Government searches for way out of media mire

With a federal election looming no one should be surprised by the fact that the Gillard government is now looking for a fix in its war against the media.

Threatening censorship retribution to gag a hostile media, in what we like to call a democracy, is dumb at the best of times. But doing this in the run up to an election is just plain stupid.

 Stephen Conroy

Communication Minister Stephen Conroy has adopted a more conciliatory approach. IMAGE: Ray Strange/News Limited

No wonder the government is now trying to hose down the issue by suggesting that tougher self-regulations may well be an acceptable alternative to a new statutory authority. The problem for the government is that it has built up an expectation with its minority partners and the Left that it will legislate for tougher regulation of the media.

While the sharp response from the media bosses to this attack on freedom of speech has been unsurprising it is not clear what the public’s perception is.

If its reaction to the phone hacking scandal in London is any guide, the Australian public may be sympathetic or at least indifferent to the introduction of stronger controls on the media – even if it doesn’t understand what these entail.

Still, phone hacking by journalists is not an issue in Australia regardless of the government’s attempts to establish a connection primarily through the Prime Minister’s statement that local media outlets had some “hard questions to answer” in the face of the UK experience.

“My guess is that the government will now stall for time while the federal election rolls around. But is this good enough?”

By doing this the Prime Minister effectively unleashed the dogs in her own camp who are looking for a scapegoat for the government’s poor performance which has pushed its primary vote below 30 per cent. Now she has to find a way to round them up.

Communications Minister, Senator Stephen Conroy, who is an outspoken Gillard supporter, has had one of the loudest barks. Conroy set up the Finkelstein and Convergence Review inquiries into media regulation. So the ball is squarely in his court even if the buck stops with the Prime Minister.

While Conroy may not have been muzzled, he has certainly adopted a more conciliatory approach of late following the cue from his leader.

My guess is that the government will now stall for time while the federal election rolls around. But is this good enough?

What, for example, would the government’s position be in the highly unlikely event that it wins this election?

The Australian Press Council, for reasons best known to itself, has responded to this issue by appointing an advisory panel, with no media experience, to help it develop a standard of practice for its members. It is hard to escape the inference from this that the current council component of journalists, editors and community leaders is inadequate to make acceptable judgements about standards.

Anyway, it might give the government a way out of the hole it has dug for itself over the future of the media.

Whatever the case, News Corporation’s decision to cut loose its global print operations from its highly profitable film and TV divisions sends an unmistakable message about the future of the media industry.

If growing financial pressures start forcing a significant closure of newspapers across the print spectrum, the politicians will be the first to complain about the impact that this will have on their ability to connect with the electorate.

The hoary old issues of concentration of media ownership and diversity of opinion simply don’t wash in this rapidly changing environment. It’s about time governments woke up to this.

Malcolm Colless is a former senior executive at News Ltd and writes a column for The Australian’s media section.

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