The government’s deal to save its public interest test — give a panel of “eminent persons” the right to make decisions — won’t fix the basic problems of protecting media diversity.
The government, it seems, is getting desperate about the media reform package, the fate of which it last week professed such a marked insouciance about.
By a remarkable coincidence, the government’s whistleblower protection bill made its appearance on the government’s legislative to-do list this week. That’s the bill that has spent much of the last two years lost in the corridors of the ministerial wing between Gary Gray’s office and that of the Attorney-General, Mark Dreyfus.
Dreyfus, apparently, has found a copy of the bill at the same time the government wanted Andrew Wilkie, who in October unveiled his own whistleblower protection bill he’d drafted with help from Professor AJ Brown of Griffith University and Melbourne University’s Dr Suelette Dreyfus, to back its media reform package.
The government’s whistleblower protection bill has taken so long, Dreyfus has gone from the humble backbencher who chaired the committee looking at whistleblower issues in 2008 to attorney-general, all in the time it has taken to respond to his report. This morning, Dreyfus dismissed any link between media reform and the sudden appearance of the bill. And, to be fair, the government did say after Wilkie revealed his bill last year that it would introduce a bill “early in the new year”. March is kinda early.
The other key shift to secure passage of the media package is, reportedly, replacing a single Public Interest Media Advocate with a panel — the PIMAs? — itself appointed by a larger panel of eminent persons.
With any luck, that larger panel will itself be appointed by a still larger group of slightly-less eminent people — and so on, ad infinitum. It’s panels all the way down, young man.
The problem is, replacing a single decision-maker with a group of decision-makers does nothing to address the core problem of a public interest test, that it is uncertain and subjective. This is why it offers no certainty to investors or media proprietors about whether transactions will be approved, and no certainty to Australians who want what little media diversity we have left protected. One person’s call on what the public interest and media diversity is, or three people’s call, still remains a subjective take.
It also outsources the problem. There’s a deeper issue here. No one, not even the Convergence Review authors who recommended a public interest test, trusts politicians to properly administer it. That’s the system they have in England and it saw a Murdoch mate, Tory minister Jeremy Hunt, come within days of ticking off on News Corp’s bid for BSkyB before the worst of the phone-hacking scandal engulfed the company. But at least politicians have to regularly face voters. “Eminent people” sound fine, but who voted for them to make such significant decisions?
And perhaps we should outsource more significant decisions so that politicians won’t let political considerations interfere with them. We’ve already done it with monetary policy. What about fiscal policy? Foreign investment? Going to war? That may or may not be a good idea — the problem is, there’s no thought or consistency given to how we correlate democratic accountability and the making of controversial Big Decisions. People generally prefer “eminent people” if they don’t like the sorts of decisions politicians make, and vice versa.
Supporters of a public interest test are convinced it will protect what’s left of our media diversity. But they will be terribly disappointed once the first pro-merger decision is made. After that, what then?