Civil Liberties

Press Freedom Under Threat in Australia


Senator Stephen Conroy
Dr. Ron

When last I wrote about the move toward government control of the press in countries that traditionally tolerated relative media freedom, Australia was flirting with a document coughed up by the Finkelstein Inquiry which, as with Britain's Leveson Inquiry and the European Commission's High-Level Group on Media Freedom and Pluralism report, created justifications for a state grab for control of the press. Now the Australian government's flirtation has turned into a whole-hearted embrace with a sloppy kiss, as officials put forward an explicit proposal for reining-in the media under government control. What makes the situation even more interesting is that, of all the press reports, the Finkelstein Inquiry is the most overtly politicized.

Detailed legislation is still a day or two away, but the Labor government's broad proposals are available for the world to see on the Website of Senator Stephen Conroy (the smug-looking seat warmer in the photo above), the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy. The proposals include:

  • A press standards model which ensures strong self-regulation of the print and online news media.
  • The introduction of a Public Interest Test to ensure diversity considerations are taken into account for nationally significant media mergers and acquisitions.
  • Modernising the ABC and SBS charters to reflect their online and digital activities.
  • Supporting community television services following digital switchover by providing them a permanent allocation of a portion of Channel A.
  • Making permanent the 50% reduction in the licence fees paid by commercial television broadcasters, conditional on the broadcast of an additional 1460 hours of Australian content by 2015.

The key points here are the "press standards model" and the "Public Interest Test" for media ownership.The proposals go on to specify that "the Government will bring forward a press standards model which ensures strong self-regulation by print and online media organisations" and "Membership to such a body will ensure exemptions from privacy legislation for its member organisations." So, press organization won't be forced to submit to regulation, but they'll be subject to special legal burdens if they don't.

Writing for Australia's Institute of Public Affairs, James Paterson warns:

Placing this power in the hands of a government regulator inevitably will insert political considerations into what should purely be a commercial decision-making process. This delivers on the Greens' hopes that some individuals could be prevented from owning a media outlet.

Australia now also effectively will have a press licensing system. Any media outlet not signed up to a government-endorsed media regulator will lose journalistic privileges such as exemptions from privacy laws.

This will force media groups that are not presently members of bodies such as the press council to join, and is a powerful threat to existing members that they must not leave. It will be virtually impossible to run a media outlet in Australia without being under the supervision of government-appointed bureaucrats.

As for what drives the government in its quest for power over the press, note that the Finkelstein Inquiry admitted:

Concern was also expressed by several politicians and others that certain of News Limited's papers (The Australian and the Daily Telegraph) were biased in their reporting on particular issues. Climate change and the National Broadband Network were given as examples.

Need I mention that The Australian and the Daily Telegraph are often at odds with the ruling party's policies? "Bias," as is often the case, translates as "criticism" and "opinions we don't like."

Unlike its British counterpart, the Australian press scheme seems to encompass online media, too, closing off the channel that some U.K. newspaper have considered of going purely digital. Still, it seems likely that enterprising Australian journalists, given backing, could base a digital news operation, along with its servers, in New Zealand or the United States so that its reporters could act as correspondents for a foreign news organization with the protection that implies. If the media legislation passes, that might be the last, best hope for a free press in Australia.

(H/T invisible furry hand)