MEDIA LAW HYSTERIA
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.
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