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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.

stalinteleThen a day later, there was this:

“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.”

That’s chutzpah.

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.

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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.

conroycoverSure, 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”.

 

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*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.

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38 Comments

  • Reply March 19, 2013

    carole/m

    “Just don’t write crap”. Can’t be that hard?????

    Well obviously the PM was wrong , the” ” “Crap” just gets thicker everyday. The behavior of the CEO of Ltd News was absolutely laughable ,
    he’s seems absolutely convinced that we’re all a mob of dickheads who’ll believe all the deliberate lies that are written in his “Trash” newspapers.

    The decline in Newspaper sales is not solely due to new technology & social media .

    I believe one of the main reasons for there decline is because there are tens of thousands of people out there ,just like me , who have bought newspapers all their lives until the last 4or 5 years . The reason is dishonest & biased reporting. They’ve cut there customer base in half by only pandering to the political right wing .

    No business can survive by cutting off half its customer base.

    Another day, another leadership farce , another bloody poll , propaganda and blatant political campaigning for the LNP, so much for impartiality , fairness & public interest .

    • Reply March 20, 2013

      Garry

      Well said Carole/m! I used to look forward to reading The Australian, now that it has changed its attitude to The American I very rarely touch the ….. This absentee press baron should be described in more accurate words than those of his lackeys. To see Kerry Stokes rave on amended my opinion of him.

    • Reply March 21, 2013

      Linda

      Couldn’t agree more. I actually enjoy the ritual of reading a newspaper with a cup of coffee in the morning but didn’t renew my subscription to The Age for the first time in twenty years because I am damned if I am going to fork out my hard-earned dollars to skip the pages of commentary by the likes of Amanda Vanstone, Chris Berg and Gerard Henderson. The downturn began years ago though; I was puzzled when not a single letter or article disagreeing with the then-Labour governments’s renewal of the Grand Prix contract appeared in The Age at the time; cynicism grew when I read about Ron Walker’s resignation from the Board and the paper was filled with what were obviously pr releases for the Grand Prix and John So’s populariity as mayor presented as serious journalism but it was the takeover of the opinion pages by right-wing commentators that was the last straw. Walking by the few papers left lying on the lunchroom table and seeing last week’s hysterical editorial campaign against Gillard has confirmed me in my decision just not to bother with it any more.

  • Reply March 19, 2013

    Sandy

    Thanks for this Monica. carole/m I couldn’t agree more with you.

  • Reply March 19, 2013

    carole/m

    Tony Windsor. —-
    I don’t buy The Australian , we use toilet paper on our house .

    Luv Tony Windsor

  • Reply March 19, 2013

    carole/m

    Of course I meant — in –our house.

  • Reply March 19, 2013

    Finnola

    Excellent article. The removal of the Privacy Act is quite a serious one for Australian Media as it places a restriction on in-depth journalism and getting to the truth of public annoucements, for example. It is being used as a threat to the media to to comply on a variey of levels, and if they don;t they will be restricted and open to legal judgement. It has the possibility to remove the safety of not having to reveal sources and protect ‘whistleblowers’ and a list of other good journalist practices (Yes there are some!) However, it is timely and an overhaul is needed, so change always comes with pain. Let’s just hope it’s pain with gain.

    I, too, am looking forward to buying a newspaper again @carol, with some intellgent thoughts and reporting. Perhaps time for Harmer to become ‘Ms Harmer – hardcopy newspaper Media Mogul!’

    • Reply March 19, 2013

      Wendy Harmer

      The one thing that disappoints me is that some senior figures in journalism will not stand up for LESS media concentration – that’s good for the public interest, good for journalists too .
      When there are only two employers in town, things are grim for journalists. In WA, there is no “choice” ( that word so beloved of private enterprise… except when it comes to media).
      Sitting on the People With Disabilities and Carers Council and debating the NDIS, the role of a public advocate in the health system was seen as entirely necessary. I don’t believe there is anything to be frightened of here.
      As for Malcolm Turnbull’s assertion that this is all about negative coverage before the election? Malcolm, thank your lucky stars you are not a journalist with a family to support who has been sacked and now finds nowhere to go in the one of the world’s least diverse media markets.Punted by Fairfax? Unwanted by News? Then, as a print journo, where do you go?
      Really, you sink lower in my estimation, every day.
      As a lawyer it would be instructive if you could help untangle the public and the private interest on this issue and foster some real debate, minus the unhinged hysteria.Or maybe we are getting closer to the “f*&k, do whatever you want” model… that would be a lawyers picnic… either way, vested interests rule.

  • Reply March 19, 2013

    Peta

    The media is more of an in joke with only those with in media that get it and it displays, in general, it’s bias with very little intellect. There are only a handful i people i would biother to read and i haven’t wasted my money on buying papers or subscribuing to the major papers. It is more that clear that the media can not self regulate.

  • Reply March 19, 2013

    Mmac

    I despise main stream media. It’s just the fat cats warping the view of impressionable people who will believe anything because “it’s in the herald sun, it must be true”, So they can line their pockets. I don’t buy newspapers, I don’t watch crappy mainstream news. There are some extremely intelligent people out there writing unbiased articles with facts in the form of blogs. (Ala hoopla style). I refused to be a news limited puppet.

    Mainstream media, what a joke. Great article.

  • Reply March 19, 2013

    Sandy Gandhi

    The media are slaves to the advertisers and vice versa – journos should tell us the facts not what they think we’d like to hear. As is with advertising, a hook always helps but there should be different methods of fishing used – not writing crap is a good motto. As life goes on, I lose interest in reading or listening to complete stories in the media, being crap-sensitive and all.
    As a columnist my title was, Foreign Gossipondent Extraordinaire and my motto was, “if it hasn’t happened, I’ll make it up!”
    Namaste Monica, I enjoyed reading your entire piece.
    Sandy Gandhi

  • Reply March 19, 2013

    Monica

    Phew Sandy…thought you were going to say you didn’t get to the end!!! Thanks.

  • Reply March 19, 2013

    helen b

    Once again Monica, the voice of reason emanating from you. I’m pleased to see you giving us some information, explaining complicated ideas in simple terms.

    I look forward to your explication of so much that is going on in our world as you did back in Moscow all those years ago when your reports riveted us to the immense changes happening then. You were definitely in the right place at the right time and you did it so well!

    Well, questions about MSM are not going away and it’s just a matter of time before the monopolies are brought into line.

    Once again, it’s interesting that the minority government Tories in England are leading the way. First, gay marriage and now mainstream media. Just goes to show we are still rooted in provincial values…at least in terms of the loudest voices!

    Looking forward to and counting on the ‘100th monkey’ experience of consciousness. It has to happen!

  • Reply March 19, 2013

    Buttercup

    Great article Monica. Thanks for cutting through the hysteria and informing me. I do not want what happened in Britian to happen here (if it’s not already).

  • Reply March 19, 2013

    Joe

    It’s largely a problem of the Government’s own making though.

    1. The Government is weak and open to organised media campaigns against them (Mining tax anyone? Even the live cattle trade and the Super trawler fall into these categories).

    2. Conroy has a habit of wanting to censor things (like the internet).

    3. The legislation is being rushed through. That means there’s no time to counter any of the points made. The person with the biggest hyperbole wins.

    4. The Government has failed to make the case for media reform. Especially with thanks to #3 and #1, notice how we’re not talking about the actual issue – and instead most outlets are talking about how Conroy wants to ram it through and why?

    5. Once again, it’s a policy that has been mismanaged. This has become a free kick for the Opposition to oppose it and the independents weren’t even consulted… If you’re in a hung Parliament and you need the independents to get your legislation through… and you *haven’t* talked to them, you really do have to wonder what it is they’re really doing here.

    “Look at the coverage of the reform proposals this week if you need to be convinced that balance is a problem.”

    On this point, I’d like to see you cite some specific examples and give some sort of an idea as to what punishment should be laid upon the organisation in question.

  • Reply March 19, 2013

    monica

    Hi Joe..thanks for your posting. I think you have actually yourself given the best example of lack of balance, by saying there has been little/no discussion of the policies and a lot turned over to hyberbole. It’s very true the bills were only tabled a few days ago and therefore few had time to digest them. But i would have thought a saner option might have been to wait for them to be tabled, read them, then comment – based on fact. I totally agree these are changes which might have been better presented and argued and could have done with a lot of time. But really they do not represent the end of media freedom and even in this convoluted state, they would offer recourse to redress for the many who are done over by a largely unaccountable print media.

    • Reply March 20, 2013

      Pseudonym

      Yes, you’re absolutely right.

      To be fair, I do think that interested parties (including the public interest, which is the ultimate interested party in having a strong, forthright, free, and well-behaved media) are not being given the time that is needed to understand and debate the proposed changes. However, the hysteria which you (and, credit where credit is due, Jonathan Holmes; Media Watch was brilliant this week) rightly identified gives me no confidence that commercial media is actually interested in understanding or debating the changes.

      Something I’m curious about, though: Isn’t the possibility of tightening up the privacy act exemption something that traditional news should be welcoming? I would have thought that gaining an advantage over new media, such as Wikileaks, would be something they’d be all for.

      (Of course, now that I’ve said it, now I’m thinking that maybe killing organisations like Wikileaks is part of what Senator Conroy is trying to do. Here be dragons.)

  • Reply March 19, 2013

    Priscilla Shorne

    I can understand giving up reading newspapers, the News Media papers are particularly hysterical about the current government at the moment. I don’t think I have ever seen them so bad. If only there were an ABC/Radio National type of paper we could buy.

    These rules do seem pretty tame.

  • Reply March 19, 2013

    Gee

    Sorry, he lost me at, ‘red underpants on my head …’

    I wouldn’t trust him to write a lunch order, much less a piece of legislation.

  • Reply March 20, 2013

    JoanneH

    I would like to see the media forced to print apologies for ‘distorting the facts’ as soon as possible, on the front page, and in the same size headline print as the original was.

    A good example of how low journalism in this country is sinking happened yesterday when Peter Hartcher from SMH ran another of his many “ Ministers turn on PM – She will be gone in……days time” articles . Unfortunately for him he quoted Bob Carr who angrily stated that he had not made the comments and had not even been interviewed on the subject.

    Hartcher ran with gossip that he’d been assured was true, but which wasn’t, and he stuffed up big time with a cub reporter’s blunder – always check your quotes!

  • Reply March 20, 2013

    Bella

    Agree with much of what is being said. The MSM is very disappointing at the moment – really it is signing its own ticket to irrelevance – poll focussed, not policy focussed, biased – unfortunately the ABC is so determined to be ‘balanced’ they are now erring to being biased and for some reason The Australian seems to set the agenda for Radio National in the morning. And did I hear Malcolm Turnbull saying something about weakening the defamation and libel laws? I was stunned at this, and wondered whose hymn book that was coming from. I also wondered if it might have something to do with certain parliamentarians who might want to take legal action against papers and people if they are found innocent. It’s quite interesting to consider all these intersecting interests.

  • Reply March 20, 2013

    moorie

    Seriously someone asked the Govt what the media had done to deserve this, well how about bagging and deriding the PM and the Labour party relentlessly everyday in print/online/on tv and at every single opportunity they have since the day Julia Gillard came to power. The blokes need to take a good look at themselves. It is no longer the boys club and females have every right to be leaders even if they are not Miranda Kerr lookalikes and speak with a little nasal accent. How about a suggestion that for one whole day the MEDIA lay off the Govt and start having a long hard look at the opposition. Bet that will never happen!!!!!!

  • Reply March 20, 2013

    Bella

    Totally agree Moorie – there definitely is the gender dimension to all this too – it seems to have given licence to totally ignore facts, balance or civility.

  • Reply March 20, 2013

    DeeDee

    This article by Michael Rowland at the ABC says it all for me…..MSM busted bullshitting yet again……….perfect metaphor for their complete irrelevance. http://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-03-18/rowland-media-regulation-stitch-up/4578648

  • Reply March 20, 2013

    carole/m

    JoanneH

    Do you really think the Hartcher article was a lack of checking facts , I think things are so bad now that this mob , Ltd News , write these things deliberately , the truth is now of no consequence.

    • Reply March 21, 2013

      JoanneH

      I agree with you, how could Peter Hartcher as Political and International Editor of the SMH be so sloppy, but with Carr over in USA at the time he must have thought it was a good chance to ‘fudge together’ a headline to compete with News Ltd.

      He is a blatant example of how arrogant and cocksure the media have become – put up any anti-Labor story, and force them to repudiate it, knowing it leaves a stain anyway. For 2 years he has been looking down from his Ivory Tower at Fairfax; pin-stripe Pete with the plummy voice, writing anti Julia/Labor articles, and wondering why the Government can’t get any good messages through the media. The bad polls, and leadershit, via ‘sources say’ and ‘Labor insider’ etc. which he and his colleagues repeat endlessly, just puzzles him – nothing to do with him, it’s all Julia’s fault and he needs rosewater to keep the stench of it all away!

  • Reply March 20, 2013

    ro.watson

    Monica, media as ” a self-saucing pudding”!!. Hysteria? Not sure.

  • Reply March 20, 2013

    ro.watson

    Continuing with my food theme today~ Andrew Wilkie may or may not have introduced “a red herring” (though the only herrings I have ever seen are silver)~ he mentioned his lack of support for Labor’s package on media law reform because, inter alia, there was still not enough legislative whistleblower protection(Fran Kelly interview on ABC r.n breakfast today)?

    Getting the story is one thing~ keeping people/sources/ brave journalists safe is in our public interest too? Is that the link? Such a tension between exploding and imploding privacy issues~that public/private divide?

  • Reply March 20, 2013

    Lindy

    Just to present a pertinent fact the person who has oversight of the self regulating media council would have been chosen with the support of the opposition, this form of appointment has a certain name that I can’t recall. I also would ask if Mr. Howard gave 5 days for Parliament to decide on going to war and I seem to recall that debate was guillotined, somebody check to see if my memory is right

  • Reply March 20, 2013

    Heather

    Thank you Monica for being a sane voice in the wilderness

  • Reply March 20, 2013

    janet

    Thank you. Again I am offered the opportunity of reading balanced, factual reports regarding the latest news. Where ? Online of course, on this site and others alike (Crikey, New Matilda, Ind Aus) Certainly not from the newspapers. And sadly certainly not from the opposition, for they are sinking even lower. Even dear old Malcolm Turnbull is sounding hysterical.

  • Reply March 20, 2013

    mj

    Of course the media bosses don’t like it – they’ve it all their own way for years & don’t want their apple-cart upset. Just like the mining bosses when it came their turn to be accountable. It’s true that the media has always had it in for the ALP, but if they were promoting fair & unbiased reporting, then they’d currently have nothing to be afraid of.

  • Reply March 20, 2013

    carole/m

    Ditto — Malcolm Turnbull , have changed my opinion.

    Did anyone see Chrissie Pyne in parliament yesterday, leaning across the table & screaming abuse at the PM , eyes bulging , red face , spitting , mouth wide open , It was a sight to behold , wonder he didn’t have a heart attack.

  • Reply March 20, 2013

    carole/m

    Guess he’s just trying to fulfill his role as the
    attack poodle.

  • Reply March 20, 2013

    ro.watson

    In my long ago professional roles, I was duty bound to maintain confidentiality even as I held systemic stories revealed individually, which have bled, bit by bit into MSM~ and after several Royal Commissions, and years, become “facts” and then “history”.

    What is wrong with this picture and quick sound bites? I should not bear witness, and be the holder of facts that drenched generations? I was not and am not the only one.

  • […] Media Laws Hysteria […]

  • Reply March 28, 2013

    Harland Sanders

    LOL At “journalists” panting for their muzzle and quoting Gillard’s ludicrously self-serving statement to avoid proper scrutiny.

  • Reply March 28, 2013

    Jacko

    i have refused to purchase any of News Ltd’s for some years now because of their blatant bias in reporting political and environmental issues.
    Had the misfortune to glance through a commuter discarded copy of today’s Daily Telegraph, and it yet again confirmed the wisdom of not exposing oneself to such propaganda.
    It remains no more than a LNP coalition cheer sheet, with anti-science misinformation spewed out by the likes of A Bolt.

    It’s time for all supporters of the ALP, Greens and climate change aware conservationists to stop buying Murdoch’s trashy journals. Refuse to contribute your money to News Ltd coffers – the future of your children depend on it.
    Send a message to News Ltd in the only way they understand it – reduced sales!

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