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Monday, 20 August 2012
Page: 9234


Mr FITZGIBBON (HunterChief Government Whip) (11:20): A strong and independent media is one of the key cornerstones of our democracy. Edmund Burke is said to have remarked, 'There were three estates in parliament but, in the reporters' gallery yonder, there sat a fourth estate more important far than they all.' Yet it is also worth reflecting on what Oscar Wilde said: 'In old days men had the rack. Now they have the press.' That is an improvement, certainly, but still it is very bad and wrong and demoralising. Somebody—was it Burke—called journalism 'the fourth estate'. That was true at the time, no doubt, but at the present moment it is the only estate—it has eaten up the other three.

Press independence is important, but who is it we are granting this independence to? This question matters. A democracy dominated by the press is no democracy at all. A democracy in which the journalists create rather than report the news is a democracy in decay. The situation is rendered much worse when, to create the news, journalists start adjusting the truth in their quest for the next Quill Award or other journalistic award, or, worse, when journalists are encouraged to sex up, embellish, misrepresent or do whatever it takes to create a headline for circulation's sake.

From our media we expect many things. At the very least we expect quality, we expect truth and we expect diversity. Sadly, all those three things have been lacking in the UK of late, and we have certainly found ourselves searching for them here in Australia. When the media gets it wrong, those adversely affected deserve the opportunity to have those wrongs addressed. At the moment in this country that is very, very difficult. We have defamation laws and all the proceedings and costs that go with them, which people know to be costly, cumbersome, protracted and, on many occasions, unsatisfactory. Of course, they can go to the Australian Press Council, an industry led body that is fully funded and controlled by the industry, but, to do so, they have to forgo their right to take defamation action if they are not successful there.

As the Finkelstein inquiry points out, 'The Australian Press Council suffers from serious structural constraints. It does not have the necessary powers or the required funds to carry out its designated functions. Publishers can withdraw when they wish or alter their funding as they see fit.' The media proprietors have acknowledged the inadequacies of the Press Council in recent times by making adjustments themselves, some of which have been welcome. The three-year warning required to walk away from the Press Council is a good example, and I have noted some more high-profile corrections in the papers under the APC logo. These are welcome changes but, from my perspective, they are not enough.

The Finkelstein and convergence reviews are both very complex and very voluminous in their presentation, but two issues really stand out: what to regulate and who regulates. There seems to be an emerging consensus that we do not need myriad regulators, but one regulator covering all platforms. The big debate today both inside and outside of this place is: who is doing the regulating. It is very clear that the self-regulatory regime has not met the expectations of the Australian community despite the best efforts of proprietors in recent times to tidy them up. It is clear to me that we do need a publicly funded regulator as Finkelstein recommended; one of course at arm's length from the government. This idea that the government is going to be briefing these independent regulators and telling them what to do is, in my view, folly.

On that basis, I support the motion put forward by the member for Bendigo as the best way not only to protect the standards and diversity of our media, not only to protect those who have been adversely affected by wrongs perpetrated upon them by the media, but also to protect the media itself. The best way to restore confidence in the media in this country is to demonstrate to people that the government has put in place an independent regulator capable of protecting media interests and broader Australian interests. (Time expired)