Failed Media Reforms Let Public Down


Well, that’s it, after two major inquiries into Australian media and thousands of pages of submissions and reports the Gillard Government tried to ram through a set of complex legislation in nine days. Predicably most of it failed.

One is left wondering whether they really wanted the laws to pass. And where did the one-stop media complaints mechanism go?

The one-stop complaints committee/council was put forward in multiple submissions to the Independent Media Inquiry and the Convergence Review. Both reports recommended a body that could hear complaints from all media formats.

The thinking behind this was twofold. First, it makes sense in our increasingly converged media environment that one committee should deal with all content complaints. Second, the current complaints system in Australia is fragmented and not user friendly. A one-stop shop would address this and be an important brick in re-building public trust in journalism.

One of the most disturbing aspects of the last week is that News Ltd once again successfully managed to use the free speech mantra to protect and further its business interests. The proposed laws would have made it harder for News Ltd and other large media owners such as Fairfax and Seven West Media to buy more of the Australian media market and further limit diversity.

The argument was made, again, during the last week that diversity is provided by web based independent new media. This may be true in ten years time; currently they are outweighed and dominated by the old Australian media dragons. Each time the free speech/press argument is used to protect media’s commercial interests it is weakened.

True, one of the withdrawn bills suggested the Public Interest Media Advocate should have the power to revoke the privacy law exemption for media companies that did not sign up to the Press Council or that were serious serial offenders breaching the ethical codes. But consider this — even after the debacles with Alan Jones and Kyle Sandilands, ACMA is yet to revoke a single broadcast license?

The media dragons cried wolf again and won. What happens the day when there is a real wolf? Has the journalistic social contract between media owners and the audience been terminally damaged? Let’s hope not.

The defunct media reform is an opportunity squandered. It takes years to build up momentum for change in the media sector. Again, like many times before, most of the debate and discussion got stuck on regulation and the potential threat to free speech — media accountability and public trust in journalism and media proprietors hardly rated a mention.

Let us hope that Malcolm Turnbull is right in his prediction that the web will provide greater media diversity to break the media oligopoly that is the current state of affairs in Australia. Otherwise we may have to wait for another News of the World debacle to re-build momentum for increased media accountability and less ownership concentration.

Considering the suffering caused by this worst malpractice in the history of journalism, it would have been much preferred if we had been able to affect change this time — just like in the UK. But does the far-reaching media accountability system based on the Leveson report make the UK less democratic and an enemy of free speech?

This is the next task for researchers — to assess what impact the soon to be implemented UK system will have on free speech and journalistic practice. This could inform and deepen the current debate in Australia. The past 18 months illustrates how urgently this is needed.

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.