It’s been sad watching the decline of Kim Williams, once the smartest, most visionary and most innovative media executive in Australia, the man who turned Foxtel 1) digital and 2) profitable in the face of a regulatory framework designed (in essence, by his competitors) to permanently hobble it.

Since he’s taken the big chair at News Limited, however, it’s almost as if the spirit of Harto has possessed Williams, turning him into a caricature of a News Corporation exec. Thus have we lost one of Australian media’s best and brightest.

In his hysterical reaction to the rather tame, and possibly unpassable, media reform package released by Communications Minister Stephen Conroy yesterday, Williams has wrecked whatever remaining credibility he had on the issue of media regulation.

What Conroy has proposed on newspaper and online standards is that the print media’s self-regulatory mechanisms actually do what they say they do, a proposal that has resulted in him compared to the great dictators of history — although not, apparently, Hitler — by Williams’s publications. The print media’s self-regulatory bodies — the Australian Press Council or the West Australian’s DIY job — would have to demonstrate they actually do what the industry says they do — provide independent self-regulation. “All the people who say the Press Council is a toothless tiger haven’t been bitten by it,” News Ltd’s Campbell Reid said in June last year.

If that’s the case, there should be no problem with the Press Council being recognised as such. But Williams’ position is the Press Council should never have to demonstrate it lives up to the claims made for it by newspapers, that we can just take the word of the outlets that pay for it.

Conroy’s alternative, is that if media self-regulatory bodies don’t live up to the claims made by News Ltd, member media companies lose their privacy and consumer law exemptions. The media, currently, has a blanket exemption from the requirements of the Privacy Act and is allowed to engage in “misleading and deceptive conduct” under the Competition and Consumer Act. Imagine a media company open to litigation if it engages in misleading and deceptive conduct like any other company!

What all this fulmination disguises is broadcast journalists already operate under direct government regulation of the kind that Williams decries. Believe it or not, the government can actually tell broadcasting licensees what they can and can’t put to air. And it compels them to get together as an industry and register a code of practice about issues like journalism standards that is enforced, with direct sanctions, by a government-appointed regulator, the Australian Communications and Media Authority. In short, Stalin is already here and controlling news outlets far more influential than Williams’, and has been doing so for generations.

Strangely, when Williams was running Foxtel, he had no problems with the journalism provided to his company by Sky News, his primary news and current affairs channel provider. Indeed, it’s fair to say he held, and holds, Sky News in very high regard. Yet its journalists labour under the yolk of direct government regulation.

And is Conroy proposing a level playing field between print and media journalism, bidding to impose the same sort of direct government regulation imposed on broadcast journalism on print? No, Conroy’s proposal is purely self-regulatory, and not even administered by agovernment-appointed body like ACMA, but by a bipartisan appointee.

If Williams were serious about protecting a free press, he would speak out about another, far clearer threat: the government’s proposed national security reforms,  including data retention. Under the EU data retention model favoured by Labor, journalists’ confidential sources have already been tracked down and revealed by the Polish government using telecommunications data. The proposal is a direct threat to a free press. But the only substantive coverage the issue has received in Williams’ newspapers was an absurd rant by Greg Sheridan to the effect that data retention was the only thing between Australia and mass murder.

One of the lines being run in opposition to the Conroy proposal this morning is that there’s no problem with regulation of print media that needs fixing. That’s not a view shared by voters. At the end of 2011, Essential Research asked voters if they thought the quality of newspaper regulation was good or poor. Only 20% of voters thought it was good, 25% thought it was poor. In July 2011, it found 48% of voters thought there needed to be more regulation of the media.

By trying to insist newspaper self-regulation actually works, Conroy is in fact giving the industry a chance to avoid actual regulation, or even the “co-regulation” that currently applies to broadcasters. Because if we get a government that decides to act on the apparently widespread conviction among voters that we need more direct government regulation of the media, it really will be a threat to a free press.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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