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Issue #1586      March 20, 2013

“Press freedom” furore masks media self-interest

The federal parliament hasn’t even seen the fine print of the Communications Minister’s proposal to alter current media rules but the public has already been subjected to a sustained and hysterical media campaign against the legislation. Stephen Conroy has been called “Gillard’s henchman” with headlines, editorials and columnists going into hyperbolic overdrive to suggest the Gillard government is out to censor the bosses’ media. The alleged objective: to lift the PM’s flat-lining political fortunes. The proposed changes have certainly caused a flare-up in the ongoing war over media acquisitions involving rival industry players but the suggestion that the government is going to do anything about meaningless print media “self-regulation” is a joke.

The latest legislation has its origins in the government’s Convergence Review established in March 2011 and the Finkelstein Review set up in September of the same year. The latter inquiry was launched in the wake of the phone hacking scandal involving Rupert Mudoch’s News Limited media empire in the UK. Australia’s corporate media have closed ranks to defend the “Dirty Digger’s” local operations but the awkward fact remains that the tainted press baron owns a sizeable chunk of Australia’s mainstream media. The ongoing, unscrupulous campaigns against federal Labor and the Greens were also as plain as the nose on Rupert’s face at the time of the establishment of the inquiry.

Conroy’s legislation reportedly contains a host of sweeteners for the monopoly media. TV licence fees would be halved. This could save the Seven, Ten and Nine networks around $150 million a year. Seven’s chairman Kerry Stokes claims the “price of TV industry reform is just too high”, in reference to the proposals regarding the print media. The government intends to establish a Public Interest Media Advocate to rule on proposed mergers in the industry and to oversee the working of the Press Council, which currently receives complaints regarding newspaper content.

“Press freedom is not something that can be put up for sale,” Mr Stokes said. He is also reported to be opposed to the proposed scrapping the 75 percent “reach rule” at this stage. This rule restricts a TV network’s access to, at most, 75 percent of the population. At different times, all the big players have campaigned against this and other media ownership rules. But, right now, Seven and Ten claim they need more time to consider the change. The reason for this new-found caution is undoubtedly the merger currently being discussed by the Nine Entertainment Co. and Southern Cross Media.

Big financial interests are at the core of the hysteria over supposed attacks on press freedom. The Public Interest Media Advocate being proposed could not do anything to stem the trashy, right-wing trend in the press or stamp out the abuses going on at present. When asked whether she acknowledged any of News Corp CEO Kim Williams’ concerns about “government-sanctioned journalism”, the Prime Minister replied, “That is absolute nonsense. The media industry says to me that they believe in self-regulation, well tick, so do I.”

The legislation also foreshadows changes to the charters of the ABC and SBS to confirm their roles in online media. The minister maintains that his legislation is aimed at preserving or expanding media diversity. His detractors, like Opposition communications spokesman Malcolm Turnbull, claim that such efforts are unnecessary because Australia has never enjoyed greater media diversity. This is deliberately misleading. Well-resourced media – the places that people go to for the raw material of the plethora of blogs, Facebook posts and Tweets – are as monopolised as they ever have been. The lifting of ownership rules could worsen that situation. The legislation reportedly says little of substance about support for local content or community television.

Federal Labor must be frustrated that its efforts to get out of the corporate media’s road have backfired so spectacularly. The current spectacle poses the question as to how the media could be reformed to allow for the proper airing of a greater diversity of views. Both major parties prefer that the media are absolutely dominated by monopoly interests. Ultimately, it will be a task for a government of a new type, made up of left and progressive forces with active support in the community, to encourage such new media. The quicker we achieve that radical political change, the quicker we will get decent media content.  

Next article – Editorial – Pope Francis I and the poor

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