While the new media reforms announced last week by Federal Minister for Communications Stephen Conroy have been hysterically condemned across the spectrum, debate remains whether the reforms will fall apart under the weight of criticism.
Of the reforms that will be voted on this week, the most contentious has been the creation of a Public Interest Media Advocate (PIMA), a position that will oversee media mergers and decide whether the Australian Press Council is upholding industry standards.
As expected, these reforms were unanimously condemned by large media companies including Fairfax and News Ltd. Last week they labelled the reforms as draconian, impinging on journalistic freedom of speech and effectively censoring the media.
In particular, News Ltd has been running a strong campaign where they heavily attacked the reforms by likening Mr Conroy to historical dictators such Stalin or Mao, as depicted on the front page of The Daily Telegraph last week.
In a speech delivered to the Australia-Israeli Chamber of Commerce, News Ltd CEO Kim Williams hit out at the Labor Government and kick-started the campaign against the reforms.
“The government will go down in history as the first Australian Government outside of wartime to attack freedom of speech by seeking to introduce a regime which effectively institutes government-sanctioned journalism,” he said.
Mr Williams is of the belief the reforms are “firmly aimed” at News Ltd due to the government’s “serious dislike” for the company.
However, in Mr Conroy’s press conference, he reassured the public of the Federal Government’s commitment to freedom of speech.
“The government believes in freedom of the press as a cornerstone of our democracy … [and] at the same time … believes that in a democracy a diversity of voices within the media is essential,” he said.
Yet by issuing an ultimatum, the media reforms must be approved in parliament by the end of the week or otherwise be dumped. It has left many to believe the reforms will fall apart under the weight of discussion.
Dr Timothy Dwyer, a leading scholar on media policy at the University of Sydney, questioned the sincerity of the government in carrying out the reforms.
“These reforms are a very limited response to the wide-ranging recommendations from the Finkelstein and Convergence Reviews, [with] probably both a single judge-run PIMA and an agency at risk of interference from the government of the day,” he said.
Wendy Bacon, a well-known supporter of independent journalism and anti-censorship advocate, claimed in an article on New Matilda there is merit in the public interest ownership test through protecting media freedom and diversity rather than restraining it.
Ms Bacon hit out at News Ltd and Fairfax’s opposition to proposals during the Finkelstein Inquiry as being “characteristic of their opposition to public policies which might strengthen media diversity”.
But Shadow Minister for Communications and Broadband, Malcolm Turnbull said on ABC Radio that currently in the media “there is more diversity than we have ever had” and therefore further protection of diversity in the media is unnecessary.
Even so, with two companies owning over 80 per cent of the print news media, Australia is ranked as having one of the highest media concentrations among western nations, a fact confirmed by the Finkelstein Media Inquiry. The question is whether it is imperative for the government to encourage a more pluralistic media.
“I think in the context of Australia’s highly concentrated print media sector, which is basically a duopoly like Coles and Woolworths, you need a strong enforcer of press standards who can apply sanctions,” said Dr Dwyer. “I think a strong regulator will make stories more valid and reduce blatant bias by some outlets.”
The role of the independent media organisations, smaller scale digital and web-based media has never been more important in ensuring media diversity.
Ms Bacon summarises the media law developments as thus: “It is a pity that Conroy is trying to force the independents’ and Greens’ hands”. It remains to be seen whether the right to freedom of speech is upheld.