Media inquiry opens the door to intimidation
Politicians rarely like the coverage they receive in the media, but that's a tiny price to pay for one of the most important bulwarks against overbearing government: a frank and fearless press.
So it is a good thing that the scope of the government's media inquiry has heen limited, at least compared with some of the expansive and deeply worrying approaches suggested by the Greens, some independents and a bevy of government backbenchers.
Communications Minister Stephen Conroy released the terms of reference for the inquiry on Wednesday. It will be independent, not parliamentary. Ownership and concentration are supposedly off the agenda, although, critically, there is a reference to enhancing "diversity". Privacy is out too. Instead, the inquiry will investigate the internet challenge to the journalism business, and the role of self-regulation.
This inquiry, limited as it is, should still worry supporters of free speech. The government should not get a pass on questions of press freedom.
It's clear we would not be having an inquiry into the media if the government and the Greens were happy with the press coverage they have received. Although Conroy was at pains to say that the inquiry was not focused on any one media outlet, or prompted by the harsh treatment the government believes it is receiving from the media, it doesn't take a cynic to doubt his sincerity.
After all, it is just two weeks since we learnt that cabinet recently spent time discussing whether or not it should go to war with News Ltd, including a suggestion they could damage The Australian newspaper by depriving it of government advertising.
The Greens have openly floated the prospect of investigating media outlets for bias, suggested that newspapers should be licensed (presumably so the government could threaten to take it away), that media barons should have to meet a "fit and proper" test, and that News Ltd could be forced to divest some of its newspaper assets because they have deemed it too powerful here.
Despite Conroy's protestations - and the suggestion from Bill Shorten that the inquiry was focused on rogue bloggers, as if that was somehow better for free speech - Greens leader Bob Brown said yesterday that the inquiry was not merely "a foot in the door" to look at media ownership, but a "door wide open".
The government argues it has limited the press inquiry. But the Greens and, it appears, some members of the government, think otherwise. A media inquiry in this environment can have no other impact than to chill criticism of the government and to cow the press.
Conroy has admitted that a super-regulator "could be an outcome", dragging print into the complicated and often arbitrary regulatory framework that governs broadcast media.
Julian Disney, head of the currently voluntary and industry-funded Press Council, has mused he might like to have some "statutory teeth". Teeth is a strange word to use if you're worried about press freedom. Disney is also asking for taxpayers' money to expand the work of his organisation.
This is yet another example of how voluntary codes of conduct morph over time into mandatory regulation. We see this dynamic occur in many industries. But those who have long complained that the industry does not adequately self-regulate - like, for instance, the ABC's Media Watch - program have opened a door to much more draconian regulation by the state.
The political nature of the media inquiry is obvious, especially considering its relationship to the other inquiries into media regulation.
The Convergence Review - also independent - is a serious investigation of how technological change has challenged or undermined the regulatory frameworks that govern communications and media networks. The distinctions between broadcast, online and print have now been blurred As a consequence, the Australian Communications and Media Authority suggests the vast majority of media regulations are broken or strained.
Changing the regulations to suit this new world should be the most important regulatory game in town.
The Convergence Review will shed much greater light on the future of media law than the government's new inquiry. But it provides no opportunity to criticise News Ltd, so the
Convergence Review has been paid scant attention by politicians who feel victimised by Rupert Murdoch's press.
Increased government regulation of the press will not eliminate bad journalism. On the other hand, it might encourage editors to hold back on a story that could unleash a vigorous debate. It might make
journalists think twice before digging for newsworthy information in the public interest that is likely to offend. And increased press regulation by a government unhappy with the media coverage it has received can only have one purpose: to restrict free speech for its political benefit.
The government has obviously worked hard to make the inquiry seem modest to media proprietors yet still robust to the Greens, but any attempt to investigate the press by a government as on the ropes as this one should be treated with utmost suspicion.