Gillard’s ‘public interest’ is the right to gag critics

If there is any reason not to trust the Gillard government with anything to do with the media, it is its record. You would think they would be satisfied with having at their disposal an army of spin doctors ready to shape the news as favourably as possible. Paid for by the taxpayer, the legion of publicists is headed by John McTernan, who is employed under one of those section 457 visas which the Prime Minister now rails against.

The government was quite prepared to gag the press before Senator Conroy dreamed up the idea of having a press czar who could stop any newspaper’s investigative journalist without even going to court.

Be warned by what happened in 2011.

We don’t know the full story, but we do know that the media stopped investigating a matter of legitimate public interest leading with a significant impact on at least two media careers.

The media investigation was about Julia Gillard’s involvement in setting up an “electoral slush fund” under the cover of an inappropriately named “AWU Workplace Reform Association” for her then boyfriend. Police suspect that many hundreds of thousands of dollars were defrauded through the fund. (It must be stressed that the Prime Minister denies any knowledge at the time that the Association was being used for fraudulent purposes.)

In August, 2011, Fairfax radio station 2UE promoted a coming broadcast of an interview by Michael Smith with the former AWU vice–president and whistleblower Bob Kernohan about this slush fund. It had been cleared by a leading defamation lawyer and by the station’s internal editorial process.

The interview was then pulled at almost the last minute on the orders of a senior Fairfax executive.

Acting on a complaint by the Prime Minister, The Australian and other News Ltd. papers published a very general apology and withdrew from the web a column by Glenn Milne.

Michael Smith’s employment with Fairfax came to an end, as did Glenn Milne’s relationship with The Australian and the ABC, where he was immediately dumped from his regular guest appearances on Insiders. Andrew Bolt was warned and hinted broadly that he was considering leaving News Ltd.

The ABC did not seem to consider these events particularly newsworthy.

It wasn’t until Alan Jones interviewed Michael Smith that this story – a matter of legitimate public interest – returned to the media, with The Australian’s Hedley Thomas subsequently leading their investigation.

In the meantime, the government disingenuously argues that, because the press is concentrated, it must be licenced. They ignore the fact that the internet has changed everything, diminishing even the power, audience reach and influence of the free-to-air television stations. Fact is, we have access to more information than any preceding generation.

In any event, the reason we have fewer newspapers today is that the Hawke government decided not to block the takeover of the vulnerable Herald & Weekly Times empire in 1986. The only viable offer came from News Ltd, and the takeover was found not to be in breach of our competition laws by the ACCC’s predecessor.

This was on the proviso that Murdoch sold off newspapers in Queensland and South Australia – which he did. The opposition agreed with the Hawke decision. Not one state government or opposition disagreed. Neither did the ALP nor the ACTU. (When the Press Council refused to support a "press takeovers tribunal", the Australian Journalists Association withdrew.)

The reason the Murdoch press is more successful is that they have readers willing to buy their newspapers.

And they certainly don’t want government sanitised news.

Professor David Fint headed the Australian Press Council from 1987 until 1997

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