Sometimes Tony Shepherd really doesn’t appear up to the job of representing Australia’s most important corporate lobby group, the Business Council of Australia. Either that or he’s getting some poor advice from his well-paid stable of advisers down on Collins Street in Melbourne.

His effort today in The Australian Financial Review on media regulation is another case in point.

Some of us can remember a time when Crikey was the lone voice in the wilderness railing against a public interest test for the media (yes, we’re the public interest test hipsters). But while it’s pleasant to have now been joined by a veritable parade of Australia’s most powerful executives in the cause, a lot of the rhetoric we’re now hearing just don’t make any sense.

“If we accept it is appropriate for government to decide who owns media companies,” Shepherd opines today, “what is the risk that government — now or in the future — may seek to have a say in the ownership of other types of businesses deemed to have a public interest role?”

Putting aside that it would presumably be a regulator, not a minister, making a public interest test assessment, in what world did Shepherd grow up in? OK, he’s not old enough to have grown up in the 1930s, when radio licences were handed out to newspaper proprietors. Maybe he’s not old enough to have grown up in the 1950s when TV licences were handed out to the Fairfax, Packer and Murdoch families. But surely he’d remember the Fraser government altering the rules to make it easier for Rupert Murdoch to own TV licences? And the Hawke-Keating government’s mogul-specific ownership rule changes? And the Howard government banning new entrants into digital television on the instruction of Kerry Packer?

Australia’s entire media policy has been predicated on governments deciding who owns media companies for nearly 100 years, Tony.

And as one observer quoted in the inevitable accompanying AFR article for Shepherd’s piece said, we already have an extensive role for government in determining ownership in “other types of business” via our foreign investment restrictions, in which the media is just one of many “sensitive sectors” to be protected by outright bans, Foreign Investment Review Board processes and, ultimately, a politician’s decision. Presumably Shepherd is also unhappy about Tony Abbott’s proposals to restrict Chinese government investment, but he hasn’t said anything about that.

Shepherd also makes the same basic error as media executives did in their recent warning to the tsar letter to the PM in confusing the ACCC’s powers over competition with powers over diversity. “It is not clear that existing competition law administered by the ACCC is failing consumers by seeking to maintain appropriate competition within and between media platforms.”

Maybe for Shepherd, diversity is simply competition — which it isn’t, but plenty of lazy commentators on all sides of the media debate make that mistake. Or maybe he’s genuinely unable to get his head around the idea that there are public policy priorities that can’t be measured economically.

And then there’s what I call the Magna Carta stuff.

“Increasing government control over media ownership and standards around the world has diminished the freedom of the media to meet its Fourth Estate obligations … to protect and enhance democratic principles and the rights of citizens against misdeeds, missteps and corruption by governments, business and individuals,” Shepherd also believes.

That presumably will come as a shock to Britain, which has a public interest test with no discernible impacts on free speech. Indeed, the key problem in the British media, by universal agreement, has been lack of any restraints of any kind.

Ultimately, this is the same claim as that from Kim Williams and other executives, that a public interest test represents a fundamental threat to freedom of speech. Kim has long been one of Australia’s most innovative media executives. But since taking the helm at the mothership and launching his campaign against changes to media regulation, he has shown himself prone to the same sloppy thinking and over-the-top rhetoric that marked his unmourned predecessor John Hartigan.

It’s wholly unnecessary. A media-specific public interest test isn’t any sort of threat to freedom of speech. Its problem is it just won’t work to protect diversity, and it will create uncertainty not just for business but for people who genuinely prize diversity. That’s the strongest argument against it, and the only one needed.

And what sort of freedom of speech does Tony Shepherd really value? Because at the moment, he and the business community have all they can eat. They have not one but two national newspapers that uncritically run whatever they want say any issue, no matter how garbled or poorly evidenced. As long as the BCA and other business leaders wants to attack unions, bag the government and demand IR deregulation in the name of “productivity”, they can have an unfettered national platform that will dominate political debate.

But “freedom of speech” is in short supply for those with views inconsistent with the preferred narrative of the national newspapers. For example, how many op-eds from the union movement have The Fin or The Australian run on productivity?

And as Crikey has previously noted, it’s funny how inconsistent the self-appointed guardians of free speech at some newspapers. News Ltd’s flagship publication has yet to run a single article on the draconian national security proposals currently before a parliamentary committee, beyond two short AAP pieces. And strange how limited the reporting of the blatant censorship of GetUp! by the TV networks — including a government-owned one — was beyond Fairfax.

Whose free speech what the media and big business interested in — everyone’s, in line with “democratic principles”, or just that of our most powerful companies?

Peter Fray

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