Independent media regulation - it's in everybody's best interests (30/05/2012)

leadership_struggle.jpgMr STEPHEN JONES (Throsby) (21:43): The relationship between government and the media is always close but rarely sycophantic. That is why regulation of Australia's media industry is always a controversial topic; you need only look at the howls of derision that greeted the release of the 468-page Finkelstein report in February this year to get a sense of that. Fairfax Media CEO Greg Hywood, for example, said 'What's the problem?' and others have shouted loudly about the sanctity of the freedom of the press. The CEO of News Limited, Mr Kim Williams, said, 'The spectre of a government-funded overseer of a free press in an open and forward-looking democracy cannot be tolerated.' I would argue that there is no threat to democracy or the freedom of the press in providing some oversight or an avenue of appeal or redress to a citizen who claims that, in some instances, the press have got it wrong. In other circumstances, we might call this government funded overseer a court and there is indeed no threat to democracy or the freedom of the press by the existence of courts in this country.

Australia's media industry, with the exception of the presence of the Australian Press Council, is largely self-regulating. The media set the rules for their own behaviour and they handle the complaints. As Mr Finkelstein points out in his report, the existing mechanisms for media regulation in Australia are inadequate and are not consistent across all mediums. They do not take proper account of online journalism or media convergence, for example. The avenues for redress are also few and not accessible for all. Defamation, for example, is a slow and expensive process, available primarily only to the wealthy, and at the end of the day nobody ever really wins. The Australian Press Council is limited in its approach. The only sanction it provides is the issuing of a negative adjudication and this is often largely ignored. The very worthy MEAA Code of Ethics has no application to media proprietors.

To be frank, the media scrutiny in Australia is largely left to the good work done by programs like the ABC's Media Watch but, as entertaining as that program is, a short weekly television program can hardly be expected to bear the weight of the range of issues that are in the public domain or raised by aggrieved individuals. In short, there is a wide gap between what the media and the public see as being ethically acceptable in regard to privacy.

There has been a proposal in the Finkelstein report for the establishment of a news media council and I think it deserves careful consideration. This recommendation is a very sound one and all members in this place should support it. The model is neatly described by Mr Finkelstein as 'enforced self-regulation'. A news media council would provide members of the public with a mechanism to handle complaints and to undertake a more timely response than is now the case. This council, as proposed by Mr Finkelstein, would be independent of government and could not be influenced by government at all. Membership of the council would also be determined independently of government. Just as importantly, and unlike the current Australian Press Council, it would also be independent from the influence of newspaper companies.

I understand that a member of parliament advocating regulation of the media will be examined for ulterior, some might say political, motives. Nothing could be further from the case. I argue that better regulation of the media is in everybody's best interests, including, I think, for the journalists—the great body of men and women who slave day after day to bring news to every living room in the country—and even the media themselves. Constituents frequently express their cynicism in the media and their lack of trust, observations of bias and invasion of privacy.

The role of the media in a democracy is fundamental to its functioning. Every day, as elected representatives, we are accountable for our actions and our words. That is exactly as it should be. Freedom of speech is the basis of our democracy. No-one here would argue with that tenet. But, as Mr Finkelstein has set out in his report, we cannot turn a blind eye to the serious problems of declining trust in media standards that he has identified. We have examples from overseas of what happens when we slip on the very slippery slope of declining standards. I do not argue that that is the case here, but we should avoid it at all costs. (Time expired)

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