News Media Council as Streisand Effect

This post is based on a comment I left in reponse to a post on Prof Mark Pearson’s blog where Pearson outlines his reservations regarding the suggested News Media Council as a recommendation of the Finkelstein Independent Media Inquiry report and my colleague at the University of Canberra, Jason Wilson, agrees with Pearson’s points. I’ll quote Jason’s comment below because it sums up Person’s points and briefly respond. Then I turn to Pearson’s example and argue that the effect of judgements made by the News Media Council would actually benefit advocacy journalism.

Jason:

This represents an impost and a raising of the barriers to entry for small publishers. The key points made by Mark here, which I agree with, is that (i) this constitutes a de facto licensing scheme for news media, which operates by determining who and who isn’t subject to this regulation (ii) because any disputed outcomes will end up in the courts, small publishers may either be ruined or intimidated into compliance because of their lack of resources. The solution to the problems the report raises is, generally, more media, more voices. This is another piece of regulation that makes it more difficult for independent voices to emerge.

I am not sure what the ‘barrier’ is that Jason is describing. The report rules out economic sanctions (such as fines). The suggested News Media Council is designed to be as user friendly as possible, so I imagine that this would mean remote video conferencing participation or online submissions.

Pearson raises a very good point in his post regarding the character of protections for small publishers:

And what if such a Council orders a leading environmental news site or magazine to publish an apology to a mining magnate for the ethical breach of publishing a ‘biased’ and inaccurate report about the company’s waste disposal practices, based on sensitive material from confidential sources? Where would the power and resources rest in a court appeals process in that situation?
To publish such an apology or retraction would be an affront to the blogger, and in their principled belief it would be a lie to do so.

Firstly it is necessary that everyone agrees that small publishers will be subject to the same laws as they are now (regarding defamation, racial vilification, etc.), then I argue that rather than a bariier and a chilling effect of free speech that the opposite will occur.

The worst that could possibly happen with a journalistic report that draws on confidential source is that the News Media Council demands that a journalistic report has to be withdrawn from circulation. The journalist/publisher has to weigh up the decision to publish knowing that the journalistic document be withdrawn or the prospect of giving up the identity of a confidential source. Pearson argues that to publish such a retraction “would be an affront to the blogger, and in their principled belief it would be a lie to do so.”

Principles of journalistic ideals are fine if we lived in an ideal world. We do not live in such an ideal world. I prefer the reality of journalism to the ideals. What will happen if the above scenario involving a direct action group (say GetUp!) creates an online news media enterprise and publishes a journalistic article about environmental issues and a mining company? Or better yet, say the News Media Council itself becomes corrupt, and a journalist publishes a story relying on a confidential source about the corruption of the Council itself?

The journalistic article will be published. Mining company, member of the News Media Council or whatever will lodge a complaint. In three or four days a decision will be handed down that in a worst case scenario (beyond the conditions already in place for existing laws regarding defamation, racial vilification, etc.) means the journalistic article is withdrawn.

Both Jason and Pearson suggest that this will be offensive to journalists and/or media publishers because of a principled refusal to withdraw a published article. Offensive to principles or not, I think most publishers of advocacy journalism would welcome the News Media Council complaints mechanism, even if they have to withdraw their article. Why?

I suspect, and without it actually happening I can’t really frame it more strongly, that this will be a classic case of the Streisand Effect. The mining company, member of the News Media Council or whatever will draw attention to something it does not want attention drawn to.

I am making a number of assumptions of course.

The first is that rather than defining journalistic practice as establishing the truth and therefore it matters whether or not a journalistic report is retracted, I am instead assuming journalistic practice in the current media ecology operates as an economy of attention. There is a surplus of media messages and catalysing audience attention around an issue or event is precisely what the sort of advocacy journalism example Pearson provides is attempting to do. Does anyone have any doubts whatsoever what the response would be from the ‘public’ (which is at a minimum other journalists and interested parties) if such an order to retract a journalistic article was handed down? I am largely following the description of the news-based media industry by Stanley Cohen in the preface to the third editon of his famous Folk Devils and Moral Panics (basically he outlines how ‘moral panics’ are a tool for directing attention).

There are other assumptions regarding the details of the implementation of such a regulatory body (ie lodging a complaint is public, but this is not essential). Also that involvement from the News Media Council will commence only after the lodging of a complaint, and hence the publication of a journalistic article, which I think is a sensible assumption.

I can foresee the release/publication of such advocacy journalism reports via email (so it exists forever on mail servers, regardless of the News Media Council’s findings) late on a Thursday or Friday so it remains ‘live’ for at least a number of days. This way such reports will still catalyse critical attention in an audience around specific issues.

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