By Margo Kingston
March 16, 2013
Here’s a history lesson on the long road to media dominance by Rupert Murdoch, aided by both big parties, via two chapters in my book. The Liberals said yes to Murdoch under Howard, and will keep saying yes. They are partners, or rather, Abbott is Murdoch’s puppet.
I also tell the story of how I lobbied minor parties to stop Murdoch’s law in the Senate in 2003, and describe Fairfax journalists’ long struggle to preserve our values of fearless independent journalism.
Murdoch papers’ incendiary reaction to Conroy’s reforms – led by Murdoch’s top executive in Australia Kim Williams – means Murdoch’s empire has something to lose. Two things, actually – less chance of even further dominating Australia’s MSM, and more chance of its journalism being just a little bit accountable to the ethics of journalism.
There is no chance the media reforms, weak as they are, will pass without strong action by citizens. Wilkie, Oakshott, Katter, Windsor and Thomson need to be convinced to negotiate with Labor to agree to a reform package they can sign up to and vote for quickly. They must understand that Labor has been crazy-brave to put up even this minimalist reform package, and that Labor must get this done quickly or bleed to death from Murdoch media’s relentless attacks.
Over to you. Apart from anything else, your NBN needs you.
UPDATE MARCH 17: Here are the key extracts from Conroy’s Insiders interview today:
Fixing Howard’s gift to Murdoch to become even more dominant
In 2007 the Howard government weakened our cross media laws that were introduced by Paul Keating. And we said from that day we would be campaigning to introduce a public interest test because we didn’t believe leaving the door open for further concentrations of media in this country were healthy.
I mean around the world: in the US, the top two newspaper groups cover about 14 per cent. Even in Canada, a country more akin to ourselves in terms of geography, 54 per cent coverage from the top two. In Australia it is 86 per cent coverage. We’ve already got one of the most concentrated media sectors in the world and we don’t believe it should be allowed to be shrunk any further.
Why self-regulation needs to be strengthened
I’ve been entertained by the claim that this is a solution looking for a problem. Well let me read you some quotes from evidence given publicly to the Finkelstein Inquiry. It may come as a surprise to you, Barrie, they didn’t get a lot of coverage in the mainstream media.
Let me read to you Professor Ken McKinnon who was a former chair of the Australian Press Council. He said: “I had an editor say to me if you promise not to uphold any complaints from my paper we will double our subscription, is that a deal?”
We have the current head, Julian Disney, he said: “The possibility of reduced funding remains a significant concern fuelled on occasion by the comments of publishers who dislike adverse adjudications or other council decisions. And the Council’s almost total reliance on funding from publishers, and especially from a few major publishers, is widely criticised as a crucial detraction from its real and apparent independence.”
And just finally, if I could, one more, another head chair of the Australian Press Council, Professor Dennis Pearce: “Indeed we had one period where The Australian newspaper did not like an adjudication we made and they withdrew from the council for a period of months”. And Mr Finkelstein asked: “Was that a direct consequence of the particular adjudication?” And he said: “It was indeed. They said our adjudication was wrong and they were not going to publish it, and they didn’t”.
So, people who want to argue …
BARRIE CASSIDY: The first example that you gave though, does that to your mind amount to corruption, talking about those sorts of deals being offered?
STEPHEN CONROY: It goes to the core of independence. One of the things that the news proprietors at the moment are strongly opposing is that we want to see a more independent process, more arm’s length from the owners of the newspapers. Because they get to pretty much appoint people on the press council. So they get to oversee the very body that is self-regulating.
They want the government to be arms length – not a problem…
BARRIE CASSIDY: So it is self regulation that you’re attacking here?
STEPHEN CONROY: Not at all.
BARRIE CASSIDY: You want to move away from self-regulation.
STEPHEN CONROY: No, we want the process of appointments to be more independent from the proprietors. The Government’s got no involvement whatsoever. The advocate has no role, zero role in setting a single standard of the Press Council. No role, despite all of the claims currently.
BARRIE CASSIDY: He oversees privacy issues, he oversees fairness, he oversees accuracy. So of course he will apply his own standards when he’s making judgements about the Press Council.
STEPHEN CONROY: No, he will do a test, on whether or not privacy, journalism ethics, he says is the Press Council set up in a way that deals with those issues? He doesn’t make judgements on individual newspaper complaints. He doesn’t make judgement on individual journalists or individual newspapers. He says has the Press Council, is it upholding its own self regulatory standards?
BARRIE CASSIDY: According to his own judgement though.
STEPHEN CONROY: According to a list of issues which, like privacy. Does anyone think the Press Council shouldn’t have privacy standards? Well it does. Does it have standards for journalistic ethics? Yes, it does. But is it independent of the proprietors? No, probably not as independent as it could be and has been warned by the current head.
The current head says it is not independent enough or there’s a perception it is not independent enough. So those are the tests. This is about upholding the Press Council’s own standards. Ensuring it has the processes to uphold them.
BARRIE CASSIDY: It does seem to be the definition of a bureaucracy though that you regulate to ensure that self-regulation happens.
STEPHEN CONROY: Well, let’s be clear about this. I mean people keep talking about in the world. Ireland have just introduced one. And the head of the press council in Ireland has said it has not had any impact on the freedom of speech. And just by coincidence, one significant News Limited newspaper is a member of the press council in Ireland and abides by it.
So if you look at reporters without borders, they rank every country in press freedom around the world. We’re 26 at the moment. Finland is number one. It has a statutory regulations about the right for people to make responses to articles and it’s number one. Ireland has just set up one. So if you look through the world, there are countries that have done this and they are considered by Reporters Without Borders to be in the top of the freedom of speech category.
So this argument that you have somebody who will ensure that the Press Council actually keeps its own standards, doesn’t have its members jump out, and say we don’t like what the Press Council’s done. So we’ve found a way to ensure that the council has a proper procedure to keep its own self-regulation.
BARRIE CASSIDY: Let’s look as it will apply in the real world. If The Australian or other organisations continue to pursue the Prime Minister over the AWU (Australian Workers Union) story and the Government complains, does the advocate then need to make a judgement about that?
STEPHEN CONROY: Not at all. It has no role in the adjudication. None, zero role in the adjudication.
BARRIE CASSIDY: But the Press Council would, with the advocate looking over its shoulder?
STEPHEN CONROY: No, the advocate’s job is to say here is the systems that you operate under. Do you have a way of dealing with the privacy concerns of ordinary Australians? Do you have a way of dealing with complaints from ordinary Australians? Do you have a way of ensuring that there is independence? And those are the tests that the advocate does. It has no role, and it cannot under the legislation, it cannot have any role in any individual complaint whatsoever.
This claim that it’s overseeing, looking over the shoulder, is completely false.
BARRIE CASSIDY: What is Julian Disney doing wrong now that needs this extra oversight?
STEPHEN CONROY: Well as I said, in his own submission to the Finkelstein Inquiry, not that you would ever read a lot about it. If you want it look somewhere to see what evidence was given to the Finkelstein Inquiry, you should go to the Centre for Independent Journalism, they’ve done a fairly good analysis of the Finkelstein evidence.
And they have gone through it themselves and set out here is what people said, as opposed to the lack of mainstream coverage that there was on this. And what Julian Disney draws concerns to is the independence and the funding. So they’re in the Australian Press Council’s submission to the Finkelstein inquiry, pointed to by the chair.
So we’ve responded and those are the things that we still think there needs to be some improvement on: Independence from the proprietors and guaranteed funding for the Press Council so it can do its job.
Why the rush?
We have had the Convergence Review, a year, and the Convergence Review recommended a public interest test. A year, submissions all over the country, 300, 400 public submissions, hearings, the Finkelstein Inquiry – quite well publicised, not necessarily a balanced coverage. This has been a debate, the Caucus has been calling on me to bring forward these bills. The print industry has been calling for me to make a final decision and we have made it. And we have said that these issues are well canvassed. We’ve been on the record…
BARRIE CASSIDY: But through the house by Tuesday night and the Senate by Thursday…
STEPHEN CONROY: Five and a half years this has been on the agenda. To suggest that this suddenly has come out of nowhere when I’ve been campaigning for five and a half years on the public interest test is a nonsense. The Parliament knows it’s got a choice: if you want to ensure there is no further concentration in the media in this country, one of the already most concentrated, you vote for the bill. If you want to ensure that the Press Council upholds its own standards, you vote for the bill. Those are two very simple problems.
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