Black, white and Greens all over

As Thomas Jefferson said in 1787: “were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate to prefer the latter.”

Greens leader Bob Brown and prime minister Julia Gillard agree on many things, including that the newspapers of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation have been unfairly critical of their government.

And so when the News of the World phone-hacking scandal surfaced, they saw the opportunity to have an inquiry into Australian newspapers with the all too obvious threat of further regulation, even forced divestment, of newspapers.

In July, the Prime Minister told the National Press Club that she was “truly disgusted to see it [and] I’m not surprised that that’s causing in our national conversation consideration about the role of the media in our democracy and the media’s role generally”.

The phone hacking was disgraceful, criminal conduct and has been rightly condemned. But there is no evidence of any phone hacking by Australian newspapers.

So what to inquire into? Well there was News Corporation’s large share of metropolitan newspapers. But it has been so since Paul Keating allowed Mr Murdoch to buy the Herald & Weekly Times group in 1986 and in the intervening 25 years the growth of online media has meant that newspapers represent a smaller and smaller share of the overall market for news and information.

What about bias? The Greens canvassed the idea of licensing newspapers, like radio and TV stations, and imposing a government regulator like Australian Communications and Media Authority on them.

But if you tune into your local talkback radio station you can determine for yourself whether the oversight of ACMA and government licensing has made broadcast media more balanced, reasonable or well informed than the unregulated print media.

The truth was that apart from giving News Corporation a whack around the chops, there was never much of an agenda for another media inquiry.

But what the Greens want, they generally get, even if it is utterly unnecessary. And the very fact that this inquiry is being held simply reminds us of how compliant the Gillard Government is to the Greens. All the themes outlined in the terms of reference of the new inquiry are covered by the ongoing Convergence Review into the changing media landscape.

Rupert Murdoch once said that the internet would destroy more profitable businesses than it would create. That may be a bit gloomy but certainly the deteriorating profitability (and indeed the demise) of many newspapers raises big questions of how quality journalism can be paid for in a digital world.

Is there a risk that we have a proliferation of new outlets but insufficient revenues to pay for anything other than endless (and cheap) opinionating?

This is the most important of the issues referred to the new inquiry, and it is a very interesting one, but it is completely within the ambit of the Convergence Review which is looking at the full spectrum of issues relating to world of digital media and the merging, or converging, of print and broadcast all into one seamless digital landscape.

So why would we have two inquiries simultaneously looking into the same issues? The answer is simply for no reason other than to give Senator Brown an inquiry into the media so that he can go back to his supporters and chalk up another win for the Greens extracted from the captive Labor Government.

But the main concern journalists will have with this new inquiry is not what is in the terms of reference but what the real (not so hidden) agenda may be.

Radio and television have historically been regulated and licensed because radio spectrum is limited and it is up to governments to allocate it.

A mark of a free society has always been that the media should be free, within the laws of defamation and contempt of court, to express themselves as they see fit.

A newspaper, no more than a talkback announcer, has no legal obligation to be fair or balanced. Not because being fair and balanced is not desirable – it is.

But because everybody has a different view of what is fair and what is balanced and so, in a free society, a lively contest of opinion and ideas, often in very loud discord, is the best way for all of us to get to the facts of the matter and make up our own minds.

* Malcolm Turnbull is the shadow minister for communications and broadband

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