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Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Labor gingerly steps back from better media oversight

Stephen Conroy (left) and Kim Williams.
It's hard to believe it but the Media Inquiry headed by Ray Finkelstein took place about 15 months ago. (My blog posts were on 13 November 2011, 'Media Inquiry should be about creating a viable commons', and 3 March 2012, 'Media Inquiry findings sure to cause debate'.) Broadly, I favoured some sort of body to effect stronger oversight that would be funded by the government. My plan included a sunset clause, with the government suggesting having a follow-up inquiry by the Productivity Commission within two years of the body's establishment. But Communications Minister Stephen Conroy's calculated dilatoriness has made the whole exercise moot. It appears to have been a bit of a masqueurade designed mainly to put the fear of God into the news media in Australia. Or maybe Conroy has simply been told that with a tough election coming up it's better to keep Rupe's boys onside.

The minister apparently went away after all the fuss of 2011 died down and busied himself with the Convergence Review, which has also been about the media, specifically with ownership rules. And then earlier this year then-Attorney General Nicola Roxon mooted changes to freedom of speech rules under the guise of anti-discrimination laws that were planned. More fuss from the press. (I disagreed strongly with Roxon's proposal.) These plans were quietly dropped and the proposed News Media Council has also not emerged. The issue, for newspaper proprietors, is very much still alive, though, as is evident from this story in today's Australian on Conroy's media ownership plans (paywalled). Most of the story is about media ownership but at the end News Ltd CEO Kim Williams gets a hearing as he slams, again, any notion of implementing better media oversight.
"For anyone who values freedom of speech, the idea that journalists and media companies should be forced to join a government-authorised body or lose the protections afforded to them by the Privacy Act and other shield laws relating to their work smacks of a licensing regime for journalists that has no place in a democratic society," Mr Williams will say. "And the idea that there should be a public interest test - which is a defacto political interest test - on who should own a media outlet sounds positively Venezuelan."
Williams' first point refers to the proposed News Media Council even though "the government appears to have backed away from creating a News Media Council to oversee the press," the story notes. His second point refers to "a public interest test" designed to target the emergence of wealthy individuals as potential owners of parts of Australia's media, such as Gina Rinehart (who has bought a substantial stake in Fairfax Media and wants board seats under her control).

The quote is full of rhetoric, bluster and fear-mongering, and it's designed to appeal to the loony Right who scream "Liberty!" like card-carrying members of the Tea Party any time anyone says that things could be better if there were better government oversight. As I noted in my blog posts at the time, there is no reason to imagine the NMC would be "heavy-handed" or that it would attempt to tell journalists what to write. It is required however because not all individuals are equally influential, and because companies like News Ltd are dedicated to running media campaigns and promote a specific ideology. The other thing I pointed out is that the conservative press has worked so effectively that it has swung the entirety of the Australian media to the Right, to the point that a progressive view is nowadays remarkable. Even the ABC has succumbed, even though Right wing culture warriors, still unsatisfied, continue to bombard its management with regular broadsides.

Nobody suggests that environmental regulation designed to prevent corporate malfeasance that can lead - and has led - to pollution, is a bad thing. Nobody enquires as to the rightness of a government Ombudsman. I cannot see how a NMC can be a bad thing. Why all the bellyaching? "No place in a democratic society"? Why, it's precisely in democracies that government is empowered to operate as a counterweight to the otherwise unaccountable private sector. Does Kim Williams think that companies like Chisso in Japan should be free to pour toxins into the harbours that lie next to its manufacturing plants and thereby cause thousands of people to be born with disfiguring physical anomalies? Is that OK with Mr Williams?

Why is it wrong to question Gina Rinehart's motivations in acquiring such a large stake in such influential newspapers as those published by Fairfax Media? It's abundantly clear that Rinehart has specific political agendas, including opposition to any sort of regulation designed to pull back emissions of carbon into the world's atmosphere. Why shouldn't the public be informed about these things? Why is Ms Rinehart more suitable to be a media proprietor than Mr Normal the teacher from the local public high school, whose intelligence, learning and probity likely far outreach those Rinehart commands? As I said in my blogpost of November 2011, the government should be working to ensure a viable commons via the media. At the moment, the landscape distinctly favours the rich. This is not what democracy is about; what Williams is talking about is a plutocracy where the very wealthy decide how the majority lives.

UPDATE Tues 3.50pm: Conroy today announced media reform legislation, including a provision for establishing a statutory Public Interest Advocate that would judge whether mergers and acquisitions met a public interest test, that is if they could go ahead while still providing for adequate diversity in Australia's media. The PIA would also "oversee the press councils and judge whether media companies met their own standards set out by the councils".

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