic spin cycle.

On the other hand, outsourcing the whole thing to a taxpayer-funded body, so that all the emails and shakily written letters of complaint could simply be forwarded somewhere else for processing, could be seen as a cost-saving boon (as long as not too many of them came back of course).

Here is the crucial paragraph in Justice Finkelstein’s report: "There should be a filtering process carried out by a senior officer of the News Media Council. The process is to determine whether or not a complaint is frivolous or vexatious. If it is, it need not be pursued. It may be appropriate to allow for an appeal to the chair by a complainant whose complaint is not to be pursued.” "A senior officer”? Yeah right – and the rest.

It won’t happen. Officials from the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, along with someone seconded from Treasury, would quickly discover that a vast army of sifters would be needed to sort the "frivolous and vexatious” from the genuinely wronged.

But look, if the government wants to take it on, good luck to them I say. If sorting through complaints is 'regulation', then count me in.

What is causing media industry knees to jerk and mouths to froth, of course, is the proposition that unlike the Australian Press Council, the News Media Council have statutory powers – that is, it can apply to the courts to enforce its ruling that a correction, apology or right of reply should be published and failure to comply would be contempt of court. At the moment the system is optional.

I’m just trying to picture learned counsel arguing before the High Court that, say, The Australian should publish a correction at the bottom of page 2, and I confess that I’m having trouble with the idea.

But leaving aside ad absurdum extensions of Finkelstein’s recommendation, it doesn’t seem to me to be an outrageous idea that complaints about mistreatment by the media should be taken seriously and redressed. Lies ARE deliberately published, and while it’s true that defamation laws exist to protect the wronged, that’s often too heavy-handed and expensive. Far better to just enforce a correction and apology published and move on.

Also, decent publishers and editors would have nothing to fear: they already happily publish corrections and apologies.

The worst thing about the Finkelstein Report is the proposed threshold for roping in news websites – 15,000 'hits' per annum.

This 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; Business Spectator gets that many on a single story, before lunch, hopefully on this piece too. Pass it on.

Follow @AlanKohler on Twitter


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