Ricketson on the Finkelstein report

Ray Finkelstein, who led the Indepedent Media Inquiry, has said he will not talk to the media about his proposal for a statutory authority to regulate the news and opinion. You can see his statement to that effect here.

But in the last few weeks, his co-author, the University of Canberra academic Matthew Ricketson has come out swinging, with a speech at Melbourne University and a column in the Age over the weekend. And he thinks the reporting has been unfair.

Yet it’s not clear Ricketson understands the significance of the proposals in the report he helped write. How else to explain this claim, in his Age column, that his proposal “differs from the existing system in only one key aspect, namely government would fund the News Media Council”?

That’s not true. Not at all.

Yes, the News Media Council would be government funded. But it would also be compulsory. It would have the power to censor. It would regulate every website and newspaper and email. Even FreedomWatch would fall within its regulatory arms. It would have the power to force publication of its own orders – and if anybody refused, they could go to jail. These powers are all new: the Australian Press Council has none of them. If a newspaper disagrees with a Press Council ruling, it can leave. Sure, it might be costly to do so (in reputation, and by increasing the risk of heavier-handed government regulation) but it is not legally compulsory to comply with the council’s decisions.

In his Melbourne University address, Ricketson claimed that the report “categorically ruled out any return to a licensing regime”. That’s not quite true either. As I pointed out in a briefing paper published days after the report was released, Finkelstein doesn’t appear to understand what a licensing regime actually is. In the report, he provides a definition of “licensing” which matches his proposals almost exactly. There is a great deal of conceptual confusion in his report, and licensing is one of the key confusions.

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