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Monday, 16 October 2006
Page: 117

Mr MURPHY (8:33 PM) —I will start my contribution to this debate on the Broadcasting Services Amendment (Media Ownership) Bill 2006 and the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Digital Television) Bill 2006 by saying what a disgraceful and venal government the Howard government is. Last week it rammed the bills through the Senate in the most venal manner and handed our democracy to the two giant media companies News Ltd and Publishing and Broadcasting Ltd. This morning we woke up to learn from both the electronic and print media of a new, unedifying and disgraceful attack on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation by the Howard government under the aegis of its servile agents—namely, the Howard government stacked ABC board.

What double standards, hypocrisy and dishonesty for the Howard government to cut the throat of Australia’s democracy by gagging debate on this bill in the Senate last Thursday and then ramming it through the Senate to the cheers of James Packer, Rupert Murdoch and their executives. And today they are venally employing those very servile agents to put the public broadcaster in the dock on trumped-up charges alleging bias and failure by the ABC to present more diverse opinions. What breathtaking hypocrisy, dishonesty and double standards indeed. What a disgraceful and venal government Australia has. The Howard government must be voted out of office at the next election and Kim Beazley must become our next Prime Minister to save our democracy. The Howard government cannot be allowed to strangle and suffocate diversity of news, information and public opinion in Australia with this bill. The Howard government cannot be allowed to crucify the ABC.

Our democracy is at stake, right here, this very night. The right of every citizen to have his or her voice heard is at stake here tonight. Free speech is on the line, right here, tonight. Might is not right. When Australian citizens cast their votes at the last federal election they did not vote for Kerry Packer. They did not vote for Rupert Murdoch. They voted for a party that would put Australia first. They voted for a leader who would put Australia first. They voted for a candidate or a member who would put Australia first. What a betrayal of our country we are witnessing here tonight.

And how did we end up in this state? Let me take you back to last week, Mr Deputy Speaker. Last Tuesday, the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts, Helen Coonan, fearing that she could not trust Senator Barnaby Joyce and that he would vote against the bill, organised for her chief of staff to contact Family First senator Steve Fielding and arrange a private meeting. At the very time this meeting was scheduled, on Tuesday evening, Senator Coonan was wheeling and dealing with Senator Joyce and the member for Hinkler. In the dead of night further telephone calls were made, and Senator Fielding met with Senator Coonan on Wednesday morning. Disgracefully, Senator Fielding surrendered his vote to the Howard government and the media moguls and at high noon went into the chamber to tell the Senate:

Family First is not persuaded that the arguments against this legislation are so significant as to justify rejecting it and, therefore, we will support it.

Tonight I ask: why? The current cross-media ownership laws prevent the common ownership of newspapers, free-to-air television and radio licences in the same market. The public interest principle underpinning these laws is obvious. Diversity in the media is central to the free flow of information in a participatory democracy. Diversity in news, current affairs and journalistic commentary is critical to ensure the people of Australia are made fully aware of all views and opinions so that they can make up their own minds, draw their own conclusions and make their own judgements on any issue, and not have News Ltd and PBL manufacture consent for them. It follows that we need a free and sceptical media that can promote a real plurality of opinions—that is good for democracy. The cornerstone of any media law should be to promote diversity and pluralism. This has not escaped even the Prime Minister, who, while making exalted references to Australia’s proud democratic traditions, said:

... the strength and vitality of Australian democracy rests on three great institutional pillars: our parliament with its tradition of robust debate; the rule of law upheld by an independent and admirably incorruptible judiciary; and a free and sceptical press ...

Those are the Prime Minister’s words; that is what he said. I could not agree more. Why then has the Prime Minister slammed a wrecking ball into one of those three Australian institutional pillars, felling the pillar of a free and sceptical media? What worth will an institutional pillar supporting our democracy be if it is overwhelmingly owned and controlled by two media companies? Will journalists be able to freely dissect and report the serious issues of the day? Will a journalist risk their job to write an editorial contrary to their boss’s opinion? They have not in relation to Rupert Murdoch’s support for the coalition of the willing.

Is the Howard government or indeed Senator Fielding naive enough to believe that it is mere coincidence that all of Mr Murdoch’s newspapers in North America, the United Kingdom and Australia showed uniform editorial support for the war in Iraq? That is 170-plus newspapers. You might have thought that somewhere in the United Kingdom, Australia or even North America an editor working for News Ltd would have come out and challenged the position of his or her boss. Of course they did not do that. What about PBL? May we ask the honourable member for Calare about how Kerry Packer used to interfere in newsrooms when Peter Andren worked for the Packer family? To suggest we can so easily delineate media ownership from political commentary is a fallacy of the worst kind.

I want to place on record that I have been contacted by three journalists who privately suggest that there is some merit to the old adage: he who pays the piper calls the tune. That those three journalists, two from News Ltd—one a very senior one—and another from Fairfax, are unable to say publicly what they said to me without fear of recrimination is an indictment on the concentration of media ownership in Australia. Two of those journalists, as I said, work for News Ltd and the other for Fairfax. I am waiting for a call from someone from PBL; I have not had one yet.

Further concentrating our media in Australia is a road which must be left untravelled. Australia already has a very high concentration of media ownership. We have already one of the greatest concentrations of media ownership of any country that calls itself a democracy. News Ltd and Fairfax currently control over 80 per cent of Australia’s metropolitan newspapers; Publishing and Broadcasting Ltd, owners of Channel 9, currently have television coverage reaching 52 per cent of Australia’s population and a 40 per cent market share of Australia’s top-selling magazines. This is not to mention News Ltd’s and Publishing and Broadcasting Ltd’s 25 per cent share each in Australia’s monopoly pay television network, Foxtel; 33 per cent share in Sky News and interest in Australian Associated Press.

Is it any wonder that the association Reporters sans Frontieres has relegated Australia to No. 41 on the index of world press freedom. Quite astonishingly, Australia lags behind developing nations as well as old Soviet bloc republics. Our embarrassingly low press freedom ranking must have something to do with the fact that the lack of diversity in media ownership provides an opportunity for Australia’s media tycoons to exploit their vast media assets in a manner that suits their interests, not Australia’s. Our embarrassingly low press freedom ranking must also have something to do with the Howard government’s capitulation to our media proprietors who have been pushing for these changes for 15 years.

While Australians have become used to successive communications ministers’ sophistry and venal behaviour since 2001, it is appalling that the bill has found support from a senator who was elected to put the family first. That Senator Fielding can sit back and allow the Howard government to run roughshod over our democracy with the patronage of the Packer and Murdoch families while displaying no insight into the duty he holds to his constituency is a catastrophe for our democracy. Senator Fielding’s superficial contribution to the debate in the Senate shows that he knows not what he has done.

For the benefit of Senator Fielding and the complicit members of the Howard government, I will explain what this bill will allow News Ltd and PBL to own. This is the government’s definition of diversity: PBL and News Ltd will be able to own every major metropolitan newspaper under this legislation; most suburban newspapers; virtually every magazine; Channel 9 and Channel 10; Sky News; Australian Associated Press; monopoly pay television Foxtel; and more than 70 per cent of the news and information sites on the internet—all against the background that the government will not allow a fourth free-to-air TV licence or a second pay television network to new competitors, which would provide some real competition to the might of the two big media companies. Imagine how devastating a giant media company could be in the Howard government’s new media ownership age.

I trust Senator Fielding and those sitting opposite are aware of the alleged plot by the chief executive of PBL to broadcast a news story on Channel 9 attacking Kerry Stokes, apparently in retaliation for an unflattering news story on Channel 7 about James Packer’s involvement in the failed One.Tel venture. With its unlimited print and electronic opportunities, what hope is there for the ordinary citizen in fighting those who seek to manufacture consent? What is to stop a media proprietor from unconscionably trading favourable and highly influential commentary across a broad range of print and electronic media with a government that is willing to meet his or her personal interests?

We have seen headlines in Australia such as ‘Murdoch flies in to dine with PM’ and ‘PM risks Packer’s ire’ as well as headlines in the US such as ‘Murdoch’s election play may win him a TV station’. When looked at in isolation, there is perhaps nothing more to be said about these headlines except: what about our democracy? When viewed in the context that at every juncture of media policy the government has navigated a dangerous path which seeks to appease entrenched segments of the media industry—including Messrs Packer and Murdoch—some serious questions have to be asked.

Serious questions have to be asked about the future health of Australia’s democracy if we walk a path that gives one citizen even more power to potentially intimidate an elected government or an opposition. We must ask serious questions about a piece of legislation that may hand down to future generations a parliament that is handicapped by the influence of vested interests. A parliament, media industry and democracy which will be paralysed by the vested interests of media proprietors is a disgrace.

This is not the Australia that I want. This is the not the Australia that the electors of Lowe, who voted for me, want. This is not the Australia that the people of Dunedoo, where I was born, want. And it is clearly not the Australia that most fair-minded Australians would want for themselves, their children or their grandchildren. It is contemptuous that, with few exceptions, no-one from the government is asking these hard questions. We are talking about a matter that goes to the heart of the plurality of news information and public opinion in Australia, a matter that goes to the very heart of freedom of speech and a matter that goes to the heart of Australia’s democracy. Yet the members of the Howard government are complicit, washing their hands like Pontius Pilate in a disgraceful display of apathy. Indeed, the responses of the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts to my innumerable questions over the last six years have been nothing short of arrogant, with a reckless disregard for the public interest. They are responses that are significant not because of the substance of the answers provided but because of the scornful and cynical manner in which they were given. They are the answers expected of a minister who has long since caved in to the media moguls—the display of a Clayton’s communications minister who knowingly and wilfully allows the media barons to call the tune. Never was this more apparent than when the minister gave the public five weeks to make submissions to the government’s media reform discussion paper and then had that disgraceful shotgun Senate inquiry a couple of weeks ago.

This cynical, expedient government has never explained how the ownership by two big media companies of all Australia’s newspapers, countless magazines, internet news sites, Sky News, two of the three commercial free-to-air television networks and a monopoly on pay television assists the public interest. The Howard government has never explained how reducing the number of media competitors in a market like Sydney from 12 to five—where the people I represent in the electorate of Lowe in Sydney’s inner west live—is good for my constituents, is good for the people of the inner west of Sydney, is good for the people of Sydney, is good for the people of New South Wales or, indeed, is good for the people of Australia. The Howard government has never explained how concentrating media ownership in the hands of so few, with the power to influence public opinion and to make or break governments or oppositions, is a good thing for our democracy. The government should hang its head in shame.

The best the minister can do to justify her venal behaviour is to make rhetorical and superficial references to nebulous and innocuous concepts such as ‘the need for greater flexibility’. Never have I seen an explanatory memorandum so short on justifications to overturn such a critical piece of public policy in Australia. Pity those poor individuals who had to draft it. Perhaps they too now realise that weakening cross-media ownership laws weakens the health of our country. Perhaps they too realise the diabolical consequences of further concentrating media ownership in Australia.

Australia’s media should not merely be seen as a commodity that can simply be bought and sold for the purposes of reaching economies of scale or economies of scope. We are not just talking about any commodity but something that strikes at the heart of our democracy. The minister even has the hide to suggest that she is ‘in it for the consumers’. That beggars belief. Even the big media companies would be splitting their sides laughing at those statements. It is not good enough that Minister Coonan launches an assault on our democracy. Senator Coonan assaults our intelligence. The Productivity Commission’s statement said:

... the likelihood that a proprietor’s business and editorial interests will influence the content and opinion of their media outlets is of major significance.

The Productivity Commission’s statement is spot on. This bill will result in an unacceptable concentration of power and diminution of opinion.

The keys to Australia’s democracy do not belong to our two biggest media moguls. Indeed, the keys to Australia’s democracy belong to the people. I have long lived in hope that members of the government would show the courage and leadership to stand up for their principles rather than abandon our country. While the allure of political support from media companies may be seductive, the future of Australia’s democracy is far more important than any short-term political gain. The public interest, and the future of our democracy, demands more than a short-sighted view to obtain favourable editorial coverage from the media. It demands a far-sighted view to maintain a free and sceptical press of the sort that has given our democracy the strength and vitality that makes it one of the most revered around the world. The past two weeks have shown that the Howard government is venal when it comes to media reform. Either way, media consumers and Australia’s democracy will be flogged if this bill becomes law.

Australians have long asked who the Howard government is honestly representing on issues concerning the media landscape. They are asking who really is running our country. They are also entitled to ask questions of Senator Fielding and the Family First Party. Before I finish, I have a duty on behalf of our precious democracy to rename the Family First Party the Packer Family First Party or, alternatively, the Murdoch Family First Party. I have been informed by an impeccable source that, in the knowledge that Senator Coonan could not trust Senator Joyce, the Liberal Party bribed Senator Fielding for his vote with the promise of preferences to the Family First Party at the coming election. I tell the House tonight that Senator Fielding reached for his 30 pieces of silver.

Mr Tuckey —Mr Deputy Speaker, I rise on a point of order. I think that should be withdrawn. I think that is a direct reflection on a member of another house. You cannot say what the Liberal Party thinks about an allegation without the other party—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Jenkins)—The honourable member will withdraw.

Mr MURPHY —I meant what I said but I withdraw.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —The honourable member will withdraw without qualification.

Mr MURPHY —I withdraw. I invite the Liberal Party to come out and deny that it has not offered this sleazy and disgraceful preference deal. I invite Senator Coonan to tell the parliament that she has no knowledge of this sleazy and disgraceful deal.

Like the Howard government, the Family First Party stand condemned. How can the people of Australia trust a government that has done this to our country? How can the people of Australia trust a government that betrays one of its own and purchases the tainted vote of a non-government member? How can the people of Australia who voted for Senator Fielding ever vote for him again or trust him again? Indeed, how can they ever trust the Howard government again? The Howard government stands condemned for slaughtering our democracy. If any members of the government have any principles or any guts, they will cross the floor and stand against this assault on our democracy.

The people of Australia are looking to Kim Beazley and the Labor Party to save our democracy. I can foreshadow tonight that we will do so, because we are not going to lie down and accept this disgraceful assault on our democracy. I have been speaking out on this issue for more than six years, since it was first raised in 2001. I have asked innumerable questions of successive Ministers Coonan, Williams and Alston and all they have ever done is throw sand in my eyes. The day of reckoning has arrived in the House of Representatives tonight because, as I said earlier in my contribution, our democracy is at stake. We cannot hand over the parliament to James Packer and Rupert Murdoch. We might as well shut down the place if this bill goes through and put out a how-to-vote card, ‘One, Packer; two, Murdoch,’ and we will only have to worry about the donkey vote. (Time expired)