View from The Hill

View from The Hill

Bad chemistry in media battle

Doug Cameron was astounded to be lectured on privacy by News Ltd chief executive Kim Williams. AAP/Alan Porritt

The media chiefs expect to have the last word about the government’s plan for a print media watchdog – more poodle than pit bull – and a public interest test to prevent further ownership concentration. And in private, the last laugh.

If, as seems likely, these media reforms crash, they will chuckle over how they put that upstart Communications Minister Stephen Conroy in his place.

They came to Canberra, tempers variably in hand, and locked horns with the feisty left senator Doug Cameron.

Cameron used to the hilt his chairmanship of one of the two parliamentary committees inquiring into the package.

After News Ltd’s chief executive Kim Williams gave his spiel about the evils and alleged unconstitutionality of what the government had in mind, the Scottish brogue of Cameron cut to the (British) chase. He found it “absolutely breathtaking to be lectured by the Murdoch press about the privacy laws”. The hypocrisy was huge, he said, after what the Murdoch press had done in the United Kingdom.

Cameron then tried to tie up Williams and Campbell Reid, News’s editorial director, over how the company defined the “public interest”. According to Williams, “the public interest is as long as a piece of string” and “in the eye of the beholder”.

Later, Williams argued that News had fully co-operated with the Leveson inquiry in the UK, a rather cheeky point, given that inquiry followed News International going to extraordinary lengths to cover up the extent of the scandal.

At one point Williams told the MPs: “I didn’t come here for a chemically difficult discussion, I came here to assist the committee to actually look at the legislation.”

Cameron wasn’t letting that go without putting the knife in. “Oh thanks, all the chemically difficult issues are done in your press… and that’s OK.”

“I can’t believe you said that”, Williams retorted.

The senator was like a dog after a bone in pursuing a claim made by former Australian Press Council chairman Professor Ken McKinnon, who told the Finkelstein inquiry into the print media: “I have had an editor say to me, ‘if you promise not to uphold any complaints from my paper, we will double our subscription. Is that a deal?’”

Fairfax’s Greg Hywood (CEO) and Gail Hambly (company secretary) said no one from Fairfax had said that.

Williams could not shed any light on the matter either. Anyway, “no [News Ltd] editor is any position to make any commitment to the Press Council, as to money being given to the Press Council”.

But he had an answer to solving the mystery. McKinnon was his good friend, and “I’m perfectly happy to ask Ken McKinnon”.

Surely McKinnon might just plead confidentiality of sources?

Hywood came out with one of the best quotes of the day when dealing with why it is okay to have a regulator over the broadcast media but not even an accrediting agency to oversee self regulation of print and online.

“The broadcasting industry is fundamentally an entertainment industry with some news on the side”, he said.

He warned that the government’s proposed (independent) Public Interest Media Advocate (now familiarly known as PIMA to its friends and enemies), charged with administering the public interest test as well as accrediting the industry bodies looking after standards, would have seriously dangerous consequences.

When unhappy with something in the media, the minister could be on the phone to his own appointee, saying “fix it” – “fix it being ‘get the media off our backs’”. Hywood said he had seen this sort of thing when he worked for the Victorian government a few years ago.

He also feared that a subsequent government could easily increase the powers of the advocate.

With Labor reeling in the wake of days of fierce attacks on its package, Cameron shot back “You are really kidding us, aren’t you?”

But Hywood, who in a former life was Canberra bureau head for The Australian Financial Review, reminded the senator: “A government with the numbers in both houses can do exactly what it wants”.

Behind the public parade of media chiefs, Communications Minister Stephen Conroy was working on the gigantic problem of the stubborn crossbenchers. The government is willing to make some changes to persuade them.

Last night the Greens said they would support the package provided the government made changes to the public interest test to protect regional news, and limited the number of press councils allowed. The Greens didn’t want the reforms consigned to “the dustbin of history”, leader Christine Milne said.

But while the government won one of the vital five crossbenchers it needs, it completely lost another. Country independent Rob Oakeshott announced he would oppose every one of the six bills in the Labor package.

And fellow country independent Tony Windsor told ABC Lateline that on the crossbench “there is a feeling that most of it is unachievable within the deadline.”

This leaves the government with the exquisite dilemma of whether to extend its current deadline of this week.

In parliament earlier, Tony Abbott moved his first suspension of standing orders for this two week sitting to denounce the package; he and communications spokesman Malcolm Turnbull teamed up for a relatively rare double act.

Meanwhile, the debate was also moving on. Gillard was asked at her news conference and again in Parliament whether, if the package can’t get through this week, she would take it to the election. She dodged. There is no way the Labor backbench would want to go to the polls with these measures in its kit bag.

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