The Gillard government sure knows how to pick a fight with the wrong people.
Its media reform proposals have the commercial media proprietors in apoplexy.
When you look at the United Kingdom’s proposed media regulation reforms and then turn your gaze to what the government here is proposing to keep newspapers honest, you surely would be left scratching your head wondering why the print world – and News Limited in particular – is so, well, apoplectic.
First there was THAT front page splash from The Daily Telegraph likening Communications Minister Stephen Conroy to Joseph Stalin.
“Apology: Yesterday we ran a picture of Federal Communications Minister Stephen Conroy depicted as Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. ”It has since been pointed out that this was a grossly unfair and insulting comparison to make. And so we would just like to say: We’re sorry, Joe.”
And it’s not just News Limited in a lather. Fairfax’s Greg Hywood is full of doomsday “end of media freedom” warnings too.
But on the issue of a “watchdog”, compare the two models – the UK’s and ours – and judge for yourself which one is more likely to protect the clear public interest in having a body with enough bark to stop some of the excesses which might attract a bite.
In the UK, the major parties have agreed to create a new, all-powerful print media regulator, aimed at stopping the shocking invasions of privacy and breaches of common decency that we’ve seen unfold over the past 18 months there. Remember the hacked phone of the missing schoolgirl Milly Downer, who was later found dead?
This new regulator will be set up by Royal Charter, an executive order signed by the Queen, to prevent governments meddling with the body after it is established. So, (hopefully) no government interference.
But critically, the body will be independent of the media it is designed to oversee. And the newspapers won’t be able to veto appointments to it. Better still, it will have teeth.
It will be able to impose significant fines and demand front-page corrections for stories that breach the rules.
Submitting to the regulator won’t be compulsory but the newspapers that refuse to could be hit with exemplary damages by the courts if a claim is upheld against them. That’s the stick. And it’s a big one.
Before you compare what the government here is proposing, keep in mind how newspapers are now overseen. We have the Australian Press Council comprised of industry representatives, members of the public and an independent chair.
If you make a complaint of unethical behaviour against a print publisher, the publisher is a big part of the mechanism that gets to adjudicate your complaint. In other words, the media gets to judge itself. And if they don’t like what the majority adjudicate, they can retaliate where it hurts, by withdrawing funding. The West Australian newspaper, isn’t even a member of the Press Council. Good luck complaining there, unless you want to resort to the courts.
Senator Conroy’s package of reforms relate to more than mere print regulation. But what has upset the print world is the idea of a Public Interest Media Advocate, appointed by the government in the same way as the head of the ACCC and ASIC is appointed, working with the same distance from government.
News Limited CEO Kim Williams calls it a “modern day star chamber”.
This advocate, now ingloriously known as PIMA, would be charged with scrutinising media mergers and acquisitions with the overall aim of limiting any further concentration of ownership in a nation where concentration of media ownership is amongst the highest in the world.
But it would have another role too. Cue newspaper outrage.
The PIMA would oversee self-regulatory bodies like the Australian Press Council along with any other self-regulating body the media chooses to submit to. It will approve – or not – the way a media complaints body adjudicates complaints.
Newspapers and online news media would not be compelled to join any such body but if they don’t, they won’t receive the current exemptions from the provisions of the Privacy Act on public interest grounds. That’s what protects journalists when they go looking in corners protected from prying eyes and it’s the Australian version of the stick in the UK model.
A fairly united – albeit hysterical – commercial media front argues that the reforms are an attack on press freedom and that they’ll effectively be forced to first seek permission from the PIMA before reporting on the activities of politicians, if they’re not to be found in breach of the privacy laws.
Fairfax Chief Executive Greg Hywood called it the “nuclear option” whilst Seven West Chair, Kerry Stokes opined that threatening the removal of the Privacy Act exemption would likely herald the end of important journalism – like Fairfax’s extraordinary investigations into the empire of former NSW power broker Eddie Obeid.
Opposition leader Tony Abbott thinks the government wants to shut down its critics, especially from News Limited, in the lead up to the September 14th election.
But as you compare what’s being proposed here and what will happen in the UK, it’s important to remember under Senator Conroy’s convoluted model, print media remains self regulated and the media bodies here will have to submit to its will – be of their own choosing or design. The only caveat is that they’re not rogue.
Sure, Australia hasn’t seen the likes of the phone hacking scandals in the UK. And I certainly agree that privately owned media should be free to express whatever opinion they so choose, so long as they don’t distort the facts.
But honest, balanced, ethical reportage is important. Look at the coverage of the reform proposals this week if you need to be convinced that balance is a problem.
In Australia, for too long we have been hostage to a complaint mechanism that is more like a self-saucing pudding. As Lord Justice Leveson put it when he was reviewing our system: if publishers don’t like the mark they get when a complaint is levied against them, they can mete out their own punishment by withdrawing funding from the complaints body they’re signed up to.
If Australian newspapers are really concerned at having their investigative powers curtailed they should perhaps take the advice of one feisty female leader who once recommended that they “just don’t write crap”.
MORE ARTICLES BY MONICA ATTARD
*Monica Attard OAM is a five-time Walkley award-winning Australian journalist – including the Gold Walkley Award for Excellence in Journalism 1991. She was the host of the ABC’s PM, the World Today and Media Watch. She spent 28 years at the ABC, leaving to start up The Global Mail where she was, until recently, the Managing Editor. In 1997, Monica published a book entitled Russia: Which Way Paradise? documenting her time there as a foreign correspondent. You can follow her on Twitter: @attardmon.