Communications Minister Stephen Conroy’s spin around his government’s proposed media censorship laws aims to convince the public that these measures are necessary to ensure the responsible flow of acceptable information in a democracy.
It doesn’t sound very democratic to me — quite the opposite, in fact. But we will come back to that.
The Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (News Media Diversity) Bill 2013 suggests that these measures are necessary because media owners — particularly print, and more particularly News Ltd — would otherwise manipulate a concentration of news outlets. To counter this apparent threat the Government would have us believe it has been forced to act to enshrine news diversity.
Really. Well there is nothing altruistic about this piece of repressive legislation. It is entirely political and self-centred as the Government lurches from one crisis to another and thrashes about for any kind of diversion from its own incompetence. Mounting media criticism is simply reflecting growing public concern at the way the Rudd, and now Gillard, administrations have mismanaged the trust placed in them by the electorate. Any doubts about this can be quickly dispelled by looking at the consistent results of national opinion polls.
So, on the surface anyway, the Government is saying it must act to pull recalcitrant publishers into line in the interests of “freedom of the press, which is a corner stone of democracy.”
In reality this legislation strikes at the very heart of freedom of speech and the integrity of the profession of journalism. But you wouldn’t know it listening to the ABC or reading the news pages of the Fairfax publications. It is supremely ironic that these organisations, which have been only too ready in the past to wax lyrical about the virtues of their “quality journalism”, have effectively ignored the insulting suggestions from the Government that it must act to maintain standards of fairness in news reporting by appointing a media overlord. Forget the platitudes. This is nothing short of a newsroom censor.
The benign response which Conroy received from the Canberra-based media to his initial press conference on this legislation was extremely disappointing. At the very least it showed a lack of understanding or concern at the sinister nature of this legislation which should have come as no surpise to them.
This is not the first time that the Labor Government has tried to elbow its way into news management. Kevin Rudd’s manifesto for a revamped international television service — Australia Network — required the operator to submit advanced schedules of its news and current affairs programming schedules to Foreign Affairs, which he was then heading up after being dumped as Prime Minister.
Rudd’s tender process for this service collapsed, but not before the ABC indicated that it could swallow its pride over the issue of journalistic independence and keep its hand up for the contract.The rest is history. Conroy, who was given carriage of this issue after it was taken away from Rudd, granted the future management of Australia Network in perpetuity to the ABC, over which he has control, with continual annual funding of at least $20m which comes out of the Foreign Affairs budget.
And talking about budgets, Conroy has foreshadowed further fearther bedding for the ABC and SBS in their upcoming triennial budget reviews, which coincide with the campaign for this year’s federal election.
At the same time as he announced sweeping changes to existing media laws hitting the private sector he declared that the public broadcasters’ charters would be updated to take into account their online and digital content where they already get a government funded free kick at their commercial rivals.
Meanwhile, we can only guess how much the new Public Interest Media Advocate and his support-and-enforcement staff are going to cost the taxpayer on top of the millions already committed to running the hundreds of people employed by the existing regulator, the Australian Communications & Media Authority.
Clearly Conroy believes this is a small price to pay to guarantee government-controlled "freedom of speech". After all he has already committed billions of dollars of our money to set up a government-owned and -run national communications system in the form of the National Broadband Network to replace Telstra’s privately operated copper grid.
All this just goes to demonstrate that the country — and our future — are in the very best of hands!
Veteran journalist Malcolm Colless, who has watched governments come and go, recognises a rabble when he sees one