Media laws plan comes under fire

Nick Butterly

Newspapers could have critical protections from privacy laws ripped away by a Government-appointed official under new media laws mooted by the Federal Government.

The proposed changes face an uphill battle to get through Parliament and will almost certainly be thrown out should Tony Abbott come to power.

Communications Minister Stephen Conroy unveiled yesterday his long-awaited package of media reforms, demanding the creation of a public interest test for major media mergers and the appointment of a bureaucrat to certify independent press regulatory bodies.

Senator Conroy gave little information on how the public interest test would work and said the measures must pass Parliament inside two weeks or be junked.

Shadow communications minister Malcolm Turnbull vowed that the Opposition would oppose the public interest test and the creation of the regulator.

"Any attempt to regulate or further circumscribe the media has got to be viewed with the greatest of suspicion," he said. "Particularly from a Government that seems determined to cowl the media, to bully the media into not criticising it."

Under Senator Conroy's plan, an office called the Public Interest Media Advocate would be created that would apply the public interest test to mergers and give the tick to independent regulators such as the Australian Press Council or the Independent Media Council.

The Media Advocate would have the power to revoke certification for either body should it judge it was not living up to its promised standards.

Without certification, newspapers would lose protection from privacy laws and their ability to publish controversial and legally risky stories would be compromised.

Senator Conroy's proposals come in response to two major inquiries into press regulation ordered by the Gillard Government after concerns about media ethics and concentration of media ownership. Senator Conroy said he would drop a proposal to create a new tort of privacy to the Australian Law Reform Commission for further study - a move that will cheer media companies opposed to more privacy restrictions.

He has also referred to a parliamentary committee a proposal to abolish the so-called 75 per cent reach rule, which stops free-to-air networks broadcasting to more than 75 per cent of the population.

Seven West Media - owner of The West Australian - said it was disappointed with the proposal for the public interest test and opposed the idea for regulatory oversight of newspapers.

"This is an unprecedented restriction that is wholly inconsistent with the notion of a free press," the company said. "What Senator Conroy is proposing is in effect 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."

Limited chief Kim Williams said: "This will go down as the first Australian Government outside of wartime to attack freedom of speech by seeking to introduce a regime that effectively institutes government-sanctioned journalism."