Not Everyone Is Keen On Scrutiny


Stephen Conroy will soon announce a media inquiry which will investigate concerns about privacy and the effectiveness of the current regulatory framework in a time of technological change.

Although the terms of reference are yet to be released to the public, many key observers aren’t happy. The Greens, who led the push for an inquiry, are disappointed that key questions of media bias and concentration of ownership have been left off the agenda. Labor backbenchers are concerned the inquiry makes it look like ALP policy has been driven by the Greens. The Coalition is happy to give this line some oxygen, but has characterised this latest move by the "Greens Labor" government as unnecessary.

With few exceptions, the media has framed calls for a media inquiry as a stoush between the Greens and News Limited. And, it must be noted, the Greens and News Limited have done much to sustain this impression, hurling pot shots at each other across the barricades.

Denis Shanahan in the Oz gloated that the inquiry wouldn’t meet Bob Brown’s agenda. He casts the excision of media ownership from the inquiry as a triumph for ministerial commonsense.

"There was no doubt the Greens and Labor MPs targeted the Murdoch-owned press in Australia and wanted to break down News Limited’s 60 per cent control of major newspaper titles, including The Australian, and hunt down what they saw as political bias.

"There was equally no doubt senior ministers believed an inquiry into ownership would prove little and could be counter-productive, given falling newspaper circulations.

"What’s more, there were clear hesitations about extending the appearance of a war with News Limited and the potential to put other media companies offside."

There’s no doubt that the Greens wanted this inquiry to go further. In particular, the party wanted the inquiry to look at the concentration of media ownership in Australia and the impact this has had on journalism. Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, had this to add about what the party wanted the inquiry to tackle:

"No one is suggesting that journalists’ work be vetted or censored, but we need to consider how ownership affects the news we all consume and how the public can raise issues of complaint when they believe they have been misled or misrepresented.

"It is totally legitimate for there to be a public debate about the concentration of media ownership. The fact the News Limited press moved swiftly to slap this down, demonstrates precisely why we need this inquiry. Like any corporation, News Limited doesn’t want any scrutiny of its domination of the market — it will always act to protect its commercial interests."

The evisceration of the Prime Minister specifically and the minority government generally by News Ltd papers has been raised by some as a factor in pushing the inquiry forward. The Coalition talking point on the inquiry: this is a government avoiding scrutiny. Warren Truss came out swinging this morning: "Labor’s media crackdown at the behest of the Greens looks a lot like payback for daring to hold them to account," he said. "How far will this desperate government go to avoid scrutiny?"

Chris Berg comes to a similar conclusion. He casts the inquiry as a challenge to the freedom of the press — and a deliberate move to undermine critics of the government.

"The idea that a government might regulate a media organisation specifically because it didn’t like an editorial line is an obvious attack on free speech. Should companies be broken up, their ownership divested, as punishment for being critical, fairly or unfairly, of a government?

"Indeed, the fact the government is talking about an inquiry gives it leverage over critics. Surely few genuine supporters of free expression are comfortable with that. Imagine the furore if John Howard had done — or suggested — anything similar.

"The Gillard government is one of the most shambolic in history. No surprise then that some people want to talk about failings of the press. Fixating on unfair media coverage must be comforting for those let down by Labor’s performance in government."

Labor can rely on Adam Bandt to vote for the bill, and Rob Oakeshott has declared his in principle support. Andrew Wilkie, however, hasn’t made his intentions clear. The Australian reports his concerns that the inquiry may veer into the political.

"Mr Wilkie said he was ‘open-minded’ on the issue of a media inquiry and what it examines. But he warned against any inquiry with terms of reference that appeared "too political".

"I would be concerned and I may not support an inquiry that was obviously political."

News Lmited is the biggest player in the Australian media and any inquiry will touch on its business. But what about the other media players? Wendy Bacon in The Drum argues for scrutiny of the viability of media businesses more broadly.

"Rather than being a reason not to have an inquiry, the fragility of our private media is itself a reason to have an inquiry.

"As Rupert Murdoch’s influence further declines will his newspapers survive the technological revolution that left many US cities without newspapers? Since buyers might not easily be found, what public policies do we have to maintain a media sphere in regional Australia? What impact should this have on public funding for the ABC? Should subsidies for other independent media be provided, much as they are to maintain arts? What happens if the company is found not to be a ‘fit and proper’ shareholder for broadcasting licences in the UK? Are we supposed to just ignore what is happening?"

The terms of the inquiry will soon be made public. NM will be following its progress closely to see whether Conroy’s pragmatism prevails. According to Lenore Taylor in the Sydney Morning Herald, the Communications Minister "told the caucus he did not need a media inquiry to tell him that ‘some News Ltd papers were biased’ and that News Ltd dominated the print media, which was not something the government could change".

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.