Bob Brown’s remarkable revelation on the ABC’s Background Briefing program that he was directly offered a $1m “bribe” of free media coverage in exchange for supporting media ownership reform in 2000, has placed a question mark over every major media company in the country.

Brown has since declined to state who made the offer, either under privilege or outside Parliament, on the basis that it would be defamatory.

Let’s pick this apart and see what we can work out.

For a start, there were no media ownership laws being reformed in 2000. There were significant changes to the broadcasting regulatory framework to finalise the digital television laws in 2000 (think Richard Alston’s brilliant “datacasting” idea), but these were passed with the grudging support of the Opposition. Independent senators like the Greens had no role in blocking or approving the digital television laws.

Brown’s office has confirmed the Senator is not totally sure of the dates, and that it might have been later. He may be thinking of 2002, when Richard Alston tried to get the Government’s first media ownership reforms through the Senate by getting the support of cross-bench Senators. The attempt eventually foundered, but not before most of the major media companies sent their heaviest hitters to Canberra – including James Packer and Lachlan Murdoch – to lobby recalcitrant Senators to pass the Government’s reforms.

The reform package would have freed up ownership laws for newspapers, radio and television, with a series of clumsy restrictions such as two out of three, the 4/5 test and editorial separation inserted as diversity safeguards.

There’s one media group we can rule out: the Seven Network, which was opposed to the changes and worked to undermine them as part of Kerry Stokes’s rivalry with PBL and News Ltd. That gets one of the three TV company “witches”, as they were known, off the hook – Seven’s Bridget Godwin. Every other major media company, however, was in favour of the changes.

An anonymous tipster has pointed out to Crikey that we’ve seen something similar before – from News. In 2001, News offered the ALP special coverage to “sell the concept” of Knowledge Nation (remember the spaghetti?) to the electorate via News Limited publications. Media Watch picked up on this story a couple of years later.

The Knowledge Nation deal required payment, albeit at a discounted rate, and so it could be argued – as indeed News did argue to Media Watch – that it had proposed a simple advertising deal.

However, Brown’s comments suggest he was offered coverage free – which is a different matter altogether. Even the most charitable interpretation suggests a media company was willing to give free advertising to a political party in exchange for support for media reform. A more serious interpretation is that the media company concerned was prepared to skew its editorial content in favour of the Greens.

Section 141.1 of the Criminal Code makes it illegal to promise a benefit to a Commonwealth public official, including a Member of Parliament We checked with the Australian Federal Police about the matter. The AFP said they were checking the transcript from yesterday’s broadcast, but waiting for a complaint from the Australian Electoral Commission or Brown himself. But the AEC confirms there is no offence under the Commonwealth Electoral Act about bribing MPs – only voters. They won’t be getting one from the AEC or, it appears, Senator Brown.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey