Conroy's media regulation proposals fail the public interest test

Bookmark and Share Freedom of Speech and Media, Telecommunications and IT Unit | James Paterson
The Australian 13th March, 2013

All politicians are self-interested. But few are as shameless as Communications Minister Stephen Conroy.

His proposed "media reforms" may be a thinly veiled response to a technologically driven changing media landscape, but we all know their real purpose: to punish and rein in the federal government's critics in the media.

They amount to a massive expansion of government control over the media, and they have no place in a free society.

Conroy has been egged on by Labor backbenchers and the Greens for months about the evils of media companies such as News Limited, publisher of The Australian. Former Greens leader Bob Brown famously dubbed News as part of the "hate media" and called for licensing for newspaper proprietors. Current Greens leader Christine Milne called for a "fit and proper test" so the government could control who invested in the media.

In November 2011 Labor senator Doug Cameron said reporting in News Limited paper The Daily Telegraph that Kevin Rudd might challenge for leadership of the ALP amounted to a "threat to democracy". Of course, when Rudd did challenge less than six months later, Cameron was among his number-crunchers.

Steve Gibbons, another Labor backbencher, even called for individual journalists to receive fines to improve the "fairness of our media".

Conroy has finally delivered in spades for the most deranged critics of the media. Almost one year since it received the reports from the Convergence Review and Finkelstein inquiry, the government will now attempt to rush through its radical package before the federal election.

The changes include an attempt by the government to control currently independent bodies such as the Australian Press Council. A new public interest media advocate will oversee the press council's activities.

This will mark the end of self-regulation in Australia. The new regulator will also apply an extremely vague "public interest" test to any changes in media ownership.

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.

The last time that media outlets were subject to press licensing in the English-speaking world was 1693. What was too tyrannical for the English in the time of William and Mary is apparently acceptable in 21st-century Australia.

A free press is an essential feature of a healthy liberal democracy. Media outlets should always feel free to criticise politicians and others in power without any fear of retribution. And that freedom does not just belong to the media. Its right to report freely is also essential for our right to hear freely. When the government limits the free speech of the media, it is also an attack on individuals' access to the free flow of information and the right to be an informed citizen.

Conroy's attack on the media is just the latest example of the Gillard government's complete disregard for freedom of speech. The Liberal Party has already announced its opposition to Conroy's proposals. It now falls to independent MPs to defend freedom of speech and block the government's blatantly self-interested attempt to ram these laws through parliament before September.