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article imageOp-Ed: News Corp slams Australian government media regulation idea

By Paul Wallis     Mar 13, 2013 in Business
Sydney - News Corp is not happy about a proposal by the Federal government to regulate media "in the public interest". News Corp and the Gillard government aren’t exactly on the best of terms, but the proposal has some obvious flaws.
The Sydney News Corp paper, The Telegraph reports:
"This is the first government outside of wartime that is contemplating government-sanctioned journalism,'' Mr Williams (Kim Williams, News Australia CEO) said in a speech to the Australia-Israel Chamber of Commerce hosted in Melbourne.
Mr Williams slammed Communications Minister Stephen Conroy's plan to create a government-appointed bureaucrat, known as the Public Interest Media Advocate, to have oversight of professional media groups and their handling of complaints against the media and press standards.
Also included were the first definitive reports of the News Corp restructure, here.
News Corp rival Fairfax took a different angle, reporting Communications Minister Stephen Conroy’s reaction to the very negative media reaction:
Communications Minister Stephen Conroy says press reaction to his media reform plan "could not be more hysterical".
The public interest advocate would also oversee the self-regulatory body that handles complaints about the print and online media.
Senator Conroy said he would have expected the kind of hysterical reaction if he had proposed nationalising the Australian media.
The package being put forth promotes the principles of privacy, fairness, accuracy and media diversity, he said.
The other side to this is government allegations that News Corp have been very anti-government. The various News outlets have been less than flattering, but in fairness, in op-ed form. Australian News Corp media make a very clear distinction between op-ed and hard news.
The problem, however, isn’t who’s reporting the news, when it comes to the public interest. A bureaucratic solution, imposing another tier of control, isn’t the best option. The various Australian media groups are essentially “self-regulated”. Yes, that does mean in some cases toothless, but the alternative isn’t looking much better.
In the bizarre touchy-feely world of politics, “regulation” often means an obliging lapdog approach to real issues. It’s highly debatable if any government should have any form of direct coercive power over news media at all.
The administrative side of the proposal isn’t clear, either. A new regulator means effectively a new statutory structure, costs to revenue, and a catch all role which could mean anything. The Public Interest Media Advocate would be sitting perched on top of a range of existing groups and complaints processes, lengthening the paper trail, but not necessarily adding efficiency.
It’s certainly not the interest of the public for a government to be able to block negative media reporting. Nor should any form of political appointment of any public official to regulate media be accepted. The ideal solution would be a statutory body with a credible talent pool drawn from Australian media experts. Accountable to courts and to Parliament, but not under any form of direct control.
To be even slightly plausible to the public, let alone the media, the Public Interest Media Advocate needs to be a truly independent body. It requires Ombudsman-like powers. It therefore should be structured in the same way- Totally independent of political interference. No fear and no favour. It could be funded like an Ombudsman, too- A “hands off” public account entity.
Definitions? What definitions?
The other issue here is what constitutes “public interest”? It’s a hell of a big definition. How do you define public interest in legislative form? A reasonable interpretation would be in cases where the public is at identifiable risk from inaccurate reporting, unethical actions by media or otherwise unacceptable media behaviour.
Now- How do you regulate that and make it work?
License suspension?
Going to bed without ice cream?
Professionals in media have their own standards, and most of them are pretty clear about what’s acceptable and what’s not. It’s not as though Australian media need lessons on the subject. Some bend the rules, some go over the line, but it’s hardly the majority.
Does an op-ed critical of the government constitute any risk to the public interest? Most would say it doesn’t. The Public Interest Media Advocate seems a dubious measure to control News Corp.
Much as I may disagree with a lot of opinions in News Corp media, I don’t see any necessity to “control” them. I’ve read things on both sides I consider facile to the point of absolute undiluted media whoring on a colossal scale, but not against the public interest in any meaningful sense. The public tends to be more derisive and dismissive than injured by these tirades.
Do we want a tame, docile and therefore utterly useless media? No.
Do we want a reasonable chance of accessing the facts? Yes.
Do we need some sort of umpire in media? Occasionally.
Some things do need to have a working rulebook. The phone hacking scandal in the UK, if nothing else, proved that someone has to be able to deal with the new possibilities of media acting in ways that are definitely not in the public interest. (Australian News Corp was never accused of acting in that way, incidentally.)
What about internet news and other media?
Now the “other” media. What about trying to regulate online media outlets? Can the Public Interest Media Advocate realistically be said to have any sort of clout online? Bearing in mind that if anyone really wants to get around online barriers, it takes about a line of code, maybe not.
It could regulate Australian online media, to some degree. It couldn’t regulate materials sourced in Australia and re-fed back to Australia from outside by an external media outlet.
Could those materials be harmful to the public interest, targeting groups and individuals, for example? Yes.
It’d be nice if the Public Interest Media Advocate idea was being considered in more practical terms. Apart from the fact that an advocate and an authority are more or less totally different things, the watchdog role could have value. Someone to act as a defender of the public interest is a legitimate role- As long as it’s impartial and totally fair.
In future, the public interest is likely to be under threat from a vast range of possible intrusions, disinformation, and actual injury through various forms of media. News isn’t the only issue here. Wholesale fraud, paedophilia, abuses of law and other happy little hobbies are also now within the broad spectrum of “media”.
Simply focusing on traditional media falls a long way short. The public interest is at far more risk from cyber warfare, ransomware, phishing and heavily promoted scams than it is from op-eds. These are real physical threats. Op-eds may simply affect the bowels, and God knows I’m trying. Having an effective monitoring service with enough statutory power to take action against real dangers would be very useful.
Let’s hope some sense gets into this debate at some point. News media need an independent forum to be exonerated as much as condemned, particularly when the news/media environment is changing so rapidly. The public needs a guard dog, one that can take out some flesh if necessary.
Get serious about this, and it might be quite productive. Keep throwing rocks, and it’s a joke- A very bad one. Australia does not need another useless token regulator. If you want value, create value.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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