With Simon Breheny
The news media reform package 2013 is nothing less than an attack on freedom of speech and freedom of the press in Australia. It is absurd to claim that the government could institute a regulator to regulate media self-regulators like the Australian Press Council and pretend that doing so would not constitute substantial new government oversight of the free press. This is a fundamental conceptual error with very disturbing consequences and, in our view, government oversight of the press is unacceptable in a liberal democracy. The government has no business deciding what constitutes fairness or balance in a media whose job it is to hold them to account. That ought to be a bedrock principle accepted by all sides of political debate.
We have a number of specific points we would like to raise about the proposed public interest media advocate. The government-appointed PIMA would be responsible for deciding which news media self-regulation bodies’ members would receive an exemption from the Privacy Act and which would not. This regime means that news outlets will never be able to write about things that are claimed to be personal or sensitive. The news-gathering functions of a news media organisation would be shackled for fear of breaching the Privacy Act. To us, the coupling of Privacy Act exemptions with regulated membership clearly makes this a de facto licensing system, further emphasising the significance of the attack on free expression that the proposal represents.
The minister can directly and unilaterally appoint any person to the public interest media advocate role. Government members of this committee might reflect about whom a future government could appoint and whether instilling such significant powers over the press on a political appointee is democratically desirable. This is doubly so because of the entirely undefined concept of public interest that this entire project seems to be founded on. I am sure that our idea of what is in the public interest is different to the ideas of some members of the committee.
The proposed regime also undermines fundamental legal rights. The bills provide no avenue for appeal of a decision of the PIMA, they reverse the burden of proof in cases of proposed media mergers and they use ambiguous terms that give the PIMA enormous discretionary power.
The most disappointing part of this process is how the government has completely shirked the necessary reform to regulatory frameworks governing media and communications. There is almost nothing in these bills that deals with the serious and important problems in media regulation brought about by technological convergence. Instead, the process seems to have been entirely diverted by a partisan battle between one side of politics and one media company.
We have one final, broader concern. Chris Berg and I appeared before another Senate inquiry into another bill less than two months ago, on 23 January 2013, to defend freedom of speech against another real threat posed by legislation that this government proposed. That bill was the draft Human Rights and Anti-discrimination Bill 2012. Both pieces of legislation seek to shrink civil society by restricting free speech, one under the guise of human rights and the other under the guise of fairness and accuracy in the media. For these reasons, it is our view that the bills should be rejected.