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Conroy ram-raids media freedom

By John Harrison - posted Tuesday, 19 March 2013


During her recent sojourn in western Sydney, Julia Gillard quite properly drew attention to the impact of outlaw motorcycle gangs on the freedom and safety of the good citizens of this Commonwealth. More recently, the High Court of Australia upheld a Queensland prosecution against the Finks outlaw motorcycle gang.

What neither the Prime Minister, nor the High Court, have yet done is to safeguard the citizenry against the ram raiding tactics of the Minister for Communication, Broadband and the Digital Economy, Senator Stephen Conroy.

Now that the front-page splashes, the cartoons and the Twitter "conversation" have subsided somewhat, is worthwhile examining the defects in the proposals put by Senator Conroy. These defects can be described under policy, process and politics.

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Policy

The policy that is embedded in the legislation provides for interference in the print media by a government appointed person - the purported Public Interest Media Advocate - that is unprecedented in this country in peace time. There is no appeal against the decision of the Advocate.

That alone should be grounds for an appeal to the High Court, in that it restricts the implied right of freedom of communication in the Constitution, a principle already upheld by the High Court. Moreover the fundamentals of due process have been ignored in creating the policy. The standards under which the Advocate is required to operate have all the clarity and transparency of a bog on the Birdsville track in the monsoon season.

Process

After receiving, a year ago, the Convergence Review and Finkelstein Report, the latter of which was extensively flawed, the government made no response until last week, when the proposals introduced into Parliament on Thursday, were rushed through both Cabinet and caucus. There have been reports that the matter was not even listed on the Cabinet agenda. Such information can only come from inside Cabinet, from people, Ministers of the Crown, upset about the lack of process. Similarly, while the matter was listed on the agenda of caucus, the documentation reportedly did not arrive until part way through the caucus meeting, allowing for limited discussion, and arousing the ire of the caucus chairman.

The Communications Minister's demand that all six bills be passed through the House and the Senate in the current sitting fortnight is unreasonable, if not petulant. Reforms of such magnitude, about which the government has kept quiet over 12 months, should not be rushed through the legislature with such a short time for public debate. Let there be no mistake: Senator Conroy is proposing an unprecedented change to the way in which print media in this country are regulated, and that change involves the prospect of government interference in the operation of the print media industry. Common sense would suggest that a longer timeframe for public debate about the precise propositions put to the Parliament would be in the public interest - a public interest Senator Conroy seems so keen to defend.

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There is, of course, no evidence of criminal behaviour by mainstream mass media outlets in Australia, as there is in the United Kingdom, where criminal charges have been laid against journalists and editors. Indeed, it is tabloid television current affairs programs, and radio shock jocks who are most in need of regulation in Australia, and the government currently has the power to regulate the activities of those outlets through the Australian Communications and Media Authority and it has not.

Politics

The most perplexing aspect of the entire imbroglio is this: Why would a government whose primary vote is languishing in the low 30s, whose need to improve its communication with the electorate is self confessed, and evident in the fact of the western Sydney sojourn, introduce six months out from an election a policy which not only alienates the major media owners, News Ltd, Fairfax, the Seven Network, (to name three have gone on the record), but also the Media Arts and Entertainment Alliance (the journalists union), and the Press Council. There is no other single issue in recent history which has so united the disparate stakeholders in the media industries.

This is not a News Ltd vendetta. Along with Fijian military dictator Frank Bainimarama, there may be the odd journalism academic who has been out of the newsroom too long, who supports Conroy's propositions, but working journalists around the country are annoyed by the policy, the lack of process, and are astonished by the politics.

There is little doubt that should Kevin Rudd, like Robert Menzies and John Howard before him, make a return to the leadership of his party, that one of his first acts would be to ditch these ill-conceived proposals, along with their chief proponent.

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About the Author

Dr John Harrison teaches journalism and communication at The University of Queensland. An award winning journalist and higher education teacher, he is at the forefront of the development of new ways of learning using digital mobile media.

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