Ukraine Readers On The Public Interest

February 27, 2014

By MARCUS BREEN, Professor of Communication and Media, editor of the International Journal of Technology Knowledge and Society, and member of the Institute for Law, Government and Policy.

This week has been momentous for the Ukraine. In Europe – or at its doorstep – live ammunition has been used against protesters, killing perhaps hundreds.And this week, more people than ever in Ukraine read my blog. It was the blog about public broadcasting and the public interest. It is 16 people so far, a tiny number. However the “surge” in readership suggests an interest in the relationship between the state and public broadcasters, between private interests and government.This is the political economy of media.

There are differing sets of questions and concerns:

  • how government media institutions respond to vested interests;
  • how public broadcasters respond to governments;
  • and a third set of interests is what private media companies do.

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Is The Public Interest Served By Public Broadcasting?

February 7, 2014

By MARCUS BREEN, Professor of Communication and Media, editor of the International Journal of Technology Knowledge and Society, and member of the Institute for Law, Government and Policy.

In the past couple of  months several news articles and print media discussion pieces have assessed moves against the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) the national public broadcaster. Late in January, the ABC’s journalism was called into question by the Prime Minister Tony Abbott, for its coverage of refugees seeking to escape into Australian territorial waters from Indonesia. Abbott statementsIt was a nationalist-centric set of comments that is notable for the way it coinstructs the ABC role as one that offers preferential reportage of Australian interests:”Prime Minister Tony Abbott has berated ABC News, arguing that it is taking ”everyone’s side but Australia’s” and that journalists should give the navy the ”benefit of the doubt” when it comes to claims of wrongdoing.”

Following this outburst, and a somewhat less subtle one last year from Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, who asked if teh ABC was promoting the national interest. Bishop the role of public broadcasters has become a hot target for conservatives. The ideals of a public broadcaster like the ABC are independence and criticism, hallmarks of the modernist model of society.
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The Man Without A Name To Get One – A Small Victory For Open Justice

December 12, 2013

By MARK PEARSON, Professor of Journalism and Social Media and member of the Institute for Law, Government and Policy.

We have won a small victory for open justice by persuading the NSW Mental Health Tribunal to allow the Australian Broadcasting Corporation to use the name of a forensic patient in a Background Briefing program on Radio National next year.

Colleague Associate Professor Tom Morton from the University of Technology Sydney and I have been conducting an applied research project about publicity of mental health proceedings – centred upon the case of a Sydney patient who wishes to be identified in reportage on his situation.

We are presenting a progress report on our study at the Journalism Education Association of Australia annual conference in Mooloolaba, Queensland today (December 4, 2013).

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The MEAA Code Of Ethics: All Spin And No Stick

December 4, 2013

By MARK PEARSON, Professor of Journalism and Social Media and member of the Institute for Law, Government and Policy.

The go-to document for journalists refusing to ‘fess up their sources or taking the high ethical ground is the MEAA Journalists’ Code of Ethics – but the irony is that the journalists’ union uses notoriously ineffective and opaque processes to police this high profile code.

Unlike the Australian Press Council, the ethics panel of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) has actual disciplinary powers at its disposal for use against individual journalists who breach its Code of Ethics – but it has rarely used them. Its powers extend to any journalists who are members of the Alliance. However, these days large numbers of journalists throughout the industry are not members.

In 1999, the alliance updated the code to a twelve-item document, requiring honesty, fairness, independence and respect for the rights of others. The alliance’s ethical complaints procedures are outlined in Section 8 of the Rules of the  MEAA (2009), summarised on the union’s website. Complaints must be in writing stating the name of the journalist, the unethical act and the points of the Code that have been breached. The judiciary committee (made up of experienced journalists elected every two years by state branch members) then meets to consider the complaint. They can dismiss or uphold the complaint without hearing further evidence, call for further evidence and hold hearings. Hearings involve the committee, the complainant and the journalist and follow the rules of natural justice. Lawyers are excluded. Penalties available to the committee include a censure or rebuke for the journalist, a fine of up to $1000 for each offence, and expulsion from the union. Both parties have 28 days to appeal to an appeals committee of three senior journalists in each state elected every four years and then to a national appeals committee of five journalists.

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Whither Media Reform Under Abbott?

November 26, 2013

By MARK PEARSON, Professor of Journalism and Social Media and member of the Institute for Law, Government and Policy.

Where will the new Liberal-National Coalition government led by Prime Minister Tony Abbott head with the reform of media regulation? Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Attorney-General George Brandis were vocal opponents of the former Gillard Government’s proposals to merge press self-regulation with broadcast co-regulation into a new framework.

Recent inquiries into media regulation in the UK (Leveson, 2012), Australia (Finkelstein, 2012) and New Zealand (Law Commission, 2013) have recommended major changes to the regulation of media corporations and the ethical practices of journalists. Their motivation for doing so stemmed from public angst – and subsequent political pressure – over a litany of unethical breaches of citizens’ privacy over several years culminating in the News of the World scandal in the UK and the subsequent revelations at the Leveson Inquiry (2012) with an undoubted ripple effect in the former colonies.

Many contextual factors have informed the move for reform, including some less serious ethical breaches by the media in both Australia and New Zealand, evidence of mainstream media owners using their powerful interests for political and commercial expediency, and the important public policy challenge facing regulators in an era of multi-platform convergence and citizen-generated content.  Minister Turnbull is an expert on the latter element and it is hard to imagine him not proposing some new, perhaps ‘light-touch’, unified regulatory system during this term in office. Read the rest of this entry »

Election Postscript: A Mindful Analysis Of Media Coverage

November 15, 2013

By MARK PEARSON, Professor of Journalism and Social Media and member of the Institute for Law, Government and Policy.

[This blog was first published in the St James Ethics Centre’s Living Ethics newsletter, Issue 93, Spring 2013. Subscribe here.]

Australian journalists operate under an array of ethical guidelines, including the MEAA Code of Ethics and numerous employer and industry codes of practice.

While these documents differ widely in their wording, they espouse common values of truth, accuracy, fairness and the public’s right to information. They disapprove of invasions of privacy, disclosure of confidential sources, discriminatory language, subterfuge, deception, plagiarism and conflicts of interest.

When it comes to assessing the ethics of news coverage of an event as broad in scope as a federal election we find some guidance in such codes but other moral frameworks can add value.

Although I am not a Buddhist, I have recently found value in applying some of that religion’s foundational principles – in a secular way – to the assessment of journalism ethics and have been sharing this approach with colleagues and students through my writing and teaching. Read the rest of this entry »

“Vacuum Cleaner Approach” – NSA Electronic Eavesdropping And The Public Interest

October 24, 2013

By MARCUS BREEN, Professor of Communication and Media, editor of the International Journal of Technology Knowledge and Society, and member of the Institute for Law, Government and Policy.

New York Times coverage of the National Security Administration (NSA) files leaked by contractor Edward J. Snowden, has allowed that newspaper to ask consistently pointed questions about government intrusions into communication. The coverage has been pretty modest in the way it has channelled public outrage, yet mindful of the obligations of public media. More significantly, the Times has offered helpful insights into the operations of government in the digital era.

The license it has taken to describe some of the actions of the US Government agencies – especially the NSA – has met some of the key requirements of public interest theory. The Guardian has been more pointed still. The NSA Files

Describing the collection of French data as a matter of national sovereignty for France (20 October 2013), the Times has raised the public interest bar. Reporting that the NSA recorded 70 million digital communications between December 10, 21012 and January 8, 2013, the Times has opened up questions about the US approach to international relations in the digital era. Everything is being impacted by digital communications, even national sovereignty. Some academics have suggested that sovereignty is no longer a useful category. Try running that proposition past any national leader, against the background of the US vacuum cleaning private data outside the US.

Everything is sucked into the digital vortex. vacuum cleaning data The French, the Germans, the Brazilians are right to complain. Any complaints from the Australian Government? The  history of Australia is that there are few if any complaints, as Australian Governments go out of their way to be compliant with super power wishes. The words “Australia” and “national autonomy” are unlikely to appear in the same sentence. Most critics would describe this as a rather pathetic track record on Australia’s part.

Edward J, Snowden (the NSA files leaker) and Wikileaks security files offer insights into the normalised world of US “electronic eavesdropping” in a way that confirms fears that Big Brother is everywhere. Securitization – scrutiny of all communication, private and public under the umbrella of national security interests – can be assumed. It is the culture.

I am suggesting that new questions have emerged because of the scrutiny of digital communications by the NSA and the securitization vortex into which we have all been drawn. I am asking how the public interest can be defined in the current context, a context where security has redefined everyday life.

[* Note: This blog was first posted to Professor Breen’s personal blog,]