Friday, July 19, 2024

The freedom of the press still furnishes that check upon government which no constitution has ever been able to provide – Chicago Tribune.

HomeIssue 3Federal media laws: Will we become a dictatorship?

Federal media laws: Will we become a dictatorship?

The argument about Federal media legislation is clear and brief.
[a] The government does not control the work of journalists.
[b] The government does control the work of journalists.
In the case of [b] Australia would be a dictatorship.
This is an excerpt of the short media release yesterday by the Minister for Communications, Stephen Conroy (pictured), apparently the only document, to date, upon which the current storm of protest can be based.
The Federal Government’s objective is (my bolding):-
[To introduce] a press standards model which ensures strong self-regulation of the print and online news media.
The introduction of a Public Interest Test to ensure diversity considerations are taken into account for nationally significant media mergers and acquisitions.
Reforms [that] will ensure for the Australian public a media sector that is fair, diverse, and able to tackle the challenges of the future.
A press standards model which ensures strong self-regulation by print and online media organisations.
In consultation with the Opposition, the Government will appoint a Public Interest Media Advocate [which will] authorise the independent self-regulatory body or bodies for dealing with news media standards and complaints.
The reforms announced today are about ensuring for the Australian public a media sector that is fair, diverse, and able to tackle the challenges of the future.
The Federal Government wants to take over the functions only you, the reader and voter, deserve to have.
Over to you.
ERWIN CHLANDA, Editor, Alice Springs News


  1. I think it’s worth remembering that this comes from the same Senator Conroy who just recently gave up his plans to censor the Internet. He only gave them up when he finally realised the support was simply not there, not even within his own party.
    This is also the same Senator Conroy who as Minister for Communications said during a visit to New York City that he has “unfettered legal power” over telecommunications regulation, including the ability to request Australian telcos to “wear red underpants on their head”.
    The Coalition alternative for Minister for Communications is Malcolm Turnbull. Go figure.

  2. I’m sure there is just a little more to an imposition of dictatorship than stronger press self regulation. Much as the reader may deserve to have some influence on press content, we really have none, except perhaps through the courts and they are prohibitively expensive.
    This is a good move, long overdue.

  3. “The freedom of the press still furnishes that check upon government which no constitution has ever been able to provide – Chicago Tribune.”
    I have read this quote atop your masthead everytime I have read your paper or visited your website – one would hope that you are hounding our local MP to find out what part he is playing in this, the greatest threat to our democracy.
    This is wrong on so many levels, and it is time for all of us to demand answers from Mr Snowdon.

  4. I’ve been following this story in the national press, and it looks like the red underpants man might be heading for another cropper. Early days yet, but the signs so far give reason for optimism.

  5. I don’t think this is so black or white as you suggest Erwin. Did you see the 7.30 Report last night? Worth a look.
    And Richard Ackland in The Age today? “I remember the words of Dulcie Boling, then editor of New Idea, as she explained the ethical struggle that accompanied her decision to be the first to publish portions of the intimate phone conservations between Prince Charles and Mrs Camilla Parker-Bowles.”
    The “tampon” tapes. Dulcie said: “I agonised very hard over whether or not New Idea should run those tapes. I was personally very offended by some parts of the conversation, but decided people needed to know.”
    Dark Arts are practised. To name a few: threatening sources not to speak to rival publications otherwise they’ll be “punished”; misquoting or out of context reporting; blagging (reporters pretending to be someone else); insufficient disclosure by journalists of commercial interests or friendships; the use of private detectives to steal information; bugging celebrities; and the use of “bogus balance” techniques.
    Read more:
    The media, like the rest of us, is not perfect and there is room for improvement. Especially given the power they have.
    [Hi Ian, of course there need to be judgments made about good journalists and bad, those who abuse their power and flout the commands of the Code of Ethics, those who conscientiously serve their audience, those who prostitute their craft for commercial advantages they or their employers may be seeking – how long have you got? But it’s not a government’s role to make those judgements. That privilege belongs to the reader, viewer, listener, browser. And they are making those judgments countless times every day, by turning off, clicking delete or tossing a newspaper into the bin. – ED]

  6. Problem is that many of us like scandal and it sells newspapers. So what recourse does the target of unfair, defamatory reporting have? Turning off or deleting doesn’t save a reputation. Ask for an apology? All newspapers make mistakes but I see very few apologies in newspapers, I don’t think I’ve ever seen one in these pages. Go to court? This is only for the very wealthy. Strong self regulation provides another option, it maintains the freedom of the press but protects the individual from an abuse of editorial power.

  7. @ Ian – I can’t believe that you have written what you have … the examples you cite are extremely offensive and possibly criminal – fine we have laws in place to protect that. However, there should NEVER be an excuse for a Government – I don’t care what stripes they wear – to fiddle with our right to be offended or to say what we want to say.
    Further you quote the Age and the ABC – I’m gobsmacked at their barracking – can you imagine what the response would be if it was a Conservative government that introduced this legislation?
    I seem to recall the hand wringing a couple of years ago when someone (David Marr maybe) put out “Silencing Dissent” alleging that Howard was shutting down debate – this legislation actually puts into practice the silencing of debate – and not a word from “our” ABC.
    Quite frankly, if the ABC cannot support the broader community other than their own political agenda, then it should be sold off.

  8. @Dianne the anonymous contributor. You can’t believe I have written what I have? And you are gobsmacked by The Age and the ABC? Well, you are easily gobsmacked.
    Yesterday’s Age editorializes about Conroy’s proposals “Remind us Minister, what is your media goal?” (“The Age” Thursday March 14), a long and thoughtful piece, that includes this line “These laws are not necessary, nor are they reasonable”. You might like to read the piece, hardly “barracking”.
    As for the ABC, you might like to refresh your memory as to what Jonathon Holmes said on Media Watch last year: “I’d rather put up with unfairness, and inaccuracy, and bias, than see a statutory authority play policeman over the press.”
    So I’m a bit smacked in the gob, as you put, it by your aspersions about The Age and the ABC, I don’t think they are the one-sided barrackers you seem to think they are. They present a variety of views, far more so than many other media outlets.

  9. Self Regulation:
    A rule or directive made and maintained by an authority:
    Remember back when media would do research, find out the facts, and print un-sensationalized reports, not rating grabbing, that staff of that media would check and correct and that people would watch and read and believe.
    Not like now with loads of sensationalized bull that the lambs of this country watch and read and believe to be fact.
    Regulation of media is a way to keep the people that do not do the work under control, we need this.
    More independent media is also called for, too much these days is left in the hands of large media.
    It would be nice to be worth watching the news again.
    Might even go as far as buying a newspaper, but I doubt it!

  10. It’s hard to know which side to favour in this debate. I’ve got extensive experience with both politics and the media in Central Australia, and frankly there’s an awful lot to be desired from both sectors. I also spend a lot of my time delving back into local press coverage stretching back to the 1940s, and this is where I find an interesting observation, namely that the quality of information presented to the public more than a quarter century ago is of a far higher standard than in the more recent times of our supposed Age of Information.
    If it’s “the reader and the voter” (as Erwin asserts) has the role of ensuring “a media sector that is fair, diverse, and able to tackle the challenges of the future”, then we as a society are failing dismally. The fact is we (the public) are not the determining factor in much of the “information” that is published in the media; rather, it’s the media that chooses much of what we consume and, generally speaking, that leads to a tendency to cater for the lowest common denominator in the quality of the news presented to us.
    Finally, the biggest single improvement that could be made for the operation of the media would be reform of defamation laws; get that right, and I think a much higher standard of news coverage will prevail.

  11. A few observations as the town’s longest serving journalist (since 1975), author of many of the six million words in the archive of the Alice Springs News Online, producer of several thousand news, current affairs, magazine and documentary stories for all Australian television networks and several overseas, and for the last 20 years as the editor of the News.
    My standards haven’t changed: I try my best to get all relevant information, present it accurately and fairly, give right of reply where appropriate, avoid contamination of my work by any commercial interests of the publishers I’m supplying may be having, and by adhering to the Journalistic Code of Ethics.
    But what has changed in my time (so far) are our tools. They have undergone the most amazing transformation, especially since the advent of digital technology, giving us access, at least potentially, to a vast amount of information at an incredible speed, opportunities we exploit extensively to make our reporting more detailed and faster.
    Working for the Advocate in the 1970s it took us a week from taking a photo, to having a plate made in Adelaide, to finally publishing it in the “paper” newspaper circulating in Central Australia.
    Now we can shoot a photo and post it in our online edition inside five minutes for the whole world to see – literally: some of our readers are overseas.
    Distressingly, as the technical advances streaked ahead in the gathering and publishing of news, the sources for it became less accessible, more reliant on manipulative minders, and the news process became contaminated by demands of editorial “support”. That is a euphemism for “we’ll pay for an advert if you write a nice news story about us”. The Alice Springs News has never done a deal like that, and never will, a policy that has cost us millions in earnings we didn’t get.
    I remember talking to Opposition Leader (ALP) Jon Isaacs in the mid 70s, sitting on a bench in Todd Street (not a mall then) and he gave me a juicy bit of information, can’t remember what. “Is that on the record?” I asked him. “Everything I say to you is on the record.”
    Fast forward to today – and by that I mean Saturday, March 16, 2013. It may well be a red letter day for the right of people in the Northern Territory to be informed and for the freedom of the press which, I have no doubt, will continue without a censor being appointed by the Federal Government.
    Could it be that one of the sea changes being brought in by the Adam Giles government is direct access for reporters to ministers, as a matter of policy and not tainted by preferential treatment for some? A dose of salts has apparently been put through the throng of media “advisers” – more soon.
    Since March 8 – eight days ago – I’d been trying to get an interview with the housing minister. Yesterday I received “lines” from his minder, written by a departmental officer, giving little useful detail.
    “What I asked for is an interview with the Minister,” it told his minder.
    Ten minutes later: “Peter Chandler speaking.”
    “Thanks for taking my call, Peter.”
    “That’s what we’re here for, aren’t we?”
    “Couldn’t agree with you more.”
    That is a good working relationship which, if continued, will benefit journos and readers alike. Quite without the help of Conroy’s Big Brother.

  12. Here’s a thought – If we get back to a system of Ministerial responsibility as opposed to the current practice of everything going thru the PMs, the Premiers, the Chief Ministers or, for that matter, the local council’s CEOs and Mayor’s office, wouldn’t that mean more access for journalists and more information being made available to the public?
    Erwin’s latest comment on a reply from Minister Chandler speaks well about how the Giles government is starting. Please continue!

  13. Ok Erwin, I’m a bit confused. Could you tell us why it is okay to have a regulator over the broadcast media but not even an accrediting agency to oversee self regulation of print and online? Genuinely seeking to understand the (what appears to me to be) hyperventilation on this one. If there is a real and worrying difference then let us know what it is.

  14. Hi Matt,
    I am looking at these issues from the perspective of the journalist who is working for a media organisation whose ownership conditions may be subject to government regulation (electronic), or not (print).
    Either way, the journalist has obligations, enshrined in the Code of Ethics, and subject to a range of laws, on the one hand.
    On the other he has extensive freedom to use her or his judgement in the interest of reporting the news. For example, it is not proper for the publisher – his or her employer – to direct a journalist how to write his piece. It is much less so for a government functionary.
    I have a favorite example: A reporter was assigned by his editor to help out in the real estate section, where someone had called in sick, to do a story about a house. The journo wrote his piece after making proper enquiries: nice location, good views one side, a bit of rising damp in the living room, noisy intersection with heavy vehicle traffic at night, roof needs repairs, that sort of thing.
    The editor was aghast: You can’t write that, he thundered, that’s for our real estate section.
    I am a journalist, that’s what I saw, that’s what I reported, I was doing my job, was the journo’s reply.
    He was sacked, re-instated upon appeal to the relevant authorities, and resigned 10 minutes later.
    I don’t have strong views about ownership regulations – that is a different issue and the moguls will no doubt fight it out.
    But if the Federal Government wants to give someone powers to control what my colleagues and I are writing then they are overstepping the line between a free country and a dictatorship.
    As one cannot be a little bit pregnant, you cannot have self regulation subjected to control by a government functionary. That is a contradiction in terms. Where would it end? Senator Conroy doesn’t say, but it could end up as an unchallengeable requirement to present all copy to a government censor for approval before publication. That’s the thick end of the wedge we’re facing.

  15. Erwin, I don’t accept your pregnancy analogy, some journos are out of control and the current self-regulation system ineffective at reining them in. Did you see Media Watch last night? Jonathon Marshall needs a good kick in the clacker.


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