Employer rights trampled
Of course Fairfax Media journalists want Gina Rinehart, the owner of 18 per cent of Fairfax, to sign the Fairfax Media Charter of Editorial Independence. There's not an employee in any company in the country who wouldn't want to be free of any accountability to the people who pay their wages.
The charter ensures that the only control the owners of Fairfax have over what appears in the company's newspapers is by the owners hiring and firing editors.
Under the charter, the owners have no say in the work of editors or journalists.
In no other industry would the owners of a profit-making enterprise cede to employees the power to control what the enterprise produces and sells to its customers. It's one thing for employees to seek a collaborative partnership with their employer. It's something entirely different when employees claim their employer can't tell them what to do.
In the 1940s, economist Joseph Schumpeter predicted that the growth of large and bureaucratic corporations would produce the separation of the ownership of capital from the control of capital. What he said has come true.
The thousands of shareholders in the multibillion-dollar global corporations of the 21st century have little effective say over what the management of the corporation does and matters such as what management pay themselves.
The only sanction shareholders have is to sell their shares. The Fairfax charter takes Schumpeter's process one step further. It attempts to enshrine the permanent separation of the owners of Fairfax from control of their company.
Fairfax journalists, the government, and the opposition respond to all of this by claiming the media is different. They say a company producing newspapers can't be compared to one making plastic cups. Politicians claim an interest in the internal management systems of newspaper companies because, supposedly, newspapers are essential to democracy while plastic cups are not.
Both Stephen Conroy, the Communication Minister, and Malcolm Turnbull, the shadow minister, have said Rinehart should sign the Fairfax charter.
Treasurer Wayne Swan summed up the prevailing opinion of Australia's political class when he said in Parliament on Tuesday: "Nothing could be more important to the quality of our political debate and our national conversation than having fair and balanced reporting.
"And to have fair and balanced reporting you do need a degree of independence at the editorial level to make sure that it is not unduly influenced by commercial considerations."
Swan is wrong. Dead wrong. There is something more important than fair and balanced reporting - and that's free reporting. Let's be absolutely clear.
Swan's "fair and balanced" reporting has never existed, doesn't exist and never will exist. Fairness is entirely in the eye of the beholder. It's a travesty of the historical record to claim that democracy needs a fair and balanced media.
Editorial independence doesn't guarantee "fairness". All that editorial independence means is that editors and journalists get to express their bias without interference from the owner of the company. The requirement that reporting be "fair and balanced" is a recipe for political manipulation and for the erosion of freedom of speech.
A free media means neither the government nor government-appointed censors can tell the media what it can do. And a free media means politicians don't decide who gets to own newspapers. And a free media certainly means politicians don't get to decide how newspaper owners run their company.
You can have a fair media or a free media. You can't have both.
Swan's comments were in response to a question from Adam Bandt, the Greens MP who asked whether the government would legislate "to protect the editorial independence of major publicly listed media outlets like Fairfax". Thankfully, at least as yet, the Gillard government hasn't agreed to the Greens' demands.
But it's revealing that nowhere in his answer did Swan refer to the need for a free media. He talked a lot about editorial independence and fairness and balance, but not once did he mention press freedom. The Gillard government's recent review of the media (the Finkelstein inquiry) was also happy to sacrifice freedom of speech in the name of fair and balanced reporting.
Politicians can't resist the temptation to get involved in what's happening at Fairfax. But for the sake of a free press and for the sake of freedom of speech, politicians should stay out of the fight.