A free society doesn’t license newspapers: Turnbull

There really should be no licensing restrictions on people running newspapers or publishing on websites, said Shadow Communications Minister and former journalist, Malcolm Turnbull. AAP

The News of the World phone-hacking scandal has opened up a new debate over media ethics and the ways in which the industry is regulated in Australia.

Over the past few days Greens Leader Bob Brown has called for an inquiry to examine whether media owners should pass a “fit and proper person test”. Prime Minister Julia Gillard has indicated she’s got an open mind on an inquiry and urged journalists to “stop writing crap”. Former prime minister Paul Keating has renewed calls for parliament to create a law to protect privacy.

To continue this conversation, today we sought out the views of Opposition Communications Spokesman Malcolm Turnbull, someone who is familiar with the modus operandi of media owners and who worked at the _Sunday Times _in the UK in 1979, before it was bought by Murdoch.

This phone interview was conducted earlier today.


What are the dangers versus benefits of state regulation of the media’s behaviour?

The media is already regulated in many different ways. The broadcast media are regulated because they are a licensed spectrum. A whole lot of legislation and regulation has been built up over the years surrounding the operation of broadcasters because they are using public property. I don’t think anyone is suggesting there needs to be more regulation in that area.

What Brown, as I gathered, was talking about was a desire to have some form of licensing for newspapers. If you are going to license newspapers, why not websites? We would be just walking away from so many tenets of a free society. There really should be no licensing restrictions on people owning newspapers or publishing on websites.

Having said that, of course, they have to comply with the law. If you defame people, you will get taken to court and have to pay up if you get it wrong, you can’t be in contempt of court and you obviously shouldn’t be hacking into people’s phones. If you get caught doing that, and people have been in the UK, there are consequences for that.

If there was evidence of phone hacking via News Ltd employees in Australia, then that might be a different thing but there is no evidence of any such activity in Australia.

An inquiry that had as its premise or justification the fact that there had been this illegal conduct at the News of the World and possibly other Fleet Street newspapers belonging to Murdoch, well, it would be a bit like a fishing expedition, wouldn’t it? What are you doing, calling in [News Limited Chairman and Chief Executive] John Hartigan and all the editors and saying ‘Tell us that you haven’t been hacking people’s phones’? That’s not what inquiries should be used for.

What do you think of Keating’s comments on Lateline that this issue should be regulated through privacy laws?

I think there is a powerful argument for a law on privacy, a very powerful argument.

That’s a very worthwhile debate but that’s really not a question of regulation as such, it’s a question of legislation. Should we create a statutory right of privacy?

A lot of the things about the Fleet Street publishers and what they publish about people’s private lives are less common in Australia. It’s very common in the tabloid press in London. A lot of that stuff could not be lawfully published in many European countries because of privacy laws.

So do you think we should create a statutory right of privacy?

It’s a good question. I think it’s certainly something worth debating. I haven’t considered it for a long time.

There hasn’t been much call for it in Australia because we haven’t had the same tabloid outrages here that they have had in the UK.

But if people feel this is a hot issue and something that needs to be addressed, I think that is definitely a legitimate area for a debate and discussion.

But how do you define privacy? Most people think that a public figure’s private life should not be dragged through the newspapers. But in Britain, that’s how Fleet Street basically seems to live.

But what do you do if a public figure is hypocritical? What if it is a preacher who is up there every Sunday telling people not to sin and be virtuous but in fact he has two mistresses and is a shareholder in a gambling den? Is that something where you are entitled to publish?

When does the private life of a public figure become a public issue? It’s not a black and white question.

One of the issues Senator Brown has raised is just how much of the Australian newspaper market News Ltd owns, with Murdoch having 70% of newspapers in Australia. What do you think of that?

That’s not a recent development. With great respect to Paul Keating, it was Paul Keating who gave Murdoch permission to buy the Herald Weekly Times group. That’s how he got to that level of 70%.

The issue of ownership and concentration have been dealt with in the past, but you have to say the media universe and, in particular, the news and information media universe is much bigger now than it was in 1985, which I think was the year Murdoch bought the Herald Weekly Times.

If you say who are the competitors with the Sydney Morning Herald or the Daily Telegraph or the Herald Sun, well it’s not just other newspapers. There’s now an infinite variety of digital media and a lot of foreign digital media. If you are the Financial Review, for example, your competitors are the FT and the Wall Street Journal.

Not to speak of social media or your august website.

If anything, the dominance of News Ltd has actually diminished in Australia. Not because there have been more newspapers opening but because the range of competition for newspapers has dramatically increased.

Any other thoughts on what this phone hacking scandal tells us about journalism today?

I think we have basically moved away from a news cycle to an opinion cycle. Lachlan Harris, Rudd’s former media adviser, made this point and I think it’s correct.

You see, increasingly, the media is not made up of people objectively analysing and reporting news but, in fact, it is one trenchant opinion after another. Look at talk back radio now – the shock-jockery is seriously part of it and sometimes extreme in every respect.

Look at Fox News in the U.S. It is incredibly profitable and that is no doubt why they operate the way they do. But it is presenting a highly partisan point of view that doesn’t pretend to be objective any more than Alan Jones pretends to be objective or Ray Hadley. They are running campaigns all the time and that works for them commercially.

There’s a couple of reasons why that works. One is it costs less. You don’t need to hire as many journalists if all you are doing is putting forth ferocious opinions as opposed to doing real, objective, investigative journalism. Very few newspapers can afford that nowadays.

The other difficulty is, you look at the way the politics is reported in Canberra. There is very little about the policies. There’s little policy analysis, whether it’s policy of the government or the policy of the Opposition.

Most of the coverage is about personalities, who’s up who, who’s up the greasy pole, who’s going up and who’s going down. It’s basically calling politics as a football match without actually focusing on the policy.

This infuriates and exasperates the Australian public because they feel they are being let down. I think the public, frankly, are not that interested in the personalities of Tony Abbott or Julia Gillard or Kevin Rudd.

What they are interested in is: what are these people’s policies going to mean for me? What they want to see is less sensationalism and more objective analysis.

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