Michelle Grattan: Media assault sees Canberra crumple

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Michelle Grattan says Australia's Govt has bungled its response to a far-reaching inquiry into the news media

Cricketer Shane Watson fields a media scrum after he quit the Australian team in India when he was punished by his coach. Photo / Getty images
Cricketer Shane Watson fields a media scrum after he quit the Australian team in India when he was punished by his coach. Photo / Getty images

After an immensely long labour, Australian Communication Minister Stephen Conroy has produced a media policy mouse with a modest roar.

That won't stop the media companies and the opposition treating it as a lion that must be slain. News Ltd proclaimed "a sad day for Australian democracy".

The package is a political compromise from a divided Government trying to minimise upsetting powerful media interests that have the ability, in the run up to September's election, to damage further the wounded Labor Party.

It has a number of aspects but let's deal particularly with some core controversial ones. A "public interest test" would be invoked when mergers or acquisitions threatened to reduce diversity. A Public Interest Media Advocate would make decisions on the basis of the test.

This advocate would also ensure that bodies dealing with media standards, most notably the Australian Press Council, met certain benchmarks for credible and effective self-regulation of print and online media.

It's worth considering what the Government has NOT done.

It has shied away from the approach advanced in the Finkelstein inquiry for an official (though independent) government-funded regulatory body to deal with complaints. That upset newspaper companies and incurred strong and legitimate criticism on freedom of speech grounds.

The detail of the proposed public interest test are vague. But it will not be a "fit and proper person" test - which it should not be.

Under the test, ownership changes would in general be ruled out if they would substantially lessen diversity "among nationally significant news media voices".

The critics say: Why is this needed? The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission and the Australian Communications and Media Authority already look at sales. What's the diversity problem? The internet, Twitter and the like provide more diversity than ever.

Yes, but also no. The fact is that the "voices" in the mainstream media have been contracting, for economic and other reasons. Look at the centralising of news gathering in both News Ltd and Fairfax papers.

The other relevant fact here is that there is not equivalence between the "nationally significant news media"and the newer media. The former remain the heavy hitters and the source of news for the bulk of the population. Arguing that the growth of new media can any time soon deal with the diversity issue is to be guilty of delusion or sprouting propaganda.

So while less regulation is usually to be preferred, and media is a highly sensitive area, I think the high concentration of ownership in Australia does justify a public interest test.

The Finkelstein inquiry observed that "Australia's newspaper industry is among the most concentrated in the developed world". News Ltd owns 14 of the 22 national, metropolitan daily and Sunday newspapers published in Australia.

Under the plan, the decision making would be at arm's length from government. That's sensible, but to have one person occupying the job of advocate is not. A panel would be better.

Press standards bodies would be "run, funded and operated by the print media themselves".

The sanction would be that to get their current access to exemptions from privacy legislation, media organisations would have to be members of an approved press standards body, which the advocate had found was independent and dealt with complaints properly.

This is a fairly light touch approach; even so, it would be better if it were not necessary. But the media have immense power and many in the community - and we're not talking about politicians here - feel they have no redress when they believe that power has been abused. Sometimes the media are cavalier in their behaviour - including failing to give injured parties proper redress - just because they can be.

There are fine lines and the risk that freedom of speech could be infringed. It would be up to the standards body or bodies to ensure that did not happen. But just as the media insist politicians should meet strict tests of accountability, so many in the community believe the media themselves should be more accountable.

Whatever one thinks of the content of the policy, its preparation and presentation has been a shambles.

It was due months ago but held up by internal argument. Now minister Conroy has presented a take-it-or-leave-it package that he says must be through Parliament by the end of next week or the Government will drop it. The actual legislation will only be presented today.

The issue of whether the 75 per cent reach rule (which stops TV networks broadcasting to more than three-quarters of the population) should be scrapped has been referred to a parliamentary committee that has to report in a blink of an eye. If approved, that change would be rushed into the package. (A privacy tort won't - it is being referred off to the Australian Law Reform Commission for detailed examination.)

For far reaching changes the timetable is an insult, giving no opportunity for proper public discussion. It's not only the media companies which are "stakeholders" - the public are too.

Michelle Grattan, a former political editor of The Age, Melbourne, is a professorial fellow at the University of Canberra.

•Disclosure: Michelle Grattan owns shares in Fairfax Media, News Corp and Seven West Media.

Dialogue Contributions are welcome and should be 600-800 words. Send your submission to dialogue@nzherald.co.nz. Text may be edited and used in digital formats as well as on paper.

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