Communications Minister Stephen Conroy’s contentious media reform proposals won few friends through the week. Even the Senate, where he is Government leader, voted to send his six media bills for review, though Labor, in panic mode, swiftly extracted promises from the committee that it would report swiftly. That allowed the proposals to stay on track for a vote next week – as demanded by Senator Conroy.
The major reforms he proposed would dramatically redefine Australian media standards, placing absolute control in the hands of a Government-appointed media tsar, to be named the Public Interest Media Advocate (PIMA). The media tsar would also decide if media mergers of national significance may proceed.
Among the reforms Senator Conroy has demanded and the powers he plans to grant the PIMA are:
1 The PIMA would be appointed to oversee the independent self-regulatory bodies such as the Press Council, bodies’ dealings with news media standards and complaints
2 A press standards model would be introduced. If the PIMA considered self-regulation inadequate, he/she could introduce sterner measures
3 A Public Interest test would be introduced to ensure diversity considerations are taken into account when weighing nationally significant media mergers and acquisitions
4 The ABC and SBS charters, which govern their ethical conduct, would be revised to reflect their online and digital activities
5 Community television services would receive a substantial permanent channel allocation after the digital switchover
6 The commercial television licence fee rebate (50 percent of the fee paid to government) would be made permanent – saving free-to-air networks about $130 million a year – conditional on the broadcast of 1490 more hours of Australian content by 2015
7 Abolition of the 75 per cent reach rule protecting the autonomy of regional television stations threatened by the metropolitan giants
8 On air reporting of ACMA (Australian Communication and Media Authorities) findings.
The proposals were broadly criticised by media companies, though the big three commercial television outlets that would derive some commercial benefit welcomed aspects of them.
There was an audacious retort from The Daily Telegraph, which compared the senator to tyrants including Joseph Stalin and Robert Mugabe. The mockery continued when the newspaper served up a tongue-in-cheek apology the next day:
“… [This] was a grossly unfair and insulting comparison to make. And so we would just like to say: We’re sorry, Joseph. Yes, it is true that Stalin was a despicable and evil tyrant who was responsible for the death of many millions.
“However, at least he was upfront in his efforts to control the media instead of pretending he supported free speech… We also note that, despite his well-documented crimes against humanity, Stalin at least managed to hold a government together for more than three years.”
The little positive feedback has drowned in a sea of criticism and skepticism. Critics have denounced the reforms as an attack on the core values of a free press and the freedom of speech. Both independent and commercial press organisations would be locked under the control of government standards and the watchful eye of the media advocate. In effect, the media would be government-sanctioned for the first time since the abolition of censorship in 1823.
Ben Holgate of the Australian Financial Review commented, “The senator is right to point out that freedom of expression lies at the heart of a healthy democracy. But it’s his idea for a public interest media advocate that runs counter to democratic principles.”
The chief executive of News Limited, Kim Williams, went further, saying, “This is the first government outside of wartime that is contemplating government-sanctioned journalism.”
He also slammed Senator Conroy’s “Soviet-style” attempt to railroad Parliament into accepting the changes. “The Parliament needs time to consider in detail changes that affect billions of dollars of investments, thousands of jobs and the future of entire business frameworks,” he told a Melbourne meeting hosted by the Australia-Israel Chamber of Commerce.
Professor David Flint, a legal academic and former head of the Press Council, also weighed in, comparing the government appointment of a “public interest media advocate” to the antics of Soviet regimes which “chose names which were completely contrary to what was the truth”. It was a dangerous tactic, he said.
“… [It] will give the government a power it should never have, the power to determine the content of the press. The press is there as a check and balance against the government.”
Senator Conroy’s “take it or leave it” stand on the raft of proposals leaves the Government dependent on securing the votes of the Greens and the four independents members of the Lower House. – Jessika Haangana