Communications Minister Stephen Conroy epitomises the sort of ideological zealotry that is never far from the surface in the Australian Labor Party. Senator Conroy, egged on by the Greens, has long been threatening vengeance on the newspapers he sees as unfair critics of the Federal Government.
Now, faced with the almost certain defeat within months of the most dysfunctional Government in Australia's history, he has wheeled out a package of so-called reforms aimed at bringing those newspapers to heel and has demanded that the Parliament pass it into legislation by the end of next week.
He will introduce the Bills tomorrow and has made it clear he will brook no discussion, no argument and no amendments.
Senator Conroy said the Government, in consultation with the Opposition, would appoint a Public Interest Media Advocate to authorise independent self-regulatory bodies for dealing with standards and complaints.
He says there are community concerns about media quality and how press complaints are handled, and the legislation will address these. Not only did he fail to produce evidence of these concerns, but he also admitted that the print media have lifted their game and that the system of self-regulation is now working well.
Why then does he need to superimpose a government-appointed Public Interest Media Advocate?
Senator Conroy says he is proposing "a press standards model which ensures strong self-regulation of the print and online news media". What he is actually proposing is government regulation of the media, backed by the threat of removal of the media exemptions under the Privacy Act.
Loss of those exemptions would make it virtually impossible for media organisations and their investigative journalists to operate.
The choice for media companies is clear: Submit to a government-approved regulator or go out of business.
Shadow communications minister Malcolm Turnbull has rightly identified that freedom and democracy are at stake and has promised that the Opposition won't be bullied into passing any legislation. Mr Turnbull says the media should be able to form its own views about ethical standards and compete in the marketplace.
The other role of the advocate will be to administer the Government's public interest test for media ownership. This is just another means by which the Government can punish media companies it doesn't like.
At a time of rapid change in the media industry and the emergence of new platforms and global access to information, the notion that we need government intervention to protect media diversity is nonsense.
Access to traditional print and broadcast media, subscription television, online publications, blogs and social media means people are able to read and hear - and express - a wider range of views than ever. But the changes announced by Senator Conroy ignore the realities of modern media.Despite Senator Conroy's suggestion that the Opposition would be consulted on the appointment of the advocate, it is clear that whoever holds this post will be beholden to the Government and totally political.
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