Time the government listened for once

Julia Gillard

Prime Minister Julia Gillard says she is “serious about media reform”. IMAGE: Wikimedia Commons

It has now added media policy to a long list. The Finkelstein review was born out of political spite and a desire to make a critical press more compliant, while the Convergence review became an instrument for a government-appointed body to determine who should – or should not – hold major interests in media assets.

This prompted – rightfully – an avalanche of protests by publishers and members of the community concerned by the erosion of the democratic tenet of press freedom and the implied constitutional right to freedom of speech.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard has agreed to meet with publishers to discuss the so-called reforms, but she remains adamant she wants stronger regulation and says she is “serious about media reform”.

There have been forceful arguments put forward by Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, communications spokesman Malcolm Turnbull and legal affairs spokesman George Brandis against both the Finkelstein proposal for a government-funded news media council and the Convergence review’s recommendation for a public interest test for media ownership.

However, there are two voices to which Ms Gillard should listen – both of whom have been strident critics of media standards and behaviour – former Labor communications minister Lindsay Tanner and former High Court judge Ian Callinan.

In a speech to a Samuel Griffith Society conference in Brisbane, Mr Callinan said the government’s proposed regulatory controls amounted to a muzzling of the press.

Despite instances of bias or distortion that may occur in print or broadcast reports, he believes a free media is fundamental to democracy and any form of regulation of it by government “is far too risky”.

“As somebody who has been very critical and still remains very critical of aspects of the media, I am nonetheless totally opposed to any form of regulation,” Mr Callinan said. “The struggle for free speech has been long and painfully achieved and I wouldn’t want to go back on it.”

Similarly Mr Tanner is no fan of the media, but is staunch in his belief that it should remain free from government intervention.

‘Yet diversity is being reduced as publishers establish national desks and rounds as well as seven-day rosters to counter falling revenues – and those who are obsessed by concentration of ownership are not saying a word.’

In an afterward to a newly-released edition of his 2011 book Sideshow – a treatise against what he believes is a trivialisation of politics by the press gallery – Mr Tanner described the publishers’ battle against statutory regulation as “fundamental”.

He said media organisations needed to fight greater government control “because of the overwhelming importance of free media in a democratic society”.

Mr Tanner’s successor in the communications portfolio Stephen Conroy – a driving force behind government’s attempts at media control – would do well to heed these sentiments.

The government’s attempts at reform could not come at a worse time for the sector. The major publishers have been confronted with writedowns of print assets, while attempting to establish new digital revenue streams – with cost-cutting and centralisation necessary to prop up bottom lines.

The irony is that the government is rationalising its intervention as an attempt to maintain media standards and diversity.

Yet diversity is being reduced as publishers establish national desks and rounds as well as seven-day rosters to counter falling revenues – and those who are obsessed by concentration of ownership are not saying a word.

It is time, for once, that the government just listened to those with a proper understanding of the enormity of the challenges that confront the industry and those wiser heads who appreciate the threat to democracy and freedom posed by its proposals.

Ian Moore was the founding editor of the Sunday Herald Sun and a former editor of The Sunday Telegraph

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