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Thursday, 1 November 2012
Page: 13068


Mr CRAIG THOMSON (Dobell) (11:58): I think this speech is jinxed! I was meant to speak during the adjournment last night and it got cancelled, so I am not sure how far I will get.

Australia's media operates under the very solid principle of free speech, and that principle should never be compromised. But clearly free speech is only truly free if there is diversity in media ownership. Having more than two-thirds of the country's media outlets owned by one person, family or conglomerate is certainly not an example of diversity. In the past we have too hastily allowed diversity to practically disappear. Both sides of politics have allowed this to happen. In the UK recently, where this has also been allowed to happen, we have seen some of the worst examples of media behaviour.

In Australia we had the Finkelstein recommendations, and the government has to respond to them in the coming weeks. There are some recommendations in particular that I think the government should be adopting. I support the recommendation of the establishment of a news media council. The council as proposed in the report would set journalistic standards for the news media—not only the traditional print, radio and television media but also the online media. The establishment of such a council—a statutory body whose links with government would be the strictly limited to the council's secure funding from the government—would not be about imposing a form of sanction but would be about making the news media more accountable.

In an age of rapid technological change and less time to digest the detail of news media, it is even more important to get the facts right, because more often than not the public have only read the headlines and/or the first few lines of a story. The fast turnover of news cycles understandably puts increasing pressure on accuracy, but the importance of accuracy in reporting is therefore, in my view, even more fundamental. With accuracy comes balance. I have had a fair bit of experience in this area in recent times.

Another of Mr Finkelstein's recommendations says that an important change to the status quo would be that, in appropriate cases, the news media council had:

… power to require a news media outlet to publish an apology, correction or retraction, or afford a person a right to reply.

Mr Finkelstein goes on to say:

This is in line with the ideals contained in existing ethical codes but in practice often difficult to obtain.

In this country the only regulation, other than voluntary regulation, of media outlets occurs through the use of defamation. In my experience, a real news story is something new to report. On the issues I have been involved in, there have probably been only five or six occasions when there has been new news to report; but, if you were to do a search of the news stories on the issues that I have been involved in, you would find thousands and thousands of stories. Often these stories are regurgitated, recycled news which occupy vast archives; they are not real, new news stories.

We often hear, from journalists in particular, the phrase 'the court of public opinion'. If the court of public opinion is dictated to by unbalanced news reporting which not only sets the agenda but also—using the analogy of a court—prosecutes and finds people guilty, then we are in a very sorry state. We need to ensure that the recommendations in the Finkelstein report go through so that the court of public opinion at least has the opportunity to hear balanced reporting from both sides of a given story.

I am disturbed, not just for myself in the matter that I am involved but also for a whole range of other people, by trends in the media of late on the presumption of innocence. I read recently in a News Limited article a position being put by very senior journalist that, while this country has the presumption of innocence, it really does not matter for politicians. I found it quite astounding and disturbing that such an idea would be put into writing by a senior journalist in this country. I also find disturbing reports on a matter to do with the HSU according to which a person claimed to have no fear about legal proceedings on defamation because they had been promised by a media outlet that it would pay their legal costs. The Finkelstein report is important, and we should adopt it. (Time expired)