Put aside the heated rhetoric; the “star chambers”, the “gags” on journalism, the “Soviet-style” restrictions. How worried should supporters of free speech and fearless journalism be about the government’s media reforms?
Let’s zero in on the legislation Communications Minister Stephen Conroy insists must be law by next week.
Conroy wants to create a Public Interest Media Advocate, a position that would have two primary responsibilities. First: to decide whether media mergers and acquisitions are in the public interest. Second: to approve or reject “news-media self-regulatory bodies”. It’s the latter that has real relevance for free speech advocates because it has the potential to impact on the day-to-day work of journalists.
To understand what Conroy is proposing, you first have to get your head around an existing law: the Privacy Act. If you don’t have a clue about what’s in it or how it affects the news you consume, don’t worry: many journalists don’t either.
Unlike defamation law or contempt of court, members of the Fourth Estate have, until now, been able to live in a state of blissful ignorance about the laws. It simply gives them carte blanche to impinge on people’s privacy as they please — to poke their snouts where they want and publish what they find out.
Some of what results will be smutty (photos of Lara Bingle in the shower spring to mind); some will be unquestionably in the public interest. Think the financial transactions of former Labor powerbroker Eddie Obeid; the health records of sports stars engaged in doping; the credit card statements of a union boss up to no good. The only thing media organisations have to do to qualify for a complete exemption from the laws is commit to “observe standards” that deal with privacy.
Conroy’s reforms would change that. Under his regime, only media organisations which belong to an approved self-regulation body would be exempt.
As things stand today, this wouldn’t restrict the activities of any major media organisations bar one (which we’ll get to in a moment). Radio and TV broadcasters would qualify for the exemption because they report to the Australian Communications and Media Authority. Newspaper publishers and some online outlets — including Private Media, which publishes Crikey — would qualify by virtue of their membership of the Australian Press Council.
“It’s important to note the Advocate’s powers relate only to the regulators — not to individual media organisations.”
So far, no threat to free speech — certainly not for News Limited, which has been protesting the loudest.
The major media outlet in the gun is Kerry Stokes’ Seven West Media, which owns The West Australian and the Pacific Magazines stable. Last year, Seven West withdrew from the Press Council and announced it was setting up a breakaway body, chaired by a former judge, to handle complaints.
Would this body — or one like it — qualify as a “news-media self-regulatory body”? While Conroy has left open the possibility it would, the proposed legislation suggests it would struggle to get up.
In assessing whether a self-regulatory body would be approved, the PIMA is required to consider: the extent to which membership of the body corporate is open to “all news media organisations” and “other persons whose activities consist of, or include, news or current affairs activities”. He or she will also have to consider the level of independence it has from news organisations.
If the Seven West body failed this test — which is conceivable — it would have to join the Press Council or risk the large fines that could come by breaching the Privacy Act.
Now we get to the guts of the media’s “free speech under threat” campaign. The PIMA wouldn’t just have the power to approve self regulators — he or she could revoke their status if there has been a significant change in “relevant circumstances” or “relevant community standards”.
It’s a power so broad, so sweeping it’s hard to imagine it ever being used. The PIMA has oversight over regulatory bodies, not individual media organisations. To strip News Limited, for example, of its Privacy Act exemption, the PIMA would have to do the same for other Press Council members such as Fairfax, Bauer Media and Crikey.
Unlike News chief Kim Williams, Press Council boss Julian Disney isn’t in a lather about this happening. He’s more concerned about news organisations like Seven West getting the all-clear to police themselves, sparking a rush of withdrawals from the beefed up APC.
“To speak about this too much as a threat to freedom of speech is misguided,” he told Crikey. “This is far more likely to lead to weak regulation rather than strong regulation.”