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Media reforms: lessons from a narrow escape to a fragile freedom

It is just a week since the Gillard government withdrew the four media reform bills for which it could not garner the necessary support from the crossbench MPs. The proposal that concerned me most as a…

Media organisations should push for media rights and freedoms on a more regular basis, not only when they’re under threat. AAP/Lukas Coch

It is just a week since the Gillard government withdrew the four media reform bills for which it could not garner the necessary support from the crossbench MPs.

The proposal that concerned me most as a media law scholar and free expression advocate was the News Media (Self-regulation) Bill. This would have given an individual the power to deregister bodies, like the Australian Press Council, if they failed to police effectively the ethical standards of their newspaper and online members.

The big stick the so-called Public Interest Media Advocate would have wielded was the withdrawal of media companies' journalism exemption from the Privacy Act - a penalty that stood to send newspapers broke through its demands of bureaucratic compliance. I detailed this problem in a blog republished on The Conversation last week, describing it as a defacto form of licensing. Many vested political and commercial interests were at stake in this debate.

There are lessons for all to learn from the events of the past fortnight and from the broader media regulation debate of the preceding year. Free expression is often described as a “fragile freedom”, perpetually at risk in a democracy like Australia where it lacks any explicit constitutional protection.

It is a mistake to view free expression through the lens of your own political allegiances. My observation after more than two decades researching in the area and several years as Australia’s correspondent for Reporters Without Borders, is that governments of all political persuasions can present major threats to media freedom.

The conservative Howard government was responsible for more than 30 anti-terror laws introduced after 2001, many of which impinged on the reportage of important national security issues and cases. It also used Cabinet exemptions to freedom of information laws to deprive the media of access to important documents of legitimate public interest and refused to reform those laws for increased transparency of its processes.

The Rudd Labor government started well by revamping freedom of information laws under the stewardship of then-Special Minister of State John Faulkner. But communications minister Stephen Conroy’s determined and drawn out push for an internet filtering scheme was an early sign that here was a minister prepared to compromise free expression - and not just that of the big media companies.

He pursued that proposal for four years - and I can attest to the ongoing concern of Reporters Without Borders' internet desk and the proposal’s detrimental impact on Australia’s press freedom ranking over that period. The organisation ranked Australia as “under surveillance” on its Enemies of the Internet list in 2012 because of this proposal.

The latest reform push was sparked in a politically-charged retaliation to perceived attacks by the Murdoch press upon both Labor and the Greens against a backdrop of the News of the World saga in the UK.

While there had been discussion of models for reform over the past 18 months, the attempt to rush the bills through parliament in just a few days concerned my colleagues at Reporters Without Borders in Paris. Of special alarm was the statutory self-regulation mechanism involving the loss of privacy law protection that seemed to have no review-based origins, bearing no resemblance to recommendations from the Convergence Review or Finkelstein models that had been debated.

A clue to its origin came this week with the release of the New Zealand Law Reform Commission’s long-awaited media regulation review. It recommended the withdrawal of privacy and other media exemptions for any news media outlets unwilling to sign up to a pan-industry self-regulator. Perhaps there were some whispers across the Tasman?

Of added concern to Reporters Without Borders was the misuse of its World Press Freedom Index ranking system by both Conroy and Gillard in support of their statutory model. They pointed to the fact that the number one country - Finland - has a statutory regulation system, but failed to mention that it does not involve a penalty of almost certain death for recalcitrant companies and that it operates against a backdrop of a constitutional free speech protection.

The failed media reforms offer some important lessons particularly for Australia’s print media. AAP/Tracey Nearmy

Big media companies also deserved criticism for their failure to distinguish their commercial interests from the broader public interest in free expression. Major media organisations need to “walk the walk” of media freedom on an ongoing basis - and not just “talk the talk” when their businesses are under threat.

The major publishers need to accept some responsibility for this recent attack and its near success, because some mastheads, most notably The Australian and the Daily Telegraph, have been at times unfair in their attacks on individuals with opposing views.

The Australian often describes its critics as “strident”, but that is exactly how it sounded during this latest threat. The Daily Telegraph’s depiction of Conroy as Joseph Stalin in true London tabloid style was a strategic error for exactly that reason. It demonstrated that some of its editors have failed to grasp the scale of the News of the World saga and the message that such coverage now sends.

News Limited titles campaigned strongly against a Bill of Rights - which would have at least enshrined free expression at a constitutional level as a partial defence to this kind of legislative assault - as is the situation in other western democracies. The major media groups slashed Press Council funding by 30% four years ago, which I reported at the time, leaving it under-resourced and vulnerable to the serious criticism levelled at it in the Finkelstein Inquiry.

The major media groups should take from this episode a resolve to exercise their free expression more responsibly - even to the extent of protecting the right of others to speak against them in their own columns.

They also need to make absolutely sure their new Press Council model operates independently and effectively. Because the world now knows that a respected democracy like Australia might at any moment be just a few votes - and just a few days - away from licensing its press.

Join the conversation

28 Comments sorted by

  1. Hardy Gosch

    Mr.

    I personally give a damn about party politics and I couldn’t care less about labels such as left, right, centre, wet and dry. What I care about is the health of our democracy. I hate it when it gets trashed for the sake of profit and power or through sheer ineptitude and stupidity.

    The triumvirate MSM/ABC/LNP are clearly out of control for some time now. The malevolent alliance is hell bent in removing a policy rich and better than average Federal Government. These are unprecedented events…

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    1. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to Hardy Gosch

      isnt it one sense up to the labor party to rebut any claims of australia being in hock to our eyeballs.

      instead of all the infighting, it might be a whole lot more productive to concentrate on the opposition.

      it only takes one look at that graph for all australians to be aware of the reality and not the hype that is thrown at us by the libs and the media.
      so let labor go at it and stop being so lacklustre....

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    2. Kim Darcy

      Analyst

      In reply to Hardy Gosch

      "What I care about is the health of our democracy. I hate it when it gets trashed for the sake of profit and power or through sheer ineptitude and stupidity."
      Well, you can't get away from that. 'Democracy' - by definition - is all about 'power'; from the Greek, "kratos".

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    3. Kim Darcy

      Analyst

      In reply to Hardy Gosch

      The conspiracy of the joined forces of "the triumvirate MSM/ABC/LNP", you reckon? Well given that triumvirate reflects the views of about 90% of the population...

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  2. Stephen Ralph

    carer at n/a

    to the layman's view (or mine if you prefer), the australian press council seems to have paid lip service to the idea of a a balanced and unbiased media.

    their charter is impressive and would imply that they are the watchdog for an unscrupulous and unrestrained media.

    but given the unbalanced rhetoric and partisan journalism that is rampant in this country, and given the many blatant lies and misrepresentation made week in week out, it could be a reasonable assumption that the apc has been a lacklustre if not incompetent body.

    if we did have a robust and vital body that was to oversee the quality and veracity of the media, then it could also be a purpose of such an independent body to offer constructive and relevant criticism of government policy and process.

    perhaps an idealised view of what would work, but to me it would be better than the toothless tiger we seem to be saddled with.

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    1. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      oh and how much do the 23 members get paid for being on the committee.....how much is disney earning.......and for what?

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    2. David Bentley

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      Brilliantly put Stephen.

      There is no question that the ideal model is one of tough, fair and unbiased self-regulation which promotes freedom of expression coupled with high journalistic standards.

      That's the ideal model....and then we have the APC, a body which has been shown time and time again to be a toothless tiger. As noted in this article major publications including (but not limited to) The Australian and the Daily Telegraph have for years made stock and trade of publishing half truths…

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  3. James Hill

    Industrial Designer

    Similar arguments might just as easilly be made by pervert priests seeking to retain the same advantage of self-regulation or more archaically "compurgation".
    So one acquires this "semi-divine" privilege of immunity from retribution for wrongs done by joining the journalists union and being outfitted with the vuvuvela of freedom to be blasted continuously upon any mention of accountability.
    Hey Mafia types, get onto this one, and you have the successful example of life-long Murdoch Man, "Totalitarian…

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    1. William Cranston

      logged in via email @iinet.net.au

      In reply to James Hill

      One by one all of the serious professions have gone from self-regulatory models to regulation, such as legal and medical professions. Often this has resulted in very onerous obligations and processes being imposed - begrudgingly at times - but overall it is accepted by most as part and parcel of helping ensure a compact of trust is kept in the public interest. But media has been an accountability free zone for too long, that they now conflate this invulnerability with the public interest. In a nutshell…

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    2. Kim Darcy

      Analyst

      In reply to William Cranston

      Journalists are not 'professionals', as solicitors, doctors, architects, and quantity surveyors are; and newspapers are not hospitals, confessionals, or academic journals. You need to understand what journalism and the media is all about. It is about life's rough and tumble. Enjoy the ride.

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    3. William Cranston

      logged in via email @iinet.net.au

      In reply to Kim Darcy

      I didn't claim journalism was equivalent to the legal profession, and I do not support government regulation regardless. My point was that we recognise that privileges call for some measure of responsibility and accountability in important roles. This means there's a tension in the media's claim of special status, which does afford privileges, and the blanket rejection of even that limited form of responsibility compromising codes of conduct set voluntarily by the industry itself through the self-regulatory body.

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  4. William Cranston

    logged in via email @iinet.net.au

    This is better than the previous piece by the same contributor, but it still doesn't provide real support for the assertion that the Bill constituted de facto media licensing. That’s hyperbole no way around it. Having concerns about the PIMA role, particularly s.3c around community standards is sensible. So I think the universal criticism assailing the legislative timetable is well justified. More time for debate and drafting tweaks to iron out some of the issue would have been appropriate for this…

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  5. John Campbell

    farmer

    In Australia we have pretty much the situation where the government runs the country (or they think they do) and the media runs the government(and they know they do).

    This unholy alliance between media and government is a threat to not only our freedoms, including freedom of speech, but ultimately undermines any pretense of a working democracy..

    We have a situation where the media power has become so centralised and corrupted that the 'freedom of the press' means little more than the media…

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  6. Tim Mazzarol

    Winthrop Professor, Entrepreneurship, Innovation, Marketing and Strategy at University of Western Australia

    Hi Mark,

    Thank you for your article, which I found very interesting. I bring to everyone’s attention the recent Pew Research Centre’s report “The State of the News Media 2013”

    See: http://stateofthemedia.org/2013/overview-5/

    While I’m sure that you will be aware of it others may not. It is focused primarily on the USA but it has salient lessons for Australia give how our main stream media (MSM) are largely owned and controlled from America via Rupert Murdoch.

    What is most concerning…

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    1. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to Tim Mazzarol

      it could also be a vicious circle....the worse the media gets, the less public support.

      and in regard to the under 30s deserting tv news, it could be a case of the dumbing down of younger generations for whatever reasons. they maybe too interested in facebook or twitter to even know what is going on.

      or perhaps the news these days is just an endless cycle of bad news and lack of informative stories. our 6 o'clock news is a good example of trash over information.

      i notice on the age website there are many articles/stories/bagatelles that are present for a week or more. and so much of the age is now those trashy entertainment/gossipy stories that were once the suns, or womens weekly domain.

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  7. Tom James

    Student

    Mark Pearson, a very one sided opinon piece. The media in Australia are blessed with freedom of speach, so much so that they regularly abuse that power in order to influence business, political or social factors for their OWN BENEFIT.

    You say that "a penalty that stood to send newspapers broke through its demands of bureaucratic compliance", with no link to sufficient evidence.. *propaganda alet*. How can you say that when you have not provided evidence itbased on tested and evaluated scenarios…

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  8. Paul Cm

    logged in via email @gmail.com

    Thanks for the article Mark, and particularly for communicating these two points:

    1. "Free expression is often described as a “fragile freedom”, perpetually at risk in a democracy like Australia where it lacks any explicit constitutional protection."

    And:

    "It is a mistake to view free expression through the lens of your own political allegiances. My observation after more than two decades researching in the area and several years as Australia’s correspondent for Reporters Without Borders, is that governments of all political persuasions can present major threats to media freedom."

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    1. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to Paul Cm

      come on paul.....as thomas cobban suggests, australia is not a country where
      "political persuasions can present major threats to media freedom."

      this is not putin's russia, or mugabe's zimbabwe............to suggest otherwise is hysterical hyperbole.

      the media treats the government with pitiful disdain, and prints/presents repetitious half-truths in place of informative and responsible journalism and reporting.

      investigative journalism is almost a forgotten memory in australia.

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    2. Paul Cm

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      Hi Stephen,

      Mark pointed out "*potential* risk", he didn't say Australia was anything like Russia or Zimbabwe now, his point was that in the absence of constitutional safeguards in Australia, it is a constant battle to guard media freedoms.

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    3. William Cranston

      logged in via email @iinet.net.au

      In reply to Paul Cm

      1. This is technically true, but rather exaggerated for effect here, I think. It is a consequence of our system of parliamentary sovereignty that very serious alterations can be made to fundamental rights by government enactments. (By the same token they can be removed just as easily future governments.) But that seemingly dangerous system has nonetheless served us well as a template for civilisation (cf. the Weimar Republic), and importantly, its scope is not unlimited. The High Court has recognised…

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    4. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to Paul Cm

      hi paul

      i just feel there is that "implied"possible worst case scenario where australia is concerned.

      e.g.

      "The organisation ranked Australia as “under surveillance” on its Enemies of the Internet list in 2012 because of this proposal."

      what does that mean? its vaguely a kgb/stasi like reference! ( well almost to my thinking)

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    5. Paul Cm

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      Fair point Stephen.

      I suppose that's why the quotes I used were more the ones I agreed with.

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  9. Ronald Ostrowski

    logged in via Facebook

    Labor has it self to blame for this. It should have had the bills out there before Christmas. I sometimes wonder if they are in on the very MSM/ABC/LNP conspiracy to have a reigime change. We know that the LNP through Abetz are wanting to reduce thee affectiveness of race vilification and discrimination legislation so that the likes of Bolt can freely engage in injurious falsehoods against individuals for a political outcome. Our democracy is doomed.

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  10. Gerard Dean

    Managing Director

    Bravo Professor

    The author, a professor of journalism, is one of a very rare breed that understands true free speech, which is the freedom for others to say things you like and the things you don't like. This freedom extends to letting people say wildly inaccurate and stupid things that may offend.

    Other professors of Journalism and commentators on The Conversation call for a, 'a balanced and unbiased media'. In fact it is more important is that we have multiple news streams so we can decide for ourselves. That way bias in one media organisation will be countered by the opposite bias in another.

    In the end, I don't want academic experts to tell me what I should or shouldn't read in the newspaper.

    Let me decide.

    Gerard Dean

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  11. Peter Ormonde
    Peter Ormonde is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Farmer

    Hey you advocates of "freedom of the press" and defenders of "free speech"... where do you think this orchestrated campaign from the bosses of Fairfax and Limited News was coming from?

    You reckon that Telegraph front page was a spontaneous outburst of rage and indignant hyperbole from some infuriated journalist?

    Where do you advocates and defenders go when Rupert or Gina (potentially) tell their editors what to be writing, who they want in government, what policies they want killed off or…

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