When last I
wrote about the move toward government control of the press in
countries that traditionally tolerated relative media freedom,
Australia was flirting with a document coughed up by the
Finkelstein Inquiry which, as with Britain’s Leveson Inquiry and the
European Commission’s High-Level Group on Media Freedom and
report, created justifications for a state grab for control of
the press. Now the Australian government’s flirtation has turned
into a whole-hearted embrace with a sloppy kiss, as officials put
forward an explicit
proposal for reining-in the media under government control.
What makes the situation even more interesting is that, of all the
press reports, the Finkelstein Inquiry is the most overtly
Detailed legislation is still a day or two away, but the Labor
government’s broad proposals are available
for the world to see on the Website of Senator Stephen Conroy
(the smug-looking seat warmer in the photo above), the Minister for
Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy. The proposals
A press standards model which ensures strong self-regulation of
the print and online news media.
The introduction of a Public Interest Test to ensure diversity
considerations are taken into account for nationally significant
media mergers and acquisitions.
Modernising the ABC and SBS charters to reflect their online
and digital activities.
Supporting community television services following digital
switchover by providing them a permanent allocation of a portion of
Making permanent the 50% reduction in the licence fees paid by
commercial television broadcasters, conditional on the broadcast of
an additional 1460 hours of Australian content by 2015.
The key points here are the “press standards model” and the
“Public Interest Test” for media ownership.The proposals go on to
specify that “the Government will bring forward a press standards
model which ensures strong self-regulation by print and online
media organisations” and “Membership to such a body will ensure
exemptions from privacy legislation for its member organisations.”
So, press organization won’t be forced to submit to
regulation, but they’ll be subject to special legal burdens if they
Writing for Australia’s Institute of Public Affairs,
James Paterson warns:
Placing this power in the hands of a government regulator
inevitably will insert political considerations into what should
purely be a commercial decision-making process. This delivers on
the Greens’ hopes that some individuals could be prevented from
owning a media outlet.
Australia now also effectively will have a press licensing
system. Any media outlet not signed up to a government-endorsed
media regulator will lose journalistic privileges such as
exemptions from privacy laws.
This will force media groups that are not presently members of
bodies such as the press council to join, and is a powerful threat
to existing members that they must not leave. It will be virtually
impossible to run a media outlet in Australia without being under
the supervision of government-appointed bureaucrats.
As for what drives the government in its quest for power over
the press, note that the
Finkelstein Inquiry admitted:
Concern was also expressed by several politicians and others
that certain of News Limited’s papers (The Australian and the Daily
Telegraph) were biased in their reporting on particular issues.
Climate change and the National Broadband Network were given as
Need I mention that The Australian and the Daily
Telegraph are often at odds with the ruling party’s policies?
“Bias,” as is often the case, translates as “criticism” and
“opinions we don’t like.”
British counterpart, the Australian press scheme seems to
encompass online media, too, closing off the channel that some U.K.
newspaper have considered of going purely digital. Still, it seems
likely that enterprising Australian journalists, given backing,
could base a digital news operation, along with its servers, in New
Zealand or the United States so that its reporters could act as
correspondents for a foreign news organization with the protection
that implies. If the media legislation passes, that might be the
last, best hope for a free press in Australia.