There’s been considerable hype in the last week from News Limited and the Coalition about the purported threat to a free press from Stephen Conroy’s plan to require the print and online media’s self-regulatory bodies to show they can self-regulate.

How times change.

In 2002, then-communications minister Richard Alston, eager to find a way to remove cross-media ownership restrictions, proposed to address media diversity concerns via “editorial separation”. That involved companies that wanted to merge demonstrating to the government-appointed regulator (then called the Australian Broadcasting Authority) that they had separate and publicly available editorial policies; appropriate and publicly available organisational charts; and separate editorial news management, news compilation process and news gathering and interpretation capabilities.

Org charts and editorial policies are one thing, but the proposed legislation would have handed the government-appointed regulator the power to dictate the structure, staffing and journalistic methods of newspapers if they became part of a cross-media entity, backed by the threat of refusing approval to major media mergers.

The prospect of this power deeply disturbed some industry figures. Fairfax, in its submission to the inquiry on the bills, warned:

“Parliament should be extremely wary to see written into law words such as ‘news management’, ‘news compilation processes’ and ‘news interpretation capabilities’.  First, no one knows what such phrases actually mean — they have never been defined in law.  Second, such words go to the heart of our editorial processes.  Third, the government has never had direct oversight over editorial processes — and for excellent reason.  Fourth, to have the heart of our editorial processes subject to government review and regulation is to present an immediate threat to the free operation of those editorial processes. These provisions therefore would compromise the free operation of a free press in a democracy.”

The MEAA warned “these proposals involve dangerous governmental involvement in the day-to-day workings of the media”.

News Ltd, however, supported the proposed requirement. In its submission, the only comment it made on editorial separation requirements was that the conditions for meeting them be made clear in legislation, so the ABA would have less scope to reject applications, thereby giving more certainty to investors. “This environment has made cross-media and foreign ownership restrictions inappropriate and, to a certain extent, irrelevant,” said News Ltd. “They should be removed or at least have processes which allow for exemptions, as proposed in the Bill.”

Scroll forward to 2006. As part of the price for securing the support of the National Party to free up media ownership laws, then-communications minister Helen Coonan added amendments to the Broadcasting Services Act affecting both regional television and radio news services. The amendments were dictated by Queensland National Paul Neville, who had previously conducted an inquiry into regional radio issues, and who was considered to be the Coalition’s expert on local media content issues.

For regional television, ACMA was made to impose a licence condition on regional television broadcasters to broadcast “a minimum level of material of local significance” regardless of whether that material would be watched or was wanted by audiences.

For regional radio, ACMA had to impose a licence condition on any radio licensee that changed ownership, containing a number of requirements:

  • To maintain an “existing level of local presence” relating to staffing levels, studios and production facilities
  • To require at least 4.5 hours of local content and a minimum number of minutes of local news — 12.5 minutes a day
  • To lodge with ACMA a “local content plan” to explain how licensees would meet local content requirements.

Moreover, the minister was given a power to direct ACMA about how it was to oversee all these requirements, and was given an unrestricted power to direct ACMA to impose more conditions on licensees about local content.

The commercial radio industry was outraged about these additional requirements and powers, and long complained about them. The Commercial Radio Association in its submission expressed particular concern about the wide powers of the minister, and raised the possibility of ministers “punishing” broadcasters for issues other than their compliance with their licence conditions. In 2012, the current government removed the most onerous requirements.

News Ltd made a submission to the inquiry into the legislation opposing the package, but only because it would allow television broadcasters to multichannel while keeping the same anti-competitive restraints on Foxtel in relation to sports, via anti-siphoning. Nowhere in its submission was the issue of a free press mentioned and there is no mention of radio at all. And the Liberal Party’s cabinet ministers and backbench waved through these powers as the price of securing National Party support for other media law reforms.

When the Gillard government proposes that the newspaper industry’s existing self-regulatory model, which the industry claims is highly effective, be demonstrated to be so, without any direct role for government of any kind, News Ltd says it’s Stalinism, while the Coalition claims it’s the worst attack on a free press since WWII. How things have changed since the Howard government proposed direct regulation of newspaper journalism and succeeded in imposing direct regulation of radio and television journalism in regional Australia.

*Disclosure: Bernard Keane worked in the Department of Communications from 2000-08 and worked on the 2006 media reform package