Storm over Australia's press reform proposals

An advertising billboard (C) showing the front page of Sydney's tabloid newspaper the Daily Telegraph is shown in the Sydney central business district on 13 March 2013
Image caption Stephen Conroy's media reforms have been attacked as draconian

Readers of Sydney's tabloid Daily Telegraph, more used to seeing errant sports stars and B-list celebrities plastered across its front page, have in recent days been presented with the appearance of some famous historical figures.

On Tuesday it was the former US President Thomas Jefferson, with some stirring words about the virtues of the Fourth Estate: "Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press and that cannot be limited without being lost."

Last week, more controversially, it was a rogues gallery of totalitarian leaders, among them Joseph Stalin and Chairman Mao.

"These despots believe in controlling the press," ran the headline. "Conroy joins them."

The Conroy in question, for those who may have missed the emergence of this megalomaniacal modern-day Mao, is Stephen Conroy, the Australian communications minister. He is also the author of media reforms variously described as draconian, Soviet-style and despotic.

And such was the uproar caused by its front-page splash that "the Tele" felt compelled to issue an apology - to Joseph Stalin.

"It has since been pointed out that this was a grossly unfair and insulting comparison to make. And so we could just like to say: We're sorry, Joe."

'Intrusive laws'

At the same time that David Cameron has been wrestling with media reform in Britain, Julia Gillard's government has been pressing for new regulations in Australia.

Its most controversial proposal is for the creation of a government-appointed Public Interest Media Adviser (Pima), who would oversee the Australian media's self-regulatory bodies and determine whether media mergers should be allowed to proceed.

While there has been a parallel debate in the UK and Australia, there has not been equivalent wrongdoing.

Though Ms Gillard announced a major press inquiry in 2011 in response to the phone hacking revelations that rocked the British arm of Rupert Murdoch's media empire, Australian journalists have been untouched by such serious scandal or illegality.

Media moguls have cried foul. These are proposals, they complain, in search of a problem.

Image caption News Limited says Ms Gillard is trying to mete out punishment for hostile coverage

"I'm trying for the life of me to understand what we could have possibly done to warrant such intrusive laws that are now being proposed,'' complained Kerry Stokes, the Seven Network chief, when he appeared before a senate hearing in Canberra this week.

"The simple question I ask is in our instance, what have we done?" Likening the proposals to anti-terror laws rushed through after the attacks of 9/11, he added: "I have never seen anything so intrusive."

Greg Hywood, the CEO of Fairfax Media, also argued the new proposals were completely unwarranted.

"For the first time in Australian history outside wartime, there will be political oversight over the conduct of journalism in this country," he said.

Kim Williams, the CEO of News Limited which owns the Daily Telegraph, reached further back into history. He complained that the proposal for a public interest media advocate was "a modern-day star chamber, no more, no less".

News Limited believes Ms Gillard is trying to mete out punishment for its hostile coverage of her leadership.

'Over the top'

There are media academics however who take a wholly different view. They see the government's proposals as weak, watery and timid.

"The media groups are going absolutely crazy over these very mild proposals," says Susan Forde, an associate professor of journalism at Griffith University in Queensland.

"They're relatively toothless. The criticism is completely over the top."

In a print media landscape dominated by three main players - the Murdoch-owned News Limited, Fairfax Media and West Australian Newspapers - she believes their aim is to stifle debate and in an election year, to put the frighteners on an already embattled government.

Image caption Media groups say the proposals are unwarranted

"It's undemocratic. Their focus is the freedom of media groups to do whatever they want," she said.

The proposals could have been tougher. The government has stopped short of adopting the main proposal of the Finkelstein Media Inquiry, set up by the government in the wake of the UK phone hacking scandal, which called for the creation of a taxpayer-funded News Media Council that would operate independently of government and industry.

The new body would have replaced the Australian Press Council, a self-regulatory body funded by major print media groups, and taken on the functions of the Australian Communications and Media Authority (Acma), which oversees the broadcast media.

Whereas the new British measures came from a legislative compromise between the major political parties over how to respond to the Leveson report, the Gillard government simply does not have the parliamentary support to mint its most controversial proposals into law.

Independent MPs, angered over the government's refusal so far to amend its proposals and to grant parliament only a week to consider such significant reforms, have refused to sign up. Without their backing, the minority Labor government cannot command a majority in the lower house.

Besides, the conservative opposition has vowed to repeal the legislation, if, as seems likely, it wins the forthcoming election.

The metaphor of the moment then comes from the industry the government is trying to more strictly regulate - that today's proposals could easily become tomorrow's fish and chip paper.

Nick Bryant writes for a number of Australian newspapers and magazines, including New Limited's The Australian.

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